The Cartography of Bullshit

With the gutting of foreign coverage by most U.S. newspapers and the need to populate infinite Web space with content, a new creature has emerged: the foreign affairs blogger. Max Fisher, who hosts the Washington Post’s WorldViews page, is a leading exemplar of the species. Fisher’s newsy nuggets are often low-priority zeitgeist items that may or may not be vignettes of greater themes: examples in recent days include the tunnel-smuggled delivery of KFC chicken into Gaza, the video of the Czech president possibly drunk, a staff-passenger brawl at Beijing airport, and New Zealand’s “war on cats.” Fisher also concocts FAQ-style explainers on places in the news that he judges to be obscure to his readers (Chechnya and Dagestan, Central African Republic, Mali). And he is very keen on global surveys, whose results he summarizes, augments with his own interpretation, and typically renders with color-coded maps that drive home the key message.

This week, Fisher proposed to his readers what he titled “A fascinating map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries.” The deep-blue, racially tolerant areas included the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Scandinavia, and much of Latin America. The deepest-red, or most racially intolerant, countries were India, Bangladesh and Jordan. Russia and China fell in the middle; much of Africa was left out for lack of data, but South Africa came out light blue (highly tolerant), and Nigeria light red (highly intolerant). Other highly tolerant countries included Pakistan and Belarus.

A cursory glance at this distribution of results would suggest something deeply suspect about the exercise; moreover, anyone who studies the concept of race knows that it is hard enough to operationalize in a single-country context, let alone in cross-national comparison. Still, Fisher soldiered on, offering bullet-point findings: “Anglo and Latin countries most tolerant,” “Wide, interesting variation across Europe,” “The Middle East not so tolerant,” and the like. He offered country-level speculation: tolerance was low in Indonesia and the Philippines “where many racial groups often jockey for influence and have complicated histories with one another,” and lower in the Dominican Republic than in other Latin countries “perhaps because of its adjacency to troubled Haiti.”

Where did these numbers come from? As Fisher explained, they came from the long-running World Values Survey, which has polled attitudes around the world for decades. Fisher was drawn to the topic by news of a new paper, by a pair of Swedish economists, on the links between economic freedom in a country and its level of tolerance. (The paper was described in a post at Foreign Policy, itself a hub of foreign-affairs blogging.) To measure racial tolerance in particular, the authors used question A124_02 in the World Values survey, which asks respondents whether they would “not like to have as neighbors people of another race.” Intrigued, Fisher went back to the survey itself and, as he put it, “compiled the original data and mapped it out in the infographic” that led his post.

Although the results don’t pass the sniff test in the first place, I took a look at the data as well, in an effort to identify the exact problems at play. It turns out that the entire exercise is a methodological disaster, with problems in the survey question premise and operationalization, its use by the Swedish economists and by Fisher, and, as an inevitable result, in Fisher’s additional interpretations. The two caveats that Fisher offered in his post – first, that survey respondents might be lying about their racial views, and second, that the survey data are from different years, depending on the country – only scratch the surface of what is basically a crime against social science perpetrated in broad daylight. They certainly weren’t enough to stop Fisher from compiling and posting his map, even though its analytic base is so weak as to render its message fraudulent.

For one thing, the values for each country are indeed from different years, some in the past decade, others as old as 1990. As Fisher put it coyly, “we’re assuming the results are static, which might not be the case.” Indeed: by a rigorous methodological standard, this would be enough to throw out the cross-country comparison in the first place.

Second, a visit to some of the other tolerance questions in the A124 series reveals absurd results and design idiosyncrasies that should render the results of question A124_02, on race, suspect. The other questions ask respondents if they would accept a neighbor who had various other traits: homosexuality, a different religion, heavy drinking, emotional instability, a criminal record, and so on.

To take an example of the weakness of the data, it would appear that in Iran in 2000, only 0.9 percent of respondents “mentioned” an objection to having a homosexual neighbor, whereas in 2007, 92.4 percent mentioned it. In Pakistan in 2001, according to the survey, 100 percent of respondents “did not mention” objection to a homosexual neighbor. These are obviously particularly buggy examples, but these are the data points that the survey offers for analysts to work from; readers can visit the database to form their own opinion.

Moreover, the menu of traits available in the survey for respondents to tolerate or not tolerate varied by country. Thus, Iranians were asked about Zoroastrians; Puerto Ricans, about Spiritists; Tanzanians, about witchdoctors; Peruvians, inexplicably, about “Jews, Arabs, Asians, gypsies, etc.” (A124_33). In other words, the question about race was presented as part of a different menu of questions depending on the country, another red flag signaling a need for caution in isolating it and using it to produce grand findings. And further issues abound: as Fisher noted, self-reporting of prejudice is unreliable to begin with; as the scholar Steve Saideman pointed out, the “neighbor” question is not the best measure of tolerance; and so on.

But the biggest problem, of course, is that “race” is impossible to operationalize in a cross-national comparison. Whereas a homosexual, or an Evangelical Christian, or a heavy drinker, or a person with a criminal record, means more or less the same thing country to country, a person being of “another race” depends on constructs that vary widely, in both nature and level of perceived importance, country to country, and indeed, person to person. In other words, out of all of the many traits of difference for which the WVS surveyed respondents’ tolerance, the Swedish economists – and Fisher, in their wake – managed to select for comparison the single most useless one.

