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Caveat Emptor

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

Monday, 13 December 2010

How to run a department

Actually the only way to learn how to do it is to... well...do it. I made a few mistakes myself in my brief sojourns as well as managing to do a few things that I felt were worthwhile. Hindsight is always 20/20 but I find these bullet points by Mark Harrison on the business of running a department to be the nearest one can get to wisdom on the matter.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Of beads and bad eggs

The Glass Bead Game is one of the books I bought at the end of my first year at university. The long hot Summer stretched ahead, I read the first few pages, couldn't get into it and picked up The Tin Drum instead. And  ever since, Hesse's magnum opus has followed me around, cover fading, pages turning slightly brown waiting to be rediscovered. This September I packed it along with a small selection of other long  novels that have for  years sat on my bookshelves and brought them to Germany. 
My plan was a simple one. First, only bring very long novels. Second, bring novels that I wouldn't normally have time to read or have in the past failed to get through. Third, by failing to bring any short, tempting, lightweight fiction force myself to read my neglected classics. By and large this has worked. If I want to read any fiction at all the only options I have to hand are Mann, Dostoyevsky, Thackeray, Grossman etc or take to reading German Krimis. Much as I like detective fiction, the conscious effort required to read it in another language would take away a lot of the pleasure, so I'm forced back  to my classics.
So far my strategy is working. I found I actually enjoyed The Glass Bead Game. It's true that  not much happens in it but the story of Knecht's struggle to reconcile the life of the mind with the impulse to act in the world meant something to me at nearly 50 which it couldn't possibly have done to me at 18. Maybe books should come with recommendations as to the right phase in life to read them in.  I remember reading On the Road in my late 20s and thinking that I was already too old to be wasting my time with that sort of stuff. Even worse was a brief moment of enthusiasm for John Buchan in my early 30s!
After finishing Hesse I then picked up Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Serendipity, for this is also a tale about idealistic compromise leading to tragedy.  The book isn't flawless, but it is very very good. The blurb on the back claims that it is the greatest American political novel. It may well be that, but it is also one of the best novels I've read in any category. Warren belongs up there in the American Pantheon with Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway. The strange thing is that until a  couple of  years ago I had never heard of him. And one calls oneself educated...

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Instrumental voodoo

Instrumental variables can, on the relatively rare occasions when they are compelling, be a powerful trick to keep up your sleeve. What I find strange though is how often undeniably clever people lose their grip on common sense when they decide to instrument. 
Here is a link to a short article reporting a cross-national macro-level study which purports to show  that private schooling produces better academic results not only for those that buy it but for those left in the state system. Of course private schooling is highly selective and all sorts of unmeasured and possibly unmeasurable traits are correlated with it. Light-bulb moment, let's instrument. 
The instrument chosen by the authors is the % of Catholics in the state's population in 1900. The argument is that the Catholic church was/is the main provider of non-state education. So following the standard instrumenting story we are invited to believe that % Catholics in 1900 (interacted with an indicator of whether Catholicism was the state religion) is related to average PISA test marks round about now, through and only through its effect on the proportion enrolled in private schools. 
I have no idea whether this makes sense for most of the countries included in the study, but it strikes me as absurd in the case of Great Britain. Since at least 1902 most Catholic schools  (at least those that were of relevance to the majority of the population) were to a large degree maintained by the state and subject to the same regulatory regime. In other words they were not in any very meaningful sense private schools. Maybe the main results still come out if you drop GB, but there are times when I have a lot of sympathy for the generalized scepticism of the institutional comparativists about the wide and shallow approach. 
It's never bad to invest a little time learning something about the cases you chuck into your regressions. Of course that might mean  publishing less (and knowing more) and we wouldn't want that would we?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Yesterday's Bamberg talk

I gave a talk yesterday to the Diplomanden und Doktorandenkolloqium run by Hans-Peter Blossfeld. It was partly about what I have been doing since I arrived in Bamberg  in September. For anyone who is interested in the slides, here they are.

Monday, 22 November 2010

A social policy that worked? Learning lessons from the past.

It's easy to get cynical about social policy interventions that are meant to level the social playing field or temper the worst extremes of the raw market outcome. Too often we are told that what trickles down to the truly disadvantaged is a small fraction of what was actually intended and that the savvy middle-classes scoop up the lion's share of the benefits. More university places? Great say the not so bright scions of the stockbroker belt who, despite an expensive private school education, only manage a mediocre set of A level grades. Let the 3 year party begin! Well, maybe. But not all the advantages of reform are necessarily captured by the middle-classes. It depends on how the reforms are implemented.
Consider the case of England and Wales in the early Twentieth Century. Then the field of battle was not access to tertiary education but access to secondary education. Secondary education was almost entirely in private (though mostly not for profit) hands and supply was severely limited. Secondary schools were not however averse to making a deal with the State and many agreed in return for significant grants from the public purse to make 25% or more of their places free to children who had attended state elementary schools. Of course some of these free places were captured by the canny middle classes who sent their kids to good local elementary schools and then crammed them for the scholarship tests. But not all, and here is the evidence (click on the image for a larger picture):

Figure 1. Trends in odds-ratios and relative-risks under three models for the proportion with „secondary“ education. Men with father’s occupational score  ± 1 standard deviation from the mean. England and Wales, 1949.
The key to interpreting this graph is that each line involves a contrast between men from different social backgrounds. I've chosen to display this by comparing men whose fathers had "occupational status" scores +/- 1 standard deviation around the mean. Purists will  complain that I have broken one of my own golden rules by not giving any indication on the graph of the absolute level of "risk" (in this case the probability of achieving a secondary school education) but it suffices to know that roughly 80% of the population had no secondary schooling. 
Whether one looks at relative risk or odds ratios it is clear that inequality of access with regard to father's status declined. What is really telling is the comparison of the dotted and dashed counterfactual relative-risk line and the solid black "trend in free places" relative risk line. The first of these shows what would have happened if the odds ratios describing the association between social background and secondary schooling would have remained  at the the same levels as those observed for the birth-cohort 1880-89 ie men whose schooling mostly took place in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century. Inequality (as measured by relative risk) would still have declined but it declined even more than it otherwise would have because the association between social background and schooling  also declined.
A nice feature of the data I'm using here (David Glass's 1949 Social Mobility Survey) is that it allows you to have two views of the same time period. The men who appear in the data as sons in Figure 1 appear as fathers in Figure 2 which displays the trends for their children (in this case boys though the pattern for girls is essentially identical).

Figure 2. Trends in proportions (with 95% confidence intervals), odds-ratios and relative-risks for the proportion with „secondary“ education. Men with father’s occupational score  ± 1 standard deviation from the mean. England and Wales, 1949.

 Figure 2 tells essentially the same story as Figure 1 with the sole difference being that the level of the estimated proportions differs slightly because father's "occupational status" is measured in a slightly different way in the two graphs.
So what is new? Actually not much. I can't claim to be the first to notice this, in fact Anthony Heath and Peter Clifford pointed it out quite a long time ago in one of their JRSS articles. All I can claim is that after digging around there is some evidence that favours an interpretation of the trend towards greater social equality in terms of the operation of the free-places scheme. Firstly the differences in the odds-ratios between birth cohorts are more or less linear in the proportion of the cohort getting a free place. In itself this isn't terribly strong evidence as lots of other things may well have been changing in the same direction. More convincing is that if you break secondary schooling down into free-places and non-free places, then the trend completely disappears. In other words the trend is only there when you aggregate over paying or not paying for your education and is in fact a compositional effect. The proportion of people who got a secondary education increased and this was mainly driven by an increase in the proportion with free places. People with free places tended to come disproportionately from the less well-off sectors of society.
So here is one social reform that, at least partly, worked as it was intended to work. I wonder if there are any lessons here for current policies about access to higher education? If you want to avoid the middle-classes grabbing the benefits of reform you have to put the extra resources into places they are unlikely to find appealing (the equivalent of the state elementary schools).  So, how about  reserving 90% of places in universities for children who attended state secondary schools. Smacks too much of social engineering? OK, if we are going to have higher tuition fees why not take a levy on all those who enter state subsidized higher education after attending a private secondary school. We already charge non-EU students higher tuition fees. Why not charge the privately educated  more than the cost of their tuition and use the surplus to make sure that talented kids from poor backgrounds are not excluded from the best universities? That would pose an interesting decision problem for middle-class parents. They realised a long time ago what, under the present system configuration, an incredible bargain private-schooling can be when compared to the cost of buying a house in the catchment area of a good state comprehensive.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Liu Xiaobo, Mordechai Vanunu and Carl von Ossietzky

