the argo win easily explained

Quick reaction: The Academy loves well crafted films that are about actors or acting, especially when actors save the day. These films often beat other films. Example: Shakespeare in Love beats Saving Private Ryan; the Kings Speech beats Black Swan, Inception and Social Network. Bonus: Argo had old Hollywood guys saving the day. I still liked it.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 25, 2013 at 5:39 am

15 Responses

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  1. If is is so easy to explain, why didn’t you predict it, Fabio? (I did a quick search, I can’t find a post where you do that. I’ll stand corrected if you have.) It’s not like you learned anything new about the nominated films over the past 48 hours besides who actually won. Isn’t this just typical of sociological so-called explanations? Once something had happened, a sociologist can “easily” explain it. If Lincoln had won I suppose that, too, would have been a no-brainer for sociology. ;-)



    February 25, 2013 at 2:21 pm

  2. Yeah, Fabio, why don’t you spend *all* of your time writing blog posts, instead of working at your real job and spending what little free time remains with your family?



    February 25, 2013 at 2:52 pm

  3. Yeah, Thomas, aren’t you, like, the guy who believes in the crisis of representation and all that post-modernism stuff? So, like, wouldn’t Argo’s win be a historically contingent event that needs no further explanation? And isn’t this kind of balancing out Gigli a little? Shouldn’t we be glad for that?



    February 25, 2013 at 6:06 pm

  4. You guys are gonna like my paper with Schilke at ASA.



    February 25, 2013 at 10:37 pm

  5. Thomas:

    To be fair, Fabio didn’t say “the argo win easily predicted,” he said “explained.” That’s different. For a social scientist to make a prediction is clear enough, but we also spend a lot of time explaining. (For example, after the 2010 congressional elections, I posted “2010: What happened?”. Explanation is not the same as prediction but it’s not nothing. For a famous example, Freudian theory explains a lot but does not often predict, and Freudianism has lots of problems, but it is not an empty theory. The fact that Fabio could’ve explained a Lincoln win does not make his Argo explanation empty.

    I’m sorry the others did not respond to your question seriously, but I think it’s worth thinking about.


    Andrew Gelman

    February 26, 2013 at 2:32 am

  6. I must confess, I hold the view that explanations are as good as the predictions they make possible. Once we abandon that constraint, the vague logic of social science is let loose upon all phenomena, and the only effect is that the deliberations of earnest practitioners, whether that be the members of the Academy or the trustees of Deep Springs college, are set aside on the authority of social theory. Let the members of the Academy protest all they want that they considered only the aesthetic merits of the films under consideration, or the trustees, that they weighed the pros and cons of co-education. Sociology knows how it really went down, it knows “quickly” and “easily” the reason why.

    But I’m not sure that the light-heartedness of my original jab (and this follow up) is obvious. I hope the irony is clear. Fabio says I’m a postmodernist. And yet I’m arguing for a perfectly positivist concept of explanation!



    February 26, 2013 at 1:54 pm

  7. Sort of missing the forest for the trees here…predictions from theory work well for events that are both manipulable and repeatable, so as to isolate the causal mechanisms that bring such events about — think for example about predictions about the Higgs Boson from the standard model requiring literally millions of runs in a particle collider before physicists had a sufficient distribution of events to try and find the needle in the haystack (the Higgs)

    Argo on the other hand if we think in terms of historical conjunction (a Ben Afleck directed and staring spy triller set in 1970s Iran) will probably never happen again. Hence the gains to predicting another such similarly situated good is probably not worth the theoretical effort. But historical explanations why after the fact may warrant doing so in line with Andy Gellmans point above.



    February 26, 2013 at 2:20 pm

  8. This is partly a terminological and partly a substantive issue. When I speak of explanations I mean causal ones. The alternative is not historical “explanation”, but simply the interpretation of human events.

    But my point is that by appealing to non-aesthetic criteria Fabio is in fact proposing a causal mechanism to explain Argo’s Oscar. Like I say, this is just a fun example. Less fun was the case of Deep Springs, where Fabio explicitly set aside the involved party’s own understanding of their actions. Here, again, he proposed a cause, an explanation that is external to reasons offered by the participants in history.

