Wednesday, 14 January 2015

How anti-semitic are you?

So, I'm sitting at the breakfast table this morning trying to jolly along my eight year old to finish her breakfast so we can start the school run and in the background, as usual, is Radio 4. It's news time and one of the top 3 items is a  story on anti-semitism that  claims that nearly 50% of the British population has at least some anti-semitic views and that 50% of British Jews now believe they have no long term future in Britain. This is reported in a pretty matter of fact way, with no comment and no attribution (that I can recall) . 

To me these numbers seem completely unbelievable, but maybe I just live in a liberal-lefty bubble in which I only ever meet like minded people who just confirm my rosy view of the world. Luckily I do have some horse sense and at least a dim awareness of the informational biases that we are all subject to.

I have no difficulty in believing that there exists in Britain a number of people with an unhealthy interest in uniforms, armbands and shiny black boots. Some of them may even have a suspicious interest in sepia tinted photographs of a man with a very odd mustache. Their grasp of the contours of modern European history may also, in some respects, be a bit shaky. A lot of them have, and if asked will express, obnoxious views about Jews, Muslims, Irishmen, homosexuals, Asians, Africans, socialists, liberals and just about any other minority group you can name. Let's face it, the nutters are always with us, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less.

But 50% of the British population is in some sense anti-semitic? If that's true then I really am living in Cloud Cuckoo Land and I should be paying more attention. With that thought in mind I decided to track down the sources. First stop after reaching work is to sit down with a coffee and pick up the Guardian. Nothing in the print version. I do better with the Times and discover one column on an inside page. This gives me the information that YouGov are responsible for some of the data the claims are based on.

So over to my office and onto the internet. First stop YouGov's website. No information there. OK, time for a general Google trawl. Eureka! Most of the British qualities and a few of the tabloids have a report in their online versions. It turns out that the data claims are based on a report put out by a group called Campaign Against Antisemitism. OK, now we are in business. CAA are a lobby and advocacy group. That's fine, nothing wrong with advocacy research as long as everyone is clear about what it is.

It's easy to find out who is fronting CAA though not where its funds come from. It was set up in August 2014 around the time the last Israel-Gaza conflict kicked off and was involved in the campaign to get the Tricycle Theatre to accept the London Israeli Embassy's sponsorship of the UK Jewish Film Festival. Just to get the facts straight the Tricycle, which had hosted the UKJFF for a number of years, wished to carry on doing so, but did not wish to accept sponsorship by the Israeli Embassy and offered to make up the shortfall from its own funds. This was regarded by some as evidence of anti-semitism on the part of the Tricycle. Jonathan Sacerdoti, CAA's Director of Communications is a well known lobbyist who appears to have a certain amount of form including some pretty crude attempts to cover up his tracks and present himself as a disinterested commentator on Middle-Eastern affairs.

So to sum up the story so far, the BBC were reporting the "findings" of an advocacy group closely linked to Britain's pro Israel lobby. Just to be clear, I'm not taking a view one way or other as to the rights or wrongs of this: people are free to push whatever they think they can sell to the media. I would have appreciated being told what the source was though so that I could take a more informed view as to whether I should believe it.

Now on to the "facts" about anti-semitism in Britain.

The evidence comes from a YouGov internet survey carried out on behalf of CAA. You can find the report here. Let's skip over all the generalized scepticism about  internet surveys, weighting, non-response and the rest and cut to the chase. The respondents were asked to rate whether seven statements about Jews were definitely true, probably true and presumably some other categories that we're not told about, which were taken to be indicators of anti-semitic views. Let's also gloss over the validity of the statements and simply take them at face value.

Here are the statements followed by the percentage saying they thought it definitely or probably true and in brackets the percentage thinking it untrue:

Jews think they are better than other people. 17% (83%)
In business, Jews are not as honest as most people. 11% (89%)
I would be unhappy if a family member married a Jew. 10% (90%)
Jews have too much power in the media. 17% (83%)
Jews chase money more than other British people. 25% (75%)
Jews' loyalty to Israel makes them less loyal to Britain than other British people. 20% (80%)
Jews talk about the Holocaust too much in order to get sympathy. 13% (87%)

So in fact, in all but one case 4 out of 5 Brits do not believe these statements to be true and 9 out of 10 would be happy for a family member to marry a Jew. Suddenly the British anti-semites seem quite a bit thinner on the ground. 