This may be the first year since 1936 that  neither the receiver or a representative of the receiver of the Nobel Peace Prize will be able to go to Oslo to collect the medal and the cheque. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has issued a statement saying that: "Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law", to which the only answer is that it is about time the Chinese changed their laws so that they accorded with elementary principles of human decency. I'm sure there are many ordinary Chinese citizens that would, if they were given a chance, agree with that sentiment.
The last odious regime that succeeded in preventing a laureate or their representative attending the prize ceremony was Nazi Germany. In 1936 the winner was Carl von Ossietzky a pacifist journalist who was convicted of treason by the Weimar government for revealing that Germany, in direct contravention of the Versailles Peace Treaty, was both rearming and training its air force in Soviet Russia. Mordechai Vanunu imprisoned for revealing the existence of the Israeli nuclear weapons programme and since his release denied by the State of Israel his constitutional rights including the right to leave Israel  is the winner of the 2010 Carl-von-Ossietzky-Medal. He was, of course, unable to attend the award ceremony in Berlin.

The last lines of  Oswald Andrae's song about Ossietzky  - Dat Leed van den Häftling Nr. 562 - are:

Den Nobelpries för den Freeden kreeg de Häftling, den ik meen
Gegen Unrecht harr he streeden. Mien Kind, verget dat nich
Waak ween, hanneln för den Freeden, denn dat Woort alleen helpt nich 

It's low German which taxes my linguistic abilities a bit, but a rough translation is something like:

The prisoner I'm talking about got the Nobel Prize for Peace/ he fought against injustice. Don't forget my child/ always remember that in the struggle for peace words alone are not enough.

Monday, 25 October 2010

The shortest way with university fees (with apologies to Defoe)

Dear Sir

In the light of the Browne report and the CSR it is clear that universities are going to be asking their customers to hand over more of the paper stuff before they are allowed to step through the hallowed portals. Of course this is only fair. However I concede that some tyro scholars will be inconvenienced  and will not have the ready cash available nor possess a convenient stash of family silver that can be pawned to tide them over. Of course universities must do all they can to help those in this position even if the root cause of their distressing state is the improvidence of their parents who instead of becoming teachers, social workers and care-assistants should have known that investment banking  and stockbroking was a securer career choice. 
Be that as it may the solution is obvious. At our elite universities there are many fine upstanding young men and women  from good families and schools who are used to having things done for them and have the wherewithal to pay for it. Likewise there is a pool of  impoverished tykes clamouring at the door but without the obvious means to pay for anything.  In the spirit of enterprise (so sadly lacking in our institutions of higher learning)   we should let the market produce the solution. Universities should immediately create employment agencies through which more affluent students can hire the services of their less fortunate colleagues. There is no shortage of honest and useful work that can be done, beds to be made, houses to be cleaned, letters to be delivered, meals to be cooked and no suggestion that such arrangements should be put to immoral purposes. If the term  was not already appropriated I would suggest that FAGS might be a good name for the new "servant" class. Charges for services rendered could be added automatically to termly battels and offset against the servant's university fees. This would have the added advantage that no actual cash would change hands thus removing all temptation of the servant spending it on frivolity and frippery.

I remain Sir your most obedient servant,

Major-General Bufton-Tufton (rtrd.)

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Smear tactics and guilt by association

A good rhetorical  tactic if you want to cast doubt on the credibility of someone without directly calling them  a liar is to associate their name with the name of someone else who has a reputation for dishonesty. All the better if both parties are dead and can't defend themselves. I came across  something like this in Peter Saunders' old 1996 pamphlet Unequal but Fair: A Study of Class Barriers in Britain. To make my point I have to invoke the doctrine of fair use and quote Saunders at length:

It is a sad reflection on the rigour, vitality and integrity of much mainstream post-war British sociology that the Glass findings were so readily endorsed by so many leading sociologists for so long. The evidence was hopelessly dated (more than two-thirds of the fathers in the study had first entered the labour  market when Queen Victoria was still on the British throne), yet these findings were accepted as a valid guide to British social structure well into the 1970s, thirty years into the long post-war economic boom and long after the first wave of post-war social and educational reforms should have had some sort of impact. Even worse, the research was seriously flawed. Geoff Payne has meticulously demonstrated that the data are unreliable, for taking account of the twentieth century expansion in white-collar and contraction in blue-collar jobs, and of the higher fertility rates in working-class than in middle-class families, the Glass data could only have been valid if the number of white collar jobs had declined by 18 per cent in the course of a generation. In reality, however, the number of such jobs had increased over this period by 17 percent. The findings, in other words, were quite simply impossible given the occupational changes documented by censuses through the first fifty years of this century.

Payne likens David Glass’s standing within social mobility research to that of Charles Darwin in evolutionary theory. A more appropriate parallel might be with the infamous Cyril Burt and his influence upon psychological thinking about intelligence. Like Burt, Glass’s work went uncriticised for many years despite clear evidence that the data were fallacious. There is no suggestion that Glass manufactured his data, but Payne does note with some frustration the apparent unwillingness within the discipline of sociology to cast doubt upon Glass’s study. This may have had something to do with Glass’s standing within British sociology, for in the early 1950s he was a major figure with considerable influence, but it also probably reflects the reluctance of left-wing sociologists to question findings which were consistent with their own prejudices.

The substance of these paragraphs are repeated, though without the reference to Burt, in Saunders' 2010 book Social Mobility Myths also published by Civitas. The association, in this context, of  David Glass' name with Cyril Burt's seems to me, to say the least, distasteful.  Why  would you invoke the two names in the same  sentence unless you wanted to connect them with the one thing that most people  remember Burt for - the allegation that he fabricated some of his data. The caveat to the contrary looks to me quite jesuitical.

So fashionable half-truths and non-truths quickly become the conventional wisdom. The dead don't defend themselves and history is rewritten. Look, all those seventies lefties made it all up. It's a fact.

Well, sometimes the facts bite back. The political ideologists have cloth ears, but maybe there are are still a few people, even some sociologists, who care enough about the truth to listen .

1) The evidence that Burt deliberately falsified his data is far from conclusive. I don't know whether he did or or he didn't but the evidence can be read in a number of ways. It appears to be the case that a number of things he was accused of - for example making up the names of  non-existent research assistants - were false. He may have done a number of things, especially as a journal editor, that would not now be regarded as entirely ethical, but as far as deliberate falsification of data goes, what a dispassionate review of the evidence reveals  - for example Gillian Sutherland's Ability, merit and measurement: Mental testing and English education, 1880-1940 - is  best expressed in the Scottish legal formula: not proven.

2) Geoff Payne et al.'s 1977 article does not show that the distribution of father's jobs in Glass' 1949 survey was "simply impossible". (1) They certainly claim something like this is the case (though to be fair, don't put it quite as strongly) but that is not what their evidence shows.  The Census data they use to calibrate the Glass data are  in fact largely irrelevant to the question of interest, which is how to estimate the distribution of fathers' occupations (social origins) conditioning on the occupations of the sons (social destinations). In a standard mobility table the observations on the fathers do not give a snapshot of the father's occupations at any particular point in time.  Career mobility (of the fathers), differential fecundity and  variation in the timing of marriages and births are all confounded in ways which make it impossible to draw clear cut conclusions by comparing the marginal distribution of the fathers' occupations in the 1949 survey with Census distributions. Moreover, even if we could learn something from the Census distributions there is a serious gap in the evidence: there was no Census between 1931 and 1951. Serious students of social mobility know all of this; they learned it from Glass himself and if not from Glass from O. D. Duncan who  in 1966 published a classic exposition of the problems involved in trying to make inferences of the sort Payne et al. attempt. (2) Duncan's paper is not cited by them, which is, to the say the least, peculiar. Maybe they were unaware of it.

