Sunday, July 29, 2007

Social science and the public

Fabio Rojas, a Sociologist at discusses why does sociology have such a bad reputation?  I believe these sort of concerns apply, perhaps to different degrees, to the disarray of disciplines we now call social science:

"I am always shocked at our profession’s poor public image. Basically, the educated public barely knows that sociology is actually a real social science, and among those that do, sociology has a fluffy image. (...)  This is frustrating because we study important questions and we actually come up with some good answers. So here are some hypotheses about why we have such poor PR:

  1. Politics: As a group, we simply are too far from the average person in political outlook. People write us off as kooks.
  2. Great Books: At the undergraduate level, we teach too much from old, musty texts. It gives the impression that sociology is like English lit class - a tedious exercise in decoding the writings of dead guys. Not real science.
  3. No science: Although sociology is taught as an empirical social science at the graduate level, many undergraduates don’t get this at all. We should turn intro soc into a version of intro econ (core theories + exercises in analytical reasoning).
  4. We hate math: I’m not talking about statistics, I’m talking about the near absence of formal theory building in sociology. It’s relegated to various small pockets like formal soc psych, math soc, networks, rational choice, etc. The average sociologist doesn’t acquire formal theory as a tool. At a deep level, most insight in social science is not mathematical, but by completely tossing math, we throw out something that is quite useful and brings credibility.
  5. No Levitts: For some reason, we fail to produce people who act as the spokesperson of sociology. We have no Levitts, Krugmans, Friedmans, etc. Why are economists so friggin’ good at producing prominent public intellectuals, while sociology goes for *years* between NY Times op-eds? What do we do to suprress the production of PR savvy sociologists? Of course, we occasionally make the news with a clever article or book, but we fail to gain a permanent slot in public discussion. Why?
  6. The problem is social problems (not the journal!): By emphasizing social dysfunction, we become associated with dysfunction. A basic finding in the study of the professions is that the prestige of your clients is a big predictor of your prestige. Also, if that’s what the average college student takes away from sociology - that it’s the field of social problems - then that’s the image they’ll have about us for the rest of our lives.
  7. Post-modernism: This one isn’t our fault, but a lot of people make the link “hard French guys= sociology.” And yes, we all owe much to Bourdieu, but the overwhelming bulk of modern sociology is regular scientific hypothesis testing and thick description. The public thinks that we just sit around and play word games.
  8. Bad recruits: Let’s admit it - the kids who scores a perfect SAT score doesn’t immediately rush to sociology. We just don’t get the best recruits. This point was made in Halliday and Janowitz’ Sociology and Its Publics in the chapter on recruitment into sociology. We spend too much time trying to fill large lecture halls of intro soc and not enough time going for totally high caliber students. The result - the field suffers as a whole."
Also related, Fabio ponders What is “public sociology?”
"Here are some different versions of “public sociology” that I could imagine:
  1. Publicity: In this model, you don’t do anything different, but you just make a better effort at explaining yourself to people. “Newsworthiness” is your goal.
  2. Applied work: You switch from basic science research to policy driven work. Public sociology is sociology that tells you if program X makes a difference. If you take this view of public sociology seriously, then sociology quickly veers into social work and public policy studies.
  3. Problem advocacy: You use social science research techniques to draw attention to your personal causes.
  4. “Social problem” research: You do basic science, but on topics you deem politically relevant.
  5. Political selections of theory: I think this is closer to what Burawoy raises in “The Critical turn to Public Sociology.” You study the same things as other folks, but you substitute theories inspired by your political view. E.g, you dump stratification research and go to Marxian class analysis."
IMHO, at the core of these problems lie two basic trade-offs: 
1. Passion versus method.  Some (lots of?) people enter social sciences with a genuine concern to make a difference on the issues they care the most (call it the we gotta do something! spirit).  But there is a trade off between passionate advocacy and cold-minded research.  Not many of us are willing to take evidence that runs against our deeply held beliefs (at least not immediately)--which one of the many reasons why its is useful to stick to a defensible research method: when making a judgement call during research you have to trust your method rather than your instincts because the former are less value-ladden than the latter. 
2. Broad versus focused discourse.  Some people enter social sciences because they want to be the next hot public intellectual, that is, they want to be famous within more or less sophiticated circles (call it the barely sophisticated spotlight spirit).  But then again, there is a trade off between the sort of discourse that will get you media attention or put your book in bestseller lists (if you don't believe this, check out any non-fiction bestseller list in the world) and the dismal stuff that will make the grade in peer reviewed journals and/or get you the recognition of the few hundreds of people that share your research interests.
Of course, there is some middle ground and a handful of scholars are able to move back and forth between popular and narrow outlets.  A tad more of them start narrow and then go public as they get older and famous: by the time these scholars become famous, they already made their mark in academia, if at all.  But the vast majority pick their fields early on and just stick to it in order to exploit the gains from specialization.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Future research: Foreign soccer players / Narco-campaigning

If I had infinite (ok, just twice more) time I would like to investigate the following:

What is the effect of limiting the number of foreign players in soccer leagues? A cross-country study.

