Thursday, March 22, 2012

On current trends

By 2038, we will need either more cats or more camera angles.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Party leader ratings: ‘satisfied or dissatisfied’ vs ‘doing well or badly’

Anthony Wells recently looked at the party leader ratings produced by YouGov’s and MORI’s opinion polls. He noted that MORI were giving Ed Miliband higher ratings than YouGov, and argued that part of this difference is due to the questions the pollsters asked:

YouGov: Do you think Ed Miliband is doing well or badly as leader of the Labour party?
MORI: Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way Ed Miliband is doing his job as leader of the Labour Party?

The key, Anthony suggested, is in how different party supporters respond to these two wordings.

Miliband approval ratings in December MORI poll:
Con supporters – 25% satisfied, 61% dissatisfied
Lab supporters – 54% satisfied, 37% dissatisfied
LD supporters – 33% satisfied, 51% dissatisfied
Miliband approval ratings in December YouGov poll:
Con supporters – 8% well, 87% badly
Lab supporters – 59% well, 31% badly
LD supporters – 24% well, 63% badly

You can see where most of the difference lies – amongst Labour voters the answers are not that different, Miliband’s approval rating is in the 50s, his disapproval in the 30s. The big difference is how the supporters of opposing parties answer the question. Basically, if Conservative supporters are asked if Miliband is doing well or badly, they overwhelmingly think he is doing badly. Asked if they are satisfied or disatisfed with his leadership, a significant minority of Tory supporters say they are satisfied – presumably because they are perfectly satisfied with Labour having a leader who they think is doing badly.

So the suggestion is that while some Conservative voters will be ‘satisfied’ with Miliband doing well (the more straightforward ones), others will be ‘satisfied’ with him doing badly (the more cynical ones). If this is true, it means MORI’s satisfaction ratings are unsound, because they’re mixing together two very conflicting things rather than measuring one. In contrast, YouGov’s ‘doing well or badly’ question would be a sounder measure of (straightforward) approval.

I tested this theory, by looking into the pollsters’ data on Miliband’s ratings across the whole of 2011, seeing how Conservative and Labour voters judged him as doing well and how satisfied they were with his performance.

If the YouGov ‘doing well’ ratings are sound, then those from Conservative and Labour voters should be positively correlated – that is, both groups’ ratings of Miliband should rise and fall in a similar pattern. (Of course, there will be some things Labour voters like him doing that Conservatives won’t, and vice versa, so the correlation will be far from perfect, but there will also be things that appeal or repel across the board.)

This is exactly what I found: the correlation between how many Conservative voters say Miliband is doing well and how many Labour voters say the same is +0.46.

But if the MORI ‘satisfied’ ratings are unsound, then those from Conservative and Labour voters should be much less positively correlated than the ‘doing well’ ones are. The more straightforward Conservatives will lean the same way as Labour voters when Miliband does something good or bad, but this will be at least partly cancelled out by the cynical ones who lean the other way, only happy when he looks like a doomed bungler.

This is exactly what I found: the correlation between how many Conservative voters say they’re satisfied with Miliband and how many Labour voters say the same is just +0.04.

This supports the theory that MORI’s ‘satisfied or dissatisfied’ question doesn’t produce meaningful ratings because some people are satisfied by success and some by failure.

Here are the graphs:

A couple of notes:

I didn’t look at how Lib Dem voters rate Miliband because there are so few of them. I don’t say this to be snide; it’s just that smaller groups of people in polls produce more wildly and randomly varied results.

I didn’t look at rival supporters’ ratings of Cameron and Clegg because both pollsters ask about Cameron “as Prime Minister” rather than as Conservative leader, and MORI asks about Clegg “as Deputy Prime Minister” (YouGov asks about him as Lib Dem leader). It’s one thing to want the opposition leader to screw up his own party’s chances, but it takes a lot more cynicism to hope those in government will screw up the country. So I expect that any converse effect – Labour voters becoming more satisfied when Cameron screws up – would be much smaller. If you’re interested, you could try digging up their ratings from before 2010.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The (basket) case against gay marriage

Cardinal Keith O’Brien – “Britain’s most senior Catholic” – is entitled to his wretched, venomous, semi-coherent opinion about gay marriage. I am likewise entitled to my very different opinion, and my right doesn’t diminish his right.

The same is true of marriages: one couple’s marriage doesn’t diminish another couple’s, however bad a match each pair thinks the other is.

But O’Brien can’t stomach that. He wants to defend the traditional right of straight people to have more rights than gay people, and to champion religion as the last bastion of respectable homophobia.

He writes:

Civil partnerships have been in place for several years now, allowing same-sex couples to register their relationship and enjoy a variety of legal protections. When these arrangements were introduced, supporters were at pains to point out that they didn’t want marriage, accepting that marriage had only ever meant the legal union of a man and a woman.

He neglects to name any names, but if my own memory serves, there were some people who favoured civil partnerships but not marriage for gays, while others have supported gay marriage all along.

Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership, believing that such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, warned that in time marriage would be demanded too. We were accused of scaremongering then, yet exactly such demands are upon us now.

O’Brien should certainly be congratulated on his powers of prophecy. But here I’d like to note his GAYS BAD aside and wonder why, if he has such a strong core case, he’s even bothering with the technicalities of the rest of the argument. But it’s jolly decent of him to put his cards on the table like that.

Since all the legal rights of marriage are already available to homosexual couples, it is clear that this proposal is not about rights, but rather is an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.

