A recent Yahoo News article asks the creative question of whether your name can predict your politics . It turns out, it can. On some level this isn’t terribly surprising – names vary based on gender, ethnicity, and region of the country, all of which predict electoral choices. On a different level, it is sort of cool that you can predict who a person is going to vote for based on the name. Regardless, I’d like to offer a word of praise, and a word of complaint about this article.
First, the praise – the author makes the source code for the analysis freely available. This is a wonderful move, as it allows others to delve into the methodology and determine whether there are errors, false assumptions etc. I think this should be standard for data mining analysis. So many numbers and stats are thrown about and we have no idea how they were arrived at. It’s nice to see somebody be so upfront about exactly what was done.
Now the complaint. “if you want to raise a Democratic son, name him Willie. Democrats expecting a daughter should go with Gwendolyn, the most pro-Obama girl’s name on the list.” This is a classic correlation vs. causation error. Willie’s are more likely to be Democrats but that doesn’t mean that being a Willie causes you to vote Democrat. It may be that people who lean republican prefer to go by Bill or Billy or Mac or Buddy. So, it’s not that being a Willie makes you a democrat, but rather that being a democrat makes you a Willie. Or maybe there’s a third variable that causes people to both be democrats and be Willies. Maybe it has to do with regional/demographic differences in names and political attitudes, for example.
The point is, that you can’t draw causal inferences from correlational data. Being a Willie doesn’t chain you to the democratic ticket, even though many people who share your name vote democrat, you are still a free Willie.
The data from this article are useful in helping candidates identify likely voters or campaign contributors, but it’s not necessarily useful for interventions by parents to try and influence the politics of their kids.