Predicting the future of marriage equality

Monday 13 April 2009

Nate Silver, who did a stellar job tracking the 2008 presidential election, has built a model for predicting when each state would vote against banning gay marriage. His model results in a list predicting the year each state could tip to the marriage equality side of the scoreboard. Kentucky, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi would be the last hold-outs, taking until the 2020's.

The model is a simple one, so there are huge possibilities for reality to go differently, but it's making good predictions already, accurately guessing how California voted on Prop 8. The comments on the post are the usual debate about marriage equality, mixed in with some reports from the field ("Idaho will never vote against a ban," vs "Idaho is closer than you think," and "You've overlooked the Mormon influence in Utah," etc).

BTW, The Map Scroll mapped the data for those who want a visual reminder of where the Deep South is...

I've long thought that acceptance of marriage equality was only a matter of time, it's interesting to see Nate put some quantitative analysis behind it. In the past, I've causually tossed off 50 years as a possibility, but Nate is giving us hope that it may only take 20.


Anon 11:44 AM on 13 Apr 2009 morals decline, marriage "equality" will be enacted more and more.

Ned Batchelder 2:15 PM on 13 Apr 2009

How quaint: the old "homosexuality == immorality" canard. And from an anonymous poster no less! Haven't we progressed at all?

Nate Eagleson 4:59 PM on 13 Apr 2009

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are sometimes described as the Big Three religions in the Western world. (Islam hasn't had as much impact as the other two on European and American culture, but there are still places where you can see its influence.)

The books that define these three religions define homosexuality as immoral.

It's not internally consistent to self-identify as Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, and to also claim that homosexuality is not sinful. So, for most self-identified Muslims, Christians, and Jews, your question "Haven't we progressed at all?" can only be interpreted to mean, "Haven't you realized your religion is wrong?"

And of course, their religion might be wrong.

Still, many members of American society hold to those belief systems. Since laws are society's attempt to delineate which behaviors will be punished, which will be rewarded, and which will be ignored (behaviors for which there is no legislation are ignored, for certain values of the word), those Americans still have the right and responsibility to influence their society's laws in ways they think morally right.

The blanket assertion "You're not enlightened", which is roughly how I understand your statement (and if I've misunderstood it, please clarify), doesn't make any difference to anyone whose core beliefs result in the conclusion that homosexuality is immoral. They will not be converted by assertions that they "haven't progressed" - you'll need to convince them that their view of the universe is fundamentally wrong, and if you succeed, they'll stop believing that homosexuality is immoral, as a side effect.

[irrelevant nitpick - a more accurate model of the usual mindset for a member of these religions would be "homosexuality ⊂ immorality"]

All that aside, the analysis you posted is interesting. It'll be interesting to see whether it plays out remotely as Nate's model suggests. My gut hunch is that it won't, mainly due to my skepticism of accurately modeling systems as chaotic as American culture.

My skepticism surfaced with his statement that "It turns out that you can build a very effective model by including just three variables...".

Wouldn't a model's effectiveness be determined by its ability to predict future events accurately, not to describe past events? If so, he can't correctly call his model effective until several years from now, when we've seen whether its predictions are at all accurate.

Disclaimer: I've only had an introductory stats class, so perhaps I'm just not aware of a field-specific definition, here.

Doug Napoleone 6:07 PM on 13 Apr 2009


You yourself mention that just because a person is part of one of the 'big 3' religions does not mean that that person feels that homosexuality is immoral. The New England area is deeply Protestant and Roman Catholic yet many churches in the area are now opening their arms to same sex couples.

I do not believe that Ned means 'Haven't you realized your religion is wrong.' so much as 'Haven't you realized your religion teaches tolerance and acceptance?' By and large that is what I am seeing here.

I believe it is also important to point out that the many religious figures were using excerpts from the bible to support their belief that blacks were an inferior race and were not part of the 'people chosen by God'. Rhetoric parroted by the core faction of the Whig Party at the time. It is fare to say that at that time support for abolition or just being black was equated to immorality. I believe we have come a long way since then.

Karen 7:31 PM on 13 Apr 2009

We have come a long way, but look how long it took us to get there: . It could be the same, or longer, for same-sex marriage. It was nice of the Obamas to invite their gay-couple friends to the White House for Easter. It would be courageous of President Obama to overturn this particular discriminatory law at the federal level once and for all.

Ned Batchelder 8:09 PM on 13 Apr 2009

@Nate, the books that define the big 3 religions also forbid the eating of pork (even the Christian one, read your Old Testament), but we don't forbid eating pork in our laws. Religion has an important place in this world, but enshrining religious beliefs in civil law is not right.

