Election Review Articles

Academics have a great tradition of review articles.  Even in areas where studies are conflicting and controversial, review articles try to present a neutral summary of the current state of the debate.  Of course review articles are often accused of being covertly partisan, but at least they are usually not overtly partisan.  Review article authors usually focus on hard analysis and data over speculation, and bend over backwards to appear neutral via their tone, style, and presentation.  This social norm of neutral summaries seems to help academics aggregate info in complex areas.

Today, many academics say the current US presidential election is of enormous importance, and wonder how they can help.  And yet most everything I see academics doing on this election is overtly partisan – folks act as if it were obvious who is the best candidate, and just wonder how best to help that candidate.

But If this election is really more important that the typical topic covered by an academic review article, why not write election review articles to advise academics like me who are honestly uncertain how to vote?  An election review article would apply typical academic standards to review what we know about the actual consequences of choosing each candidate.

For example, in this election the two candidates come from two established political parties.  So a review article could summarize published analyses attempting to discern how national outcomes relate to the party holding office.  Better yet, it could summarize the implications of published multivariate analyses, relating national outcomes to many candidate features.  Of special interest might be candidate policy positions; one could summarize how candidate policy positions have related historically to actual chosen policies.  For particular policy positions of these particular candidates, one could point to and summarize other academic review articles on the consequences of those particular policies. 

Sure some will accuse election review articles of being covertly partisan.  But given all the other academic review articles out there, why does no one even try this?  I was hoping disinterest in presidential decision markets came from inertia and novelty-aversion, but are even academics just aren’t interested in neutral evaluations?

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  • jhayes

    Interesting Idea.

    Not as rigid as a review article, but recently in my country (Ireland), we had to vote on the Lisbon Treaty; people set about trying to achieve a NPOV in a WP article, listing arguments for and against it. Whilst it was of dubious quality (and acrimonious of course, given the content), it was interesting to see the beginnings of something akin to what you describe.

    Of course, it would be an awful lot of work to distill, considering that the amount of articles written daily on the american elections, and there’d be integrity issues also. Still, I’d be interested in such an addition.

  • Ben Jones

    Good post. Yet more evidence that politics is unbelievably resistant to objective thought and writing.

    Suggestion off the bat: search for your advice in a non-US publication. Being able to vote in the thing makes you (at least potentially) part of one of the teams. Literature written for a foreign audience will likely be more objective since it has less incentive to swing its audience either way. I’d love to say read a UK newspaper, but I can’t really.

    And if you come across anything that seems even slightly scrupulous in its analysis of what a McCain or Obama government would be like, for the love of god post it up here!

  • Lafayette

    Don’t confuse American politics with other varieties. It has an all too willing bent for character assassination. As if “making my opponent look bad makes me look good”. Such reasoning is asinine.

    But, given the amounts of money that are put into such negative advertising, we are confronted by the fact that it obviously works (to sway public opinion). Much of this character assassination is tantamount to public slander, which is illegal in other countries. It is probably illegal in America as well … the laws are just suspended for the electoral period.

    Perhaps, people think it is “normal”? It isn’t normal if slander slants public consideration towards the character of a person and away from the issues that should be at the core of an election. After all, we elect a political leader to take tough decisions. We should have some idea of how they might decide on some matters that may affect our destiny.

    But, then, whilst issues are complex, character is simple. We know almost intuitively if we like a candidate without the slightest reflection of their political POV on key matters. Is this intelligent? Perhaps not. But, it IS very human.

    Widespread negative campaigning is, therefore, lamentably a reference to the political maturity (or the cultural values) of a country’s citizens. To have elected a lead-head president, twice in succession, a population cannot be all that politically astute. Wasn’t Bush the Education President, to take just one element of the 2004 campaign that is related to a relevant political issue?

    Will Americans do better this time around? There is no indication that such is possible or, for that matter, even probable. Inevitably, “ya pays fo what ya gets”.

  • Alan Gunn

    Maybe we should start with the doubtful assumption that this election is “of enormous importance.” We have two candidates, both promising to lower our taxes and launch new spending programs. One of them wants to shift forces from Iraq to Afghanistan faster than the other one does. There are races for county prosecutor that are of considerably more importance than this one.

  • @Lafayette Character isn’t irrelevant to a political campaign. Knowing about one’s character is the best way of knowing how one will handle unknown decisions in the future.

  • Leonid

    It may be counterintuitive, but I think that choosing a better candidate is generally more difficult than choosing a better stock investment.