3) Rather than engaging in the hopeless task of  trying to infer something about the expected social origin distribution in a mobility table from  Census data, a more direct way of evaluating the plausibility of the Glass data is  to compare it to other survey data collected around the same time and, crucially,  coded in a similar way. In 1959, Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Ltd conducted the Marriage Survey on behalf of the Population Investigation Committee. All copies of the original data were thought to be lost. However thanks to  the generosity of Professor David Coleman who still possesses printouts  and coding sheets for parts of the  original data matrix,  I, along with a colleague from the LSE , with the assistance of one of my doctoral students, have managed to piece together an important part of it.  The figure below presents some evidence of relevance to the Payne/Saunders story about the plausibility of 1949 data. In it I plot the proportion  (with 95% confidence intervals) of fathers of survey respondents in 1949 and 1959 in each of the 7 Hall-Jones (H-J) occupational status categories. The samples refer to men who were 25-55 in 1949 and 35-65 in 1959 ie the second survey pertains to roughly the same population of men ten years further on in their life-course - reporting on about roughly the same population of fathers. Because the extant data from 1959 refer to the population of ever married men I've selected the 1949 sample using the same criterion.

It is important to note that the confidence intervals surrounding the estimated proportions are "optimistic". They take no account of the complex sample design used in each survey and, of course, do not reflect "nuisance" sources  of variation introduced by the fact that the data were collected by two different organizations which inevitably would have had different interviewing procedures, coding procedures etc. We also have to accept that protocols for coding occupational information were not at that time as standardized as they are today.  The surviving records on how to code occupations to the Hall-Jones scale suggest that the protocols were far from complete and the procedures were in fact probably never completely codified. It is likely that some reliance was made of tacit knowledge - which is of course now lost. 

The main plank of the Saunders/Payne criticism of the 1949 data is that the origin distribution contains an implausible proportion of men with father's from white-collar backgrounds (roughly H-J values 1-4). My impression from looking at the graph is that there is a fair measure of agreement between the two surveys with regard to these proportions.  Certainly the differences are minor and could easily be accounted for by the considerations I mentioned above. Where there is divergence is in the proportions allocated to categories 5 and 6 - very roughly skilled manual and semi-skilled manual workers. This is scarcely puzzling. Without a carefully standardized set of protocols the allocation of occupations to these two categories must have been difficult.  They had 10 more years of experience and no intention of comparing the 1949 and 1959 surveys  and therefore no compelling reasons for coding occupations in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, roughly speaking, the two sources agree about the manual/ non-manual split as a whole, at least with regard to the non routine non manual grades. The latter qualification prompts a further caveat  which is that H-J category 5  (in the 7 group version of the scheme) is actually  "skilled manual and routine grades of non-manuals". This further vitiates the kind of Census comparison attempted by Payne et al.

Data collected in the middle of the Twentieth Century inevitably looks imperfect if we apply the standards of today. We have to accept that in the past they did things differently. This does not imply, as Saunders and Payne appear to believe, that the 1949 data is  fatally flawed and thus gives an unreliable portrait of origin to destination social mobility for the period it was intended to cover. Before you draw such sweeping conclusions you have to do the hard work of looking, not just at the data, but at the right data. That is  an important part of what real scholarship involves. Cheap shots and smears we should leave to the tabloid pundits. They are the professionals.

(1)  Payne, G. G. Ford and C. Robertson (1977)  'A Reappraisal of Social Mobility in Britain', Sociology, 11, pp. 289-310.
(2) Duncan, O. D. Methodological issues in the study of social mobility."pp. 51-97 in Neil J. Smelser and Seymour M. Lipset (eds.), Social Structure and Mobility in Economic Development. Chicago: Aldine.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Why we should pay the price of accountability

Sir Paul Stephenson, commissioner of the Metropolitan police, is lobbying to make it more difficult for citizens to pursue a complaint against the police through the courts. Here is an account of how the police behave in one West European democracy that should lead you to doubt the wisdom of weakening  citizens' rights to hold power to account.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Dos Passos

Coventry, in the 1970s, was not a great place to live if you liked books. In the city centre there were three bookshops - 2 branches of a long defunct chain called, I believe, Hudsons and a tiny, but hip, cafe cum bookshop called The Wedge. The latter was great if you wanted to buy a volume of the collected works of Lenin or the latest issue of Socialist Worker but space restrictions put severe limits on the stock they carried as well as on room in which to stand and browse. Hudson's in Hertford Street was little more than a glorified W. H. Smith, all right if you wanted a bestseller, cookbook or kid's Christmas annual but unlikely to alert you to the glories of world literature. The other branch was next to the Lanchester Poly and specialised in course textbooks. And that, until I left home, was the sum total of my experience of what bookshops looked like.
Then I went to London. It's difficult after all these years to remember exactly what my feelings were when I walked into Dillon's University Bookshop in Gower Street for the first time, but it must have seemed like an Aladdin's cave. My favourite part was the mezzanine balcony directly in front of the main entrance for - circa 1979 -  this was where they kept the Penguin Modern Classics, shelves and shelves of them. Here were authors I had never heard of, calling out to me, taunting me about how little I had read and inviting me to pick up the lovely green paperbacks each with a colourful piece of artwork on the cover.
Of course, my means being limited, most of my visits were strictly browsing only: but certain books beckoned insistently. One of these was John Dos Passos' USA trilogy. What stood out was the size of the volume, almost 1200 pages in the Modern Classics edition, but I also had a sense that this was an important book. Where or how I formed that impression I can't really say, perhaps I got it from my student drinking buddies as we worked our way from the LSE's Three Tuns bar through various pubs in Camden Town. Anyway I knew that Dos Passos was some kind of American socialist and at the time that seemed like a good enough recommendation. The only problem was finding the time to read such a monster. Twelve hundred pages always seemed like a Herculean labour even if the cause was good.
A few years ago I finally got round to buying a cheap second-hand copy and that seemed like a good first step and there it has sat, accusingly. But not any more. Recently I made a few long train journeys and, being on sabbatical, had no pressing deadlines. Finally I would start the Marathon and now I've reached the finishing line, on the whole I'm glad I did it.
The blurb on the back of my copy says something to the effect that Dos Passos was once spoken of in the same breath as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, but that his reputation has since faded. I can see why. I enjoyed the first book, found the second so-so and began to flag a bit towards the end of the third. Essentially you are told part of the story of a bunch of characters who from time to time, occasionally rather improbably, cross each other's paths. They have dreams and ambitions and stuff happens to them - basically 30 years of American history from around 1895 to 1925. Interspersed at regular intervals are sections of snippets from newspapers and popular songs and a kind of authorial stream of consciousness commentary. I rather liked those bits. I also liked the pen-portraits of various historical characters and events - Henry Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, Joe Hill, Eugene Debs and - of interest to a sociologist - Thorsten Veblen. The narrating of the lives  of the socialist activist characters is done rather well, but I lost interest in the lives of some of the aspiring middle-class females.  It just seemed like one damn thing after another for all of them. Another lover spurned another abortion, more drink another party, an improbable death in an air accident telegraphed from 10 pages before. In the end I couldn't tell one from the other and gave up caring - not a good sign in a novel where the sense of forward momentum is meant to be produced by the intersecting life-courses of the characters. Maybe it hit the buttons of contemporaries in a way that it is difficult for us now to recapture. Maybe you had to be there. What will readers of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities make of his characters in 2060?