Fisher has an active social-media presence and his posts circulate quite broadly among international-affairs geeks and journalists in many countries; this one found the usual echo on the networks, plus a fair amount of skepticism. In India and Pakistan, Twitter readers were shocked by India’s ultra-high and Pakistan’s ultra-low racial intolerance ratings, both on their own merits and in comparison to each other. Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy, at India’s Firstpost, wrote a detailed objection. (Less productively, Philip Weiss at Mondoweiss objected that Fisher’s map excluded Israel, implying that this deliberately overlooked racism in Israel – a spurious accusation, since there are no data available for Israel for question A124_02 in the WVS in the first place.)

On Twitter, Fisher engaged with Saideman but brushed off other queries, tweeting archly: “Coincidentally, readers from red countries are much more likely to say they doubt the methodology behind this study.” When I raised many of the issues in this post, he offered no response or acknowledgment at all, except to block me on Twitter. (That’s why I’m not bothering to seek comment from him before running this piece.) He summarized a few of Saideman’s objections in a follow-up post, but much of this goes down the rabbit-hole of political-science arcana about ethnic conflict and, for some reason, the specific case of Somalia. A more intellectually honest move would have been to take down the map and explain to readers why the exercise was doomed from the start.

Instead, we are left with a shiny color-coded “fascinating map” on the Washington Post site that sends a strong message of Western, Anglo-Saxon moral superiority, assorted with a mystifying portrayal of the rest of the world, and accompanied by near-gibberish interpretations – all based on a methodological process that fails pretty much every standard of social-science design and data hygiene. In other words, pseudo-analysis that ends up, whether by design or by accident, playing into an ideological agenda.

But the problem here isn’t the “finding” that the Anglo-Saxon West is more tolerant. The problem is the pseudo-analysis. The specialty of foreign-affairs blogging is explaining to a supposedly uninformed public the complexities of the outside world. Because blogging isn’t reporting, nor is it subject to much editing (let alone peer review), posts like Fisher’s are particularly vulnerable to their author’s blind spots and risk endogenizing, instead of detecting and flushing out, the bullshit in their source material. What is presented as education is very likely to turn out, in reality, obfuscation.

This is an endemic problem across the massive middlebrow “Ideas” industry that has overwhelmed the Internet, taking over from more expensive activities like research and reporting. In that respect, Fisher’s work is a symptom, not a cause. But in his position as a much-read commentator at the Washington Post, claiming to decipher world events through authoritative-looking tools like maps and explainers (his vacuous Central African Republic explainer was a classic of non-information verging on false information, but that’s a discussion for another time), he contributes more than his weight to the making of the conventional wisdom. As such, it would be welcome and useful if he held himself to a high standard of analysis – or at least, social-science basics. Failing that, he’s just another charlatan peddling gee-whiz insights to a readership that’s not as dumb as he thinks.



  1. This is the best article title you’ve ever posted. It had me laughing out loud for joy – what sheer sagacity! Bravo and it is a whole lot of poo…

  2. Thanks for this. With everyone being an expert now, we see more and more of this sort of very damaging bullshit. Thanks for flushing some of it out.

  3. Thanks for a great piece! This is a part of a wider trend, I am affraid, people love to visualize their assumptions and support them with weak data. For example, within last few month the WEF Tourism Competitivenes Report stated that Slovakia is one of the 5 least tolerant countries to foreigners and another Ernst & Young report suggested that we have the third most corrupt managers in EU. But the winner was Slovenia – for an obvious reason, current economic downturn and massive anti-corruption protests. Data sources for both reports were 2 – 3 tousend experts from all around the world – meaning just thier oppinions. And our journalists publish it and never question the sources and accuracy…

  4. Well done…I read the article earlier in the week and, having traveled a wee bit, found the claims had a distinct aroma of racist presumption in their spin and tendentious content. Goebbeldigook is alive and thriving in the disinformation age of the PNAC totalitarian dictatorship of the Nato terror corporatariat.

  5. Great work, thanks Siddhartha. But one note — you write “South Africa came out light blue (highly tolerant), and Nigeria light red (highly intolerant).” The light colors mean “somewhat” tolerant/intolerant, no? Although on the map Nigeria & Egypt look like they’re the medium red — I can’t really guess which shade of blue that is for South Africa. The 6-9.9?

    1. Hi Lynx — yes, correct; Egypt and South Africa came out in the second-most-intolerant and second-most-tolerant group, respectively. Glad you liked the post!

  6. This is completely shocking!

    How can you report data from 1990 and the 2000s on the same scale!? Apartheid was still alive and kicking! Every scientist and pseudo-scientist feather in my cap is ruffled.

    This is just like when I emailed the WHO for releasing a leaflet about the prevalence of bleaching in the whole of Nigeria, that cited a single study of traders in Lagos. I can never believe it when people with power over information do things like this.

  7. Thank you very much, I couldn’t really digest the results the first time I saw them yesterday, and you just proved it to me that they are scientifically incorrect, so I had all the right to be sceptic about them.

