Part 2—The problem with inkblot questions: Last year, respondents were asked an unfortunate question as part of the General Social Survey (GSS), "a sociological survey created and regularly collected since 1972 by the research institute NORC at the University of Chicago."
NORC has been asking this particular question for decades. With apologies, the question goes like this:
Question from the General Social Survey:That strikes us as perhaps an unfortunate question. A few of our reasons are these:
"On the [sic] average (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are because most (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) just don't have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?"
For starters, the GSS asks this question about African-Americans and about no one else (as best we can tell). Respondents aren't asked to answer a similar question about Hispanics, or about Appalachian whites, or about lower-income people in general.
Rather plainly, the question plays to a stereotype about that one group of people. That said, NORC's researchers have been asking that question for a great many years.
Arguably, there's another obvious problem with that loaded question. Stating the obvious, most African-Americans have already "pulled themselves up out of poverty," or were never there to begin with.
The large majority of African-Americans aren't currently living in poverty. It may be that these individuals have already pulled themselves out of that state, or it may be that their forbears did; or it maybe that their families have no history of poverty at all.
As such, this question seems to imply a fact which isn't in evidence. Then too, the question is groaningly imprecise, in the following sense:
Respondents are asked if most African-Americans have what it takes "to pull themselves out of poverty." Stating the obvious, that would depend, in a given case, on the depth of poverty in which a given person was mired, and on the state of the economy at some point in time.
When times are flush, it's relatively easy for a person to pull himself out of poverty. In other circumstances, whether in this country or around the world, it may be very difficult to do so, perhaps essentially impossible.
For ourselves, we wouldn't answer a question like that if were taking an survey like the GSS. It's the type of question we call an "inkblot question"—a question which mainly serves to record a respondent's flash reaction to a question which doesn't exactly make sense.
Ignoring the way that question is built upon an insulting stereotype, the question is highly imprecise. It stands in contrast with the simpler types of question which are used in highly coherent surveys. One such question would be this:
"If the election were held today, would you vote for Hillary Clinton, or would you vote for Donald J. Trump?"
That's a clear, straightforward, highly familiar type of survey question. Everyone understands what it means. It will generate zero confusion.
By way of contrast, the question about those lazy blacks is built upon, and meant to trigger, an ugly stereotype. Beyond that, it's so full of fuzzy logic that the only clear-thinking answer would be this:
"I don't understand your question."
Or, a bit less perfectly, the most frequent correct answer of all:
"I don't know."
For ourselves, we don't have the slightest idea whether "most blacks," or most whites, have what it takes to pull themselves out of some definable level of poverty in some definable circumstance. Neither does anyone who went ahead and answered that question last year.
We don't have the slightest idea how to answer a question like that! We also don't know why a competent researcher acting in good faith would want to ask that question.
We don't have a ton of respect for "researchers" who dream up such questions. We think it reflects a bit poorly on the NORC brainiacs that this question has remained in their famous national survey down through all these years.
We've mentioned several problems with an "inkblot" question like that, in which we're asked for a snap reaction to an extremely imprecise imagined state of affairs. Now, we'll mention another problem:
Respondents' answers to questions like that will almost always generate much more heat than light! Routinely, their answers will end up being used by partisan players of some type to present some picture of the world which serves some tribal narrative.
So it is when Hillary Clinton cites respondents' answers to that question in her new book, What Happened. Rather, when she cites the answers given by one lone group of respondents, even as she omits the answers given by everyone else.
In her book, Clinton gives an accurate account of the way one group of respondents answered that inkblot question. Once again, here is CNN's Dan Merica, recording what Clinton says:
MERICA (9/12/17): Clinton writes that she handed Trump a "political gift" in September when she told an audience of supporters that "you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables."According to Merica, Clinton discusses the way one group of respondents answered that inkblot question:
Her admission of a mistake isn't without equivocation, though.
Clinton writes that she was "talking about well-documented reality," citing a 2016 study by the General Social Survey that found 55% of white Republicans "believed that blacks are generally poorer than whites 'because most just don't have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up and out of poverty.' "
Clinton discusses the way "white Republicans" answered that question. Beyond that, she says their answers show she was right when she said that half of Donald J. Trump's supporters can be listed as "deplorable" (and perhaps as "irredeemable") because they're "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it."
Presumably, those white Republicans displayed their racism when they answered that inkblot question. So it seems Clinton has said.
For today, we'll only say this. Clinton's basic account of their responses seems to be basically accurate. Yesterday, we showed you the fuller set of responses to that question by "non-black Republicans," and by Republicans in general. Once again, their responses broke down like this:
Responses to particular question, 2016 GSSThat's the way Republicans responded to that question. On the basis of those responses, Cliton dropped one of our liberal tribe's favorite bombs on tens of millions of heads.
"On the average (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are because most (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) just don't have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?"
Responses by non-black Republicans:
Yes: 53.1 percent
No: 43.1 percent
Don't know: 3.7 percent
Responses by Republicans overall:
Yes: 53.3 percent
No: 42.8 percent
Don't know: 3.9 percent
We can't tell you why those people answered that question the way they did. Unlike Clinton, we can't peer into their souls and assure you that the 53.3 percent of those respondents were "deplorable/irredeemable."
We can do this:
We can show you the way respondents from other groups answered that inkblot question. We can show you how Democrats answered that question. We can show you how Hispanics answered. We can even show you the numbers for respondents who were"black!"
Clinton has told us how one group responded to that inklblot question. Tomorrow, we'll show you what other groups of people said.
As we do, we'll get a chance to marvel at how widely deplorable we the people actually are. On Thursday, we'll take a look at some of the data William Saletan skipped.
Tomorrow: Blacks and Hispanics and Democrats oh my!