Don’t worry, sample bias will tell you

There’s a moderately funny joke that circulates in various iterations, depending on the context.

How do you know someone’s vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

The reason it’s funny is the same reason it stays funny when you sub-out “vegan” with “paleo”, “intersectionalist” and “into cross-fit”: there are obvious populations of very noisy and intrusive people who’ve adopted these terms as identity labels that they then bang on about ad nauseum at the expense of other people’s personal boundaries.

What could stay funny though, every now and then in conversation, takes a turn down a road where wanting there to be a more serious point to the joke, people find themselves winding up in silly-town.

I’m not going to get into the issue of that passive-aggressive damned-if-you-do type game where a person will pretend not to know they’re in the company of members of the group in question while uttering the joke – all before lying in wait to pounce with a “that proves it!” when someone in said group outs themselves by responding*. Sure, that’s dirty pool, and it’s probably interesting to consider why these passive-aggressives think they’re being clever, but it’s not what this post is about.

This isn’t a “not all vegans et. al.” diversion either. Some people have serious grievances with behaviour coming out of these groups. I don’t want to negate or derail those discussions, at least in as far as they’re serious. This isn’t about that.

What I am on about, and what strikes me as odd, is when some people – scientifically literate people – utter this joke and then go on to treat it as roughly emblematic of serious social science as if the sample bias wasn’t glaringly obvious.

”Aha! But why is it that when I notice a vegan et. al., they’re always being noisy?!?”

Because you don’t notice the quiet ones as easily. Because they’re quiet. Your measurements are being thrown off. All the pieces of your answer are in the joke. Pay attention.

Why would a person with a particular interest in drawing attention to sample bias – especially sample bias in social science – fail to notice this? And why would anyone feel they need this to be more than a joke, even if they were motivated by defensiveness?

It’s not as if criticism leveled at these groups depends on the joke. If you can’t find decent quantitative research on vegans et. al. behaving badly, there’s plenty of material waiting around for qualitative analysis just on Facebook alone. And if you can get decent quantitative research, the joke’s made less than redundant.

Nothing’s hanging on the joke’s literal truth, so why so serious?

There’s another transgression in all of this, and I’ve possibly given an example of it here myself: killing a perfectly serviceable joke by taking it too seriously.

The take-home, I think, is that ideally “chill out, it’s just a joke” should apply equally to the people telling it, too. That and perhaps a few folks need to stop pretending they haven’t left their science hat at home.

~ Bruce

* I’m inclined to append a disclaimer to this post, but…

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