Monday, 6 September 2010

More on statistical significance

Back in 2008 I posted something on statistical significance. In his blog Andrew Gelman draws attention to a sloppy piece of writing on the subject which appears to have the imprimatur of the British Psychological Society. As we all know the proper interpretation of a significance test is conditional on what is assumed ie most often p. is the probability that  (T is at least as large as the observed value|H0=True): where T is some function of the observed data ie a "test statistic" and crucially, for the condition in which we assume that the null hypothesis is true
This is basically what  I had drummed into me in Stats for Social Science 101. Like riding a bicycle, once you get it you don't forget it. However, we shouldn't pretend that it is a "natural" way to think about inference and so it's not surprising to see all sorts of odd (and wrong) interpretations of p. values are purveyed by those who should know better. A lot of the time it's probably just a matter of not writing very clearly, but if you appoint yourself an authority figure on something then you do have a responsibility to write precisely and get the content right. It is  more than a little tedious to hear a student complain when I correct them: "...but that is what it says in the book."
Funnily enough a few years ago I read a short article in a British sociology journal in which a self appointed guru waxed lyrical about the wonders of statistical significance tests. Only in the land of statistical ignorance (ie British sociology) would this pass muster as a serious contribution to sociological knowledge, but to make matters worse our "expert" managed to make exactly the same mistake that Gelman draws attention to. I wrote a short note pointing out the error and suggested that perhaps prophets should get the message straight before they start to preach. 
The reaction from the journal was interesting. First  my note was rejected without being sent to referees. I insisted that it should be sent to referees. With a certain amount of bad grace it was. It was then rejected again on the grounds that, though I might possibly be technically correct, it was jolly bad form to point out the errors in the original piece and I was obviously motivated by  personal malice towards the author. One referee even accused me of gross professional misconduct, presumably for airing the dirty linen. Actually I didn't know the author from Adam and was only motivated to prevent a silly error receiving reinforcement from publication in a professional journal. Trivial as it was I found the whole episode  revealed at lot both about intellectual standards and about the attitudes of the scientific gatekeepers in British sociology.
On the subject of scientific communication Ben Goldacre links to this hilarious YouTube post. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The BJS and Public Domain Data

It is desirable that data used to generate evidence in scholarly publications should be available for scrutiny by other interested scientists. We can all agree about the principle. How this can best be achieved is less clear, especially once one starts to consider other desiderata - such as safeguarding the right to privacy of subjects who in some cases may never have given explicit consent for their personal data to be used for the purposes of social research. 
Consider the situation in the UK for somebody publishing an empirical article in an academic journal. Anyone  acquiring data from the the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex, for instance, is required to sign an End User Licence which prohibits the distribution of Archive data to a third party that has not him/herself entered into an End User agreement with the Archive. In practice this is not very restrictive as any member of a UK higher education institution can register as an End User and, without paying a fee, acquire the original data. Once you think about it this minimal level of restriction is sensible. Data in free circulation has a tendency to 'mutate' and it is sensible from the point of view of scientific integrity to encourage users to go back to the original source.
Access to some data is much more restricted. Take for instance the ONS Longitudinal Study (LS). This has been created from linked census records, birth and death registrations and cancer records. Use of it is free to UK academics but there is an involved and rigorous process of project approval and the data can only be accessed from secure servers. User are prohibited from distributing LS data to third parties. The LS is a very important source of information about social demographic and epidemiological topics. However, the "subjects" have not given explicit permission for their personal information to be used for the purposes of  research. They have given information about themselves to the state either because they by law have to or because such information is collected as part of the state's routine administrative processes. In the circumstances it doesn't seem unreasonable to be careful about how and for what purposes these data are used.
Now consider another important source of social scientific data in the UK - the  National Study of Health and Development (NSHD) popularly known as the 1946 Birth Cohort Study. Though paid for out of the public purse, latterly by the Medical Research Council, this study is not yet fully in the public domain. There are a large number, myself included, who think that it should be. But there are legitimate concerns that  completely unrestricted access to data of this sort - containing for instance very detailed medical information - compromises the guarantee of  anonymity given to subjects and jeopardises their continued participation in the study. Clearly a case can be made, based on  scientific interest and the ethical treatment of subjects, for having some controls on access to the raw data and for prohibiting unauthorized data dissemination.
So, what seems like a good idea, free and unrestricted access to data, is not as straightforward or desirable as you might think once you start to  take seriously the rights of data providers and the unintended consequences of data mutation.
So why am I preaching this sermon? Because it has been drawn to my attention that one of the major British sociology journals - the British Journal of Sociology - appears to have refused to publish an article because the data used in it are not freely available to all researchers. 
The data in question are derived from the population registers that are maintained, for instance, in all of the Nordic countries. These typically allow linkage- through a unique person number -  of a vast amount of information about citizens. As a social scientific and epidemiological resource these data are of enormous importance and results from them  are routinely published in leading  disciplinary journals throughout the world. These data though are not collected for the purpose of carrying out social or medical research and there are serious concerns about the threats posed by  the linkage of administrative records to the ordinary citizen's right to privacy. For these reasons it is normally prohibited to export  register data beyond the territorial boundaries of the state and access is granted only after a specific project proposal has been vetted. Data users are normally not permitted to make or keep copies of the data and are, of course, forbidden to disseminate it to third parties. With differences of detail the constraints that researchers work under are similar to those imposed on UK users of the LS.
Three things concern me. Firstly, if consistently applied, the BJS policy will exclude leading researchers and cutting edge work from its pages. To me this seems perverse and very bad for British sociology. Secondly, the BJS's data dissemination policy is not itself in the public domain. You can find the current guidance for authors here. As of 03/08/2010 there is no mention of a data availability policy or of any specific requirement to deposit or disseminate data. In the case I have been told about the issue of data availability was only raised with the author, by an editor, after the refereeing process was completed. If I were the author  I think I would feel that I had had my time wasted and that I were being treated less than fairly. Thirdly, the issues at stake were raised with the editorial team by a member of the Editorial Board more than six weeks ago together with a request that a clear statement of the BJS's data dissemination requirements  be added to the notes of guidance for authors. I can't understand why this, as yet, hasn't been done. Those who provide the BJS's copy (for free) and, incidentally,  generate enormous profits for the London School of Economics, deserve better treatment.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