And many people conveniently choose to overlook the very clear prohibition against pork in the Bible in any case. Of course, this is a silly example, but it undercuts the proposition that we should do everything the Bible says. There are many many passages in the Bible that no one would consider taking seriously. What we choose to believe from the Bible says much more about us than it does about religion or God.

Many things considered immoral are not outlawed, such as adultery. Why is same-sex marriage considered so abhorrent that constitutions need to be amended to prevent it? It's simple: people reject what they don't understand. Doug is right: religion also preaches tolerance, but that too is only applied as desired.

Nate Eagleson 9:56 PM on 13 Apr 2009

In almost every religion, there are people that do not agree with the religion's stated beliefs on some point. Often, these people form another religion, but sometimes they simply create an internal sect, or just disagree with the other members and leaders of their local congregation.

In 'the Big Three' religions, this has happened a lot recently concerning homosexuality (well, at least inChristianity and Judaism. I'm not sure if there are any people that call themselves Muslim and approve of homosexuality, but I imagine there must be some).

In fact, portions of the Anglican Church in Africa are threatening to leave the Anglican Church over this very issue, because they feel the Anglican denomination no longer takes the Bible as the final authority on this (and other) issues.

In all three of these religions, as far as I'm aware, the argument that practitioners shouldn't consider homosexuality sinful boils down to either 1) the sacred text is wrong here, or 2) the vast majority of expert interpreters of our text are dead wrong about the translation and/or exegesis.

There are still millions upon millions (perhaps even billions?) of people who assert that homosexuality is sinful, not as an arbitrary opinion, but because their devotion to the texts that define their faith requires that they consider homosexuality sinful.

Some actual references supporting the above point are in order, I think:

Here's a Wikipedia article that points to the relevant passages in the Qu'ran:

The Jewish moral law is defined in the Pentateuch: again, the Wiki has an article that covers what you need to know:

The Wiki comes through yet again with the relevant passages from the Bible hyperlinked very early in the article on the Christian perspective:

I'm not saying that there are no Jewish people who believe homosexuality is okay, nor that there are no such Christians, or even no such Muslims.

I am saying that there are millions and millions of American citizens belonging to those religions who do believe it is a sin, as a consequence of their belief in the primary textual source of their religion as the definitive guide on moral behaviors. As such, those individuals are trying to ensure that the laws implementing the moral and practical guidelines of their society reflect their views.

That, as far as I'm aware, is the way a republic or democracy is supposed to work. The theory is that as citizens argue, debate, and fight for their own positions, morally right laws will eventually win (it's akin to the bazaar-style of development that's so espoused in open-source development circles, actually).

To convince these people (the ones who take their founding texts as the authoritative source of moral behavior) that homosexuality is not a sin, you do have to convince them that their religion is wrong.

People should act according to their moral code.

If you think they should act differently, you need to convince them to change their moral code, not their behaviors.

That's all I was trying to say, and I hope it's more clear now.

@Doug - The example of people using excerpts of the Bible to support the view that black people were inferior isn't relevant, I think - it's trivially easy to twist out-of-context quotes from any work and make it appear to support a position it does not. I've personally found some material in Richard Dawkins' books that, if cut carefully, could allow you to represent him as a creationist, even though they're actually from passages where he's establishing a framework to argue against a creator.

These religious texts, though, aren't like that with regard to homosexuality - they do not explicitly or implicitly approve of it anywhere, so far as I can tell, and there are several explicit condemnations of it in each of the texts I mentioned.

@Ned - There are a number of regulations in the Old Testament that are explicitly lifted in the New Testament. The dietary restrictions, including the ones about eating unclean animals, are some of these. There are a number of passages in the New Testament that discuss why this is, going into the philosophy, theology, and practical reasons behind it - to really understand it, you'd probably have to read the Gospel of John, most of Acts, and a couple of Paul's epistles, after having read a good chunk of the Pentateuch. The passage that's generally pointed to on this subject, though, is Acts 10 - 11, the most relevant parts being the first half of chapter 10 and the first half of chapter 11. (

If you don't feel like reading massive swaths of the Bible, I think the summary most Christians would give sounds something like:

"The dietary laws were given to the Jewish people under Moses, as part of the full, formalized Law, and as such, they were specifically designed for the time and place in which the Jews lived. Although the written law should generally be taken as moral prescriptions and conscriptions, when later passages lift specific portions of the law, those elements are no longer a part of the moral law as a Christian is meant to practice it. Since the laws governing cleanliness and uncleanliness are explicitly repealed in the New Testament, and the dietary regulations are in that category, Christians are not bound to follow them."

