The Cartography of Bullshit
Siddhartha Mitter | May 18th, 2013


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.

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Siddhartha Mitter

93 thoughts on “The Cartography of Bullshit

  1. 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.

    • 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?

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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…..

    • “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.

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