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Why it’s so relaxing to think about social issues

I was invited by the Columbia University residence halls to speak at an event on gay marriage. (I’ve assisted my colleagues Jeff Lax and Justin Phillips in their research on the topic.) The event sounded fun–unfortunately I’ll be out of town that weekend so can’t make it–but it got me thinking about how gay marriage and other social issues are so relaxing to think about because there’s no need for doubt.

About half of Americans support same-sex marriage and about half oppose it. And the funny thing is, you can be absolutely certain in your conviction, from either direction. If you support, it’s a simple matter of human rights, and it’s a bit ridiculous to suppose that if gay marriage is allowed, it will somehow wreck all the straight marriages out there. Conversely, you can oppose on the clear rationale of wanting to keep marriage the same as it’s always been, and suggest that same-sex couples can be free to get together outside of marriage, as they always could. (Hey, it was good enough for Abraham Lincoln and his law partner!)

In contrast, the difficulty of expressing opinions about the economy, or about foreign policy, is that you have to realize at some level that you might be wrong.

For example, even Paul Krugman must occasionally wonder whether maybe the U.S. can’t really afford another trillion dollars of debt, and even William Beach (he of the 2.8% unemployment rate forecast, later updated to a still-implausible point forecast of 4.3%) must occasionally wonder whether massive budget cuts will really send the economy into nirvana.

Similarly, even John McCain must wonder on occasion whether it would’ve been better to withdraw from Iraq in 2003, or 2004, or 2005. And even a firm opponent of the war such as the Barack Obama of early 2008 must have occasionally thought that maybe the invasion wasn’t such a bad idea on balance.

I don’t really have anything more to say on this. I just think it’s interesting how there can be so much more feeling of certainty about social policy.


  1. Peter says:

    I'd suggest that what you're describing isn't really about a distinction between "social" and other issues. Instead, it's a distinction between differences around goals or moral principles, versus disagreements about strategy.

    In the case of gay marriage, there are clearly different principles involved: to over-simplify it, proponents of gay marriage are more interested in promoting equality between people of all sexual preferences, whereas opponents are more interested in preserving traditional sexual and gender roles.

    In the other two examples, all parties to the debate at least claim to be after the same thing: economic growth and lower unemployment in the case of the economy, protecting American security and promoting American values abroad in the case of the Iraq war.

    But suppose that, in the economics debate, you injected someone who was against economic growth, perhaps for ecological reasons. Or in the war example, consider a pacifist or a hardcore opponent of U.S. imperialism. Then you'd have a real difference of principle rather than just a strategic disagreement, and in that case I suspect there would be just as much of a sense of certainty around the positions in the debate.

    I do think, however, that your initial intuition to frame this in terms of "social issues" says something interesting about the way we often just assume that everyone is agreed about the ultimate goals of public policy in some areas (like the economy and war) but not in others (like gay marriage). But which topics go in which category changes a lot over time–in the 1930's, say, there was a lot more debate about how we should organize the economy, but a lot less debate about the desirability of traditional sexual and gender roles.

  2. cerebus says:

    Yes, filling out those online quizes that purport to place you on the political spectrum, and allow you to state the strength of your conviction in a given answer, I tend to total conviction on social issues, with much more uncertainty in other domains. I had wondered if this generalises.

  3. ceolaf says:

    I don't think you are right on this.

    Doubt or self-interrogation is not limited to the the matters your describe. Anyone who is thinking about public policy ought still be able to question their assumptions, their goals, their prioritizations and thinking processes. This is true for more technical disciplines and less technical questions.

    If you refused to acknowlege the arguments of the other side, you can be very certain, of course. But if you take seriously their arugments, and try to understand them deeply, then you have to have SOME level of doubt.

    People who have such certainly about social policy — especially witout lots and lots of unambiguous research to back it up — simply are being lazy and self-centered thinkers.

    I have long been in favor of legalizing/recognizing same-sex marriages and I am quite certain that I can make a number of very strong arguments to support that. But I could be wrong. Any one of those arguments could be wrong. There COULD be a God who disapproves. It COULD be that there is something important that I am missing about the long term social impact of allowing likes to pair off instead of requires unlikes to pair off. I tend to think that it is better for kids to have a caring and present mother and father, and I COULD be wrong about how I weigh the importance of caring and present vs. the importance of mother and father. It COULD be thare are far more people in opposite-marriage couples who would leave them for a same sex couple if the law allowed same sex marriage, leaving a wake of broken families. It COULD be that the expense to our government in additional financial supports due to more recognized marriages will bear a greater toll than I realized. And and and…

    Someone — I don't remember who — recently wrote about his/her shock and the ignorance and naivte the Kristoff showed in a recent NYT oped piece on schools and education. But s/he realized –quite smartly — that this didn't necessarily mean that Kristoff was wrong to write about schools and education. Rather, it meant that his/her greater knowledge and training in this field make Kristoff's shallow and foolish ideas/writing apparent to him/her, and that s/he should therefore be a bit more questioning of what pundits write/say about fields in which s/he lacks such expertise.

