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Archive for the ‘pet peeves and rants’ Category

the challenge in teaching behavioral genetics

In some of my courses, I will include a lecture or two on behavioral genetics, as a way to let students know about the area of research where we use biological ideas to understand human behavior. I am usually frustrated because students always take away the wrong lesson. Examples:

  • Fabio: Shared parents explain more of the variance than shared family.
  • Students: It’s all genetically determined.

Or:

  • Fabio: Our DNA is a random mix of genes inherited from both parents.
  •  Students: It’s all genetically determined.

Or:

  • Fabio: Shared family doesn’t even explain 50% of the variance in most models, which means that there must be non-family environmental factors at work.
  • Students: It’s all genetically determined.

Or:

  • Fabio: The expression of certain traits can depend on numerous social and environmental variables.
  • Students: It’s all genetically determined.

Oddly, it doesn’t even matter whether it’s a random undergrad who wants to think “its’s all genetically determined” or a cynical soc grad student who thinks all is socially constructed. They both take away the same message! Weird!

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Written by fabiorojas

December 20, 2017 at 7:08 pm

revising sociology’s public image

In the grand scheme of things, sociology is not in a bad position. Most colleges have sociology programs and our PhD grads find work. But I do not think that sociology lives up to its potential. We live in an economy where tech giants are building massive social networks, but our undergrad enrollments decline. We live in a world that asks for more rigorous social analysis, but sociology has limited impact in the policy world. My belief is that this is partially due to sociology’s poor public image. Here, I suggest ways to work on our public image.

The basic issue is that our image is driven by undergraduate enrollment processes and lack of interest in presenting ourselves as an easy to understand scientific toolkit for people in policy, business, and the non-profit world. To understand the first issue, ask yourself the following questions – what is the most common encounter that the average college educated person has with the discipline of sociology? Answer: the intro course or the social problems course. What message do they take away? If you read intro textbooks or syllabi (including my own!), the message is a combination of social problems with some theory sprinkled in, or a topic survey.

What you don’t get is a set of widely applicable theoretical tools. This might be taught in the course called “social theory,” but this course is usually taught as a kind of history of social thought. To compound the issue, most programs fill out the list of electives with courses that don’t present core theoretical ideas. This is done for a number of reasons such as retaining students with an interest in criminology, health, or business. The bottom line is that nowhere in the curriculum, as it now stands, do we actually present to the average college student with systematic thinking about social processes. Students, understandably, think that sociology is the study of oppression or marginality. Some of our instructors actively cultivate the view that sociology is museum of oppression. It is not surprising that the average college undergrad walks away from our courses not realizing that are a general social science.

A second issue is how we think of ourselves as professionals. If one asked the typical sociologist if they agree that they are doing some sort of scientific activity, they would likely say yes and they would be justified in saying so. However, that is not what is conveyed to the public. For example, sociologists are often called upon to translate poverty and criminality for the wider reading public. Perhaps the exception is the area of family research, where the media seems genuinely interested in what sociologists have to say as experts on a topic. Another dimension of sociology’s unusual reputation is that we are often associated with theories that were not created by sociologists and have much (if any) sway in sociology. Even other academics lump sociology in with deconstruction and post-modernism.

How do we change this? A few suggestions. First, create a “social analysis” course that acts as a foundation for all other courses and that teachers truly general social concepts. In terms of substance, you would teach traditional topics, like race, but instead relate them to general theoretical ideas (i.e., social construction, biological theories of behavior, rational choice, etc). The way it should work is: theory –> topics not “a bunch of topics.”  In terms of methods, make sure that every one understands core concepts such as variables, social process, identification, qualitative vs. quantitative, basic hypothesis tests, case studies, inference, etc – AND make other courses use these concepts. In other words, don’t let the curriculum be a bunch of electives on neat social science topics. Instead, build it around sequences of courses that first present general ideas and tools and then move into specifics.

Second, to alter our reputation in the intellectual field, I think it would be great to engage in more outreach. I recently gave a presentation on economic sociology, where I boiled down a lot of simple concepts and showed how they related to economics. The response was strong – people had never seen a sociologist speak to them directly and make the ideas clear. This outreach can happen in many ways – co-authoring with people, public speaking, and so forth. On a more ambitious scale, sociologists should set up institutes that facilitate strong interactions with other fields.

