Vox has a nice interview with Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan about vaccine skeptics. What can be done to convince them? Brendan does research on political beliefs and has shown that in experimental settings, people don’t like to change beliefs even when confronted with correct information. His experiments show that this is true not only for political beliefs, but also controversial health beliefs like believing in the vaccine-autism link.
But there was an additional section in the interview that I found extremely interesting. Nyhan notes that it is easier to be a vaccine skeptic when you don’t actually see a lot of disease: “… many of the diseases that vaccines prevent today are essentially invisible in the US. Vaccines are a victim of their own success here.” This reminded me of a 2002 paper I wrote on STD/HIV transmission. In a model worked out by Kirby Schroeder and myself about people proposing to have risky sex with each other, we wrote that the model has an unusual prediction. If people are proposing risky sex based on how often their friends are infected, you may get unexpected outbreaks of disease:
In the models we have presented, there is no replacement; the population is stable. If we allow for replacement, then we arrive at a novel prediction: as uninfected individuals the population (through birth, migration, etc.) and HIV+ individuals leave (through illness), the proportion of infected individuals will decrease. Once this proportion falls, prior beliefs about the proportion of infected individuals will fall, and if this new prior belief is low enough , then HIV- negative individuals will switch from protected to unprotected sex. The long-term effect of replacement in our model, then, is an oscillation of infection rates… There is some evidence that oscillations in infection rates do occur… An intriguing avenue for research would be to link these patterns in infection rates to the behavior depicted in our model.
In other words, if your model of the world assumes that people take risk based on the infection rates of their buddies, then it is entirely possible, even predictable, that you will see sudden spikes or outbreaks because people “let their guard down.” For HIV, as more people use condoms and other measures, people may engage in more risky sex because few of their friends are infected. For measles and other childhood infections, people who live in very safe places may feel free to deviate from the standard practices that create that safety in their first place. I don’t know how to make vaccine skeptics change their minds, but I do know that movements like vaccine skepticism are some what predictable and we can prepare for it.
Heads turn whenever accusations are made about academic impropriety, but it is especially provocative when one of the researchers involved in a study makes accusations about his/her own research. A forthcoming article in the Journal of Management Inquiry written by an anonymous senior scholar in organizational behavior does exactly this. The author, who remains anonymous to protect the identity of his/her coauthors, claims that research in organizational behavior routinely violates norms of scientific hypothesis testing.
I want to be clear: I never fudged data, but it did seem like I was fudging the framing of the work, by playing a little fast and loose with the rules of the game—as I thought I understood how the game should be played according to the rules of the scientific method. So, I must admit, it was not unusual for me to discover unforeseen results in the analysis phase, and I often would then create post hoc hypotheses in my mind to describe these unanticipated results. And yes, I would then write up the paper as if these hypotheses were truly a priori. In one way of thinking, the theory espoused (about the proper way of doing research) became the theory-in-practice (about how organizational research actually gets done).
I’m certain that some people reading this will say, “Big deal, people reformulate hypotheses all the time as they figure out what their analysis is telling them.” The author recognizes this is the case and, I believe, relates his/her experience as a warning of how the field’s standards for writing are evolving in detrimental ways. For example, the author says, “there is a commonly understood structure or “script” for an article, and authors ask for trouble when they violate this structure. If you violate the script, you give the impression that you are inexperienced. Sometimes, even the editor requires an author to create false framing.” Sadly, this is true.
All too often reviewers feel that it is their role to tell the authors of a paper how to structure hypotheses, rewrite hypotheses, and explain analysis results. Some reviewers, especially inexperienced ones, may do this because they feel that they are doing the author(s) a favor – they’re helping make the paper cleaner and understandable. But the unintended consequence of this highly structured way of writing and presenting results is that it forces authors into a form of mild academic dishonesty in which they do not allow the exploratory part of the analytical process to be transparent.
Some journals have a much stronger ethos about hypothesis testing than others. AJS is looser and allows authors more freedom in this regard. But some social psych journals (like JPSP) have become extremely rigid in wanting to see hypotheses stated a priori and then tested systematically. I would love to see more journals encourage variability in reporting of results and allow for the possibility that many of our results were, in fact, unexpected. I would love it if more editors chastised reviewers who want to force authors into a highly formulaic style of hypothesizing and writing results. It simply doesn’t reflect how most of us do research.
Perhaps the anonymous author’s tale will ignite a much needed discussion about how we write about social scientific analysis.
One on-going aspect of ethnographic work is the never-ending reflection and re-evaluation of conclusions made months, years, or decades prior. Retrospection invites extended analysis of findings that were otherwise cut short; it also facilitates shift from a worm’s eye to a bird’s eye contextualization of a case. Michael Burawoy’s “Ethnographic Fallacies: Reflections on Labour Studies in the Era of Market Fundamentalism” offers one such contemplation.*
In this research note, Burawoy re-examines several decades of his participant-observations in workplaces in various nations; he reveals the actual names of his most famous disguised field sites. Looking back, he summarizes six revelations while imparting a warning to those overly invested in the merits of particular methodologies:
From the ethnographer’s curse, therefore, I turn to the ethnographic fallacies that limited my vision of market fundamentalism. First, there are three traps that await the ethnographer who seeks to comprehend the world beyond the field site: the fallacies of ignoring, reifying and homogenizing that world. Second, there are three traps awaiting the ethnographer who fails to give the field site a dynamic of its own: the fallacies of viewing the field site as eternal or, when the past is examined, the danger of treating the present as a point of arrival rather than also as a point of departure; and finally the danger of wishful thinking, projecting one’s own hopes onto the actors we study.
I describe these six fallacies not to indict ethnography but to improve its practice, to help ethnographers grapple with the limitations of their method. No method is without fallacies, it is a matter of how honestly and openly we approach them. Being accountable to the people we study requires us to recognize our fallibility and, thus, to wrestle with that fallibility. The methodological dogmatists, who declare they have found the flawless method and spend their time condemning others for not following the golden trail, are the real menace to our profession.
A recent column in the NY Time’s “Opinionator” by Jon Grinspan argued that abolitionism was not a successful movement in the 19th century. I have a different opinion so let’s start with what I think is correct in Jon Grinspan’s column. First, he is completely correct that abolitionism – the abandonment of slavery – was not ever a majority opinion in the US. A lot of people, including President Lincoln, were not trying to end slavery in 1861. Second, Grinspan correctly argued that abolition only became a real policy possibility once war began, which was the result of Southern hot heads – not abolitionists.
So where do I disagree with Grinspan? First, Grinspan is taking an incomplete view of abolitionism by having a domestic focus. The US is one of the few nations in modern history that ended slavery via war. Haiti is another, when slaves led an anti-French revolution. But in other places, abolition came in other forms. Most of Latin America abolished slavery after the 1821 revolution. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1833. The Russians abolished serfdom in 1861.
Second, even within the US, slavery was slowly being ended, one state at a time. My own state of Indiana ended it 1823. A cursory inspection shows that the entire North had ended it by the 1840s and the last slave state would almost certainly be Texas, as there were many attempts to make other former Mexican territory slave free. Without war, I suspect a slow and painful, but eventually successful, erosion of slavery would be imposed by the wealthier and more powerful industrial North.
The arc of history was bent by the abolitionists. Many resisted, but thankfully this ended. The abolitionists can only be seen as a failure if we ignore the overall picture and focus on the South.
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