Ideally, this should be a panel with TSCS variation on the legal limits variable.
DepVar: domestic players competitiveness (measured by performance of the country-i team on FIFA tournaments through time)
IndepVars: Number of foreign players allowed or average foreigners enrolled, initial competitiveness, GDP per capita, number of teams in top tier league or number of large stadiums per country... etc.

Logic: if foreign players crowd out domestic talent, local teams should underperform when more foreigners are allowed. But if foreign players raise competitive standards and complement local talent (think of the self-selection and screening effects on the pool of domestic players), then national teams may become more competitive in the presence of foreigners.

Comment: I am not enough of a sports fan to care a lot about this--but whatever the finding, it would give a good economics lesson to all those sports-pundits out there.

Narco-campaigning? Drug money and local democracy in México (or Colombia for that matter)

This also has to be a panel where some localities become "treated" by drug dealers.

DepVar: Turnout or closeness in local elections.

IndepVars: Some sort of index of drug dealing activity at the local level (maybe proxied by drug-related crime?), typical political controls within state and municipality, two-way fixed effects, etc.

Logic: Ok, we know/suspect that drugdealers may want to buyout local authorities. They can do this at the electoral or post-electoral stage. If they give out money to candidates, and we assume some common campaigning technology, you could expect (i) that the extra money leads to higher turnout (compared to state and municipal averages), or (ii) maybe more lopsided elections returns. If the effect is significant it would be indirect evidence of "narco-campaigning". If the effect is not significant, we would still face many possibilities: either narco campaigning is not affecting election outcomes because drug dealers don't care much about the electoral stage (vis a vis post-electoral maneuvering)--or maybe drug dealers giving is indistinguishable from other donors elsewhere, or maybe candidates optimize their spending to just about what they need to win, and pocket the rest, etc. (yes, there are many explanations for any nonsignificant outcome!).

Comment: Getting a good proxy for drug-activity may be hard (but who knows, maybe the AFI got some data at hand). But the real downside is worse: if the narc variable turns out to be positive and significant, your life is in danger.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

In defense of dangerous ideas

Steve Pinker lists a good number of unsettling ideas (all ripe for research if you are brave enough):

Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?
Were the events in the Bible fictitious -- not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?
Has the state of the environment improved in the last 50 years?
Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage?
Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?
Do men have an innate tendency to rape?
Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to violence?
Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?
Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized?
Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men?
Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?
Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized?
Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?
Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?
Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?
Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?
Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?
Would Africa have a better chance of rising out of poverty if it hosted more polluting industries or accepted Europe's nuclear waste?
Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?
Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?
Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?
Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?

This essay was first posted at Edge ( and it is the Preface to the book 'What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable,' published by HarperCollins.

Where do the super wealthy come from?

...Not from Wall Street nor Main Street, at least not as many as you would have thought, that is.

Wall Street and Main Street: What Contributes to the Rise in the Highest Incomes?
by Steven N. Kaplan, Joshua Rauh

We consider how much of the top end of the income distribution can be
attributed to four sectors -- top executives of non-financial firms
(Main Street); financial service sector employees from investment
banks, hedge funds, private equity funds, and mutual funds (Wall
Street); corporate lawyers; and professional athletes and
celebrities.  Non-financial public company CEOs and top executives do
not represent more than 6.5% of any of the top AGI brackets (the top
0.1%, 0.01%, 0.001%, and 0.0001%).  Individuals in the Wall Street
category comprise at least as high a percentage of the top AGI
brackets as non-financial executives of public companies.  While the
representation of top executives in the top AGI brackets has
increased from 1994 to 2004, the representation of Wall Street has
likely increased even more.  While the groups we study represent a
substantial portion of the top income groups, they miss a large
number of high-earning individuals.  We conclude by considering how
our results inform different explanations for the increased skewness
at the top end of the distribution.  We argue the evidence is most
consistent with theories of superstars, skill biased technological
change, greater scale and their interaction.