05 November 2003

Strawberry, Not Vanilla

Over at The Plainsman, there's a short and quick analysis (because the HTML appears broken, search for "political compass") of various responses to the Political Compass quiz. I've been accused—unjustly, I might add—of being a "vanilla liberal." I'm not; and the reason(s) that I am not point out three serious flaws in the Political Compass.

Perhaps most important, the Political Compass either treats all issues as equally important or has a hidden weighting method that may not match the individual's. For example, on the first page, one finds these two questions:

  • I'd always support my country, whether it was right or wrong.
  • The growing fusion between information and entertainment is a worrying contribution to the public's shrinking attention span.

Needless to say, most people will not weight these items equally. I certainly don't; and how I weight them depends on the context. Just what exactly does "support my country" mean? A verbal expression? A willingness to "kill commies for mommy"? Further, there is an attempt to contrast an attitude with a potential action using the same unsatisfactory rating scale (SA/A/D/SD) so beloved of social scientists who can't seem to accept that some people will have neutral or situational answers to broad questions (the second serious flaw).

The most subtle error, though, is in failure to add a third axis. The two-dimensional "political compass" is actually even more misleading than is the one-dimensional "left or right" distinction, because it adds a dimension on "libertarian/authoritarian" issues that does not account at all for objections/preferences as to means of action. Returning to that first error, "supporting my country" might involve harsh language; might involve an expectation of national economic or military action; might involve personal involvement in military action; might involve personal involvement in asymmetric warfare (such as becoming a guerrilla in a resistance movement). The argument gets no better on other rights issues. Perhaps the best proof of this is that I have not replicated results in several other sessions with the compass "test;" this seems most correlated with how much I've had to deal with the consequences of misuse of discretion in the last few hours.

Most interestingly, the "compass" fails to account for those of us who hold strong personal opinions but believe not just in letting everyone "do their own thing"—the purported traditional "libertarian" position—but actively believe that increasing the diversity of ideas and positions actually expressed strengthens the complete spectrum of all ideas and positions, including one's own. Since this resembles at the surface level "social Darwinism," a theory that is definitely out of fashion, modern academics generally won't consider it. Thus, I'm a strawberry liberal, not vanilla—because I do and will. But that is an argument for another time, perhaps. In any event, the "compass" is a more precise instrument than the "left/right" distinction; but, as any chemist or other laboratory scientist could tell you, that does not mean it is any more accurate.