Causation, Correlation, Aggression, and Political Rhetoric

Jan 10, 2011

John Sides at the Monkey Cage weighs in with some social science on the relationship between militant metaphors in political speech and individuals’ willingness to engage in actual political violence against government officials. The findings he cites: an experimental study has shown there seems to be no effect on the overall population of exposure to “fighting words” in political ads, but there is an effect on people with aggressive tendencies. Moreover:

This conditional relationship — between seeing violent ads and a predisposition to aggression — appears stronger among those under the age of 40 (vs. those older), men (vs. women), and Democrats (vs. Republicans).

But his real point is that we should be cautious of inferring from this or any wider probabilistic data causation regarding a specific event:

To prove that vitriol causes any particular act of violence, we cannot speak about “atmosphere.” We need to be able to demonstrate that vitriolic messages were actually heard and believed by the perpetrators of violence. That is a far harder thing to do. But absent such evidence, we are merely waving our hands at causation and preferring instead to treat the mere existence of vitriol and the mere existence of violence as implying some relationship between the two.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.