My Cultural Capital I

Referring to the first half of the Nineteenth Century, David Vincent  in his Literacy and Popular Culture makes the observation that though book ownership amongst ordinary people was: "...surprisingly widespread, literature was more often inherited than bought, and more often neglected than read." More than 100 years after the period he was writing about, the same thought rather nicely characterizes my own childhood relationship with the the physical artifacts of the word. The few grown-up books that found a  resting place in our house were not things that you put on bookshelves, which is just as well, because we didn't have any bookshelves. My mother's opinion was that books were a species of clutter, sure to "collect dust" and therefore had to be consigned to a drawer or, even better, to the cupboard my father had built into one of  the bedroom chimney breasts. There they were rendered almost inaccessible by the  large ottoman containing spare bed linen that was positioned in front of it.
If one succeeded in moving the obstruction one was confronted with a patrimoine without much discernible survival logic other than natural selection. Of course the origin of much of the stuff was quite clear - improving books awarded as Sunday school prizes being the largest category. Thus in addition to the several small black Bibles one could find: Charles Reade's The Cloister and the Hearth (1861) - the uncut pages of which confirmed Orwell's observation that "...it is unusual to meet anyone who has voluntarily read him" and Charles Kingsley's The Heroes  (1856) - a children's version of the more popular Greek myths which the 11 year old CM rather enjoyed. The sole concession to the literature of the modern period was Wells' The First Men in the Moon (1901) - awarded as a Boy's Brigade attendance prize to my father in the 1940s. It showed no signs of  ever having been read. 
Moving onto the non-fiction list there was: Alfred E. Lomax's Sir Samuel Baker: Hunter, Explorer, Administrator (1894); John Hunt's The Ascent of Everest (1953); A. Walker's The Big Walk (1961); Sir Ernest Gower's The Complete Plain Words and J. A. C. Brown's The Social Psychology of Industry. The latter two were probably purchased when my father took a night school class in office administration but judging by the the unmarked pages and unbroken spines - they now sit on a shelf in my own office - they haven't been referred to in the last 50 years. In addition to these there was the odd ready reckoner, a couple of ancient engineering books acquired by my father from the second engineer of one of the ships he sailed on and a small, well thumbed paperback, long lost, on the writing of business letters. Last, but by no means least, was the self-improving The Awful Mathematician's Book, 56 pages of formulae and rules which helped me pass O level mathematics. I certainly wouldn't have passed if I had had to rely solely on what was laughingly called mathematics teaching at my school.
In a separate category I should list two books that had been lent to my parents by friends or acquaintances. For reasons that remain obscure to me these were kept in a small cupboard that was built into the combined telephone table/stool that sat by the front door. Perhaps the idea was that it would be handy to have them there for  when their respective owners returned to collect. One of the  temporary accretions to our cultural capital was Amos Oz's Catch the Water Catch the Wind, the other a paperback called, if I remember correctly, The Cross and the Switchblade. Of course neither was read by my parents and the former was in fact never returned to its rightful owner and I have  become its custodian.
The only book I have any positive memory of my father reading was Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Parts of it had been serialized in the newspaper and he probably wanted to know how it ended. Whether he ever finished it I don't recall. Until I was in my late 20s I don't think my mother read anything apart from newspapers - The Daily Mail, Coventry Evening Telegraph, The Sunday Post - and the DC Thompson staple The People's Friend. Later in life she acquired a taste for Jacquie Collins and Catherine Cookson and, mellowing with age, took to displaying a row of paperbacks on her living room dresser. Once she surprised me by reading and enjoying  Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains  which I had absently mindedly left behind after a visit. Here, at least,  she was  at one with advanced opinion: though, alas, an opinion I didn't share.

The London Nobody Knows 2

A follow up to my earlier piece on The London Nobody Knows. Dan Cruickshank is doing a two part Radio 4 programme searching for some of the sights in  Fletcher's book fifty years on. The first part airs tomorrow, details here.
A lunch time conversation with a colleague confirmed my hunch about the street performer I mentioned in my first post. He  added the intriguing detail that he frequently travelled on the same commuter train between London and Oxford as  the gentleman in question.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Field of Dreams

One of my father's great talents was his ability to rub along with all sorts of people. I'm sure part of it was his accent -  West of Scotland - which in England, in a Farfraesque sort of way,  made him difficult to place socially. Not that he was a pushover. Shortly after arriving in Coventry with his heavily pregnant wife he was insulted on a bus by a boor moaning about Jocks coming down South and taking the locals' jobs. Like his son never one to suffer fools gladly, he told the idiot  that he'd have had no need to be in England if the English were up to the mark themselves and menacingly invited him to reconsider his opinions!
Part of his job involved managing the city's retail market. It brought him into contact with all sorts of interesting people and he numbered amongst his work pals a Jewish market trader who had been in military intelligence during the war and a East African Sikh who arrived in the UK with just the shirt on his back after losing everything in the Ugandan expulsions. For Coventry this was pretty cosmopolitan!
Perhaps the most interesting of his acquaintances though were the travelling showmen who came to the Whitsun and Summer Fairs on Coventry's Hearsall Common. These guys led a tough and independent life. Travelling around the country with their families, stalls and attractions,  their livelihoods entirely dependent on the vagaries of the weather. I remember one of them, a young and rather charming man called James Mellors coming over to our house when I was  about 8 or 9. What impressed me the most was that he had a sports car - if I remember correctly a maroon Triumph Spitfire. What's more he took me  in it on a trip to buy cigarettes at the local off-licence and even bought me a bottle of pop!
The Mellors family are a Nottingham  fairground dynasty and it was James Mellors that risked his shirt in the 1970s to buy one of the first really big elevating Paratrooper rides. Because my dad ran the Whit fair for the city I always managed to get a ride on one of  his big machines for free! I was just a child and I'd really forgotten about him until the other day I came across this story. James Mellors now heads a substantial entertainments business and has plans to build a 100 meter Robin Hood statue with viewing platform and restaurant somewhere on the outskirts of  Nottingham. I imagine the recession, not to mention the planning authorities,  will have put a brake on the scheme but, still, it is a kind of  crazy magnificent dream. I hope he eventually manages to build it.

Friday, 25 June 2010


I gather my old LSE colleague Catherine Hakim is raising a few hackles with her latest European Sociological Review article  'Erotic Capital'. There is a nice Times interview here with Kate Spicer. My take is that she has written a brilliant example of what the French would call a provocation. In plain English she is yanking the chains of the gullible, cocking a snook at a part of the British sociological establishment and reaping a windfall of publicity. If I'm right, then good luck to her. 
Consider the evidence. The main claim of her article is that sexual attractiveness is a resource that women (and men) can and do use to their advantage. If Ladbrokes were offering odds on that I'd have a flutter. Consider an employer that had to choose between two job applicants who were equivalent on all characteristics that could predict  productivity. Why would they not choose the more attractive? It won't be better for their business but it might make work marginally more pleasant. What better way to make fools of your adversaries than get them all hot and bothered over a statement of the blindingly obvious. Masterly (or mistressly(?)).
Of course in reality it is rare in job hire situations to find that the ceteris paribus clause is satisfied and that, taken with significant heterogeneity in taste, leads me to believe that the premium to eroticism will be relatively small. But of course it is an empirical issue, so get writing those research grant applications. I should think a within subject design might be a good place to start with each subject being their own pre botoxed and boob-jobbed control.
The real clue though that Hakim has her tongue firmly in her cheek is the use of the word "capital". It's a surefire giveaway of her satiric intention. Why else would she use this sociological pseuds corner way of referring to what you and I would simply call a resource that people can use to their advantage? It really hits the spot though  and sucks in the  intellectually insecure Francophone snobs of  the British sociological world. Congratulations Catherine, you've hit the target again!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

RIP Matthew Colton

I was saddened to read Matthew Colton's obituary in today's Guardian. It's more than twenty years since I last saw him but I have fond memories of playing alongside him in midfield for Nuffield Red Stars in the 1980s. He was, as they say, a committed player, tough on the opposition and tough on his own team. He was also somebody for whom doing social science was about making a difference in the world. I remember him telling me that what was most important about his doctoral work, was not the work in itself,  the career it might initiate or the glory it might bring but the consequences it would have for the kids in care that he was studying.  RIP mate.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Adjusting for disadvantage - college admissions

Andrew Gelman has a couple of thoughtful posts - here and here - on the tricky problem of levelling the playing field for college admissions. It's been quite a while since I  was involved in undergraduate admissions but when I  did it at another place I felt  the pressure to admit students that were, relatively speaking,  not academically well qualified,  because they possessed, from the point of view of administrative "targets", other  qualities. I also seem to remember that the institution on several occasions publicly denied that such targets existed which I found curious given the memos I would receive telling me that I had not admitted sufficient numbers of students from access courses or from certain postcode types. It was also striking that certain departments were singled out for the hard sell. Nobody would have dreamed of telling, for instance, the Economics department, who they should admit, but Sociology, Social Policy and other soft subjects were thought to be fair game. 
What I always struggled with was the seemingly vacuous idea of "potential". I was always being told that I should see beyond the mediocre academic performance to the potential that in some, usually unspecified, way could compensate for actual achievement. I genuinely wished I could,  but nobody ever took the time to explain to me how the trick worked. The more I looked at it the more "potential" seemed to me to be a softhearted and occasionally softbrained way of doing whatever you liked and feeling smug about it.
That's why I like the look of Andrew's suggestions much more than the shabby fudges I remember. What it amounts to is running a handicap race with weights for the sorts of things that give known advantages to those with deep pocket books. We do it in horse racing and golf so why not in college admissions? And nobody's freedom is infringed. You can still spend your money on private education, its just that your kids have to do even better in order to benefit. It's a neat reversal of the usual formula whereby kids from disadvantaged backgrounds typically have to show more merit than their advantaged peers in order to achieve equivalent results.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil... 2