  8. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is limited to Fisher or even just to bloggers. Most opinion polls of linguistically diverse countries like India or Indonesia are total crap. PEW, for instance, in its polls of India, admits that it doesn’t cover Kashmir, Assam, Kerala, or the entire Northeast (which just so happen to be the 11 states out of India’s 28 states with the highest population of religious minorities, percentage-wise). Not only that, they admit that their sample is disproportionately urban (India’s population is 70% rural). I poked around the World Values Survey site a bit to try to find how they took their India sample; couldn’t find anything, but I’m betting theirs is even less representative than PEW’s.

      1. Great piece. I was hoping you’d comment on the erroneous imposition of racialism as a worldview onto various ethnic groups. For me, the most egregious offense of Fisher (and Saideman for that matter) is this. They both conflate key terms like race and ethnicity as white (definitively non-ethnic) viewers to impose the structures they use to categorize the world in an unabashedly colonial manner. They advance a method of stratifying groups in a racial hierarchy – a wholly white event – as if to say India not only constitutes a naturally homogenous group, but their dislike of other categories is racially stratified with themselves the default center. Both of which are varying flavors of horseshit.

    1. Absolutely, RK. There are underlying sub-strata of bullshit in the whole enterprise of this sort of survey design. I wouldn’t want to throw out the whole approach, but it definitely needs to be handled with extra care, and even more care by analysts and commentators downstream.

  9. Good commentary. I’d be interested in a critique of Fisher’s CAR explainer too – not all of us are smarter than he thinks. ;-)

  10. I love everything about this piece, starting with the title, that was inspired! You did exactly what one does with a mount of bullshit, undermine it in critical areas and let it collapse on itself. “… Only scratch the surface of what is basically a crime against social science perpetrated in broad daylight”, and this is this lack of ethics that permeates every aspect of our society, from our places of learning to where they find application, leading to a state of being where the information is massive, yet its value is negligible.
    Calling people on their bullshit is now a necessity, and i am certain this piece will make Max Fisher or any one of his ilk just a bit more hesitant to spread their excrement so freely and so eagerly.

  11. As a secondary ed teacher (history) what jumps out to me is the weight infographics such as this have with students who are just beginning to learn about research. They are easier to digest than this entire post would have been, they are more memorable than the text in this post would have been, their visual polish lends them an air of credibility, and they make for a sexier powerpoint slide than any of the text in this post would have. I’ve been working to update my “how do you determine if a website is a good source” exercises – maybe next year I’ll have kids rate the original Fisher post, then have them read this and re-evaluate their initial ratings.

  12. I think Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss made the accusation about leaving Israel out because data is available on intolerance – particularly the question of who a respondent would not like to live next to or in a building with. These polls consistently show a majority of Jews in Israel against living in a building of an Arab. It’s perhaps spurious given the “data set” used by this horrendous FoPo blogger, but given the data available, it’s not spurious at all.

  13. Here’s an easier way: just look at laws that institutionalize discrimination. Malaysia has “bumiputera” and ID cards which say if you’re a Muslim. Christian/Muslim IDs in Egypt. Stop with the political correctness and be an umpire – call ’em like you see ’em.

  14. There is nothing left to say but “thank you “all. I struggled with the methodology, sources, data, findings and the lack of sensitivity displayed in the original text. I would love to see what Margaret’s students will say and what would be the lessons learned for them. Critical thinking is these days very much shadowed by the glossy visuals!

    1. We are probably living under the greatest barrage of concentrated disinformation and propaganda in history..the established corporate ‘players’ who control the planet’s resources fear accurate intelligence almost as much as they hate truth and ethical integrity. This is NOT just careless reporting. Here in Ireland history is subject to tendentious revisionism and is also being devalued as an academic subject. Read Orwell, and remember Goebbels and Stalinist ‘pravda’…and that was half a century of exponential technological growth ago. We remain the same species we always were..a clever anthropoid serving his genetic drive for dominance with nuclear sticks and stones and instantaneous global communications that threaten dynasties that predate the foundation of Rome. They will not go quietly.

  15. If Fisher can cheekily point out that :readers from red countries are much more likely to say they doubt the methodology behind this study.” may I politely point out that most people who uncritically accept the methodology are from the blue countries.

  16. surely its impossible to conduct any world wide study of anything that isn’t basic factual information such as “do you have at least 3 pints of water per day?”.
    In my GCSE (15-16 years old) psychology I was told that most studies of this type completely ignore ‘cultural differences’. The easy answer to this is that the study is claiming to measure these cultural differences, but how did they avoid the problems of interpretation of the question in different languages? Did they consider the bases on which certain cultures have grown – less individualistic, more collective societies – which may lead to answers the question in a negative seeming way, but for innocent reasons which it is hard to understand as a westerner.
    You have done a good job of showing how the problems with the data that was collected mean that the results are meaningless, and any analysis is worthless.
    The problem is that this particular analysis goes further by embellishing on such worthless results with a highly flawed and narrow minded analysis.

  17. This blog piece is incredibly insulting to the reader. Race is an incredibly abstract concept that differs across border. We all know that. To suggest that we don’t know, insults us.

