Monday, 13 April 2015

In which I break a promise...

A while ago I promised, more or less, not to bring up the subject of the Great British Class Survey in these precincts again. So let's just call this a contribution to information diffusion. 

The data are now deposited in the UK Data Archive and you can read the documentation here. And very interesting reading it makes too. If you have a stomach for it you can also download the data. This is where it gets really interesting. 

Remember the GfK molehill that supported the GBCS mountain? If you want to know how solidly attached to the ground that molehill  is you really need to look at the marginal distributions of household income and wealth. There is something primitively satisfying about having one's intuitions confirmed. In Sunday school we used to sing a chorus about the foolish man who built his house upon the sand...

The terms of the agreement you have sign to get the data are themselves interesting. I've never seen anything like it. Here they are in full:

BBC Great British Class Survey, 2011-2013
Additional Agreement on Conditions of Use
The BBC Data Collection shall not be used in a manner which:
  • distorts the original meaning of the BBC Data Collection, for example by changing the context;
  • discriminates against any specific social group or otherwise exploit vulnerable sections of society;
  • promotes, encourages or facilitates violence;
  • promotes, encourages or facilitates illegal activity;
  • promotes, encourages or facilitates terrorism or other activities which risk national security;
  • promotes the tobacco, armaments, alcohol or pornographic industries;
  • encourages hatred on grounds of race, religion, gender, disability, age or sexual orientation;
  • promotes, encourages or facilitates anti-social behaviour;
  • might be perceived as damaging the BBC's reputation for accuracy or impartiality; or
  • otherwise brings the BBC into disrepute.

Can anyone tell me what the first of these means? And the last looks pretty scary too. Who knows, in the eyes of some corporate lawyer or other, just by writing this I may already have broken the conditions of use. I could go on about the dangers of public bodies confounding their commercial interests with their public service duties, but I've probably said enough already. 

I'll let you know if a solicitor's envelope arrives on my doorstep.



Friday, 20 March 2015

Keeping public policy makers in the dark

Vikki Boliver alerted me to a very important report released by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on the issue of administrative data sharing. It covers, among other things, the damage done by  UCAS's decision to discontinue making  anonymized micro-data available (for a fee) to bona-fide researchers. The consequence of this particular piece of bone-headed lack of civic virtue is that the evaluation of  public policy goals with regard to equality of access to tertiary level education has been rendered all but impossible. 

Nice one UCAS, of course we trust you to always do the right thing even when it conflicts with your commercial interests...Then again a government that actually cared about such matters could always legislate to remove any potential conflict of interest.

But let's not beat up exclusively on UCAS. The issue is wider than just the use of administrative data as Stephen McKay & I point out in comments on the SMCPC web-site. One arm of government is charged with promoting social mobility, while another constructs an obstacle course that makes it difficult for the interested citizen to find out what the facts of the matter are. You couldn't make it up. On second thoughts, you may as well because there is hardly any way to find out if you did.



Thursday, 19 March 2015

NHST and all that

A few weeks ago I was involved in an initially interesting and then increasingly bad-tempered exchange about p. values, confidence intervals, null-hypothesis testing and so forth on the quantitative_methods_teaching mailing list. This probably was not the right forum to discuss the issue in, but in my defense I was provoked...Anyway, the QMT mailing list is a good and useful thing when used properly to disseminate information about the teaching of quantitative methods.

The initial provocation was some crowing about the now well known move by the B (C?) string psychology journal  Basic and Applied Social Psychology to "ban" much of the apparatus of standard frequentist statistical inference (or at least the reporting of it). You can see the original editorial here and the most recent clarification here. For what it is worth, my view is that this is a case of a well meaning but misguided editor collaring the wrong suspects. I doubt it will have much impact in psychology but ripples are already spreading to adjacent disciplines and there is a danger that a lot of ink will be spilled in regaining a sense of proportion as the one-eyed encourage the blind to firmly grasp the wrong end of the stick.

All of which is just a preliminary to saying that if you are really interested in the issues at stake you should read Stephen Senn's guest post  and the ensuing comments on Deborah Mayo's blog. The exchanges between Senn, Colquhoun and Mayo are particularly enlightening (and good tempered). 

You see, people that know what they are talking about can have a discussion without bellowing down a megaphone.


Tuesday, 17 March 2015

CSI Oxford launch

There is a launch event today at the British Academy for the Centre for Social Investigation. CSI Oxford is based in Nuffield College and directed by Anthony Heath. 

The idea of the Centre is, to quote from its website, "... to address contemporary social issues of public interest and to engage with policy-makers and the public more generally, carrying out authoritative, non-partisan research on central social issues which draws upon expertise in economics, politics and sociology and related disciplines such as social policy."

Eleven initial briefing papers are already available. There are also plans for longer working papers and other publications.

I was originally slated to say something at the launch, but for reasons that are too boring to go into I'm not able to get there. However, I won't just be there in spirit. If time permits the  audience will see my short video presentation on social class inequality at KS4. You can read the briefing paper it is based on here and if you can't get to the BA you can view the video here.

So, good luck to Anthony, Lindsay and everyone else who has contributed so far to getting the show on the road. It might be a stretch to claim that Lord Nuffield would warmly  approve, but  he probably won't be spinning in his grave

Monday, 16 March 2015

Portes on Troubled Families

Jonathan Portes also has a good piece on the DforCLG's attempt to build a tower of bullshit out of some fantasy numbers. So when are they going to be renamed the Ministry of Truth?

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Abuses of Power

While on the subject of abuses of power, like many I was a bit stunned by this week's story of the Grantham 4 year old  stopped by a police officer from riding her bike - complete with stabilizers - on the pavement and the subsequent threat that the bicycle would be confiscated.

Nobody this side of sanity wants to see adults riding bicycles on the pavement (unless they are using a designated cycle lane), but a 4 year-old? I suppose hypothetically she could have been a threat to life or limb, but so could all sorts of categories of people - you really have to be careful around people with baby buggies...

Clearly, this was an arbitrary abuse of power. The law says that cycling on the pedestrian pavement is illegal. There is no doubt about that. But Home Office guidance encourages the police, traffic wardens and community support officers to exercise discretion when it is sensible to do so; on what planet would it be sensible to require a 4 year-old to ride in the road? 

But the killer is that a 4 year old is below the age of criminal responsibility which means they can't be issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice or in fact punished in any way for riding on the pavement. This implies that a threat to confiscate the bicycle had no legal basis. If the officer concerned didn't know this then they were incompetent. If they did they were arbitrarily abusing their power. What is absolutely clear is that they had no common sense. I know it must be hard to recruit people into the police service these days, but even so, I don't think we want to recruit people who have no common sense.

Lincolnshire police made a mealy mouthed apology. Why don't they just fess up and admit that one of their constables was over-zealous? Oh, and they could make sure that their officers are thoroughly acquainted with the powers they actually have.

Ruth Levitas on "Troubled Families"

Troubled Families in a Spin by Ruth Levitas should be essential reading for anyone who cares about statistical integrity in the pursuit of public policy. If even half of what Levitas claims is true such integrity seems to be in short supply at the Department of Communities and Local Government.

It's a tale of civil servants pulling a number out of their collective arses and then systematically obstructing any independent attempt to evaluate the leaning tower of bullshit they create on the basis of it. Particularly appalling is the use of cynical word games to evade statutory duties under the Freedom of Information legislation. 

Behaving like this simply reduces the legitimacy of government and makes the public cynical and disengaged. But perhaps that is the idea. If people stop trusting and believing the political and administrative classes but have no power to do anything about it, that leaves them pretty much free to do anything they want & tell us whatever they want about it. All very convenient.