The laws against homosexuality, a Christian would say, still stand. They are not explicitly or implicitly repealed in the New Testament, and in fact, at several places in the NT, are reaffirmed. See the Wikipedia article I linked for the references.

Personal stance time, just to be clear:

As I imagine most of you would guess, I am a Christian myself, and a conservative one who believes the Bible, and hence, believes that homosexual marriages aren't. I also believe that practicing homosexuality is not any worse or better than anything else the Bible classes as sin. It may have different consequences, but to a Christian, any sin, be it pride, selfishness, adultery, homosexuality, or gossip, is a failure to be like Christ.

I also believe firmly that there should be no law whatsoever regarding marriage in this land. I am opposed to laws allowing heterosexual couples to marry, just as I am opposed to laws allowing homosexual couples to marry. Monkeypatching a constitution is a bad idea.

It's my view that marriage is a covenant between man, wife, God, and their local community that the man and woman will live their lives together as a family until death parts them, and that it's none of the government's business whether they're married. As far as I can see, the only reason the government collects that information is to generate tax breaks, which I'm not a fan of. It seems to me that everyone who's making enough to spare the cash should just be paying a flat percentage of their annual (or even monthly) income, regardless of any other variables.

As such, I would advocate having no law whatsoever dealing with marriage, be it homosexual, polyandryous, or otherwise. Laws against discrimination are something else, and we could argue the minutiae of implementing a total removal of marriage from law, but I doubt it would be worth anyone's time (it seems extremely unlikely to happen, and I'm a little too lazy to agitate for it).

Some people might argue that not having any laws about marriage could leave a lot of space for sexual/marital abuse. However, I don't see any inconsistency in not having legislation that defines whether people can describe themselves as "married", and still having legislation that attempts to protect the innocent from wrongdoers - e.g., laws against statutory rape and sexual abuse. Those aren't very enforceable, perhaps, but their enforceability does not vary as a function of marriage legislation.

(why yes, I am something of a libertarian idealist. How did you guess?)

Ned Batchelder 6:26 AM on 14 Apr 2009

@Nate: your central thesis seems to be this:

As such, those individuals are trying to ensure that the laws implementing the moral and practical guidelines of their society reflect their views. That, as far as I'm aware, is the way a republic or democracy is supposed to work. The theory is that as citizens argue, debate, and fight for their own positions, morally right laws will eventually win.

I agree with you about the nature of democracy: people will argue, and the laws will eventually represent their collective compromise about what is good and what is bad. Here's where we disagree: I think that process is going to lead us to marriage equality. How people will reconcile society's acceptance with their religions' prohibitions, I can't predict.

There are many points where civil law and religious law diverge. As I mentioned above: adultery is not illegal. Why is that? How do religious people deal with the discrepancy? Why aren't they up in arms to change that law to protect marriage? Or for that matter, to outlaw divorce? Rather than amend laws to prevent actions that dissolve families, they fight to prevent a new group from forming families, all in the name of defending marriage. I find the hypocrisy startling.

David Boudreau 10:30 AM on 14 Apr 2009

While I'm against same sex marriage for non-religious reasons, I'm also against adultery. The laws for adultery seem to vary from place to place, and sometimes it is in fact illegal. ( It could get you court-martialed in the US Military, fine you $10 in Maryland, is a Class I felony in Wisconsin, and in Michigan it could even get you a life sentence. It has been grounds for divorce under fault-based divorce laws. But even in places where adultery has been legalized, adultery has consequences: it breaks up a family, or specifically it may result in unwanted pregnancy, and the laws of the country that cover termination of a pregnancy and of child support come into play.

So why am I not as up in arms over adultery? With adultery legalized or not, in either case, it still stands clearly on the opposite side of marriage. While legalizing adultery certainly doesn't help marriage, it is not trying to change the very definition of marriage itself.

In other words, if same sex marriage became law, that doesn't exactly mean gays would be able to enter into such sanctimonious relationships after all, given adultery being legal in the current state of marriage.

Josh 1:49 PM on 14 Apr 2009

I disagree with the premise that given time, things will change in a certain direction. It implies that change is gradual (rarely) and inevitable (never). It absolves individuals of their responsibility to champion the causes they believe in.

Social change is a matter of action, not time. Individuals organizing and struggling together, even dying, but fighting for what they believe.
I've seen the attitude "don't worry, over time, they'll get it." among many of my friends related to progressive causes becoming mainstream. But in many spheres -- public education, government regulation, and health care, for example -- the side that works harder or spends more, determines the rate of change.