    Of course this isn’t going to pass any scientific smell test. Of course this sort of thing is incredibly subjective. Racial attitudes are incredibly hard to measure. What’s interesting about it isn’t its high accuracy, it’s that it actually attempted to quantify something incredibly abstract. This sort of thing will never pass for science, It’s too sensitive and abstract a topic. It offends people on a visceral level.

    I’m not sure which one is worse; people that looked at it and thought “This is science” or people that thought “Gees this isn’t very accurate, I need to dispel this not science quantification of abstract and sensitive data, as not science.” The former is an unintelligent person, the latter might be intelligent but is condensing and arrogant enough to assume we are that stupid.

    My apologies if my reply comes off crass but I was offended that my interest in the original piece is somehow amateur or uneducated. I mean no disrespect to you and wish you well with your writing. Thanks.

    1. So if I understand your point well: although Max Fisher’s piece dresses as scientific, is based on pseudo science, using pseudo scientific methods, is offered as scientifically factual and will perhaps be used to inform policy or the layman’s view of the world because it has a veneer of science, we should know to instinctively, or intellectually doubt everything it purports to be and just know that is is inherently flawed, subjective and unscientific? I musta misunderstood you.

  18. Hi. This is a great critique and I’d like to quote parts of it for a newspaper article in Bangladesh. I may not take ‘no’ for an answer (we’re 2nd most intolerant, as you know). But seriously, who should I credit? Thanks.

  19. Thanks Sid for this…. Pathetic to see what passes off as scientific these days! Thanks for standing up….

  20. i think you should remove the map from your post. you underestimate the number of people who ll look at the picture and fail to read the post!

      1. the intelligence of the readership.
        The article (the one by Fisher) seems to be written solely for Americans. Any person living in India will tell you that to paint the entire country with any single colour, red or any other, is absurd. A country so enormous, in every sense of the word, cannot be generalised. Fisher is palatable only to an isolationist, lunatic and xenophobic enough to believe that the masses foreign to him are all the same and share traits.

        Atlantic is wider than the English Channel.

  21. I recently got into a tiff with a good friend (good natured; we’re grownups) about anecdotal evidence around “Chinese Food Syndrome” which started in the United States as a fairly racist assumption around “types of food that give people headaches” (specifically regarding the content of MSG). Because we get along well and adore each other, we wrestled it to the mat and decided that there isn’t enough evidence to prove that MSG is a culprit in any specific health issue, but dozens upon hundreds of people getting headaches after eating the substance (not just Chinese food) is more than anecdotal. She nailed it, and ended the “argument” portion for me, by saying that as a scientist, she is often the bearer of bad tidings that many people with a problem is not a syndrome, but since there are more than just our dozen examples, a problem does exist. After all, she said, science cannot prove, only disprove.
    Knocked me out of my chair. In much the same way as your rebuttal to another blog posting. Well done. Well thought out and well written. Thank you.

  22. You should send a letter to the editor at the Washington Post. It’s important that the media outlet that supports this kind of information is aware of its reporter’s inaccurate and flawed analysis.

  23. Swedish economists, eh? Scientifically, such studies must be done by sociologists or ethnologists.
    Did they run out of money during the survey? Some European countries are not even on the list, like Austria, Denmark including Greenland, Ireland and Portugal.
    What did the questionnaires look like? Were people questioned personally, or did they fill out the paperwork at home and throw the prepaid letter in the mailbox?
    This “survey” is more than doubtful, it is unscientific, manipulative and utterly useless.

  24. Siddhartha Mitter, this is one of the best, most intellectually intégre, takedowns of faux science that I’ve seen in a awhile. Thanks for that!

  25. What Denny said! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this–thank you so much for taking the time to research, reflect, and report on both the method and presentation of said findings. I hope this article moves beyond the circles that agree with the implications of presenting pseudo-science as fact to key players in development sector who are likely to use it as validation for policy — a terrifying scenario. So privileged western nonsense aside, something needs to be done about it. Thanks again for such a thorough article.

  26. Of course the Anglo white countries are the “best of creation”, the Germans were the master race just a few decades ago, and the Zionist Jews are the supreme chosen race in Palestine and the US (in everything that matters), the rest of the Anglo Saxon white race wants to get on board now. They are the kindest and most tolerant of all people. Don’t look at all the unspeakable that they cause around the world, just listen to what they say and the “scientific” polls and surveys that they themselves conduct.
    GO “tolerant” Anglos GO

  27. Well written article. I saw the original infographic and quickly realized it was a load of BS. Thank you for penning my thoughts down.

  28. It is certainly true that race is an extraordinary complex set of culturally specific constructions, but I don’t think it can be quite true that “a homosexual, or an Evangelical Christian, or a heavy drinker, or a person with a criminal record, means more or less the same thing country to country.” Even *within* western culture, the idea of “the homosexual” is historically specific and didn’t mean at all the same thing 200 years ago. I dare say the same is true of the other subject-positions Mitter dismisses as mere universals.

    Perhaps it’s worth saying that, as a homosexual, I’m also not quite sure how I feel about being lumped, once again, with religious zealots, heavy drinkers, and criminals, but I suppose (in this country anyway) that’s part of what being a homosexual means to most people.

    1. Thomas: I understand and appreciate your point. That’s why I said “more or less” — but of course, I appreciate that gender and sexual identity are much more fluid/complex than a survey label can ever capture. I’d venture that “race” and “racial difference” are _even_ more slippery, which is the core of why the WVS/Swedish economists/Fisher exercise is bullshit.

