Political Journalism Just Can’t Quit the Ecological Fallacy

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Many cars (cc photo by Sylvar)

Many cars (cc photo by Sylvar)

One favorite trick of American political journalism is to notice that some states are liberal and some are conservative, then to notice that the liberal states have some characteristics, and then make inferences about the characteristics of individual liberals by attributing the qualities of the states in which they reside to them. For example, since wealthier states are more liberal, you can assert that liberal voters are richer than salt-of-the-earth conservative types. This mode of inference, though popular, is also mistaken. It’s known as the “ecological fallacy.” But that never seems to stop it. Thus, for example, there’s this from The Washington Times:

The Volvo-driving liberal and the redneck in a Chevy pickup are long-held stereotypes. But a map of car ownership – produced by R.L. Polk & Co. – overlaid on the electoral map reveals the surprising extent to which how we vote corresponds with what we drive.

Blue-staters on each coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle and from Boston to the District, are the most likely to drive foreign cars. Domestic brands have their highest levels of market share in the mostly conservative interior of the country.

Now as it happens, it does appear to be true that there are strong correlations out there between individual voting behavior and individual consumption patterns. So there’s probably some legitimate results to be found in this area if you really look into it. More enlightening than the “foreign vs domestic” issue would probably be to look at kinds of cars—who buys trucks and SUVs versus who buys conventional cars.