At Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson observes that his fellow economists don’t always focus on the policies that have broad consensus, are easy to understand, and easy to implement. He uses the example of road pricing:
Heavy traffic is a problem every economist in the world knows how to solve: price road access, and charge high prices during rush hour. With technologies like E-ZPass and mobile apps, it’s easier than ever. That we don’t pick this low-hanging fruit is a pretty serious indictment of public policy. If we can’t address what is literally a principles-level textbook example of a negative spillover with a fairly easy fix, what hope do we have for effective public policy on other margins?
I agree. Think about status in economics – what sorts of work gets you the rewards? For a while, it was really, really hard math. Also, macro-economics, which is a notoriously hard field. Recently, insanely clever identification work. What do these have in common? They are hard. In contrast, how many Bates or Nobel prizes have been awarded for simple, high impact work, like road pricing? Nearly zero is my guess.
The same is true in sociology. Sociologists often imagine themselves coming up with marvelous approaches to solving deeply rooted social inequalities. For example, a few months ago, we discussed research on gender inequality and how it might be explained, partially, by the relative over- or under-confidence of men and women. In other words, it might be that women are overly cautious in terms of promotions.
One simple solution would be to require all eligible people to apply for promotions (e.g., require that all associate profs apply for full professorship after a few years). It is a simple rule and would almost certainly help. The response in the comments? The solution doesn’t remedy gender prejudice. Well, of course not, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to fix a specific issue – under representation of women in applicant pools. I have no idea how to eliminate the bias against women, but I can make sure they get promoted at work often – and it’s easy!
Bottom line: Social scientists have their priorities reversed. They get rewarded for trying to solve insanely hard problems, while leaving a lot of simple problems alone. That’s leaving cash on the table.
Along with Annette Lareau, Past President of ASA, I am heading up a task force on social media. As part of that enterprise, we are trying to get feedback on the ASA website.We have 2 very brief surveys. (They only take a few minutes.) Do you think that you might be able to fill them out as well as ask others in your department–faculty and grad students–to do the same? Could you also share it with your friends around the country? Your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter networks are great ways to share the URLs below, if you are into that kind of thing.The website is going to go through an overhaul this year and any feedback would be most helpful. This survey is our highest priority.Some folks also had issues with the APP at ASA 2014. We are eager to get input on both the website and the app. So please share widely. The response deadline is September 30th.
Chris Thile: MacArthur Grant Recipient and Mandolinist Extraordinaire – Live Recording of Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer in the Rocky Mountains.
New orgtheory feature! Our Director of Musical Programming has invited Michael Mauskapf to be an occasional v.j. In order to mix things up, Michael will provide us with a carefully hand picked selection of music. He’s the ideal person for the job. He has a Ph.D. in musicology who has now found a better paying gig as a doctoral student in organizational behavior at Northwestern. This is Michael’s first contribution as our new vlogger.
He adds: “Telluride should use this in an ad campaign for their tourism industry. Casual virtuosity is the best virtuosity.”
I am going to take a sabbatical in the 2015-16 academic year. On the Facebook group, I asked for input and got one good suggestion. Here, I widen the query. What advice would you give to someone planning a sabbatical? Good places to go? Do’s and don’ts? Other ideas?
So I’m teaching a graduate class this semester that’s got sort of a logic-of-qualitative-inquiry thing going. One of the pieces we just read was Murray Davis’s “That’s Interesting!”
I imagine many of you know the article (it’s come up several times before on orgtheory), but for those who don’t, Davis attempts to taxonomize what makes social theories “interesting.” An interesting piece of research, he argues, does four things:
- It articulates taken-for-granted assumptions.
- Then it challenges one of those assumptions.
- It demonstrates that the challenge is correct.
- And it suggests the practical consequences of that correction.
People thought that suicide resulted from individual proclivities. But Durkheim argued that suicide could be explained by social factors. Sociologists assumed that people who were deviant committed deviant acts. But Becker showed that being labeled as deviant causes people to act in deviant ways. And so on.
It’s a great article for teaching, because it gets students thinking about how to frame their research so that readers perceive it as “interesting!” Because “interesting!” totally works for getting your research published. And Davis’s taxonomy is easy to apply to a wide range of sociological arguments. I’m not likely to stop using it in class.
But rereading it got me to thinking about the limitations of our fixation on “interesting!”
One is that “interesting!” isn’t a good criterion for normal science. Or rather, normal science can be interesting, but it’s got to include lots of not-so-interesting stuff, too, if progress is to be made.
A fixation on “interesting” is what leads us not to publish replications. Or to test scope conditions. Or to refine existing theories. Instead, we end up in a cycle of the novel and counterintuitive. One result is the situation in experimental psychology, in which the whole field seems skeptical of its own findings.
Another, I suspect, is the endless churn toward new theories and concepts that sociology is susceptible to. The quest for the interesting can produce the fractal dynamics Abbott describes. One rejects what has become mainstream in one’s subfield, arguing that an alternative approach can in fact produce new insights or challenge old assumptions. But unlike in Hegel, thesis and antithesis never seem to reach synthesis. And rejecting the status quo by upholding the status quo ante is hardly “interesting.” Instead, a new, narrower community develops around the “interesting” finding that challenges old assumptions, often under freshened-up language.
Finally, the quest for “interesting!” makes it harder to convey what we know beyond academia. Media attention goes to the research that challenge existing assumptions. So we “learn” that we were wrong about eating Mediterranean: it’s a low-carb, high-fat diet that will keep you healthy. At the extreme, this becomes the click-bait of academic research: You Thought You Knew About Social Mobility. But This One Weird Social Theory Will Prove You Wrong.
In the end, I still like the interesting: the unexpected finding, the surprising result. But it’s probably worth considering, every now and then, when we should pay some attention to the uninteresting, too.