To paraphrase Amos Oz: tragedy is what happens when right is in head on collision with right. Ben Goldacre again provides  a great link (where does he find this stuff?) to Adam Curtis' blog where you can watch an excellent BBC documentary from  1973 on the Exodus incident. I think it does a good job of explaining the context and in allowing key participants to tell their stories. There is a marked lack of bitterness expressed on both sides and a lot of sympathetic insight. Perhaps this was possible at the time because in the end both sides got what they wanted - the refugees eventually got to Israel, albeit via Hamburg, and the British extricated themselves from a hopeless situation in which nothing could be done, or not done, without somebody somewhere painting  them as the villains of the piece.  I wonder though whether those who were interviewed would have been quite so phlegmatic if the final scene of this Act had ended as intended. The Haganah left a bomb on one British ship set to explode when  it returned to sea after  the debarkation of its refugee cargo. And of course just as it was broadcast in 1973 the curtain went up on the next Act of the tragedy.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

More Hard Problems

As a footnote to my last post, Alexey helpfully points out that you can also view the Gary King video on Facebook without using Realplayer. Thanks for the tip Alexey.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Hard Problems in the Social Sciences

Amongst others, MSc students who took my Research Design class this year and tore their hair out over the mid-term assignment - here and here - might be gratified to know that the Gordian knot I asked you to struggle with is discussed by Gary King at a recent Harvard symposium as one of the 12 'Hard Problems in the Social Sciences'. There is a nice video (requires Realplayer) and some useful slides. Whatever your complaint about Oxford sociology, you can't say that we don't take you to the 'cutting edge'.

Friday, 11 June 2010

BP and Negative Externalities

When I was young and even more foolish than I am now I had a car accident that could easily have killed me. Driving rather fast in the outside lane of the the M40 one of my rear tyres blew out. The car turned through 180 degrees, crossed two lanes of traffic and slammed into the safety barrier. The car was a right-off and I walked away without a scratch. Just one of those forks in the road which in restrospect make you think about how very different your life - or lack of life - could have been.
A few weeks later I received a letter from the Highways Agency, or whatever it was in those days, containing an invoice for the several hundred pounds it would cost to repair the guard rail. I sent it to my insurer who paid the bill and that was the end of it.
The damage to the safety barrier was the result of a genuine accident, but that didn't mean that I should pass the cost of repairing it to the general tax-payer. My actions imposed a cost on other people - the guard rail was not fit for purpose until repaired - and it was entirely reasonable that I should foot the bill through my increased insurance premiums.
So now I ask why should anyone take seriously the emerging whinge about the treatment of BP by Obama? Why should the shareholders expect to benefit enormously from the upside of their ownership and be protected from the downside. Isn't it reasonable that the polluter should pay and that the price of the commodity they produce should reflect the full economic cost of its production? That full economic cost  includes the cost of compensating those whose livelihoods and well-being have been negatively affected by BP's activities.
My pension fund stands to suffer just like many others from BPs misfortune. But that's not a good reason for allowing them to avoid paying for the massive negative externalities they have created. If it costs a year's profits so be it. The value of shares can go up or down.
In case you need some light relief this BP Spills Coffee skit is quite amusing.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

On Teaching in a University

While saying he doesn't want to pre-empt the conclusions of the Browne report on student fees, Universities minister David Willetts has...er...pre-empted the Browne report in an interview with the Guardian and given a clear indication of what government policy is likely to be. His choice of words is a little unfortunate; the costs of student's degree courses are, he is quoted as saying, a "burden on the taxpayer that had to be tackled" and will no doubt come back to haunt him. Though the formulation is poor he is basically right. If we want a mass system of higher education then somebody has to pay for it. That somebody will be Joe Public through general taxation  and the people that accrue a private benefit from it - the students themselves. The only serious arguments are about the  proportion of the price to be  paid by each source,  the most efficacious way of getting the money into the coffers of the universities who need the money today and the consequences of the price and payment mechanism for any social equity objectives we might value. Of course that still leaves us a lot to disagree about. For what it is worth Willetts is one of the few Conservatives that I have some time for. In my view he's hitched his wagon to the wrong party, but he is smart and unlike most politicians is genuinely interested in forming policy on the basis of evidence. Universities could be in much worse hands.
That however is not what I want to blog about. It is possible, even probable, that part of of the rhetoric of the new fees regime will be endless talk about the importance of teaching. After all if students are asked to pay more,  what is more natural than to appear to offer them more in return. Now I am going to say something that will probably upset quite a few people: university lecturers are not teachers - at least not in the sense that secondary school teachers are teachers - and should not be treated as such.
Let me try to explain. I'm not saying that the student learning experience is unimportant or should be ignored. On the contrary student learning is a very important part of what universities are about and is in danger of being pushed to the sidelines by our research output fixated culture. However one can believe this without eliding the difference between a lecturer and a teacher. It's easy to make that sound like a quibble about words, but here I line up with the discourse analysts and want to maintain that the words you choose  create an implicit frame for the conversation, a frame that legitimises some arguments and rules others out of court. 
Students come to university to learn a subject. Periodically their knowledge of that subject is evaluated. It is their responsibility to prepare themselves for those evaluations, whether these be coursework, practicals, traditional examinations or whatever. Universities provide the resources that facilitate learning and preparation for evaluation. These resources come in different forms: libraries, software, reading lists, casual conversations with peers in the refrectory, intense debates in the dorms until 2.00 in the morning (does that happen any more?) and, yes, tutorials, seminars and lectures. My point is that the latter three are only part of the learning opportunities that a genuine university makes available. They are, if you like, the visible part of the iceberg, but if you think they are the whole thing then you don't understand what a university is, or how to get the most out of it.
It was clear to me before I went to university that the responsibility for learning and passing examinations was mine and mine alone. As long as I had a reading list and some past exam papers I could figure the rest out for myself. I didn't want to be told in detail what to do. I went to lectures and seminars that I found interesting and helpful and skipped those that I didn't get anything out of. I quickly realised that an hour of reading a text in the library could be of more value to me than an hour of somebody attempting to tell me what a text contained. Whether it was, depended on who that somebody was and what they had to say. Of course I made some mistakes. Spending a  substantial part of my second year ignoring the syllabus and reading a large number of books either about Marxism or written from a Marxist perspective was, in retrospect, probably not so smart. But an important part of knowing now - in fact at the end of my second year - what I didn't know then - that Marxism  is an intellectual dead-end for the social sciences - could only have come from having the freedom to do that. It meant my conclusion wasn't just a superficial opinion but something built on a large amount of study and reflection. Luckily I  picked up enough incidental knowledge of the things that were actually on the syllabus so that I could pass the end of year examinations. Looking back, what is most striking is that I never, as a student, thought that lectures and seminars were especially important for my learning. They were just one more resource to be used if and when useful.
So Mr Willetts there is more to student learning than just teaching and please remember: I'm a lecturer, not a teacher.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


I'm just back from Examination Schools where I had to sit  for the first 30 minutes of the Finals paper I'm responsible for. With nothing better to do I fell to wondering why we require our students to dress up in order to be examined? The get up itself is ridiculous and unflattering. The men look like a parody of  a cut-price Victorian toff - white bow tie and dark lounge suit (surely not!) while the women wouldn't be out of place as waitresses in a down at heal provincial tea shop for distressed gentility. I could understand it if it were a tourist attraction but nobody as yet has suggested installing viewing galleries in Schools so that parties of Korean visitors can get a whiff of authentic Oxford at five quid a pop. The dress regulations are absurd and serve no practical purpose. Why don't we let students decide whether to keep them? Even better, why don't we make them entirely optional? I know it is no fun to go to a fancy dress party if nobody else bothers to dress up. But going to fancy dress parties isn't compulsory while attending Exam Schools in subfusc is if you want an Oxford degree. Frankly it is all bullshit and in a world increasing full of the brown smelly stuff, bullshit is the exact opposite of what universities should be about.

