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why is it bad to retract non-fraudulent and non-erroneous papers?

with 5 comments

It is bad to demand the retraction non-fraudulent papers. But why? I think the argument rests on three intuitions. First, there is a legal reason. When an editor and publisher accept a paper, they enter into a legal contract. The authors produces the paper and the publisher agrees to publish. To rescind publication of a paper is to break a contract, except in cases of fraud. The other exception is error in analysis that invalidates the paper’s claim (e.g., a math paper that has a non-correctable flaw in a proof or mis-coded data whose corrections leads to an entirely new conclusion – even then, maybe the paper should just be rewritten).

Second, there is a pragmatic reason. When you cater to retraction demands, outside of fraud and extreme error, you then undermine the role of the editor. Basically, an editor is given the position of choosing papers for an audience. They are not obligated to accept or reject any papers except those they deem interesting or of high quality. And contrary to popular belief, they do not have to accept papers that receive good reviews nor must they reject papers that receive bad reviews. Peer review is merely advisory, not a binding voting mechanism, unless the editor decides to simply let the majority rule. Thus, if editors ceded authority of publishing to the “masses,” they would simply stop being editors and more like advertisers, who cater to the whims of the public.

Third, I think it is unscholarly. Retraction is literally suppression of speech and professors should demand debate. We are supposed to be the guardians of reason, not the people leading the charge for censorship.

So what should you do if you find that a journal publishes bad, insulting or inflammatory material? Don’t ask for a retraction. There are many proper responses. Readers can simply boycott the journal, by not reading it or citing it. Or they can ask a library to stop paying for it. Peers can agree to stop reviewing for it or to dissociate themselves from the journal. A publisher can review the material and then decide to not renew an editor’s contract. Or if the material is consistently bad, they can fire the editor.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 21, 2017 at 4:01 am

third world world quarterly should not retract “the case for colonialism”

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Third World Quarterly recently published an article by Bruce Gilley called “The Case for Colonialism (TCfC)” The article makes a few related claims, but it boils down to:

  1. Many anti-colonial movements were horrible.  (see pp. 5-6)
  2. Colonialism rests on “cosmopolitanism” and this is a a good thing. (see p. 8)
  3. Thus, when you properly consider the costs and benefits, you should rethink the value of colonialism.

I’ll address these claims below, but I first wanted to address the movement to retract TCfC – see here. Basically, the retraction advocates think the article is offensive and appalling. It may be, but that doesn’t mean it should be retracted.

The job of a journal editor is to select articles that they think advances their field and raise interesting issues. If they think “The Case for Colonialism” does so, they should not retract the article. It represents an argument they think should be debated. Retraction should not be done simply because the article is bad or offensive. Retraction should only happen if the article turns out to be fraudulent. Otherwise, if an editor thinks the article has value, let it be. Critics can write their own response. Or, if they think the level of scholarship is horrid, they can stop reading it and ask the library to drop it.

Now, what about the argument? Does colonialism get a bad rap? Let’s start with what I think is correct. I believe it to be true that many anti-colonial movements and post-colonial governments were horrible. For every leader like Ghandi, we get other leaders who, simply put, were savage killers, from the corrupt Mobutu Sese Seku of Congo to the Marxist movements of Ethiopia and North Korea, which brought mass death. So yes, the reflexive praise of anti-colonial movements often overlooks the grotesque outcomes

Here is what I disagree with. Analyses like Gilley’s often overlook the massive death brought by Western colonizers. Let’s take just one example – the colonial government in the Belgian Congo is thought to have killed 10 million people. This is murder on Hitlerian and Stalinist proportions. Belgian Congo is not an isolated case. Mass murder accompanied Western colonization in many places. Even if Gilley is correct in that colonial governments may have brought some values, it is hard to believe how they would balance out this massive loss of humanity.

Let me end on a constructive note. As written, Gilley’s article is an intellectual failure. But we can extract a valuable insight. Colonialism wasn’t about bringing the best of the West to the world. It brought the worst of the West to the world. Western culture has produced amazing things – the belief in human rights and equality and modern science. But that is not what was brought to the people of the world. If Western governments had truly prioritized the best of Western culture, then Gilley might have a point. Similarly, the critics might be right if anti-colonialists had rejected the worst of the West and brought the best of the West. Instead, many anti-colonial movements retreated into Marxism, Maoism and other ideologies that killed and impoverished millions. They should have espoused tolerance, liberal culture and markets.