    One can make a fortune with stocks by guessing how their price would change over a very short period of time. In politics the repercussions of a single decision can be felt for a long time if not indefinitely. To give one illustration:

    1) Election of Carter, who was weak on foreign policy, emboldened the USSR to invade Afganistan. (The outcome is bad for US)

    2) The war in Afganistan put a heavy burden on the soviet economy and so helped the eventual demise of the USSR .(The outcome is good for US)

    3) It is possible, however, that the USSR would have collapsed even without this war. Then the same benefit would have been received without the eventual rise of Taliban to power. This would have denied Bin Laden a convenient base, possibly preventing 9/11 and the Iraqi war. (The outcome is bad for US?)

    I can’t even imagine what possible outcomes, good or bad, Carter election would have on a distant future.

    Now let’s compare the utility for a single person of choosing best stocks and the best political candidate. In the first case he can make a fortune, in the second he is likely to make no difference whatsoever. Even if he can build a coherent argument why the candidate X is better than Y, he is unlikely to convince many people.

    So if it is easier and more useful to predict the stock market developments, should we expect truly rational people switch to political analysis instead?

  • Doug S.

    I’m going to be blunt.

    If you vote Republican in this U.S. Presidential election, you are an idiot.

    Quite simply, Sarah Palin scares the shit out of me. She belongs to a radical Dominionist church, the kind featured in the documentary Jesus Camp, which, among other things, believes in a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation. She has said, in speeches, that her chosen policies are God’s will, that we sent our troops to Iraq to do God’s will. She’s practically a card-carrying member of the Christian Taliban.

    If you have any respect for science, for rationality, for using evidence in decision making, for the principle that anyone can be mistaken, you will not vote to place Sarah Palin one heart attack away from being Commander-In-Chief.

  • Bob


    I’m quite certain that I’m not going to vote Republican, but come on. Sure, now it’s the Republican’s turn but smearing based on a person’s church’s beliefs is way too easy to be credible. Look at David Friedman’s Ideas blog for a more balanced view of the “God’s Will” issue. We may not want to risk it but I’m confident that Sarah Palin becoming president would not guarantee the end of times. Your post screams bias.

  • dabu

    So… Why don’t you do it, Robin?

  • Jay

    “I’m going to be blunt.”

    Well I’ll be equally blunt. If you vote Democrat in this U.S. Presidential election you are also an idiot. Based on what Obama claims (history suggests that politicians are pathological liars) his administration could be summed up as the Robin Hood administration. And if you look carefully much of his (and the Republican candidate’s policies) go against the Constitution and increase the power of politicians.

    You can vote for the Vanilla or French Vanilla candidate. Either way you are an idiot.

  • komponisto

    Robin: a characteristically excellent post. Thank you!

  • Palin doesn’t have certainty that the military is doing God’s will. She prays that they are. Her record as a politician is the standard-issue corrupt Alaska Republican stuff we all know and love/hate. Both parties like to portray her as especially different, so this can be the MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION EVER. I’m not voting.

  • Guys, surely it is obvious this isn’t the place to argue about Obama vs. McCain.

  • burger flipper

    Where’s that durn bloggingheads?

  • Robin, oddly it is Obama vs. Palin. Maybe it will cool into Biden vs. McCain. But you already knew that politics is the mind-killer. As a case study, how about a post on the Large Hadron Collider that takes the same turn by the second comment? (fear the link)

  • Peter

    Jay: “And if you look carefully much of his (and the Republican candidate’s policies) go against the Constitution and increase the power of politicians.
        You can vote for the Vanilla or French Vanilla candidate. Either way you are an idiot.

    Maybe someone could do a post sometime on the rationality of voting 3rd party or independent in a 2-party system, given a simple plurality voting system. It would be especially pertinent in the next few months.

    Or, alternatively, the rationality of lionizing the founding fathers and almost religiously revering the Constitution, an 18th century document based on 17th century philosophy and theories of government.

  • Savage

    “…like me who are honestly uncertain how to vote”

    wow, massive loss of respect for Robin Hanson here. I hope you realize most of your readers here are completely insane (i.e. liberal)

  • steve

    Leonid already nailed this topic a few posts up, IMO. Why should logical minds be attracted to a game of insignificantly different minor outcomes and unforeseeable major outcomes like a political election?

    Also, Palin is terrifying.

  • curtadams

    It’s not really possible to write a politics review article, because the source material is so overwhelmingly partisan. Even political writers not too closely tied to one side or another grind their own axes. A NPOV politics article would need to be more like original research, actually looking at the claims and evidence to see how well they are justified. In a sense, network news is often NPOV political reporting (i.e. Republicans say this and Democrats say that) and frankly, it’s basically useless because when one side is blatantly lying it’s not even brought up.