      As a side note, the Swedish paper (as reported in the Foreign Policy item I linked in my post) looked at connections between a country’s level of economic freedom and two different tolerance measures in the WVS: one, toward “people of another race,” which is what Fisher picked up for his item, and the other, toward, yes, “homosexuals.” So there’s a whole parallel bullshit-debunking exercise probably to be undertaken, but I’ll leave that one to someone else. Anyway, thanks for making your point, it’s an important one.

      – Siddhartha

  29. Just by glancing at this map, one can understand that it’s definitely not “fascinating” and wonders why it was published in the first place: There are no data for almost half the word’s countries! Take Greece for example, a country that’s currently on the news for the economic crisis, the rise of a nazi political party and a new legislation against racism. I would expect to see some data about it, as it’s “hot” right now, yet… it’s grey!

  30. Thanks for the post, Sid. This is the first time that I have seen Max Fisher’s infographics, but looking at you post I was struck with the question ” would you want this person as your neighbor?” If only it was that simple to base a persons racial tolerance on a simple question. An infographic has become a sexy way to present facts. It’s a tweet, but social science data is way more complex than one pdf image.

  31. ““Coincidentally, readers from red countries are much more likely to say they doubt the methodology behind this study.””

    Coincidentally, the author, who refuses to admit the flaws of his methodology, is more likely to be in a blue country.

  32. Hi Siddhartha Mitter, I’m curious and apologies for being nosy, but how long have you lived in India?

  33. Siddhartha, thanks for digging into this. The WP posted a correction about the Bangladesh data. Apparently somebody at WVS (doh!) switched the “yes” and “no” answers, so we’re actually only 28.3% intolerant. Who knows what other f-ups they made in this run-like-a-tight-ship study.

    1. hehehe… this is hilarious! this survey and the subsequent analyses are a perfect case of garbage-in-garbage-out.

  34. People for blue countries are very politically correct. they don;t admit their racial bias and hence “blue”. The most tolerant..freely admit they rather live among people of similar background but because of their openness their are usually more tolerant. This study perhaps must be used in reveres. Blue means red means blue.

    1. Your analysis is based even more on opinion and less on actual evidence than the article in question. Apparently I’m a massive exception, and therefore in the rare <1%, in the UK.

    2. Yeah, right. Try going to those Middle Eastern and Indonesian countries and see how “blue” they seem.

  35. Yeah, South Africa being blue should be a very red flag to anyone who knows that apartheid didn’t just up and vamoose in ’94. The attitudes and racism are still about.

    1. Yes but James the issue is also compounded by who you ask the question to. Black South Africans make up over 85% of the population. They probably couldn’t care less if a white, coloured or Indian person moved in next door. They’d just get on with their life. But heaven forbid that a black person move in next door to the 8% of whites. So even if every white person in the sample told the truth, if the sample was in any way representative they would throw up a low score for intolerance.

  36. Thanks for your discussion and clarification of the, as you say, methodological problems of this information. As a generic white man, it initially pleased me to see westerners portrayed as more socially forward and tolerant, but with your analysis, you have simply illustrated quite well how we all need to take data presented as fact with a large soupçon of salt.

    I’ll be more wary in the future. Good job!

  37. I would also like to add as a caveat that the author’s assertion, “whereas a homosexual, or an Evangelical Christian, or a heavy drinker, or a person with a criminal record, means more or less the same thing country to country” is in fact not the case at least with respect to sexuality. Queer Studies (as well as Women and Gender Studies) has certainly revealed that “Homosexuality” (however that may be defined) does not necessarily mean the same thing from country to country and is as much a socially constructed identity as race. One could also argue that the notion of what constitutes heavy drinking varies greatly from place to place given that social meanings attached to drinking vary widely from society to society.

  38. Humph, what a load of bumph! South Africa, for one, should be bright, bright red. As Mr Sullivan points out, the racism of apartheid is still widely spread, but, what he omitted to say, was that the present government has implemented racially biased laws as did the apartheid government. Even Zuma, the pathetic president of South Africa, has publically stated that minorities, read whites, have less rights than the majority solely based on the fact that they are in the minority. Max FIsher really needs to get a real job!

  39. I saw the chart recently and suspected inconsistencies, misrepresentations, intentional ommissions and data manipulation from the start. Thank you so much for this excellent analysis and rebuttal.

  40. I’d like to hear form Max Fisher on how far he thinks his map is an accurate reflection of his international experience or was it just a smart numbers exercise he came up with in order to have something new to say and now he feels he has to stick to it.

  41. Actually, Fisher does not claim to use any new methodology or survey. He only claims to have “compiled the original data and mapped it out on the infographic”. He is quiet frank in mentioning the caveats of the study. However, it is clearly unacceptable to Indians that they are painted as 2nd most racist countries. Article written by Siddartha Mittar is particularly schizophrenic as he demonizes Fisher for blogging by using the same medium of blogging, criticizes Fisher for being unscientific without any data to support his own claims. It’s amusing that we accept the words of quacks, fraudsters, and religious books/gurus as the word of God with zero evidence; but can’t stomach the scientific data that, even though imperfect, gives a reasonable window into these attitudes.