To summarize: reformat the curriculum so it builds on core theories on research methods and gets away from the bundle of interesting electives; emphasize the scientific content of our discipline in ways other people can understand; co-author work people outside the discipline in fields with large intellectual or policy relevance.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

September 15, 2015 at 12:01 am

sorry, but social science is actually a science

Every so often, you get the journalist, or academic, who loves trashing social science. The complaints are ritualistic – you can’t do experiments, people use jargon and math, and so forth. Well, Forbes has a nice article called “Enough Already with the Sweeping Claims that Economics is Unscientific.” It makes some obvious, but important points. Yes, some academics become divorced from reality with their models, but do you actually want people to study the economy without quantitative data or theory? These complaints also seem to ignore that economics actually does use experiments and much strives toward policy relevance:

Let me just start by pointing out that it is not the case that “almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments”. Look at the CV’s of economists like John List and Esther Duflo and you can see there are plenty of experiments being done. In 2013, the study selected as the best paper from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics was for a randomized trial on how teenagers respond to HIV risk information.  If you want a concrete example of where this has made a difference, randomized treatment has been a central part of the research on the effects of charters schools. Unlike the field of astronomy, which Gobry must also think is not a science, economists do sometimes have more than observational data to go on.

And while it is true that a lot of research doesn’t use actual randomized trials, it’s also true that other kinds of research are very useful and informative. If his point was simply to argue that experiments and replication are important, and whether or not a body of research includes this should be one input among others in weighing the evidence, I’d have to agree. But of course you’d have to include external validity in there, which often counts against randomized trials. Instead of a relatively common claim about how it would be nice to have more experiments in economics, as is his style, PEG boldly overstates his case and makes incorrect absolutist claims about the importance of randomized trials.

Yes. Here’s the implication of this argument. Nearly every other social science, except history (which is a weird social science and humanities border case), has the same properties. We have ideas, we have data. Sometimes we do experiments. We collect other data. Sometimes we can replicate results. Sometimes we make progress and accumulate evidence, but other times not. This is, essentially, how science is done. The next time you hear someone trash sociology, economics, or another social science as unscientific, you have my permission to write angry tweets about them.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

October 10, 2014 at 12:01 am

is “public intellectual” oxymoronic?

A guest post by Jerry Davis. He is the Wilbur K. Pierpont Collegiate Professor of Management at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

By this point everyone in the academy is familiar with the arguments of Nicholas Kristof and his many, many critics regarding the value of academics writing for the broader public.  This weekend provided a crypto-quasi-experiment that illustrated why aiming to do research that is accessible to the public may not be a great use of our time.  It also showed how the “open access” model can create bad incentives for social science to write articles that are the nutritional equivalent of Cheetos.

Balazs Kovacs and Amanda Sharkey have a really nice article in the March issue of ASQ called “The Paradox of Publicity: How Awards Can Negatively Affect the Evaluation of Quality.”  (You can read it here: http://asq.sagepub.com/content/59/1/1.abstract)  The paper starts with the intriguing observation that when books win awards, their sales go up but their evaluations go down on average.  One can think of lots of reasons why this should not be true, and several reasons why it should, all implying different mechanisms at work.  The authors do an extremely sophisticated and meticulous job of figuring out which mechanism was ultimately responsible.  (Matched sample of winning and non-winning books on the short list; difference-in-difference regression; model predicting reviewers’ ratings based on their prior reviews; several smart robustness checks; and transparency about the sample to enhance replicability.)  As is traditional at ASQ, the authors faced smart and skeptical reviewers who put them through the wringer, and a harsh and generally negative editor (me).  This is a really good paper, and you should read it immediately to find out whodunit.

The paper has gotten a fair bit of press, including write-ups in the New York Times and The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/21/literary-prizes-make-books-less-popular-booker).  And what one discovers in the comments section of these write-ups is that (1) there is no reading comprehension test to get on the Internet, and (2) everyone is a methodologist.  Wrote one Guardian reader:

The methodology of this research sounds really flawed. Are people who post on Goodreads representative of the general reading public and/or book market? Did they control for other factors when ‘pairing’ books of winners with non-winners? Did they take into account conditioning factors such as cultural bias (UK readers are surely different from US, and so on). How big was their sample? Unless they can answer these questions convincingly, I would say this article is based on fluff.