Bottom line: Debate, don’t retract. And in terms of colonialism, it deserves its reputation. it was horrible. In opposing repression, we can do better than what happened in the post-colonial era.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 20, 2017 at 4:01 am

after charlottesville: the conversation continues

Written by fabiorojas

September 1, 2017 at 4:33 pm

the post-racist society vs. donald j. trump

The central tragedy of America is the treatment of non-whites. From Indian wars, to slavery, to segregation, to internment camps, to deportations, to Guantanamo, American society has often betrayed its ideals. But the American story is also one of progress, not stagnation. From time to time, change does happen and it is good.

In my eye, one of the biggest transformations of American society was the de-legitimization of racism in the 1960s. Following a century of eugenics, Jim Crow and all other manner affront to human dignity, the Civil Rights movement managed to create one of the first modern societies where racism began to lose its legitimacy. Not only did African-Americans have their rights returned to them, but the culture around race started to shift as well. For the first time, it was no longer appropriate for public figures to openly disparage American blacks, and many other groups as well.

A while ago I called this new culture “the post-racist society.” Not because I believed race or racism were gone. But rather overt racism was illegitimate. You could be racist, but it had to be expressed in dog whistle politics. It was a submerged belief in the mainstream of American life. My belief in the post-racist society was initially shaken by the rise of Trump. For the first time in decades, a serious contender for the presidency was openly racist. My belief was shaken once again when he won.

But later, as I surveyed the evidence on how Trump rose to power, I realized that the death of post-racist society was greatly exaggerated. For example, Trump won on an electoral college fluke, not because a new nationalist majority propelled him to power. Another key piece evidence. Estimates of the GOP primary vote indicate that 55% of GOP voters preferred someone other than Trump (see the wiki for the basic data). Yes, there is a nationalist and racist strand within the the GOP and Trump essentially dominated that vote. But a causal reading of the GOP primary map shows that Cruz dominated the mountain states and split the Midwest. If you look at the vote tallies in many early states, Trump was winning with vote totals in the low 30% range. Not exactly a resounding victory.

After entering office, there has been no groundswell of nationalism or racism in this country. For example, approval ratings for Trump have been horrid and have sunk to historic lows. Obama’s approval barely dipped below 40% in the Gallup polls but Trump’s is already in the 30% range and has stayed there. Trump is not riding a giant groundswell of nationalism or expressing the outrage of a working class left behind. Rather, he’s an electoral accident propped up by the most recalcitrant elements of the Republican party.

Trump’s limited support in the American polity raises some interesting questions. If only 35% of people approve of Trump (mainly racists and loyal Republicans), then what is everyone else doing? As with many political things, a lot of people have sat out. But we are seeing other parts of the political system slowly respond to Trump.

Perhaps the most insightful example is Trump’s statement that he would ban transgendered individuals from the armed services. The response? The military essentially just ignored him. Just think about that. Another example – after Trump’s statements about the murder of a protester in Charlottesville, conservative GOP senators slowly criticized him and CEO’s started resigning from key committees. Then, of course, there is the disintegration of the GOP consensus in the Senate.

There is the usual resistance from the left that accompanies any Republican administration. I am sure that the events in Charlottesville will continue to mobilize people and surely Trump will offer the left more to be appalled at. His actions will likely sustain the groups behind the Women’s march and the march for science, as well as Obama era groups like Black Lives Matter. And of course, white supremacy groups have seen Trump’s election as a chance to come out of the wood works, which will trigger push back from the left.

One might attribute Republican softness and left resistance to Trumpian incompetence. Perhaps it wouldn’t exist with a more smooth, but equally racist, Republican politician. Maybe. But here’s another hypothesis – people in general aren’t ready to completely ready to ditch the post-Civil Rights cultural agenda. Segregation is not on the table and popular culture has not reverted to a stage where racial slurs are permissible. Black face is not on TV and will not be any time in the near future. We live in the world of Get Out, not Birth of a Nation.

So when white nationalist politicians, like Steve King or Trump, emerge in the GOP, they reflect the will of a sizable, yet limited, constituency. But that group is big enough to win elections in some rural areas, like Arizona or Iowa, and enough to push through a candidate in a split field. At the same time, it doesn’t indicate a slide back to the middle ages.