  • Jay


    The primary function of the Constitution is to limit politicians from being able to change the rules to benefit themselves. Now it has not been functioning for over 100 years. Maybe I am being to overly optimistic to hope that at some point the nearly unlimited power politicians have granted themselves will be taken away from them. The fact that no one (to my knowledge) has bothered to try to use the Sherman Anti-trust Act to bust up the reTHUGs and democRATs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duopoly puzzles me. Of course knowing that the two parties are a duopoly you would have to be an idiot to believe that the two are different and actually compete with one another, as opposed to colluding in back rooms with a common goal.

    And as for voting, I’m not going to waste my time going to vote. My opportunity cost is much higher. Especially considering P(My vote swings the election) = 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001%. Plus I’m saving the environment by not burning fossil fuels driving to a voting booth.

  • Robin, it’s a good idea! Why don’t you try?

    I know I couldn’t do it, for the same reason why I couldn’t write neutral-sounding review articles on whether the moon landings were faked, whether the 9/11 attacks were morally justified, or whether mathematical proofs are only valid for white males. These are all questions for which I feel roughly as confident of the answer as of how many fingers I have, yet there are organized movements that vehemently disagree. For this reason, the thought of these questions brings up powerful emotions that would make it impossible for me to maintain a scholarly tone. To maintain such a tone, I find that both sides have to be ‘alive’ to me, even if I finally come down on one of them. (Examples where I can think myself into multiple sides include the validity of quantum mechanics, libertarianism vs. social democracy, questions about AI, consciousness and free will…)

    However, that doesn’t mean I don’t like reading high-quality academic analyses, even for questions like evolution vs. creationism or Holocaust denial where I feel certain of the answer. Indeed, such analyses often impress me all the more since I couldn’t pull them off in a million years.

  • Peter

    The primary function of the Constitution is to limit politicians from being able to change the rules to benefit themselves.

    If the constitution were anything like that then it wouldn’t prescribe anything like an electoral college – another artifact from the days of old when the leading political theories all held that the People weren’t qualified to chose their own government.

    People talk about the unfairness of the two-party duopoly and consolidated power – but the constitution as much as guarantees these things! The essential difference between the Articles of Confederation (which failed) and the Constitution is the consolidation of power in a federal government (of indefinite power).

    Not to mention that the constitution’s (official) “primary function” is stated, right there in the preamble:

    to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity

    Now it has not been functioning for over 100 years.

    Longer than that. Fatal flaws built in to the constitution, by its drafters, lead to a civil war within 100 years of its adoption.

    . . .colluding in back rooms with a common goal.

    This has been the practice since the constitutional convention itself. The constitution was never ratified by the people, it was produced and ratified by two “delegates” from each state meeting behind locked doors.

    Again, the philosophy and theories of government underpinning the constitution are hundreds of years old. Is our reverence for it any different than the kind of feeling associated with blind nationalism?

  • “Examples where I can think myself into multiple sides include the validity of quantum mechanics…”

    You mean the validity of certain interpretations of quantum mechanics, right? I mean, the math itself, I understand, is pretty much rock solid, massively verified.

  • Jay: You assign a probability of 10^-165 that your vote will swing the election? Hyperbole would be 10^-30. That’s just silly. Actually to say one’s vote swung the election is simply to say the election was extremely close (within a couple votes). In which case everyone’s vote swung the election. So given a pretty basic probability distribution over the difference between the votes on each side one could calculate pretty exactly the liklihood that the election will be that close. Not that I’d actually know how to go about doing that.

  • Scott, it saddens me that someone I respect seems to sit across such a wide intellectual gulf that he can’t even imagine being uncertain about something about which I feel genuinely uncertain.

  • “Maybe someone could do a post sometime on the rationality of voting 3rd party or independent in a 2-party system, given a simple plurality voting system.”

    Peter, Eliezer has in fact posted on that very issue.

  • “even academics just aren’t interested in neutral evaluations?”

    Perhaps such neutral articles are not written because they offer the academic no useful signaling of loyalty in today’s generally polarized academia.

