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

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!