The headline "almost half (45%) of British adults believe at least one of the antisemitic statements shown to them" while no doubt literally true of those surveyed is not a sensible measure of the propensity towards anti-semitism in the British population. It has been produced by a kind of "Texan sharpshooter" procedure in which the target is made progressively larger until you include the required proportion of the population you are aiming at. 

If you are going to proceed in this way you need to know something about the base rate propensity for people to affirm  nonsensical statements or  statements about things about which they have no knowledge whatsoever.  In other words a fair proportion of the 45% that affirmed at least one of these statements could quite plausibly be counted an anti-semite purely as a result of a "tremblingly-hand" process. One might also wonder what the rate of affirmation would be to some of these statements if we substituted for "Jews" descriptors like "Christians", "Moslems" "Methodists" "Cockneys". Is someone who has a low opinion of everyone ipso facto an anti-semite?

Turning to the CAA survey of  British Jews, this is again an internet survey carried out over 20 days between 23rd December and 11th January. I think we can concede that this is a difficult population to survey while still holding that the representativeness of those surveyed is almost completely unknown. What is plausible from the description of the recruitment method given by CAA is that there is probably a bias towards the observant and against the secular and towards those who have or think they have experienced anti-semitism. 

There is probably also a bias towards those that view criticism of Israel as prima facie evidence of anti-semitism:

Boycotts of businesses selling Israeli products constitute intimidation. (84% agree)
Media bias against Israel fuels persecution of Jews in Britain. (82% agree)
I have witnessed antisemitism that was disguised as a political comment about Israel. (77% agree)

At least I hope that is the correct interpretation of these figures.  If it isn't then we really do have to wonder about what kind of a bubble some of us are living inside and what organizations like CAA are doing to inflate it.

And finally we can ask, why is the BBC giving such weight to the rather tendentious "research" of a lobby group, moreover a lobby group whose Director of Communications has burned their fingers before? Surely we should be told...

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Steve Fuller on sociology and the REF

Over at The Sociological Imagination Steve Fuller has an interesting piece on sociology and the REF. I could quibble about a few minor things, but I'm in broad agreement with the general message and in particular his final paragraph which I'll quote here:

The specific lesson with regard to sociology is that the lack of consensus on the acceptance of the overall REF results – highlighted by the BSA’s general statement to members – may indeed be a sign of sociology’s loss of clear disciplinary identity in this country. What critics of the REF results claim to be the ‘harshness’ of the REF panel’s judgements may reflect the highly variable understanding of what counts as ‘sociology’. Yes, it may really matter who’s on the panel because there is no common understanding of the field. If so, then on what grounds can the idea of sociology as a ‘discipline’ be maintained? No doubt ‘sociology’ is a great market attractor to get students into specific degree courses – and long may it flourish! But you don’t need dedicated sociology departments or, more to the point, research units to do this. Thus, the value of having sociology continue as a ‘discipline’ should focus sociologists’ minds, given that the neo-liberal order is not designed to respect, let alone protect, the value of disciplines as such.

"Successful" disciplines - in the social sciences the paradigm case is probably economics - define relatively tightly what kind of thing is inside and outside of the tent. Standards about what is and is not an acceptable question or solution to a question are shared and there is a consensus about the suite of acceptable research strategies - though not necessarily agreement about the applicability of a particular tool in each case. All this is not to say that people agree all the time about all the questions and the ways to answer them, but people do agree about the sort of thing they are doing  to the extent that they can meaningfully talk to each other. The Economic Journal does not publish poems.