    Although it is possible, I doubt that Fisher hates India and loves Pakistan. Rather than shooting the messenger, we will do better by improving the tolerance and promoting the inherent equality of all people. However, knowing that old habits die hard, at least we can produce better scientific reasoning or data to argue against the article. Even attempting to study that in an open & honest fashion may bring positive change. Alas, any study by Indians in this field is likely to be cooked. And if miraculously it is not, it will be drowned by cacophony & name calling.

  42. Piyush : we are missing the point. Wrong data & wrong conclusions are worse than no data. What Max Fisher has concluded is absolutely unscientific by any measure. Just because it comes from a survey does not make it any credible. And just because Max mentions a caveat does not absolve him of the crime of misinterpretation. And the caveat he mentions is not even the full truth. So, i have no clue what makes you believe that Max is right in making sweeping conclusions. This has nothing to do with me being an Indian or Indonesian or anything…….

  43. I agree with this article about India. Racism is everywhere in India. Especially if you go towards semi-urban and rural India. The fact that India has highest amount of reservation is evident enough of inequality.
    The problem is not that there is a problem. The problem is that India does not accept that there is a problem.

    1. Gautham : There is a diference between race and caste. The fact of the matter is most Indians, especially those you mention – those rural areas – would not even know what is meant by race. I wonder how the survey questionnaire translated the word. If it is translated as “jaati” or some such term, i am fairly sure, most Indians would not interpret that word to mean “race”, but they would interpret it as caste or something like that. Also, frankly, most Indians, probably have never met anybody from a different race. So, it is impossible to say if they are likely to discriminate against people from a different race. There is no doubt that, in India there is huge discrimnation based on various factors – caste, religion, gender etc. But the point of the article is that, a meaningless question from a survey is being used to make some very strong conclusion and hence Siddartha’s point is very valid. Max Fisher has over simplified and misinterpreted.

      1. I agree. As Mister Mitter pointed out, the central thesis of this exercise is almost as ill conceived as the execution of it. It would be near impossible to formulate a cross-country, let alone global “survey of racism” in this fashion. S4S3, that’s a point well taken. Categories like ‘race’ are so deeply overlaid with other categories like region, religion, caste, gender, class, etc. in India, that it is impossible to meaningfully isolate any one of them and draw conclusions therefrom. For instance, different localities of Delhi would discriminate on the basis of different combinations of class, religion and region; each modulated and tempered to different degrees by the other.

  44. A technical note on how the survey was conducted in India (which even Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy seem to have missed in their Firstpost article):

    – the survey questionnaire was translated into ten regional languages before being administered.
    – the Hindi translation of the relevant question asks about whether the respondent would like a person of different “jaati” (“दूसरी जाति के लोग “) as a neighbor. For most Indians, “jaati” translates to caste rather than race (as understood in the Western world).

    So while the survey response doesn’t speak well of the state of casteism in India, it is fundamentally irrelevant to the issue of racism as interpreted by Fisher et al. As you say, race “is impossible to operationalize in a cross-national comparison” and the study of the Indian questionnaire illustrate this perfectly.

  45. It is surprising that the opinions of less than 1800 individuals from a total population of 1.2 Billion Indians could decide that India is the raciest country in the world.

    What about USA, where incidences of intolerance on Black skinned people still occur and against Indian women who wear Bindi on their forehead ? Continuous flow of insults to Indian Gods and Godesses by printing them on many products including sandals/footwears, etc. happens in the most advanced and tolerant society…..

    Funny, Pakistan where every Friday, churches are bombed, Shia Mosques are destroyed, shias are mass murdered, hindu population in 1947 from 24% has come down to less than 1% in 2000, indenture of labour (poor hindus) is still practised by chaining them in the night and supervised with guns in the day time….. is a less tolerant society…????? ha….ha….ha….

    India is still the most tolerant society in the world, considering the weak responses from hindu society despite violent and non-violent aggression going on at all levels especially in the conversion business…. Tolerance in India is a feature since time immemmorial that is why all the persecuted sects in human race during the last known 2000 years have taken refuge in India and made a fear free life, whereas USA / Australia / Canada and Europe have decimated almost all the aboriginals and their civilizations and still look down on the original natives……

    The west and europe can claim some civilized behavior towards other races only during the last century or so. Why the entire Phillipines population had to convert to christianity in the early 1900s when americans were happy and tolerant with their native religious practises ?????

    This kind of survey emanates from the filthy minds who want to tarnish India by whatever means they could put their hands on…….

    1. First, your assertion about the “entire Philippines population (converting) to Christianity in the early 1900’s” is nonsense — most of the population had converted to Catholicism under Spanish, not American, colonial rule hundreds of years earlier. The only exceptions were small groups of indigenous persons and Muslims in the Sulu Archipelago and Mindanao. The Catholic Church retains enormous power in the Philippines (to its detriment, I think, but that’s a story for another day) and this cannot be laid at the feet of the US. Second, the argument that India is the “most tolerant society in the world” is also problematic — while it is true that numerous faiths/ethnicities/nationalities do co-exist peacefully for the most part, there are significant problems with Hindu-Muslim conflict, gender-related oppression, attacks on Christians in places like Orissa, and so on. This is not actually a knock on India — any country that diverse is bound to have its communal problems, and there are other countries with far worse issues — but invoking an ahistorical and essentialized “tolerant India” obscures those conflicts that do exist.

