The Political Center is Endogenous to You

I stumbled into a twitter conversation about this relatively innocuous breakdown of news sources:

Now there are plenty of ways to pick this apart. No, I don’t care that you are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I also do not care that a one-dimensional political spectrum can’t capture the fine nuance of your political ethos. Yes, the farthest left and right bins equivocate between often very different levels of bias, but that’s mostly of a product of only having five bins. Obviously greater accuracy could be had by delineating into 9 bins (and yeah, there is some real weird stuff in tails of this distribution). But coarseness or inaccuracy at the margin is not what grabbed by attention. I don’t really care that the lunacy at OAN and largely evidence-based reporting at Vox are in bins of seemingly reciprocal bias, as I know that’s just an artifact of the 5 bin structure.

Rather, what I was intrigued by were the frustrations and bias attributed in the comments about news sources, such as the BBC and NPR, improperly classified as the center. I’m well aware that many people are annoyed by “centrists”. They are traitors to the cause who should know better than to side with the enemy and will, of course, be first against the wall when the revolution comes. There is, more seriously, a frustration that centrists think they can make a claim to the truth by simply splitting the difference of the political distribution, like using the mean surveyed number of jelly beans in a jar. This aggravates people partly because it is a gross misuse of the wisdom of crowds, but mostly because we often think our position is the truth against which all other political identities should be gauged. It’s an old George Carlin joke – everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, everyone driving faster than you is an asshole. The “right wing” is everyone to the right of me. The “left wing” is everyone to the left of me. As for the crazies, well, that depends on your social identity. If you think of yourself as a right (left)-of-center, well then the far left (right) is full of lunatic socialists (corporatist fascists) out to destroy everything we love. The far right (left)? Well, they are a bit much I admit, but they are just spirited activists doing their best in a hostile environment.

Everyone hates centrists in large part because so many of us, on some level, think of ourselves as the reasonable political center. For some right or left-wing yahoo to plant their flag in to the rich soil of the center and call it their own is not just an affront to our sensibilities, it’s an act of political war.

To be fair to the Twitterverse, one person did manage to bring to this cavalcade of frustration an excellent alternative chart that had 7 bins (!) and a second dimension (!!!) regarding the reliability of information. That should have calmed most people down, obviously social media is neither the time nor place for such things.

It’s in this wonderful figure that so much of the story really comes out. People are rightfully upset that honest news sources are being conflated with tabloid rags. They’re also upset, however, that excellent and reliable sources are being attributed centrist neutrality. How dare they attribute the power of veracity and truth to those well-known right-wing whackos at the BBC! We tell ourselves we ignore the BBC/NPR/Economist/WSJ because of its gross bias, but the reality is we ignore them because they’re boring and never tell us we’re smart and pretty and righteous.

The original post was trying to suggest to people they consider balancing their political diet. My suggestion would not be to balance the bias in your diet (we like what we like), but rather to focus on the most reliable sources (the green bullseye in the second figure) and cut out the fried BS. All of that rage and confirmation bias, it’s nothing but empty calories.