    If you don't think that people ought to be just as uncertain about social policy conclusions or prescriptions than economic conclusions or prescriptions than you simply don't understand enough about about social policy (or theology, or ethics, or morality or whatever it is that you think frees people from being thoughtful and interrogating their own conclusions).

  4. Andrew Gelman says:


    1. "Could be wrong" is fine. I'm talking about relative certainty; there's no need for there to be absolute certainty.

    2. I'm not talking about what people "ought to be." I'm trying to describe how people are (from an admittedly subjective perspective, but I'd be happy to see more empirical work in the area).

  5. Rahul says:

    The fact that people do change their opinions on these topics (gay marriage etc.) as they grow older must result from some underlying uncertainty? BTW, would you include "abortion" under the same category?

  6. Ben Hyde says:

    Well executed doubt is tiring, isn't it? Faux doubt, tis another matter. I suspect that in any domain the players have things that fall into all four categories: hard&doubtful, easy&doubt-free, and easy&faux-doubt, hard&doubt-free. Over time I've found sociology has gotten harder. For example i have my doubts about the extensive data showing that progressives value doubt/complexity more than conservatives.

  7. gyges says:

    In the UK we have gay marriages where appears that some people are using them as perpetual tontines.

    All very strange.

  8. This sounds intuitively right but it obviously can not be correct as a generalisation. People change their minds on the issue and they engage in discussions that contribute to a change in position (if only fraction by fraction).

    Also, you're conflating a policy support (should same sex couples have marriage rights) with a policy outcome prediction (will marriage be ruined for everyone) with a moral conviction (is homosexuality wrong). It is possible to hold these in all combinations. I is possible for someone to believe homosexuality is wrong but not that same sex weddings will ruin marriage and/or society and support the policy. And it is possible to someone to oppose the policy but not believe any of the other two points.

    Equally, there is a lot more moral conviction in economic policy than you make it seem. People who insist that education is a business do so against all evidence to the contrary and largely on moral grounds.

    It is an empirical question whether people tend to have more doubts about one class of policy than the other. But as a counter argument, there seems to have been more of a shift in support of gay marriage than socialised medicine in the US in the last 20 years (at a guess, at least).

  9. IgnoranceIsNotBliss says:

    It's not that "it's a bit ridiculous to suppose that if gay marriage is allowed, it will somehow wreck all the straight marriages out there." It is ridiculous to think this. Because it is factually untrue. It's an empirical question and the answer is no, that's not true, it is ridiculous.

    I would suggest you read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris and rethink whether social issues have empirical answers. For example, forbidding girls from going to school and physically attacking them if they do is not conducive to human well-being. Hopefully your response is, duh!, but thinking that half of humanity should not be taught to read is a "cultural issue" in some parts of the world and the duh! is backed up by a number of empirical measures of human well-being, not a simple difference of opinion. Similarly, there is an empirical answer to whether gay marriage helps or hinders human well-being. People who oppose gay rights may very well be perfectly comfortable in their bigotry because they are focused not on human well-being here on earth, but on saving souls, yet that does not negate that there is an empirical answer. It just means that they're off living in the fantasy land of religion (also an empirical question, publish your evidence for god(s) in the journal Nature or admit you don't have any). You're right in the sense that when you have faith you don't need reason, but you're wrong in that there really is a correct answer to many social questions assuming that you care about human well-being and are not a psychopath.

  10. Rahul says:


    I agree with you but there's a question of degree too. On my mental scale "forbidding girls from going to school and physically attacking them if they do" is a lot worse than things like gay marriage, evidence for god etc.

    My tolerance of the other sides wrong beliefs does the world a lot of harm in one case and less in the other.

  11. subdee says:

    In contrast, the difficulty of expressing opinions about the economy, or about foreign policy, is that you have to realize at some level that you might be wrong.

    People who oppose/support gay marriage do have to worry about whether or not they are wrong. People who oppose gay marriage may one day have a gay child/sibling/neighbor and then have to ask themselves whether their views are causing these people to suffer. People who support gay marriage may one day have a queer child/sibling/friend who is not cut out for marriage and then have to ask themselves whether they have effectively further marginalized those people by insisting on the right to marry for themselves. And so on.

    In both cases there may be profound negative consequences to the results of social policies. You personally might think that social issues are relaxing because they're not your main area of interest. I'm gay and I don't think gay issues are relaxing at all.