  46. It would be interesting to move from this, perhaps necessary, denunciation of shoddy methodology to something like a discussion about prejudice broadly. So brownie points for whataboutery on race, ethnicity, caste, religion and homosexuality as socially-constructed/ inaccurate descriptions of stratification and categorization, with a large slice of nationalistic pride, but I think the survey attempts something useful.

    What would a survey more competently prosecuted show, and wouldn’t that be useful?

    Fischer and someone points out in the comments, usefully, that the results of such a survey may just reflect political correctness. So this, if well done, may be more a map of what countries have embraced the idea that expressing social intolerance is offensive, than a cartography of bullshit.

    I think the knowledge that prejudice is morally wrong, rather than natural, ordained by god, legally and morally acceptable or even promoted, is a very useful first step.

  47. The article you linked to from FirstPost makes my point wonderfully. It suggests that we ought to regret the dilution of ethnically pure neighbourhoods. So much work to do.

  48. “This is an endemic problem across the massive middlebrow “Ideas” industry that has overwhelmed the Internet, taking over from more expensive activities like research and reporting.” –Oh the irony of making this argument in this forum.

    Basically this piece translates to “Oh no, someone produced a dodgy map that makes English speaking, Western countries look comparatively good on a very narrow issue! People should pay no attention to any commentary that doesn’t come from the correct (academic) sources with the correct (progressive, post-colonial) implications.”

  49. He’s at it again:

    I don’t think these studies or graphics are entirely useless but the way they are reported on and presented tends to undercut their potential significance. Why bother take a simplistic yes/no question without much context, further simplify it by turning it into a map, and then more or less limit your story to listing the numbers?

    The caveats in the beginning, and promise of future insights from an Anthropologist don’t really add anything to the initial piece. It might be wise for the writer to wait until after he has heard from the expert he mentions. Or would it be so hard for example, to get an LGBT-rights campaigner or researcher from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or any other of the many INGOs/NGOs/Quangos etc. that actually study this issue to comment on the findings?

    I think you correctly identify the economic trends behind the rise in this sort of quasi-journalism. Unfortunately, it also seems to be driven by what the public wants- quick, shallow and fundamentally non-critical engagement with an issue, made more digestible by lots of pictures, graphics and easy numbers. The popularity of such sites as Buzzfeed and Huff Po makes this clear.

  50. Looking at the last olypics as athletes from around the world marched in, this map would appear closer to reality than the ever popular and little analyzed assumptions of the “liberal” media. Western countries had teams made up of many races and included as many women as men. Africa, asia, the middle East – mono-color, mono-culture, and especially for the islamic world, women were covered, and more conspicuously few to none were present. Blather on about the innacuracies in this map, but the actual truth is that we are always willing to criticise ourselves, even if it is sometimes slow in coming. Many parts of the world never get around to it, and our media goofballs get all exited about seeing a small number of covered up women representing islamic countries as ” progress” giving a free pass to these backwards, 500+ year behind “cultures” Yes, we in the US have some terrible track records on race and tolerance in the past, but you seldom hear discussions about slavery going on NOW in Africa, india, and elsewhere. Backwards parts of the world can not keep blaming the Europeans, and somehow the US gets the brunt of criticism for things like slavery that were not invented here- and were oulawed here long ago. We have our own ongoing issues, but the reality is we bend over backwards to make tolerance and diversity the norm here, perhaps to a fault.

    1. oh wow – calling those cultures 500+ years behind – if that is not the words of someone with a superiority complex I don’t know what is. And I am really insulted that you have used quotation marks on the word “cultures” as if to imply they have no culture at all.

      I am an Australian and I think allot of Australians are racist to some degree. I have spent time in India over the past 5 years and I also think that allot of Indians are racist to some degree. In the Indian example, the racism I have seen is more in bias toward Westerners, which is very strange for me. When there, everyone offers me the seat if it is the only one, and they don’t want me to carry my own bags. This may be reverse racism or it may be a culture of hospitality, or it may be an issue of gender (which I think is likely, as there are strong gender stereotypes in which a man will be expected to help carry things for women). This is one example how racism may not be as simple as people think.

      I think the map, as with anything that generalises by country, is ignoring significant differences within each nation (that is even without questioning the validity of the actual data).

      Also, you are lumping Africa, Asia and the Middle East together in your statements! wow. They are all so alike. (note the irony).

      If you want to see some positive things going on in the Arabic speaking world, check out the outpost magazine at You wouldn’t have a clue what feminism looks like in the Arabic world, what LGTB activism looks like in India, what reconciliation looks like in Australia. I advise you find out before calling some cultures backward.

      Also I’d be interested to know what you mean about discussion of slavery in Africa and India? I can’t speak for America, but I’d suspect they still have sex slaves and trafficked women just as we do here in Australia. And I would suspect that you yourself have bought products that are made in slave driven factories. Your money is creating an international demand for slave labour. How do you feel about that?

