Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Statistics and Stereotypes

As a social scientist, I’ve taught classes that involved data. Not math, per se – I never really taught them how to manipulate the data in any meaningful way – but just references to percentages, proportions, etc. (Yes, I’ve also taught composition. I’ve had a weird freakin’ career.)

Anyway, if I can ever solve this one (or steal a solution from my faithful readers, hint, hint...), I might actually get through to a cluster of students I’ve never really reached. Oh, faithful blogsophere, I ask your assistance...

In the extended triple overtime after the 2000 election, a student asked me why the red/blue map was so red, if the election was so close. I considered that a great question, and responded that one reason was that Democrats are likelier to live in cities, so a lot of votes are crammed into a small space. She asked why Democrats are likelier to live in cities. I responded that one reason was that party affiliation often correlates with race, and so areas with high concentrations of African-Americans could be expected to vote Democratic, and that usually means cities. The exchange after that:

Student: So you’re saying black people are Democrats?

DD: No, but the Democrats usually win 80 to 90 percent of the black vote. So if a city is mostly black, you could be pretty confident that it would vote Democratic.

Student: That’s not true. I think it’s up to the individual.


I’ve had variations on this conversation many times, and that student response always brings me up short.

Is there a reliable way to prevent this apparent confusion of description and prescription? Is it that they don’t understand what percentages mean? I’m perplexed. I think the student is trying to be morally virtuous and reject stereotyping, which prevents her from actually trying to understand what I’m saying. Once the student decides that you’re evil, of course, no amount of explanation is going to work. Is there a way to describe demographics without triggering a defensive anti-stereotyping response in students?