Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Freudian Slip

The Wiki on Baron Freud of Eastry makes very interesting reading. It tells you most of what you need to know about the man the Conservative Party believes is a fit and proper person to be an Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. You couldn't make it up (assuming Wikipedia hasn't).

Friday, 3 October 2014

Warwick University PLC

It's hardly a secret that the management of Warwick University have returned to what is more or less the founding creed of the institution, divide, rule and suppress dissent. If you thought that universities were islands of free expression in a world of corporate bullshit think again. Dennis Hayes explains here. And make sure you control that subversive body language.

What surprises me is how little we've heard from Warwick faculty about all of this. Has the university imposed a campus wide gagging order? Or is fear enough?

So who is going to win? Macho management or common sense? Let's give Sparks the last word.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

How sociologists make themselves absurd

I'm struggling to articulate a half-formed thought in this post so you may prefer to skip it and wait  until I manage to state it more sharply.

I was struck yesterday when I was skimming the replies to Lucas and Szatrowski's (LS) article on QCA  by the unwarranted assumptions that were being made about what LS believe about  quantification in empirical social science. It reminded me a little of some aspects of my exchange of views last year with David Byrne (here, here and here) though I'll readily admit that the intellectual quality of our "debate" was not nearly so elevated as the one that LS are involved in. I also see a connection with  some of the highly polemical pieces on the use of statistics in the social sciences written by Stephen Gorard (see for instance here and here).

The common thread is something like this:  the protagonists are not necessarily anti-quantitative but they seize on some aspect of poor practice that is widespread in the journals - inappropriate applications of  RCTs, unbelievable instrumental variables, misunderstandings of the meaning of confidence intervals, silly conclusions drawn from  null-hypothesis testing, giant fishing expeditions, enormous variable races, fatuous assumptions about causality - and then instead of drawing the conclusion that students and researchers need to be better trained, referees better informed and editors more sophisticated in their appreciation of what applied statistics can and can't do, they infer that the problem is not with the users or with the misapplication of the standard tools but is with the tools themselves which must be discarded and replaced with something else. 

Thus we get remarks like:

 "This paper confirms that confidence intervals are not a generally useful measure or estimate of anything in practice." Gorard

"The conventional quantitative programme in the social sciences has told us very little of real interest." Byrne

So the baby gets chucked out with the dirty bath water and the innocent are encouraged to reject the conventional tools before they have even had an opportunity to learn what they are good for.

So my puzzle is this:  why do apparently intelligent people choose to espouse such extreme views?

Let's set aside one possible explanation - that they are blathering about things they don't really understand. Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't: I'm not going to go there.

Another possible explanation is the incentive structure in social science publishing. All the incentives point in the direction of making big bold statements that catch the eye, contradict established positions and have a clear novelty take home message. Recommendations for cautious, incremental changes and improvements tend to be ignored  in favour of the shock of the new. Thus an article that argues quite a few people don't really understand what confidence intervals are good for is not as attractive to an editor as one that argues confidence intervals are completely useless. If you want to catch the eye in sociology then waving a banner declaring 'Revolution Now' is more likely to help you build a career than one that says 'Let's try to improve things a little bit'.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

QCA gets pounded...ouch!

I've not been paying too much attention to the journal literature over the Summer but I just checked out the 2014 (August) issue of Sociological Methodology. It contains a major article by Lucas and Szatrowski evaluating  Ragin's Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) methodology.  I've not had time to read it carefully enough but my preliminary impression is that they have severely disabled if not sunk a capital ship. All the QCA cronies manage in reply are a few feeble smears and some rather unseemly howling about how it is all so unfair. 

Sam's reply to the responses effectively buries the responders and dances on their graves in a way that I'm not sure I've ever seen before in an academic journal. I've long thought that QCA was a zombie technique and it will be interesting to see how it's going to survive this pounding. 

Clearly I'm going to have to read the article, responses and reply much more carefully. So might my students as they're candidates for inclusion in the revised reading  list for my Hilary Term Research Design course.

Incidentally Lucas mentions in passing that their manuscript went through five rounds of  R&R before final acceptance.  I guess that's the difference between publishing in a genuinely world class sociology journal and in the ones that the UK RAE panel pretends are world class.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014


Opening my mail this morning I found a flyer puffing Sociology in Pictures by one Michael Haralambos. The series appears to have ringing endorsements from, amongst others,  the University of Leicester, Cardiff, the Open University, Xinjiang Univesity and the University of Karachi. In case you were wondering Wikipedia informs me that Xinjiang is " of the major universities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China". I didn't check what it had to say about Leicester, Cardiff etc. 

Strangely none of the endorsements were attributed. Prof Cardiff opines: "An incredibly exciting book..." Perhaps he/she should get out more, or at least try reading some books with words in. I'm told  that even the ones with just a few words on each page can be quite thrilling. 

Perhaps the best comment is from Richard Thompson who in Fast Food gives us the delicious line: "Pictures on the register in case you're a moron".

I'm looking forward to the next offering in the series. Rumour has it that it will be a sociology bath book.

Friday, 26 September 2014

I want to see the bright lights tonight

It's Friday afternoon & not long to knocking off time - no protestant work-ethic guilt here. So what better way to prepare than listening to Richard Thompson. I've always loved this song it expresses something really important about the lives of most of the people where I grew up. Get out of the factory gates on Friday and have two days of freedom. The blonde is his daughter Kami who, unsurprisingly, looks just like her mother.

Another tune with something of the same theme, though in a slightly melancholic mood is Tom Waits' The Heart of Saturday Night. I'm sorry,  I can't abide Waits' "singing", but he is a great songwriter and Shawn Colvin does a decent job here.

Nick Cohen on PPE

In this week's Spectator Nick Cohen manages to make a bit of an ass of himself in a misguided attack on Oxford's PPE degree.  I'm not a great fan of PPE myself but not because of its far ranging content, but because of the way it & most other Oxford humanities and social science degrees are taught ie via the ubiquitous tute. 

In the course of his diatribe Cohen manages to say  that St Anthony's is Oxford's postgraduate college for the study of politics rather than an Oxford college for the study of politics. I think Nuffield might have something to say about that.

More seriously he seems to have a rather tenuous grasp of political history. I quote: "Career politicians with no interests outside politics have always existed, as the lives of Pitt the Younger, Lloyd George and Asquith show." I know nothing about Pitt the Younger so I'll have to defer to his superior knowledge there, but he couldn't be more wrong about Lloyd George and Asquith both of whom, coming from relatively humble backgrounds, had to make their own way in the world.

Lloyd George made a career for himself outside of politics as a solicitor, a profession he pursued even when he was in Parliament, though to be fair his brother did more than his fair share of keeping the family business going. LG also, as is well known, was extremely active in other sorts of extra-parliamentry and indeed extra-marital affairs.

Asquith was a practicing barrister, a classical scholar with a 1st from Balliol (the only classics first Balliol produced in his year) and an intellectual snob of the first order. In fact the chief complaint of his adversaries and of his own party is that he often gave the impression, even when premier, of regarding politics as a hobby that interfered with the real business of enjoying life. Like LG he was also not averse to a little extra-parliamentary business.