Paradoxically a "discipline" in which "anything goes", is, of course, not literally a discipline in which everything goes. It is simply a discipline in which quite arbitrary decisions about academic value  get made that depend on whoever has grabbed or promoted themselves to positions of power and influence. Sometimes these decisions coincide with what is reasonable, sometimes they are absurd. How they look will very much depend on what flavour of "sociology" the observer happens to prefer. Personally I prefer p. values to poetry (as sociology) but nobody was asking me.

The President of the BSA Lynn Jamieson has posted a message on the BSA website  which contains the following sentences:

But whatever it looks like from where you stand, I hope we could agree that it is crucial that we, as sociologists, present a collaborative and positive front and continue to value each other’s research regardless of institutional affiliation. Division is not in the interests of the future of our discipline.

The sentiment, in the context, is understandable but is this what we really should be doing? Agreeing to disagree without making a serious effort to identify the sources of the difference is really not healthy for a discipline. What it means is that one thing gets said in public and another in private where the important decisions are really taken. It will be painful but in the long run better to cut out the hypocrisy and for everyone to say openly whatever they think is true about their own and other people's research. If you think that what I do is no good, muddle-headed or simply wrong, then I want to hear about it. Maybe you are right and if, by your arguments you persuade me, I'll change my mind. Or maybe you are talking out of your arse and then I want to be able to explain to you why I think that is the case. I can see no intellectual good coming out of pretending to value  research  I believe to be nonsense in order to protect a discipline that is so fragmented that it is merely a flag of convenience.

There are too many bunkers and dark hiding places in sociology where people just hang out with their mates and massage each other's egos. Most so called "debates" are nothing of the sort. In fact the last thing that many seem to want is genuine debate in the sense of extended argument and evidence being brought to bear on their beliefs. Witness the British Social Class Debate in the pages of Sociology: where exactly was the debate? How many of the contributions actually said anything of substance about the original article? How many of the arguments that were raised were actually addressed satisfactorily in the rejoinder?

And who are the guilty men and women? Well, not obviously the REF panel. Like Jamieson I think we have to believe that they were doing the best they could given the (absurd) rules of a game that probably a significant fraction of them didn't believe in. The real criminals, in my view, are the people that have led and been influential in running the major British sociological institutions. The BSA Presidents, the editors of the journals, the Professors in the major departments, in short the people who could have led but instead sat back and let a hundred flowers bloom  while saying things in private like: "I know that what x says is correct but I can't be seen to endorse that because it will upset y and lead to z and then w won't like me and therefore I won't be invited to v."



The specific lesson with regard to sociology is that the lack of consensus on the acceptance of the overall REF results – highlighted by the BSA’s general statement to members – may indeed be a sign of sociology’s loss of clear disciplinary identity in this country. What critics of the REF results claim to be the ‘harshness’ of the REF panel’s judgements may reflect the highly variable understanding of what counts as ‘sociology’. Yes, it may really matter who’s on the panel because there is no common understanding of the field. If so, then on what grounds can the idea of sociology as a ‘discipline’ be maintained? No doubt ‘sociology’ is a great market attractor to get students into specific degree courses – and long may it flourish! But you don’t need dedicated sociology departments or, more to the point, research units to do this. Thus, the value of having sociology continue as a ‘discipline’ should focus sociologists’ minds, given that the neo-liberal order is not designed to respect, let alone protect, the value of disciplines as such. - See more at: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/16661#sthash.aBP3OfNJ.dpuf
he specific lesson with regard to sociology is that the lack of consensus on the acceptance of the overall REF results – highlighted by the BSA’s general statement to members – may indeed be a sign of sociology’s loss of clear disciplinary identity in this country. What critics of the REF results claim to be the ‘harshness’ of the REF panel’s judgements may reflect the highly variable understanding of what counts as ‘sociology’. Yes, it may really matter who’s on the panel because there is no common understanding of the field. If so, then on what grounds can the idea of sociology as a ‘discipline’ be maintained? No doubt ‘sociology’ is a great market attractor to get students into specific degree courses – and long may it flourish! But you don’t need dedicated sociology departments or, more to the point, research units to do this. Thus, the value of having sociology continue as a ‘discipline’ should focus sociologists’ minds, given that the neo-liberal order is not designed to respect, let alone protect, the value of disciplines as such. - See more at: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/16661#sthash.aBP3OfNJ.dpuf
The specific lesson with regard to sociology is that the lack of consensus on the acceptance of the overall REF results – highlighted by the BSA’s general statement to members – may indeed be a sign of sociology’s loss of clear disciplinary identity in this country. What critics of the REF results claim to be the ‘harshness’ of the REF panel’s judgements may reflect the highly variable understanding of what counts as ‘sociology’. Yes, it may really matter who’s on the panel because there is no common understanding of the field. If so, then on what grounds can the idea of sociology as a ‘discipline’ be maintained? No doubt ‘sociology’ is a great market attractor to get students into specific degree courses – and long may it flourish! But you don’t need dedicated sociology departments or, more to the point, research units to do this. Thus, the value of having sociology continue as a ‘discipline’ should focus sociologists’ minds, given that the neo-liberal order is not designed to respect, let alone protect, the value of disciplines as such. - See more at: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/16661#sthash.aBP3OfNJ.dpuf