Doug Napoleone 2:54 PM on 14 Apr 2009


I do not believe that things will change in a certain direction given time. I do believe things will change in general given time as that is reality. Change is gradual, and it is inevitable. What changes, which direction, and why is up for discussion. This is the very nature of being human. (We are not all speaking Greek and idolizing deities on Mt. Olympus now are we.)

Getting back to the point, given the existing individuals and organizations fighting for what they believe in, and looking at the existing trends, there is a gradual trend in one direction. This is what we do when we try to predict things. That is not to say people should not fight for what they believe in because one end is 'inevitable'; that is not what is being discussed. Nothing is 'inevitable' except for change. Tomorrow will be different from today and that is a good thing.

Nate Eagleson 2:13 PM on 15 Apr 2009

@Ned - I actually expect that same-sex marriages will be made legal in the United States.

I just don't think that Silver's model is accurately predicting how it will happen - my hunch is that it will be enforced at the federal level, and that this will probably happen during President Obama's administration if he's elected for a second term (possibly even during the first one). That may, of course, be totally wrong, and I usually don't try to forecast the future, but if I had to guess, that would be mine.

My central thesis would actually have been a combination of what you quoted and my statement that

People should act according to their moral code.

If you think they should act differently, you need to convince them to change their moral code, not their behaviors.

Religious law and civil law diverge, in my view, principally for two reasons:

1) What's usually called "the democratic process". We've discussed that, and agree on how it works.

2) The second is also touched on in my reply, if indirectly. Opinions on the size of government, and what ought to be legislated, vary - some people's moral philosophies put an emphasis on the government as the solution to moral problems, and thus, they work very hard to enact their philosophy as law, in every jot and tittle. Others have philosophies that emphasize minimizing government's role, and there are a whole slew of other stances across that continuum.

My own views, as I mentioned, are fairly libertarian. I would say that keeping government minimal is very important, and I do not see why the government should have anything to do with the question of marriage. Do you believe it should?

That said, the conservatives that are agitating for the law to be changed are doing so, I think, based on a poorly-articulated belief that since our government is already involved in the definition of marriage, it is their responsibility to try to keep the legal definition of marriage synchronized with their own definition of marriage.

Definitions are a massive part of any moral code, and as such, I don't understand why you equate this reaction with hypocrisy. There may be other aspects of marriage in our legal code that they ought to be trying to change as well, but from their perspective, the most important legal issue about marriage right now is an attempt to redefine marriage in what they see as a fundamentally incorrect and morally wrong way. Thus, they're trying very hard to prevent that, and it's one of their primary concerns right now.

They don't see it as preventing "a new group from forming families". If you believe in the Bible, to be consistent with your stated beliefs, your definition of family cannot have a homosexual couple at the core. (It also doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me to call a homosexual couple a family from a practical perspective. There is no homosexual couple that can produce offspring by sexual reproduction with each other. Thus, I have a hard time seeing how people can say they're "married" or are a "family", but I suppose that's neither here nor there.)

Again - you'll have to change their religion if you want to change their minds.

If you're not worried about changing their minds, then I guess most of my comments have been irrelevant.

At any rate, I think that's about all I have to say on the topic. I'd just like to say I appreciate everyone's politeness, and the willingness to dialogue.

Ned, you run a great blog, and I enjoy reading it. Thanks very much.

Ned Batchelder 4:47 PM on 15 Apr 2009

Nate, you seem like a smart and compassionate guy. Therefore, I'm not sure why you would define the word "family" so narrowly. Adoption, second marriages, skipped generations, etc, are all non-biological ways to form families. Why shouldn't a gay couple with children be counted as a family?

Nate Eagleson 12:46 AM on 17 Apr 2009

Throughout the Bible, it's stated that homosexuality is a sin (again, check out the Wiki link I provided - there are a number of Biblical references early on in the article). The Bible also makes it clear that the core of a family is the husband and wife, and that their marriage is what creates a family. I'm not aware of a single verse that spells this out in so many words, but I'd point to the beginning of Mark 10 (link) as a place where this is made pretty clear.

Believing, as I do, that the Bible is God's word, I'm bound to the definitions and moral code it uses.

A man and a man, or a woman and a woman, can't marry, according to the Bible, and thus, they can't be a family.

There is also the more practical side I mentioned, which is that usually, in the non-biological family creation scenarios you mention, those founding the family can still create offspring sexually. No homosexual couple can do that, by definition - if we somehow made it so that they could, they wouldn't be homosexual anymore. That's more of a secondary observation, though.

