Jul 072004

Conversation is not an exchange of opinion. It is a sifting of opinion.
–Jacques Barzun

Welcome to the wonderful world of Teachout’s Cultural Concurrence Index! It’s a new game, everyone can play, and nearly everyone has. At least a dozen bloggers have offered their answers, in part or in full, to Terry’s list of 100 binary, mostly arts-related questions. This adds up to nearly 12,000 opinions, all told — a plethora of opinions, a cornucopia of opinions, more than a division’s worth of opinions, each as distinctive as a soldier in uniform. Terry himself makes modest claims for his Index:

So what does the TCCI do, accurately or otherwise? It measures the extent to which your taste resembles mine — but thats all. What’s more, you probably noticed in taking the test that my taste cant be “explained” by any one principle or theory. Had I scrambled the order of the alternatives and asked you to guess my answers based on your prior knowledge of my work, I doubt many of you would have scored much higher than, oh, 70%, unless you also knew me personally and very well indeed. Yes, Im a classicist, but I also prefer Schubert to Mozart, which tells you…what?

By that standard it is a resounding success, despite a few minor difficulties with selection bias. (In a recent bulletin from the Institute of Tautological Studies, 99.87% of bloggers who answer online blog quizzes report that they’d rather read blogs than magazines.) And I defer to no one in my admiration for Terry’s catholic taste, animated by no one principle or theory. Yet Terry has stumbled over a potentially useful tool. Let’s suppose what I increasingly doubt, that we actually want to learn something. How might we proceed?

The overall scores tell us little beyond, as Terry says, how far you agree with Terry. They range from 40% to 70% agreement, which scarcely differs from chance, once we account for the fact that the test-takers read Terry in the first place and can be expected to share his tastes at a higher than random rate. But what if we cross-correlated the questions? Suppose we could persuade 1,000 bloggers to take the test, which ought not to be too difficult; they seem to have little else to do. A hundred questions yield 4,950 possible cross-correlations (99 correlations for each answer, divided by 2, since they are symmetric). Now we calculate the agreement between the answers to each pair of questions, looking for the outliers, as far from 0.5 as possible. With close to 1,000 data points for each answer pair — some respondents will opt out of some questions — we put ourselves in a position to draw a few conclusions. Some answer pairs will likely match up quite closely; I would expect a few correlations of 0.9 or higher.

Then we take these outlying pairs and run them back against the data set a few times more, looking for clusters. Interdisciplinary clusters will be best of all; if we find, for example, that nearly everyone who prefers Astaire to Kelly also prefers Matisse to Picasso and Keaton to Chaplin, then we might be on to something. We examine the clusters, looking for commonalities. Looking for rules, in other words. Although Terry’s taste, or the taste of any educated person, cannot be explained by one principle or theory — this is a reasonable working definition of “cultivated” — I would wager that it can be explained pretty well by several.

Unfortunately this is work. I don’t do work around here; I just assign it.

  16 Responses to “Cross-Correlating the Cultural Concurrence Index”

  1. This is a common marketing tactic nowadays. I think Amazon.com uses it, along with more obvious monitoring of ratings and purchases.

    My problem with the TCCI was that I kept coming up with third choices. ("North by Northwest or Vertigo?" Rear Window, thanks.) Sometimes, as with "Stravinsky or Schoenberg?", I simply couldn’t decide — I love ’em both.

  2. BTW, how’d you get 4,950? Responses from 1,000 bloggers, with 99 possibilities for each response, should equal 99,000, right? Then divide by two: 49,500 cross-correlations. But I’m no statistician.

  3. I was counting up the possible question pairs; the number of responses is irrelevant. A hundred questions can be paired 4,950 distinct ways. The general formula for n choose m (100 choose 2, say) is n!/(n – m)! Then you divide the result by m! if you are ignoring permutations, as in this case.

  4. This is probably a great test for finding a mate. As you taught me Aaron, correspondence in taste in the arts is important in a relationship.

  5. I was astonished at how high my agrees-with-Teachout factor turns out to be. But the fact that we both like sushi, crunchy peanut butter, Italian over French cooking, and the color blue over the color green, (though he is, of course, dead wrong about cats and anchovies) are of a RADICALLY DIFFERENT ORDER than the fact that we both prefer Verdi to Wagner, Lincoln to Churchill, Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, Gatsby to The Sun Also Rises, and, I would even argue, Astaire to Kelly and Keaton to Chaplin… Totally different level of "agreement" altogether–and a more significant one. (Of course, he is blind to the virtues of Spiderman, and choosing between Tchaikovsky and Chopin is like choosing to have your right or left leg amputated, and between Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee like choosing to be tortured on the rack versus on the Iron Maiden. And, by the way, Casablanca is maybe the best screenplay ever improvised in all of history.) Don’t we do a disservice to objective analysis itself by classifying peanut butter with opera?