Opinion polls put the support for gay marriage at between about 40% and 60% of the population.

Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense.

Gosh. I can’t wait to find out what these implications and repercussions might be. Let’s read on…

But can we simply redefine terms at a whim? Can a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history suddenly be changed to mean something else?

Huh? Where’d it go? No? Oh well.

So, can we simply redefine terms? Well, if they’re legal terms then of course we can, whenever Parliament changes the relevant laws.

But “marriage” is a socially and culturally defined term as well. So can we just redefine it? Actually, we don’t need to. “Gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” and “homosexual marriage” are perfectly understandable terms. We know what they mean and we can support or oppose the idea accordingly. The only question is whether we like the idea.

Oh, and “marriage”, which comes to English from Latin via French, is not “a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history”.

If same-sex marriage is enacted into law what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that marriage can only mean – and has only ever meant – the union of a man and a woman?
Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed?

Well, if gay marriage is legalised, then such views will become factually wrong, and any teacher worth their salt will avoid passing on out-of-date information.

Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

Words fail me. I apologise. I promise I’ll do better with the next bit.

In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women.

You’ll note that he doesn’t quote the Declaration. I know it’s terribly bad form, but I’m going to do it for him:

Article 16
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

No mention of sexuality. No mention of what particular configuration of “men and women” (not “a man and a woman”) it is that has the right to get married. The end of line (2) would have been a fine place to say “husband and wife”, but no: “spouses”.

But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren’t derided. Instead, their attempt to redefine reality is given a polite hearing, their madness is indulged.

So hang on, we’re redefining reality now? I thought we were only redefining a term. But anyway, what he means by “redefine reality” is change something. And unless all change is by definition bad, he needs to do better than that.

Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.

What right? Whose right? The Universal Declaration doesn’t do the work he wants it to, and gay marriage is very, very far from “universally” opposed. But this really gets to the heart of it: letting gay people get married doesn’t harm the marriages of straight people. It takes no rights away from them, except the right to deny rights to gay people.

When gay marriage is finally legalised, the people hell-bent on opposing it can continue to view gay marriages with hostility, and their views of straight marriages won’t have to change either. They relationships they’ve approved of they can continue to approve of.

As an institution, marriage long predates the existence of any state or government. It was not created by governments and should not be changed by them. Instead, recognising the innumerable benefits which marriage brings to society, they should act to protect and uphold marriage, not attack or dismantle it.

I’m sceptical about the potted prehistory lesson, but I’ll pass. Again: when gay marriage becomes legal, straight marriage will continue as before.

This is a point of view that would have been endorsed and accepted only a few years ago, yet today advancing a traditional understanding of marriage risks one being labelled an intolerant bigot.

The sad fact is that some traditions just are intolerant and bigoted. The good news is that when society becomes less intolerant and bigoted, we can change these traditions.

There is no doubt that, as a society, we have become blasé about the importance of marriage as a stabilising influence and less inclined to prize it as a worthwhile institution. It has been damaged and undermined over the course of a generation…

Not by gay people it hasn’t been. The straight divorce rate hasn’t risen because couples are spending more and more time imagining how awful it might be if one day gays were allowed to marry.

…yet marriage has always existed in order to bring men and women together so that the children born of those unions will have a mother and a father.
This brings us to the one perspective which seems to be completely lost or ignored: the point of view of the child. All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well-being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be.
Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child. It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father.

I hate to have to be the one to break it to the Cardinal, but same-sex adoption is already legal. So, while one might dispute his overwhelming, unequivocal and unexplained evidence that the very best gay couple can’t possibly be good parents, it’s really beside the point.

Other dangers exist. If marriage can be redefined so that it no longer means a man and a woman but two men or two women, why stop there? Why not allow three men or a woman and two men to constitute a marriage, if they pledge their fidelity to one another? If marriage is simply about adults who love each other, on what basis can three adults who love each other be prevented from marrying?

I’m afraid it’s much, much worse than that. Let’s go back to O’Brien’s precious Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which says: “Men and women…have the right to marry and to found a family.”

It doesn’t say how many men and women! We’ve already sold the pass and agreed to license marriages of crazed, sick and wrong numbers of men and/or women! Dammit, NOOOOOOOO!

Who would ever have imagined that basing a socially illiberal argument on a declaration of rights could possibly backfire?

In November 2003, after a court decision in Massachusetts to legalise gay marriage, school libraries were required to stock same-sex literature; primary schoolchildren were given homosexual fairy stories such as King & King. Some high school students were even given an explicit manual of homosexual advocacy entitled The Little Black Book: Queer in the 21st Century. Education suddenly had to comply with what was now deemed “normal”.

And? That’s the nature of change.

Disingenuously, the Government has suggested that same-sex marriage wouldn’t be compulsory and churches could choose to opt out. This is staggeringly arrogant. No Government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.
Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”. Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?

One day, the world will produce a thinker who can spot the flaws in an analogy between restricting rights and expanding them. But I am not that thinker.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is crystal clear: marriage is a right which applies to men and women, “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”.
This universal truth is so self-evident that it shouldn’t need to be repeated. If the Government attempts to demolish a universally recognised human right, they will have forfeited the trust which society has placed in them and their intolerance will shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world.

And so here, at the end, he’s just raking over the same barren ground again. All I’ll say is that if the essential and eternal straightness of marriage really were “self-evident”, then his whole vile article need never have been written.

And what a wonderful world that would be.