  • Shawn

    From George Washington’s
    Farewell Address
    “It serves to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration….agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one….against another….it opens the door to foreign influence and corruption…thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”
    George Washington

  • michael vassar

    Robin: I’m with Scott on this one, at least if “can’t imagine uncertainty” means “can’t imagine uncertainty given some standard assumptions such as the assumption that western civilization ending abruptly or entering permanent decline in the next decade or three is undesirable”. I can certainly imagine a sort-of sane person making the considered judgment that the expected utility of starting civilization over and possibly evolving a bit more intelligence before humanity makes the next go of it is desirable, but not in an action-motivating sense. I personally have more doubt regarding whether HIV causes AIDS than I think a typical IQ 130 truth-seeking voter has over whether Obama/Biden are more qualified than McCain/Palin.

  • komponisto

    Michael, if merely electing the Republican nominee (say) is sufficient to topple Western civilization, I think we’re already doomed.

  • Prentiss

    [“…why not write election review articles to advise academics like me who are honestly uncertain how to vote? “]

    Intelligent & well educated academics are uncertain how to vote (??)

    Then there’s a MUCH larger problem afoot. (…how’s that ‘democracy-thing’ supposed to work, again ??)

    To begin with, that your vote has any practical effect on the political system… is totally irrational.

    And that someone could competently advise you on casting a meaningless vote is absurd.

  • Garrett

    Not to knock you, Robin, but it seems like you would have given more thought to how you want your government run.

    For me the biggest issue is income redistribution, as far as I can tell it needs to happen more than it does now… the marginal utility of money for rich people must be extremely low compared to the marginal utility of money for low income people. It’s a no brainer for me and it makes me want to see a democrat (or a third party, but I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime even though I have hope) in office. It also seems that the only arguments I’ve seen against it are “that’s socialism!” as if this is a real argument or a valid point.

    Can you explain how a thoughtful person doesn’t have opinions at least on which way he leans on most issues? (or do you?)

  • Ben Jones

    Robin, just think of it as corroborating evidence for your suggested paradigm that people find it so difficult to comment here without being partisan. Actually, scratch that, most haven’t even tried.

    Maybe there just aren’t enough unbiased people in the world to be able to peer-review an article on the upcoming US election.

    Jay: You assign a probability of 10^-165 that your vote will swing the election?

    pdf, you totally counted the zeros. What was your algorithm for doing this as quickly as possible? Paste into Notepad, press return after every tenth zero, then count the lines. That’s where I’d start. How would a Bayesian Master have come up with 10^-165?

  • “What was your algorithm for doing this as quickly as possible? Paste into Notepad, press return after every tenth zero, then count the lines.”

    That’s what I did. After the first line break, the key sequence “left, down, return” repeated in quick succession will make short work of the remaining line breaks. Incidentally, this is also useful for any file containing many records of a fixed length that doesn’t already have line breaks.

    “How would a Bayesian Master have come up with 10^-165?”

    If they’re human? It would depend completely on what tools they have at their disposal. Augmented human? They could probably eyeball it.

  • Doug S.

    (My post got caught up in the spam filter, probably because it had too many links. Trying a third time)

    On a somewhat less partisan note, a blogger I respect has posted a series of essays on ways that he expects politicians of each major party to go wrong in the next four years.

  • Doug S.

    Also, I don’t know if this matters, but the rest of the world prefers Obama by a large margin.

  • “I was hoping disinterest in presidential decision markets came from inertia and novelty-aversion”

    In the case of McCluskey’s markets to which you link, thinness probably doesn’t come from inertia or novelty-version. More likely, it comes from lack of publicity as to their existence, the complexity of the contract wording, and the famous frustrations of the Intrade interface, as well as the internet gambling laws that have frightened so many away from prediction markets generally.

    A better-worded contract, a friendlier interface, a different location, different sponsorship, and play money with a social hierarchy component would perhaps generate the thickness you seek.

  • Ben Jones

    Augmented human? They could probably eyeball it.

    You mean visual input sensor it, right?

    Anyway, on reflection, the correct answer is the word count feature in MS Word, which has a character count bit. If you don’t have a proper word processor on the machine you’re using, you double lose.

    Just while we’re clogging Robin’s excellent post with nonsense (apologies Robin), the small area of London that I patrol working for the local council contains a cemetary, Bunhill Fields. I found out earlier today that interred therein is a certain Reverend Bayes, to whom I paid a brief visit a moment ago. And before you ask, yes, there is an indescribable but very real air of rationality that just seeps into your very pores.

  • js

    “And yet most everything I see academics doing on this election is overtly partisan – folks act as if it were obvious who is the best candidate, and just wonder how best to help that candidate.”

    Well, that’s because, starting with an assumption of values and priorities (especially the institutional priorities of academia), the choice of candidate is obvious. Arguably, people should be trying to decide how to transmit their value systems to others, as that will easily predict which way that person will vote.