Actually, answers to some of these questions are in The Guardian’s write-up:  the authors had “compared 38,817 reader reviews on GoodReads.com of 32 pairs of books. One book in each pair had won an award, such as the Man Booker prize, or America’s National Book Award. The other had been shortlisted for the same prize in the same year, but had not gone on to win.”  And the authors DID answer these questions convincingly, through multiple rounds of rigorous review; that’s why it was published in ASQ.  The Guardian included a link to the original study, where the budding methodologist-wannabe could read through tables of difference-in-difference regressions, robustness checks, data appendices, and more.  But that would require two clicks of a functioning mouse, and an attention span greater than that of a 12-year-old.

Another says:

This is a non story based on very iffy research. Like is not compared with like. A positive review in the New York Times is compared with a less complimentary reader review on GoodReads…I’ll wait to fully read the actual research in case it’s been badly reported or incorrectly written up

Evidently this person could not even be troubled to read The Guardian’s brief story, much less the original article, and I’m a bit skeptical that she will “wait to fully read the actual research” (where her detailed knowledge of Heckman selection models might come in handy).  After this kind of response, one can understand why academics might prefer to write for colleagues with training and a background in the literature.

Now, on to the “experimental” condition of our crypto-quasi-experiment.  The Times reported another study this weekend, this one published in PLoS One (of course), which found that people who walked down a hallway while texting on their phone walked slower, in a more stilted fashion, with shorter steps, and less straight than those who were not texting (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/20/the-difficult-balancing-act-of-texting-while-walking/).  Shockingly, this study did not attract wannabe methodologists, but a flood of comments about how pedestrians who text are stupid and deserve what they get.  Evidently the meticulousness of the research shone through the Times write-up.

One lesson from this weekend is that when it comes to research, the public prefers Cheetos to a healthy salad.  A simple bite-sized chunk of topical knowledge goes down easy with the general public.  (Recent findings that are frequently downloaded on PLoS One: racist white people love guns; time spent on Facebook makes young adults unhappy; personality and sex influence the words people use; and a tiny cabal of banks controls the global economy.)

A second lesson is that there are great potential downsides to the field embracing open access journals like PLoS One, no matter how enthusiastic Fabio is.  Students enjoy seeing their professors cited in the news media, and deans like to see happy students and faculty who “translate their research.”  This favors the simple over the meticulous, the insta-publication over work that emerges from engagement with skeptical experts in the field (a.k.a. reviewers).  It will not be a good thing if the field starts gravitating toward media-friendly Cheeto-style work.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

Written by fabiorojas

February 26, 2014 at 12:05 am

Three thousand more words on critical realism

The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance.  The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance.  But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.

My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).

That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.

Read the rest of this entry »

data science is engineering – a guest post by karissa mckelvey

This is a guest post by Karissa McKelvey. She is affiliated with the Complex Systems PhD program at Indiana University’s School of Informatics. She works on the intersection of social media and political mobilization and has co-authored papers on Occupy Wall Street and the More Tweets/More Votes phenomenon.

Why Data Science is just a fad, and the future of the academy

We expect students to write research papers as well as do statistics in R or STATA or Matlab on small datasets. Why don’t we expect them to deal with very very large datasets? We are told that “Data Science” is the answer to this “Big Data” problem.

I’d like to redefine Data Science: it is the act of gluing toolkits together to create a pipeline from raw data to information to knowledge.There are no innovations to be made in Data Science. The innovations to be made here are in Computer Science, Informatics, Statistics, Sociology, Visualization, Math, etc. — and they always will be.

Data Science is just engineering.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

July 10, 2013 at 12:01 am

damnant quodnon intelligunt

Hi, Orgheads!

I am really excited to join the fray again as a guest contributor, and thankful to the team for inviting me. In my other posts I’ll be speaking on behalf of Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann (both of Vanderbilt University), my collaborators in the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). This one’s just me.

We’ve been asked to post on the state of arts graduates and artistic employment and skills in the contemporary U.S. I think the topic is timely and appropriate for this blog as we’ve discussed the value and relevance of an arts or humanities degree in the past. In particular, OrgTheory hosted a discussion in November titled, “why job hungry students choose useless majors.” The gist of Fabio’s argument, I think, is that college students are practical credentialists who want a BA to avoid service sector and manual labor; the least talented of these are drawn to majors that require the least “academic ability,” namely, the arts and humanities.

I won’t comment on the claim that arts and humanities disciplines require less “academic ability” (except to say that I think it’s bonkers), but I do want to remark upon the fiction that a firewall exists between math and science on the one hand, and the arts on the other. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jenn Lena

July 9, 2012 at 8:19 pm