Friday, 19 December 2014

The wartime generation of statisticians

If you haven't already seen it there is a great article in The Economist about the generation of British statisticians that cut their intellectual teeth during World War II.

Random REF thought

I can't help think that the REF has a number of features in common with the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.  

Few, apart from the apparatchiks with their snouts in the trough and those compromised by the Stasi  actually wanted it to carry on. Nobody really believed in it any more, but nobody wanted to say so. So everything just carried on until one day some brave people had the courage to say in public: "I don't believe in this any more" and amazingly they found that they were not alone. 

Ask a political sociologist. When legitimacy leaks away and people don't believe then it doesn't matter how many tanks are parked on the lawn. When the honest men and women massively outnumber the arse-lickers and lick-spittles then it is possible to say; "No, we are not going to take this any more, we want to do things differently".

Thursday, 18 December 2014

REF 2014

So the waiting is over, the results are in and they are what they are. Congratulations to the winners and commiseration to the losers. As Brucie used to say "Good game, good game! 

A few weeks ago I posted on the  Mrygold, Kenna, Holovatch and Berche (MKHB) predictions for the Sociology sub-panel 2014 rankings based on the Hirsch (H) index. Just to remind you, the H index basically trades off citations against volume of production. So, it is no use producing a lot that nobody cares enough about to cite. To do well on H you have to produce work that people read.

So how did their predictions work out? Here's a graph I quickly ran off this morning. It plots 2014 REF GPA against  MKHB's H index score. Looks like an impressive relationship there, but in fact the Pearson correlation is only 0.15 (the Spearman rank correlation, to be fair is 0.65). 

What is  interesting is who is above and below the prediction line. The top 4 according to the 2014 REF ranking, York, Manchester, Cardiff and Lancaster, as well as Essex who come in at number 7 are all punching above their weight in H index terms. Another way of putting it is that the panel rated their outputs more highly than the research community (assuming that citation reflects, in the main, positive appreciation, significance, impact etc etc). Then there is the group that did less well than their H index suggests they should have, the OU, Warwick, Sussex, Brunel, Leicester and Queen's. If there is to be great wailing and gnashing of teeth then there is some justification for it from these guys.

Looking at this picture what strikes me most is how the H index really brings out three clusters of institutions: 1. Oxford, Manchester, Edinburgh, LSE and Cambridge where broadly speaking the H index and the REF evaluations agree in rating the institutions highly; 2. City, Goldsmiths, Manchester Met., East London and Roehampton where H index and REF agree in rating the institutions (relatively) poorly; 3. The crap shoot in the middle where the H index rates everyone about the same and where whatever it is that the REF panel members are thinking about , trading off and  higgling over makes all the difference. It would be really nice to know what that was, but I guess nobody is telling...