    As to the arguments over efficacy, they’re addressed (at least in part) by the James Fowler piece on this page (a response to a larger question, but, in my opinion, the response most worth reading).

    Further, to do as Jay does and not recognize the fairly significant differences between the two major candidates bespeaks either ignorance, contrarianism or an inability to reason. That the differences may be subtle does not mean that they are not real, and anyone reading his comment should be reminded of similar rhetoric prior to the 2000 election from Nader supporters. A war in Iraq is definitely a difference between Gore and Bush (it can be reasonably assumed that Gore would not have responded to 9/11 by attacking Iraq, and would have likely continued the sanction and bombing regime of Clinton).

    One more point—While I concede that the long-term effects of any particular election are hard to judge, I would not concede the causal string that Leonid posited regarding Carter. Even a casual student of Russian politics should know that Carter’s election had little to do with the invasion of Afghanistan, and that the invasion of Afghanistan had less to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union than did, say, internal agricultural research policy debates (from whence Gorbachev sprang, and where he attempted to bring a rational, experimentally-based approach to governance, leading to Perestroika, which emboldened internal schisms—the myth that the USSR was seriously undone by Reagan’s outspending them is a pernicious one, but it is still a myth).

  • Tom Breton (Tehom)

    This thread is, alas, another example of a pattern I have noticed on this blog. When a topic has political overtones, many posters seem ready to ignore the blog topic – both the overall topic of overcoming bias and the point of the immediate post. Not even in a “drifting towards political talk” sort of way. It’s mostly not people reluctantly getting dragged into a political discussion, it’s people who immediately come out swinging. They seem to treat a thread as a skirmish in an ongoing societal war.

    To be clear, I’m not scolding this trend for not being nice, I’m scolding it for being noise and often being lies. “The first casualty of war is truth”, and that applies here.

    To avoid creating yet another opportunity for politicization, I’m not naming the characteristics I think the most serious offenders have in common, but I do see some common themes.

  • Achilles

    Tom Breton, I completely agree. It seems many people don’t know how to think impartially. I myself had a process over the last year where I consciously had to will myself to look at both sides of arguments on trivial things, then slow apply it to things more important to me.

    I’d love to see something like this in action. Please, somebody start this up. I have no doubt that it would be at least a little partisan, but so is everything.

  • Norman Noman

    I basically agree with doug, but I’m voting for mccain anyway because I hate everyone and I think he’s the president they deserve.

  • Norman Noman


    But seriously folks, demonizing the bush administration is irrational and undignified. They may have lied us into a catastrophic war, destroyed the economy, secret torture prisons etc. etc., but the whole false flag terrorism thing is actually very good fodder for a growing rationalist to sharpen their teeth on.

    There’s no record of the hijackers boarding the planes, they’re not any airport security footage, and some of them turned up alive later. So does that mean the planes were switched with drones, or were the passengers simply knocked out with some kind of gas and the planes flown into the towers by remote control? Why did WTC 7 fall down when it wasn’t even struck by an airplane? There are a lot of interesting brain teasers here.

    But oh wait, john mccain will be totally different you guys!!! It’s not like he voted with the president 95% of the time or gave him a big hug or anything!!!!! THIS IS SUCH A HARD DECISION I WISH SOME ACADEMIC WOULD WRITE A REVIEW ARTICLE SO I COULD COMPARE THE PROS AND CONS!!!!!!!!1111147^$^@#$

    I would go into WHY I hate everyone, but I think you can probably figure that out without a review article.

  • Norman Noman

    On a less obnoxious note, here’s an article about why people vote republican from a cognitive science standpoint which approaches the issue in a way readers of this blog should find suitably objective: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

    It’s somewhat tangential to the original question, but worth a read.

  • David J. Balan

    Put me down with the others above who have no meaningful degree of uncertainty about this question.

  • Does this come close to what you were seeking, Robin?

    “For the first time in his adult life Steven Landsburg, economic and columnist for Slate, professor at the university of Rochester, and author of ‘The Armchair Economist,’ did not know what candidate he should support. The choice was normally clear for him, but when John McCain became the Republican nominee and Barack Obama the Democratic, Landsburg became a fence-sitter.

    So he decided to do extensive research on both candidate; what are their positions, what are their plans? Whose plans are more realistic and effective?

    The result of this research: McCain is the better choice.”


  • Peter Norvig’s Election 2008 FAQ. Not what you were asking for, but the closest I’ve seen so far.