Thoughts about Status

I mentioned in an earlier post that the first sociology book I ever read was Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy. The second was almost certainly Robert Roberts' The Classic Slum an account of working class life in Salford in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century. Of the two, I much preferred Roberts' lack of sentimentality and I was reminded of the excellence of his prose on reading his autobiography A Ragged Schooling.
He is particularly good on the  status distinctions that patterned working class social life. From the outside the poor may have looked like a mass, but things looked very different from the inside. Many of the distinctions he alludes to were still lived realities when I was growing up more than 50 years later amongst Coventry's affluent workers. The primary distinction was still clearly  between the rough and the respectable. This applied both to individuals  and  also to streets. By the age of  eight or nine I had a good sense of the social geography of our area and what occupancy of different types of housing stock signified. Our street was divided in two by a more major road; the terraced houses on our half had neatly lawned front gardens (now I see from Google Street View mostly tarmacked over to accommodate cars). The other half had much smaller front gardens or had front doors that opened directly on to the street. Respectable people had proper front gardens. 
Moving just a few streets further away and closer to the football stadium there were some very rough streets where kids would throw stones at you if you looked 'posh': 'posh' was a very relative thing. Rough people had too many kids, kids that roamed the streets til all hours, were unemployed or irregular workers, drank too much, got into debt, cursed and swore, beat their wives and generally made a nuisance of themselves. The respectable tended their gardens, cleaned their windows, limited the size of their families and wanting the best for their kids, went, albeit hesitant and deferential, to school open days.
After the rough/respectable division probably the next most prominent distinction was between those with and those without a trade. Time served craftsmen and those with a skill in some sense ranked higher than the unskilled or those whose skill - like driving an HGV - was not acquired through apprenticeship. Or at least that is how it felt, but I'm not sure that patterns of social interaction would necessarily reveal it.
Thinking of my parent's friends - those whom we exchanged visits with -  the skilled/unskilled divide seems pretty unimportant. In one family the husband was a carpenter working in the building trade in another he worked on the line at one of the car factories just as some of our own relatives did. As my father ascended into the lower reaches of the middle classes our social network expanded but only a little, primarily  sucking in people from the local church, a shopkeeper, a lab technician from Courtalds, the minister himself.
If I think about my own school friends I'm struck in retrospect by how little status distinctions, other than that of roughness/respectability, mattered in practice. My friends' fathers - and yes, as long as they were alive,  it was the fathers that mattered  - worked in a mixture of skilled and unskilled trades. Some worked on the line in the car factories, at GEC, Massey Ferguson and Rolls-Royce. Others had small businesses - a chip shop, a Hoover servicing franchise operated from a shed at the bottom of the garden. A couple had only widowed mothers to bring them up, one a lollipop lady the other delivering letters for the Royal Mail. What, if anything, connected us together was selection into the "grammar school" streams of the local comprehensives we all attended. The few kids in our area whose parents paid for them to go at 11 to one or other of the city's two main independent schools disappeared from our friendship network as surely as if they had been abducted by aliens. And in a number of cases the end result was such that they might as well have been.
What is most striking is the almost complete absence of the professional classes from our social world. The woodwork teacher from my school lived on our street, just a few houses down on the other side of the road, but other than a ritual exchange of pleasantries my parents had nothing to say to him. A few professional representatives of the state - the odd teacher, more rarely a doctor, lived, Ken Barlow like, amongst us. But they were not really part of our lives except when they were schooling or curing us. 
It's not that there was any antipathy towards educated professional people, it was just that they made people like my parents feel uncomfortable. We didn't fit into their world, didn't know what to say, they had different tastes and conventions: they led different, often peculiar, lives. A local couple we knew as acquaintances through the church - both delightfully unsnobbish teachers - exemplified the eccentric otherness of this world: the husband complete with apron did all the cooking in the household. What more proof was needed of the strange ways in which the professional classes carried on!
Thinking back what impresses me most is how such distinctions of status as we made can only be understood as applying at a local level. The outside world saw a mass where the insiders perceived gradations. To some extent these gradations were correlated with money. The rough were poor by anybody's standards (but not all the poor were rough) and the respectable, though not necessarily  affluent, by definition had steady incomes from which they saved to pay off respectable debts - like their mortgages. Status lay behind patterns of derogation, association and commensality in the adult world - less so in the child's world  - but it was status in the local community that created the living texture of our day-to-day world. Weber in  Economy and Society makes a few tantalizing remarks along these lines:
...in the so-called pure democracy, that is, one devoid of any expressly ordered status privileges for individuals, it may be that only the families coming under approximately the same tax class dance with one another. This example is reported of certain smaller Swiss cities. But status honor need not necessarily be linked with a class situation. On the contrary, it normally stands in sharp opposition to the pretensions of sheer property.
Status has a now you see it, now you don't quality. It's part of the taken for granted, part of the fine grain  of social relations in your local social world.

The Paper University

Ben Goldacre links to this article from Australia about the mountain of paper that falls on the academics at the coalface from the desks of our bureaucratic masters. We are indeed drowning in the stuff much of which is about the creation of arse covering paper trails. We are long past the stage where we just  infantilise our students, the modern university is also, it seems to me, well into the process of infantilising its faculty too. It's easier to create a form and tick boxes than have a conversation with colleagues about the intellectual content of their courses. Perhaps that is why there is an intellectual vaccum at the heart of many of the social sciences.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Wikipedia and Prediction

Andrew Gelman has an interesting piece on his blog about the politics of Wikipedia edits. The scientific point that is at stake here is that prediction before you have peeked at the data (fitted a model) is a completely different thing to prediction after you have fitted a model and it is...err...essentially dishonest to pretend that these are one and the same thing or are of equivalent scientific value. Think about it this way. Fit your favourite model for a binary outcome - discriminant function,  logistic regression or whatever -  to a sample of data and define a decision rule to calculate how many you got in the right box. Now apply that same model with the same parameter values to a new set of data. You won't do anywhere near as well because first time round you capitalised on chance. It's multivariate analysis 101, or at least it should be.

