Income, education, and religion as “background variables” or “treatments”

The discussion here on the climate change attitude mystery reminded me of a funny thing about how we think when we classify people by education, or income, or religion.

The original question was to explain why college-educated Republicans are less likely (compared to non-college-educated Republicans) to believe in human-caused global warming, while, among Democrats, those with college education are more likely to believe in it. To me this was no surprise: college-educated people are more political polarized and are more likely to align their views with their political attitudes.

But many of Tyler Cowen’s commenters had a different sort of explanation, along the lines of, Going to college makes Republicans more skeptical of scientific authority but convinces Democrats of these arguments.

Setting aside the specific issue of climate change, one interesting thing here is the way I, in common with most political scientists, think of education (and other variables such as income and religion) as traits, or background variables, or descriptors of people. Thus when we talk about how rich and poor people vote, or more and less educated, or Protestants and Catholics, or whatever, we think of these as different sorts of people. But you can also think of income, or education, or religious attendance, as “treatments” that affect people–for example, if you go to college and share a room with someone of a different ethnic or political group, you might become more tolerant. Or maybe if you are conservative and go to college, you’ll be skeptical of what’s taught in your physics class (or if you’re liberal, maybe you’ll be skeptical of what’s covered in your econ class).

I don’t really have much to add here . . . somehow it seems more reasonable to me to think of these as descriptors than as treatments, but I guess it depends on the person and on what issue is being considered.

7 thoughts on “Income, education, and religion as “background variables” or “treatments”

  1. Not all college education is equal. Couldn't it have something to do with what conservatives and liberals tend to study. Think engineering and economics vs. education and poli sci.

  2. It's odd how different elements get associated with being liberal or conservative. Is there any literature on this?

    One might think that making sure the earth doesn't overheat would be a "conservative" position, and it would be the "liberal" position to argue that the needs of the people we have here now are more important and we should take the risk.

    That would be consistent with the fiscal conservative argument that we need to save money now and avoid future risk, and the liberal argument that we need to spend it now because of current social needs.

  3. I think it all comes down to the question you are trying to answer. If you are interested in how to divide up outcomes and analyze those pieces, then in this case soci-economic data are the attributes that do the slicing.

    If you are trying to understand how attributes affect outcomes, which I think gets more to the original question, then the idea of socio-economic factors as treatments is a more accurate perspective.

    Totally unrelated, if you didn't see it, I think you would enjoy this…

  4. Brian, Seth: Sure, if you're going with the view of education as a "treatment." But it's still more natural to me to think of education as an attribute: more-educated people differ from less-educated people, but I'm not really thinking of these differences as being caused by the education.

    Seth: In my experiences as student and teacher, not at all.

    ZB: See here and here.

  5. "But many of Tyler Cowen's commenters had a different sort of explanation, along the lines of, Going to college makes Republicans more skeptical of scientific authority but convinces Democrats of these arguments."

    Hand those commenters a naive, simplistic 'Econ 101' style argument, and watch the skepticism disappear. I suggest watching to see how many of them accept 'tax cuts=>more government revenue'
    as a test concept.

  6. Isn't education a mediator here? It is both an "upstream" variable, predicting beliefs, and a "downstream" variable, predicted by background variables.

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