  6. Got it now. Thanx for explaining.

  7. Jim and Aaron,

    How much do you seem to agree with Teachout? I have not yet finished calculating my score, but I noticed that I have muttered "heresy" numerous times.

  8. Bill:

    I did not realize that this could be a matter of ‘heresy’ one way or another. I think Teachout is a good writer and very insightful, and I find him very much worth reading. I certainly did not expect, however, to discover how close so many of our tastes are. I also think that some of these tastes are peculiar to a very personal context of history, and even genes, while other issues are universally objective (or the oppositie) in their application. So, I think I’m disagreeing with the nature of the list itself…

  9. Jim:

    Here are the results: I agree with Teachout 62.5% of the time. Four questions are unanswered on my form, one to my great embarrassment. I had no idea that pastels differ from watercolors.

    I have narrowed down my heretical list to three: 34, 56 and 63.

    Turner was the greatest artist since the Italian, Bugs the greatest cartoon character of all time, and Noguchi light-years ahead of Eames.

    I also realize that at least one of my preferences is a heresy: Churchill will always stand taller in my personal view of the world than Lincoln, although I concede Lincoln’s greatness.

  10. Now, Churchill vs. Lincoln is an interesting question, and not of the same order as crunchy vs. smooth peanut butter, right?

    I, too, concede the greatness of Churchill, but Lincoln rocks: not the grandson of a Duke, but the child of illiterates on the frontier, Lincoln was self-educated and self-made. Lincoln used the ideas of the Declaration to turn the Civil War into the climax of the American Revolution. Lincoln, at his best, wrote speeches of principle and deep meaning. Churchill, at his best, wrote speeches of inspiration and courage.

    Oh, and Lincoln had nothing to do with senseless slaughters in World War I. (Slaughters like Gettysberg were just as brutal, but far more understandable, in context.)

  11. But Jim, you fail to see the Objectivist beauty of Churchill. He stood alone for a very, very long time in despising everything about Nazism. When others were unmoved or inattentive, he knew the meaning of it all and would have none of it. Lincoln tried in vain to compromise with evil and, when all else failed, became a great man by following a path so many others had already mapped out. That Churchill was NOT self-educated and self-made says even more about his character. While many in the aristocratic classes supported Hitler, Churchill did not.

  12. That really was Churchill’s greatness, wasn’t it? To stand so alone for so long against Hitler in the face of the total limp-dickism that is European foreign policy. And this is hard to compare to anything else in light of the horrors of Nazism. Then, again, American slavery was horrific, too, and it is hard to compare to anything else… See, I told you that this subject would be more interesting than differences over peanut butter!

  13. Yes Jim. it is more interesting than crunchy or smooth, but I wonder if Aaron would think it more interesting than Noguchi or Eames.

  14. I don’t know if it’s just me and my idiosyncrasies but I often found myself either unable to choose between the two because I rather enjoy both, or because I don’t care about, or dislike both–equally. Whatever the difference in the intensity of adoration or contempt, or the lukewarmness, it’s beyond my mental gauge’s precision.

    I’ll certainly pick Dickinson over Whitman and Larkin over Platt anytime, but what do I care about Matisse vs. Picasso? The former irritates me slightly less, I guess. Likewise, if you adore both Constable and Turner (and Gainsborough, and Reynolds), #34 is agonizing.

    By the way, why is "Iliad or Odyssey" missing from the list?

  15. The machine at last has a g-d. I am he.

  16. As mentioned above, this is similar to Amazon’s collaborative filtering.

    It is also similar to the multidimensional scaling algorithm at the heart of the "spatial theory of voting". Suppose you have 438 representatives and N votes. Each representative’s ideology can be represented by an N dimensional boolean vector.

    Grouping those vectors in a coherent, systematic way that’s visible to humans is basically the same problem (mathematically) as the one Aaron poses. It’s a special case of the general clustering problem where the elements are N vectors with arbitrary real values rather than booleans (which crops up in microarrays, web searching, voice recognition, etc.)

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