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

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

...hence God exists - reply!

Whiled away a tedious examiner's half-hour in Schools by reading a couple of recent articles from a well known British sociology journal. Should have taken longer, but large parts consisted of tables and figures so they could be efficiently gutted before turning to see what the authors said about them. 

I'm reminded of an apparently apocryphal story told about Euler and Diderot at the court of Catherine the Great. The renowned mathematician was asked to provide a proof of the existence of God in order to discomfit Diderot. Wiki reports the conversation thus: "Sir, \frac{a+b^n}{n}=x, hence God exists—reply!". Diderot, allegedly, was dumfounded - exit of stout party to roars of laughter from the court. Of course it couldn't have happened like that because Diderot actually knew some mathematics and wouldn't have been fooled by this hoary old trick.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the referees of quantitative articles often  do a good Diderot impression. I can't think how else so much bad quantitative sociology gets into print. Standards are low, very low, and once this stuff reaches the pages of the journals, it's very difficult to stop the rot. Each new absurdity ratchets down the target level of acceptability. It's not uncommon to encounter students who defend what they freely admit is nonsensical  by citing recent published work that commits the same sins (and we are not just talking peccadilloes here). It's a step, but not so big a step, from this view of scientific ethics to the stinking mess that has been uncovered by the Stapel affair.

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