  51. Interesting rant. Can I ask what the ‘sniff test’ is? Is it if you don’t like the results, it doesn’t pass?

  52. It is not an accident that maps are the vehicle for this particular b*llsh%t. I had a similar experience recently that might provide some context.

    The Washington Post website, like the Atlantic, Salon and other US web heavyweights are in the business of attracting clicks: instant attention to an easily understood “interesting factoid”. The most magnetic of these are those that are salacious (Miley Cyrus), or gruesome (the war in Syria, perhaps), or some factoid that gives dramatic confirmation or contradiction of “conventional wisdom”. If scandalous or horrifying photographs are the best tool for the first of these, maps — or the newly invented “Infographics” — are the best tools for instantly communicating some “believe it or not” headline. Mapped data is invariably numerical data graphed to an image of the planet, subdivided by nation states. The subdivisions used will themselves reinforce certain assumptions; unchallenged nonsense that says the important divisions between people are state borders, not classes, communities, etc., and that people on one side should all be pretty much the same and pretty much different from everyone on the other side of that artificial line. Most anything unexpected can be placed here and will elicit an “I assumed this all along” reaction from the reader. People in Canada have more Dogs than we do? That makes sense because it’s cold. Or they want to be more like the Inuit. Or Canadians like strict hierarchies. Or some other b*llsh%t.

    You mention this observation over coffee the next day at work and you sound erudite, you silently classify the writer as someone who helps the world make sense, and the Washington Post has a reliable producer of advertising views.

    That’s why these sort of articles a written. But what’s the source of the particular subjects which end up in the “interesting factoid” bin? Who’s discovering these “data points” harvested by the popular columnist? This is where — to me — this gets interesting.

    I looked closely at another of these “surprising map” articles a couple of months ago “Mapped: What every protest in the last 34 years looks like.” in Foreign Policy magazine, which was then picked up by dozens of websites. It worked really well, because it confirmed Western fears of a world of increasing danger, and it also was big among the US left, because it confirmed their hope of a world of increasing resistance. Except it was fatally flawed nonsense.

    The source of the data was the more interesting bit: it came from a grad student working for professors who put together the Texas based “Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT)”, a database of “events” everywhere in the world since 1979, culled from newswires and then classified with “codified emotional and thematic indicators”. So an event might be tagged as involving “a Muslim student dissident” as “XXXOPPMOSEDU” who
    “Engaged in material cooperation, not specified below” as code “060” with “the O’odua Peoples Congress (a Yoruba rebel group)” as “NGAYRBREB” at a particular geocode in Nigeria at a particular time.

    So why would people want to keep that information? Well it turns out that GDELT is an open source alternative to the pre-existing classified database from the US Department of Defense called the “ICEWS”. The US DOD Worldwide Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (W-ICEWS), designed originally by DARPA, and more recently expanded by Lockheed Martin Corporation.

    The three academics behind the GDELT are not DoD staffers, but are producing much the same thing for a similar audience, writing extensively on “disorder” and “terrorism.” One developed “a groundbreaking virtual reality rapid prototyping and design environment that was used by the University of Illinois Department of Architecture continuously for two and a half years, by the United States Army”, while another has been funded by “the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the U.S. government’s multi-agency Political Instability Task Force.”

    The more you look, the more you see there is a huge industry, funded by or servicing the US government military and “Homeland Security”, the financial resources of which dwarf most university Political Science departments.

    So b*llsh%t maps are propelled by something deeper: there is a surge in funding for “data” used to explain the world, specifically to explain the world to the United States military and intelligence agencies. More and more academics are party to this, and so that data is used in public research, not just secretly in the Pentagon, where post-9/11 assessments of intelligence failures and huge pressure to shift to private subcontracting have moved more of the work offsite. That public research is dashed across the internet in pres releases, mined for linkbait on “news sources”, that are now just websites with lots of pictures. To grab your eyeballs, what works better than maps? As a species of infographic, it is much more arresting than a column of numbers can ever be.

    Prepare yourself, then, for more b*llsh%t.

    1. (PS I mean this as a real question, not trying to be snide–I just imagine most of his readership, “dumb” or not, eats this shit up.)

  53. As someone who grew up in South Asia, it makes sense although I am not in a position to determine the questions and how they were posed. Hindus are basically racist as they think they have a superior religion. Muslims feel that they have a superior God and are racist – although they may have all confused race with religion. Muslims have got rid of all other religions from their country. Hindus tolerate Muslims at best. I am not a Christian but if Christian countries were not tolerant, they would not allow other races to come join them in USA, UK, Canada and other places. Racist races like Japanese and Israelis dont allow other religions in their country with a smile – only with a grimace.

    In the end, it is the Christian values that have civilized the world at the end…..

    1. “Hindus tolerate Muslims at best.”
      India in 1947?
      A separate country had to be created because after British rule ended, Hindus were not expected to be tolerant.

  54. While I may not be as astute as some one the learnered commentators or the author but for me the obvious flaw is simple.

    it’s not how you say you will respond to someone unlike you moving in next door, its about how you engage those people when they are next door and when you encounter them in your life as well as how you talk about them.

    Racist? Guilty as charged, its comfortable for me to label people with negative stereotypes. But them I’m not a shining example of humanity by any stretch of the imagination.

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