Peer Review

Ben Goldacre links to this piece in the New Scientist on peer review. As he points out the process isn't and in fact can never be perfect. How peer review works differs across disciplines and even within disciplines across journals. I've refereed for journals that use a double blind method and also journals where the names of authors are revealed to the referees. In sociology I would estimate that the double blind or total anonymity model is the method most commonly used. Is this the best method to use? I'm coming round to the view that we can improve things at the margin by moving to a system of complete openness. Referees should know the names of authors and authors should know the names of referees. Moreover after the review process is finished everything - the original submission, the referees reports as well as the final version of the paper -  should go into the public domain. To some eyes this will appear to be pretty radical, even lunatic, stuff. But I believe it will solve some (not all) of the problems that are chipping away at the credibility of peer review.
Firstly, as every editor knows, there is the problem of getting good referees to act and then of motivating them to do a good job. I'm told that in the US the idea of 'service' still leads the top scholars to play an active part in journal refereeing. From this side of the pond things look different. The RAE has changed the structure of incentives so that at the margin you will be better off spending an extra hour on your own work rather than writing a referee's report on somebody else's. Spending a lot of time helping your rivals - because that is what the RAE turns those you formerly called your colleagues  into - produce better work is not much of a career enhancer. 
A few years ago I was asked to referee a paper by a well known British journal. The paper was pretty hopeless, but, I felt, at least compared to much of what was published in that journal, the authors were  making an honest attempt to do science. I wrote a five page report telling them how to rewrite the paper and how to fix the errors of technique, method and logic they had made and recommended R&R. Twelve months later the paper came back to me with a different title, restructured along the lines I had suggested. It still wasn't a great paper, but at least it was now much more professionally put together. I recommended publication. It duly came out and then, to my surprise, was nominated for a prize  that is awarded annually to the best paper published in the journal. At this point the little red devil on my shoulder was whispering in my ear that I should be entitled to a share of that prize or at least a coauthorship!
If referees reports are in the public domain then that will incentivize people to do a good job and secondly the contribution of referees to the final published version will be open for all to see. This sort of openness will also help to solve what I perceived, when I was an editor, as an emerging problem - the growth of premature submission. Again the RAE is partly to blame. The publish or perish culture incentivizes people to submit articles that are in reality only seventy-five percent finished. The ends aren't tied up, the data analysis has holes in it the size of the Grand Canyon and the authors just haven't bothered to take the time to write it up properly. They know that nobody apart from the editor and the referees is going to see this version so given that almost all papers that are finally published get an R&R it makes sense to send in something that just scrapes over the R&R threshold and let the referees tell you what you have to do to achieve publication. This is not a fantasy. I've heard doctoral supervisors  give their students exactly this advice. Don't 'waste time' making the article any good. Just make it credible enough to get an R&R. I suspect in many cases they apply the same principle to their own submissions. In a cut-throat world it can quickly become a race to the bottom and intellectual craftsmanship becomes a luxury that few can afford. If my diagnosis is correct then requiring the original submission to be in the public domain will provide - as long as people have any pride in their work - a modest incentive to make the first submission serious.
My final argument for openness is that it will help to reduce some of the more unpleasant aspects of anonymous refereeing. Sad to say, some referee's reports are blatantly unfair and self-seeking. You all know what I mean. 'The article should be rejected because it failed to mention the brilliant insights contained in  a forthcoming paper by Blowtrumpet et al (currently only available as a pdf at an obscure website somewhere or other)'. You look up the paper and see that it is either irrelevant or nonsensical but the editor who is pressed for time or doesn't know any better requires that to get published you must blow Blowtrumpet's trumpet for him. There are, of course, worse things than that going on and openness won't solve them all. But requiring referees to put their names to what they write and letting everyone see what they claim seems to me to be an important part of making the refereeing process fairer. If you are going to say negative things about somebody's work you should not hide behind the veil of anonymity. I'm prepared to stand behind what I write and argue for it in the public domain. If you are not then you shouldn't be writing it in the first place.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

On not being too professional

I used to think that I was the first person in my paternal line (which is the only part of my ancestry I know much about) to go to university. It was a blow to my inverted snobbery when I discovered that it was not true. In fact my great times five grandfather John graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1743. His father, described in the entry in Alumni Dublinense as generosus does not appear to have had that privilege but clearly felt that his eldest son's well born status could be embellished with a little learning. In fact he sent at least two sons to Trinity. Edward, the brother of my x5 grandfather, was also an undergraduate and while there appears to have been a drinking buddy and intimate of his second cousin Oliver Goldsmith. A number of rather charming letters from Goldsmith to Edward Mills survive, mostly pleas for money or patronage. Going to Trinity was not needed by the brothers Mills for professional advancement or consolidation. They both inherited estates and neither were destined to be impoverished country curates. Edward, it is true, entered the Middle Temple in 1756 but he does not appear to have completed his legal education. In fact in a rather amusing letter to his cousin, Goldsmith gently chides him for his apparent lack of ambition:
I have often, he says, let my fancy loose when you were the subject, and have imagined you gracing the bench, or thundering at the bar; while I have taken no small pride to myself, and whispered all that I could come near, that this was my cousin. Instead of this, it seems you are contented to be merely an happy man; to be esteemed only by your acquaintance to cultivate your paternal acres to take unmolested a nap under one of your own hawthorns, or in Mrs. Mills' bed-chamber, which, even a poet must confess, is rather the most [more] comfortable place of the two.
When one sees the pathological ruthlessness with which academics pursue professional advantage - for instance the Orlando Figes revelations - it's tempting to envy those born in a less driven age.

More by Amos Oz

For anyone who is willing to listen and think there is more by Amos Oz in today's Guardian.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil...

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. The sentence is usually attributed to Burke though there is no evidence that he either said or wrote it. It isn't too wise to take the moral high ground about the actions of other states when you are a citizen of perfidious Albion. Brits above all others should beware of throwing stones in glass houses. However,  at the risk of upsetting dear friends and colleagues, I want to share this link to Amos Oz's comment on yesterday's Israeli military action  against civil shipping in international waters. I admire Oz  as a man, as a writer and as someone who fearlessly speaks truth to power (if you get a chance read his beautiful autobiography). It used to be that when he spoke Israel listened. I don't know whether that is the case any more but I do know there are many others like him in Israel who are appalled by what the state does in their name. They deserve our understanding and support.

Monday, 24 May 2010

In Praise of Google Books

In November of 1880 a 79 year old labourer died of lung congestion in Plymouth Township, Wayne County, Michigan. He was married, had entered the US from Canada two months earlier, and was known as St George William Dunlop Mills. He was my great great great grandfather. Why he had gone to the US from Canada is unknown. He emigrated from Co. Roscommon, Ireland to Canada some time before his second marriage in 1861 to Elizabeth Williamson, also an Irish immigrant. There are no surviving Irish birth, baptismal or marriage records, just a shadowy presence on the 1867 Glasgow marriage certificate of John Mills a son by his first marriage and on  John's 1894 Coatbridge death certificate where St George is described as a railway clerk. We get fleeting glimpses of his Canadian life from the 1861 and 1871 censuses and from Toronto street directories where he is listed as at different times working for the Toronto Street Railway - shown in the photograph above - and the city's waterworks. From 1875 through to 1879 he is listed as a labourer and then the trail ends in Michigan. 
This is most of what I know about  my ancestor apart from one intriguing detail - he appears to have been born to a well-off and  well connected county family. His father, Oliver Mills of Knockhall, was High Sheriff of Roscommon in 1798  - the year of the rebellion and the  ill-fated French invasion. His mother Emma (Amy) Massy was the daughter of the 1st Baron Massy of Duntrileague, MP for Limerick County,  raised to the Irish Peerage in 1776. Given this auspicious start  why did he end his life a day labourer? Of course in the Nineteenth Century old-age often meant severely reduced circumstances even for the well-born. But now, thanks to the miracle of the internet, I know there was more to it than that.
Last week, while idly searching on Google Books, I came across a report of a court case in a volume with the title: Irish Equity Reports, of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery, the Roll Court and the Equity Exchequer During the Years 1846 and 1847. It details in five densely worded pages the judgment in the case of Mills v. Mills an intra family dispute that appears to have been initiated in 1811. Not being a lawyer some of the details of the case are rather obscure to me but in true Jarndyce versus Jarndyce fashion it revolves around the terms of a will and the rights to income from land. The parties to the dispute are Emma Mills (née Massy) my great great great great grandmother and George Mills her stepson, half brother of my great great great grandfather  St George William Dunlop Mills. The case seems to end with the court appointing a receiver to sell the land which lies at the centre of the dispute. Dickens has one of his characters say of Chancery: "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!". I wonder if the Mills fortune went the same way as the Jarndyce?
The moral of my story is not however to bemoan the hard times that subsequently befell the family but to celebrate Google Books. Without it I would never have known of the existence of Mills v Mills. In and of itself this is of no significance  to anyone but me, however the ability to bring together and make available hitherto unrelated facts is potentially of tremendous importance for the growth of knowledge. Amongst other things books contain lots of discrete pieces of  information - for want of a better word - facts. Google Books makes it much easier to link these together, to turn facts into knowledge and to increase the power of serendipity.