With the gutting of foreign coverage by most U.S. newspapers and the need to populate infinite Web space with content, a new creature has emerged: the foreign affairs blogger. Max Fisher, who hosts the Washington Post’s WorldViews page, ...
With the gutting of foreign coverage by most U.S. newspapers and the need to populate infinite Web space with content, a new creature has emerged: the foreign affairs blogger. Max Fisher, who hosts the Washington Post’s WorldViews page, is a leading exemplar of the species. Fisher’s newsy nuggets are often low-priority zeitgeist items that may or may not be vignettes of greater themes: examples in recent days include the tunnel-smuggled delivery of KFC chicken into Gaza, the video of the Czech president possibly drunk, a staff-passenger brawl at Beijing airport, and New Zealand’s “war on cats.” Fisher also concocts FAQ-style explainers on places in the news that he judges to be obscure to his readers (Chechnya and Dagestan, Central African Republic, Mali). And he is very keen on global surveys, whose results he summarizes, augments with his own interpretation, and typically renders with color-coded maps that drive home the key message.
This week, Fisher proposed to his readers what he titled “A fascinating map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries.” The deep-blue, racially tolerant areas included the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Scandinavia, and much of Latin America. The deepest-red, or most racially intolerant, countries were India, Bangladesh and Jordan. Russia and China fell in the middle; much of Africa was left out for lack of data, but South Africa came out light blue (highly tolerant), and Nigeria light red (highly intolerant). Other highly tolerant countries included Pakistan and Belarus.
A cursory glance at this distribution of results would suggest something deeply suspect about the exercise; moreover, anyone who studies the concept of race knows that it is hard enough to operationalize in a single-country context, let alone in cross-national comparison. Still, Fisher soldiered on, offering bullet-point findings: “Anglo and Latin countries most tolerant,” “Wide, interesting variation across Europe,” “The Middle East not so tolerant,” and the like. He offered country-level speculation: tolerance was low in Indonesia and the Philippines “where many racial groups often jockey for influence and have complicated histories with one another,” and lower in the Dominican Republic than in other Latin countries “perhaps because of its adjacency to troubled Haiti.”
Where did these numbers come from? As Fisher explained, they came from the long-running World Values Survey, which has polled attitudes around the world for decades. Fisher was drawn to the topic by news of a new paper, by a pair of Swedish economists, on the links between economic freedom in a country and its level of tolerance. (The paper was described in a post at Foreign Policy, itself a hub of foreign-affairs blogging.) To measure racial tolerance in particular, the authors used question A124_02 in the World Values survey, which asks respondents whether they would “not like to have as neighbors people of another race.” Intrigued, Fisher went back to the survey itself and, as he put it, “compiled the original data and mapped it out in the infographic” that led his post.
Although the results don’t pass the sniff test in the first place, I took a look at the data as well, in an effort to identify the exact problems at play. It turns out that the entire exercise is a methodological disaster, with problems in the survey question premise and operationalization, its use by the Swedish economists and by Fisher, and, as an inevitable result, in Fisher’s additional interpretations. The two caveats that Fisher offered in his post – first, that survey respondents might be lying about their racial views, and second, that the survey data are from different years, depending on the country – only scratch the surface of what is basically a crime against social science perpetrated in broad daylight. They certainly weren’t enough to stop Fisher from compiling and posting his map, even though its analytic base is so weak as to render its message fraudulent.
about 3 hours ago