Does that mean that people should “just relax?” No. Rather, it means that it is possible to defend the post-Civil Rights social order. It is there and it is, haphazardly, pushing back. We need to do what we can to help it out. It’s hard, but it has to be done.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 16, 2017 at 5:10 am

has trinity college gone too far?

Last week, Trinity College announced the suspension of Johnny Williams, an associate professor of sociology. According to Inside Higher Education:

Williams last week shared an article from Medium called “Let Them Fucking Die.” The piece argues that “indifference to their well-being is the only thing that terrifies” bigots, and so people of color should “Let. Them. Fucking. Die” if they’re ever in peril. The Medium piece linked to another Fusion piece about Republican Representative Steve Scalise, who was shot earlier this month in Alexandria, Va. It says Scalise has previously opposed extending protections to LGBTQ people and reportedly once spoke at a meeting of white supremacists, while one of the black law enforcement officers who rescued him is a married lesbian.

In sharing the Medium piece, Williams used the “Let them fucking die” comment as a hashtag, and wrote that it is “past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.”

That post and a similar one prompted critical reports on conservative websites suggesting Williams was advocating violence against white people.

Let’s assume that the Inside Higher Education article presents a correct summary of what Williams posted. If that is the case, then Williams was clearly saying that people should end “the vector of their destructive mythology” and “their white supremacy system.” The quote itself does not advocate violence against individuals. What about the Medium.com essay? Here’s the link. Read it yourself.

Here is what you find in the essay. The essay asks “why should oppressed people help those who oppress them?” The author concludes that the oppressed do not have an obligation to help those who oppress them even if they are in mortal danger. Thus, “Let them die.” If you think I got it wrong, please use the comments (but I will delete crazy comments).

Before you get in a tizzy, the Medium essay actually reaches the same conclusion that common law reaches on the duty to rescue (albeit from a way, way different starting point). In many cases, a person does not have a legally enforceable obligation to save another person. Perhaps the real scandal was that “Son of Baldwin” raised this point in the context of the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, who was saved by police officer Crystal Griner. In that case, the Medium is on the wrong side. Office Griner has an obligation to render aid and enforce the law, even those who brag of their White nationalist bona fides.

This brings me back to Trinity College. Here’s my take. Given what we know about this case, Williams was not advocating violence against others. Even if we uncharitably interpret his words (“Let Them Die”), he’s actually advocating what is actually a well established legal right not to render aid to those in danger. Just because he posited it in an angry and racially charged way doesn’t make it any less true.

Let’s turn to a trickier issue – Trinity’s response. As a college professor, Williams is held to a higher standard than most people – especially on the issue of race and racial violence. At the very least, Professor Williams is expected to express his ideas in ways that are not inflammatory and promote intellectual progress. It is not clear whether college professors are expected to be morally superior than others (e.g., maybe he should help those in danger, including bigots). If so, this seems like a hard standard to enforce consistently. It is also not clear what obligations college professors have when it comes to private Facebook accounts.

In the end, I feel as is Professor Williams showed a real lack of judgment, not endangered anyone directly. Trinity College should show proportionality in its response. As a representative of the university, he’s got to be aware that his words carry weight and things like this can happen. He also has to be aware that his actions reflect on his institution. That doesn’t mean he should with hold critique. The opposite is true. Racism is real and it needs to be called out.

What it does mean is that when you say something, you have to be ready to defend it. And in this case, that didn’t happen. In the end, Trinity should be worried less about what the legion of Internet trolls says and more about using this as an opportunity to dig a deeper foundation for free speech, even for college professors who let their emotions get the best of them.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 4, 2017 at 4:00 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, uncategorized

regnerus’ three mistakes

I was having a conversation a little while ago about scandals in sociology and the topic of of Regnerus’s article came up. That was the article in 2012 that claimed that children of same sex parents had bad life outcomes. My conversation partner suggested that Regnerus’ mistake was in asking the question. I don’t think so.  Asking if there are differences by family type is legitimate and we should be ready to accept less than flattering answers. I also don’t think it is inherently wrong to have biases in research. If he has a favorite answer, then so be it. Long as he doesn’t tinker with the data to get his favorite answer. Nor is problematic to have research sponsors. People with political goals are not barred from research.