That's why I can't say that a gay couple with children are a family - because I really do believe what the Bible says. I realize, of course, that you disagree - does that at least explain why I hold the position?

I hope it's obvious that I believe homosexual couples are deserving of respect and love from all of us - they are human, and while I would say they're sinning, I'm pretty much the same. I'm human, and I sin. I try not to, but I fail all the time. It's even perfectly possible for homosexual individuals to be Christian. Christians aren't supposed to live in what's called a "state of sin", but it happens, and I think it's safe to say that all people have some sins (or flaws, if you don't like the term "sin") they struggle with for their whole life.

Again, thanks for sticking with me, and being so polite, despite me presenting what must be a pretty offensive position to you.

If you actually want to keep the back-and-forth going, feel free to email me, but obviously, I don't expect that. I'd just like to litter your blog a little less with my views - it's your blog, after all, and I didn't mean to derail the conversation the way I have. I was only trying to point out that to convince people on the other side of the debate, you're going to have to look closely at why people disagree, and come at it from their perspective.

Does anyone know the answer, by the way, to my question in my first comment? Is it statistically valid to say a model is good if it accurately predicts past events, or does it have to prove good on future events before it's considered effective? Like I said, I've only had one intro to stats course, and that was years ago.

Doug Napoleone 1:58 AM on 17 Apr 2009


In answer to your question on statistics, there is no clear answer. The answer is 'it depends'. It depends on what you are trying to model, and what is encapsulated in said model, and of course what you are trying to predict. In truth there is no such thing as a 'perfect predictive model' in statistics. Statistics are about probabilities. It can tell you the probability of an event occurring. If a model predicts a 80% chance of something happening in a time frame, is it a bad model if that event does not occur within that time? There was a 20% chance of it not occurring... What if it does occur but sooner or later than the model predicted? Was it a bad model? It is much easier to say a model is bad, than to prove it is good. At best, after collecting even more data in the future you can generate a new statistic on how accurate the model appears to be.

There are no absolutes in statistics. For many things you do not have any future data to work with. In other cases you continually add the future data to try to make the model better, or different types of data. The standard practice is to build the model on a subset of data and see if it predicts the held out data, which is what Nate (the other Nate) did. So it did in fact predict 'future' events, and if you look at what has happened in Vermont and NY one could assume this is more proof that it is a good model... one could...

To the core of your real question: I do not believe that Nate's model is a particularly good one. It does not account for enough information. Nor does it try to predict changes in the data collected, assuming certain trends will continue (which are themselves based on surveys which are extrapolations based on statistical models).

One could imagine the Vatican making some new proclamations and forming a counsel of Bishops with the expressed edict to unify the efforts made by all the catholic based religions. And to make a core effort to battle same sex marriage law, and even to support legislation against it. The Vatican has already started 'rejecting' ambassadors for their views with respect to gay relations. The Current administration has no been able to find a candidate for this position which they would even risk putting forward. This type of reaction to current events is just one of many which are not part of Nate's model in any way.

Personally I feel the problem is one of semantics. The government has created an institution of 'marriage' which is very very different from the one which is set up by the church. The 'marriage' which is codified in legislation is a legal term. The same way the Vatican does not recognize divorce (another legal term), they could just not recognize the legal form of marriage. I would love to see someone just go back and run a 'sed -e "s/marriage/union/g"' on all the legislation. I think that would clear up quite a bit of the problems.

The law has no place legislating 'marriage' with regard to finances, property ownership, taxes, health care, and insurance. Those things are not in the definition of the religions term 'marriage'. There is this theory of a separation of church and state. When it comes to the term 'marriage' people forget this and treat them as one and the same. Either they are the same and thus should be removed from all legislation, or they are not the same and thus the term should be fixed in the legislation.

The law should not prevent same sex unions with all the same legislative protections given to unions which happen to fit the religious definition of 'marriage'. Any legislation preventing unions this should be unconstitutional on the face of it, and should be fought against.

Granted we could do away with the separations and codify the Bible as a legal document and force everyone to live by it, the same way many Muslim states have (granted they codify more than just the old and new Testaments, but also include their own books as well..)

That in my mind is what it comes down to. Should we put religious law specifically from the bible into our legislation, or do we support the foundations this country were built upon. (Yes, I know that religion played a big role as well, specifically Episcopalian/Anglican. Interestingly most North American Anglican branches have come out in support of same sex marriage, and caused a major fracture in the Anglican Communion.)

Yet more proof that a religious definition of marriage has no place in state or federal legislation.

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