Other snippets of information that may be worth knowing: 

The Pearson correlation of REF GPA with number of staff submitted is 0.11  but the rank correlation is 0.60 ie  roughly the same as  with the H index. Having at least one  member of the REF panel from your institution is also correlated (modestly) with GPA (Pearson = 0.09, Spearman = 0.52).  And if you want to predict REF GPA without any direct measure of research quality then the  way to go is to use number of staff submitted plus whether you have a REF sub-panel member. The multiple correlation with these two measures is 0.19 ie you get a better prediction from this than from knowing the institution's H index score. Now that is food for thought.

So champagne for some and sack-cloth and ashes for others. But actually we are all losers from this ridiculous  and demeaning process. It's time for those who have come out of it smelling of roses (this time) to stand up in solidarity with those who have the faint whiff of the farmyard about them. There but for the grace of God etc.

And by the way, casting an eye over the rankings in a few cognate disciplines makes me think wtf!...

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Causality fascism

While in Turku I heard a term that was new to me "causality fascism". Actually, in the usage, there is an important distinction to make. 

It could be used to designate someone who believes that the only useful social scientific work to be done involves the rigorous identification of some sort of average treatment effect. This view is beginning to take hold in some of the social sciences  - political science seems to be particularly prone to colonization - and is clearly dumb, dumb, dumb. 

It's OK to have other objectives, as long as you are absolutely clear about what they are. What the balance should be between uncovering heterogeneity and serious causal analysis will depend on the state of knowledge in the field. Frankly, if we are still struggling to establish what the facts of the matter are, then it is  a little premature to put too much emphasis on causality.

On the other hand, if somebody starts to use words like "effect", "impact", "influence" etc rather than "differences", "heterogeneity" and so forth  and has no viable strategy to identify  real causal effects, then a little "causality fascism" is surely a good thing. In this context forcing people to really address what the numbers they estimate actually mean in terms of the relevant counterfactual gives some sort of protection against the propagation of bullshit.

All of which gives me an excellent excuse to link to the classic Seinfeld Soup Nazi.

Monday, 15 December 2014

With Lenin in Turku - and on social mobility in Britain

I'm just back from Turku where I was participating in an excellent workshop hosted (very generously)  by Jani Erola and Elina Kilpi-Jakonen as part of their INDIRECT project. We were kept pretty busy in the conference room  during the day and in other ways during the evening so I didn't have much time for sight-seeing until the morning of my departure when I took a quick look around the city.

Turku is a charming place with a lot of elegant Jugenstil buildings in the vicinity of the central market square. The Swedish influence is still evident and the Svenska Teater was advertising a forthcoming production of  Ronja Rövardotter. Love of Astrid Lingren is a part of North European culture that Britain doesn't really share. To be sure Pippi Långstrump is  known over here but that's about it. My own daughter's love of Astrid Lingren comes from her mother reading the stories to her in German and Ronja Raubertochter is one of her favourites.

My wandering took me to the Turku Art Museum - a fine building in Nordic Romantic style - where there was an  exhibition of the work of the controversial Icelandic collage artist Erro. I'd never seen anything by him before and the  juxtaposition of incongruous images - the People's Liberation Army marching through New Jersey - was amusing and at the same time slightly unsettling.

Just opposite the museum is a  bust of Lenin who apparently stayed in the building behind it in 1907 when he was on the run from the secret police. It doesn't say on the plaque how long he was there, but it turns out that it must have been less than five hours as he was pretty anxious to get on a boat to Stockholm - well you would if the alternative was a lengthy stay in Siberia. 

 And what was I doing there? Well I was giving a paper on long-term trends in social class mobility in the UK. If you take the care to assemble as much of the broadly comparable evidence as you can it turns out that (at least for men - hold the headline for women) there is a pretty convincing case for believing that over the last 50 years - and possibly longer - there has been a continuous decrease in baseline levels of association of very roughly 1% per year ie relative rates of social mobility have increased. Trimming the data and applying all sorts of data exclusions doesn't alter the story much. 

Social mobility crisis? What crisis? You can find the slides from my presentation here.