What were Regnerus’ mistakes, in my view? He made three:

  1. Making big claims with delicate data. Instead of investing the time to properly locate same sex families and make a good sample, he instead relied on what respondents remembered about family life. Furthermore, scholars who have analyzed the Regnerus data have found that the results may be due to mis-coding cases and data handling errors. In other words, family structures are hard to measure and code properly. And with a small number of cases, small errors can have big effects on the final. This is not the kind of data on which you make big, bold claims.
  2. Politically, Regnerus missed the wave. The big story in American politics is that LBGT equality is arriving.  Polling shows that support for legal same-sex marriage has surpassed 60%. If you’re fighting the new mainstream, you had better be prepared.
  3. Tactically, by rushing the paper through peer review with a friendly editor, it has the appearance of being a hack job. If the paper had been vetted at conferences and undergone a more traditional peer review, then it would have improved.

The issue is that Regnerus was doing something rather ambitious. He was trying to overturn an established research finding, and one with major policy implications. While I don’t agree with his politics, he certainly has a right to do this. At the same time, you don’t take on such a task without seriously thinking things all the way through. That is probably the most basic lesson of all. You should strive toward virtue in your research, especially if you are swimming against the tide.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 29, 2017 at 4:30 am

tommy curry needs free speech. keeanga-yamahtta taylor needs free speech. alice goffman needs free speech. charles murray needs free speech. they all need free speech.

Last week, Johnny Williams, a professor at Trinity College triggered a nation wide controversy when his statements about White supremacy made national news. The issue isn’t the statement itself, but how it fit into a wider pattern of outrage and threat. Trinity shut down in response to death threats. And it is not the first college to have problems related to campus speech. Charles Murray’s opponents injured a faculty member at Middlebury during a protest. Princeton Professor Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor had to cancel talks in response to death threats after she lambasted Donald Trump.

These events have shown that the culture around faculty speech has devolved. College professors have always been lightning rods of controversy as their job is to explore ideas, even if they are unpopular. The history book books frequently recount how controversial professors have lost jobs over their ideas, such as when the  eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell lost an appointment at the City College of New York in 1940 or, when DePaul University denied tenure for Norman Finklestein in 2007. If you push unpopular ideas, be prepared.

But things may be getting worse for two reasons. First, the campus left is now in a place where there is a visceral and automatic push back against some speakers. It may be opposition to the trash talkers of the right, like Anne Coulter, or the right’s public intellectuals, like Charles Murray. But it even extends to people who might granted a stay, such as sociologist Alice Goffman, whose appointment as a visiting scholar at Pomona was protested.  In some cases, the campus left is so reflexive and angry that it targets people who are clearly on their side, such as the confrontation between enraged activists at Yale and sociologist Nicholar Christakis over a relatively mild email about how to handle racially insensitive Halloween costumes.

Second, the Fox News Right has made a hobby of taking statements, some innocent and some not, made by faculty and manufacturing national outrage. This includes the outrage over Johnny Williams at Trinity, the dust up over philosopher Tommy Curry’s discussion of nationalist politics and the 2015 rancor over Saida Grundy’s tweets.

Together, the campus left and the Fox News Rights have created a situation where we have a constant stream of outrage and anger, which has all kinds of negative consequences. Individual faculty members must disentangle themselves from nasty waves of publicity. Talks are cancelled and, in some cases, people are injured. This puts a price on free speech.

What to do? First, if you are an academic, express your disagreement in civilized ways. If Charles Murray comes to campus, offer your own talk. Write a blog post. Do not immediately jump to the conclusion that the talk must be stopped. Let it happen. Second, if you are an administrator, show tolerance and protection of speech. Assert that professors deserve the right to pursue unpopular ideas. If threats come in, go through with the talk. Find a way to do things safely. If a professor says something that is genuinely hateful and offensive, slow down and think carefully about what to do. People have a right to bad ideas and that applies to professors. Third, if you are a member of the public, switch emotions. Don’t let third parties, on the left or right, score cheap political points. Just say, “Ok, some professor said something dumb” and then watch sports instead. Do not waste your attention on cheap campus controversy.

Free speech is one of the most precious things in the world. People died to make it happen. Let’s not cheapen it. If you’re a professor, it’s your job to save it.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 26, 2017 at 2:51 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, uncategorized