    I’m not entirely against causal accounts of social events. But I am against quasi-causal ones, i.e., explanations that do not engage in the rich, complicated hermeneutic that historical understanding requires, and do not offer predictions to test the proposed causal mechanism. In the case of interpretation, as in the case of psychoanalysis, by the way, the “explanation” of behavior cannot be accepted until the subject accepts it. That’s the whole difference between explanation and interpretation. Where causes can be isolated, we don’t have to ask the subjects why they did as they did. In lieu of an isolable cause, we simply must listen to them.

    The problem, that is, with the slide from causal explanations to “historical” ones is that it is no longer clear how those explanations might be tested. They now just have to make sense to the highly indoctrinated minds of social theorists, working in whatever theoretical tradition they happen to work in. The social cost of this authority is that historical actors are alienated from their own reasons from acting. And the result of that alienation is the increasing cynicism of social policy makers, who no longer think they have to understand their own policies.



    February 26, 2013 at 3:15 pm

  9. Thomas:

    I think that “explanation,” even in the absence of “prediction,” can be useful in helping us better understand our models. Fabio’s Argo explanation helps him elaborate his implicit theory of the Oscars, essentially constraining his theory as compared to where it was before the awards were announced. In that sense, “explanation” is an approximation to Bayesian updating. What “explanation” does is to align the theory to fit the data, which is comparable to the statistical procedure of restricting the parameters to the zone of high likelihood for the observed data.

    I’m curious what Fabio thinks of this, as he’s the one who created the explanation. I am sympathetic with your (Thomas’s) skepticism, but I feel like I get some value from explanations such as Fabio’s (or Freud’s), so I’d like to adapt my philosophy of scientific understanding to allow a role for such explanations, rather than to follow a Popper-like route and dismiss them as meaningless. Much of my career as a statistician has been devoted to adjusting the foundations to give a place for methods that are evidently (to me) helpful in understanding the world.

    P.S. This has motivated me tor write something longer to eventually appear on my blog.


    Andrew Gelman

    February 26, 2013 at 3:35 pm

  10. P.S. Also, I don’t see Fabio’s explanation as being inconsistent with listening to the overt explanations given by members of the Academy. I don’t see Fabio’s explanation as deterministic; rather, he’s giving a (plausible and model-based) story as why an Oscar for Argo is more probable than it would be, compared to other hypothetical conditions (such as, I presume, an award given by a group of outsiders with no Hollywood connections). A fuller explanation would include Fabio-like theory along with direct testimony of the people involved.


    Andrew Gelman

    February 26, 2013 at 3:39 pm

  11. The exact events aren’t repeated similar events do occur. For instance, a film directed by Ben Affleck about the Iranian hostage crisis (and w a “show biz” to the rescue theme) that is released right around the time we saw an ambassador murdered, that’s not gonna happen again. However it frequently happens that we have movies with a prior-nominated screenwriter, or movies about international politics, or movies about show business. These are repeated often enough that you can study them systematically and get reasonably good model fit.



    February 26, 2013 at 5:05 pm

  12. Nate Silver predicted Argo, but his prediction here, like his others, was in the form of probabilities, which is what a model gives you. It doesn’t give you certainty. The trouble is that post-hoc explanations often sound as though they are claiming certainty. Hans Morgenthau, long ago, was asked at a public forum (maybe about the Vietnam war) what was going to happen. His response: “Well, the answer to that is that I am a professor, not a prophet. I cannot tell you what will happen. I can only tell you why what did happen was absolutely bound to happen.”


    Jay Livingston

    February 27, 2013 at 12:54 am

  13. Note to self: I will not let this blog be tarnished with a Ben Affleck thread. Repeat, I will not…


    Fabio Rojas

    February 27, 2013 at 4:04 am

  14. I take it all back. I just noticed Colbert is pushing this theory too. So I guess it must be true!



    February 27, 2013 at 9:57 am

  15. […] was thinking about this the other day after reading a blog exchange that began with a post by sociologist Fabio Rojas entitled “the argo win easily […]


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