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The Political Science of Genetic Explanations with Elizabeth Suhay

Elizabeth Suhay is a political scientist who specializes in the study of public opinion and political psychology, especially regarding beliefs about the causes of inequality. In particular, her work has made some intriguing discoveries about how and why different individuals do or do not believe genetics are an important causal explanation for various phenomena. Dr. Suhay is Assistant Professor at American University, where she is also contributing to a large project on Evidence-Based Science Communication with Policymakers.

Given that debates about genetics and inequality are back in the spotlight today, instead of joining that debate I am more interested in exploring social-scientific angles that might help us decode why these debates are so controversial, confusing, and endless. So I reached out to Elizabeth for an apolitical, scientific angle on the psychology of how and why genetic explanations tend to be adopted or rejected. Elizabeth explains how and why individuals on the left and right favor or reject genetic explanations for different human characteristics. We talk about motivated reasoning, who really believes what and to what degree, and the role of media in activating motivated reasoning about genetic attributions.

Dr. Suhay's research mentioned in the podcast:

  1. "Discord Over DNA: Ideological Responses to Scientific Communication about Genes and Race." Alexandre Morin-Chasse, Elizabeth Suhay, and Toby Jayaratne. Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics 2(2): 260-299. Published version & abstract / Author PDF.

2016. "Lay Belief in Biopolitics and Political Prejudice." Elizabeth Suhay, Mark Brandt, and Travis Proulx. Social Psychological and Personality Science 8(2): 173-182. Published version & abstract / Author PDF.

2013. "Does Biology Justify Ideology? The Politics of Genetic Attribution." Elizabeth Suhay and Toby Jayaratne. Public Opinion Quarterly 77(2): 497-521. Published version & abstract / Author PDF.

The interaction of education and race on Trump approval

The correlation between education and support for Trump is very different across the black-white divide. The graphs below I have taken from Civiqs.

For white people with no college degree, a small majority approves of Trump:

white Trump support education

For white postgraduates, a small majority disapproves of Trump. Interestingly, this is more Trump support from white postgrads than I would have thought:

white postgraduates Trump approval

For black people with no college degree, a huge majority disapprove of Trump:

Approval of Trump for black people with no college degree

And for black postgraduates, the distribution of Trump approval is… about the same as it is for black people with no college degree.

Approval of Trump for postgraduate black people

This surprised me. At first I thought there was a glitch in the browser, I had to refresh it for the different subsets to make sure this wasn’t a mistake.

So what’s going on here? It’s genuinely unclear to me, but there are only a few plausible possibilities. One possibility is that this variation is just an artifact of other variables. But if education does have some effect on attitudes toward Trump, is there a reason why would it would be different for white and black folks? Who knows, but it’s interesting enough to hypothesize about. Scholarly literatures on the relationship between education and political attitudes sometimes debate whether education has an income effect (grads think differently because their market position is different), a learning effect (grads think differently because they have more information or knowledge), or a socialization effect (grads think differently because they enter into cosmopolitan social circles). Which one of these mechanisms could account for an educational effect on Trump support, conditional on race, where education shifts white people toward disapproval while shifting black people nowhere?

An income effect is conceivable, in which the better jobs and salaries won by white postgrads makes some of them change their mind toward disapproval of Trump. But other research suggests that income, apart from education, was not really an independent driver of Trump support.

A learning effect seems to me unlikely, in part because university education is probably not about learning, but also because I see no reason why black students would be less likely than white students to learn new reasons for disliking Trump. It’s possible that black people are so opposed to Trump that education doesn’t really have much room to exert a unique, additional effect; or that whatever university teaches, black people already know it from childhood, e.g. that White Supremacy is real. So education perhaps only affirms what black people already know; whereas many white children do not know that White Supremacy is real, but university teaches them the error of their youthful ways. But if this were the case, it would be unclear why black people bother to attend university; also, you’d have to believe that university teaching is, at least for white students, a hard change of course from 5th grade civics class, to have such an effect; but it seems to me that 5th grade and 15th grade teachers have a pretty unified message that racism is bad and that one should not grab women by their pussies, and that anyone who does or says such things should not be President. I don’t see what exactly university would teach white people that departs from what the education system already taught them. So I don’t see how an education effect could be a learning effect.

Personally, my priors are more in favor of the socialization mechanism. What university lecturers teach is not radically different from what 5th grade civics teachers teach, but the club is very different. If you got a 5th grade civics class, everyone you knew got a 5th grade civics class. There is no club. If you go to university, you leave behind the townies who do not go to university. It’s basic sociological knowledge that all clubs use symbols and rituals to distinguish members from outsiders, and members receive a premium of resources, care, and attention from other members. The culture of the university club is best defined by cosmopolitanism. Why cosmopolitanism is the culture of the university, and how the features of cosmopolitanism serve its members, are topics for a separate post. For now, suffice it to say that cosmopolitanism is the opposite of chauvinism, nationalism, aggression, etc. Cosmopolitanism is the sublimation of these drives into polite speech, which conquers inferiors through competitive subtlety rather than competitive… competition, which is brutish and too obvious. Anyway, it seems plausible that entry into the cosmopolitan social club would have a significant effect, in the direction consistent with the data: away from Trump. But why would the socialization effect be conditional on race, when above I argued there’s no reason a learning effect would be conditional on race? Well, I think there’s a good reason that university would socialize white students into Trump disapproval, while having no such socialization effect on black students. Cosmopolitanism includes compassion for the weaker ‘other.’ As black people in the United States suffer disproportionately from poverty and other ills, white students who enter the university club must become more compassionate toward America’s oppressed black population — as a ritual requirement of membership, mind you, not for any reason that has to do with information, knowledge, or learning. Black students who traverse the university system might become more compassionate for female garment workers in the Global South, but membership in the university club does not require them to increase their expressed compassion to black people in the United States. On the contrary, cosmopolitanism gives them an increased sense of their deserved seat at the table. In short, the cosmopolitan or extra-civilized gain symbolic power over the less civilized, by forfeiting their right to brute force, investing in the social club of advanced symbolic manipulators, and cultivating their symbolic facilities in lieu of their brute force facilities. The more ridiculous social justice fashions today — sometimes led by students of color and supported secondarily by white 'allies’ — are no better or worse than than social justice fashions popular among the educated white elite of any previous generation: cosmopolitanism always means telling refined fibs to secure resources away from the grabbing hands of those who are unable to tell refined fibs.

In summary, I hypothesize that education exerts a socialization effect on students, and that such an effect should alter Trump support only in the case of white students.

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