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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.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Economics fights back

Last month I expressed a little irritation at Aditya Chakrabortty's facile condemnation of  academic economics and expressed the hope that  an economist of  substance would step up to the plate and sort him out. Krugman is doing his bit today and links to a very nice piece by Simon Wren-Lewis. It' hard to argue that these guys are on the neo-liberal right.

Dismissing whole academic disciplines is just childish and I can't understand why the Guardian has as its economics leader writer someone who wants to promote the consumption of large doses of snake oil.

Thursday, 21 November 2013


Christian Monden drew my attention to this web-site devoted to the systematic trashing of a single paper published in a sociology journal. Though it stems from an advocacy group, it doesn't, as far as I can see, (and I haven't explored every nook and cranny) give an unfair representation of the content of the paper. 

It is a cautionary tale. Sometimes what you write can have consequences that you never intended. Loose words and imprecise formulations (to be charitable) can get you into a heap of trouble. Once the genie gets out of the bottle there is little you can do to stop the havoc. Sometimes the hoary old defense: "I was just trying to be provocative" won't prevent a world of shit falling on your head. Better be careful what you wish for.

And there is collateral damage. I don't believe for one minute that there was a conspiracy at Social Science Research to publish an anti-gay parenting paper. What is much more likely is that a busy editor was just delighted to get a paper quickly refereed and off his desk and made some bad calls. I wonder how many editorial decisions would survive this degree of scrutiny? 

How many referees of our papers are completely "independent"? If I am on record as holding the belief that Professor X's work is scientific garbage should that disqualify me from being a referee of her next paper? Is my belief a more significant or less significant disqualification than once having attended a meeting of the "steering group" for Professor X's project? Choosing at least one from each side doesn't work either in a world in which one negative referee's report is sufficient to torpedo a paper.

 I don't know what the answers to these questions are and I doubt that one could draw up a set of guidelines that would cover all eventualities. It's really a wonder that anyone wants to be an editor of a sociology journal.

And then there is the question of impact. If UoTaA were participating in the British REF would they be submitting Regnerus' work as one of their impact case studies? It fits all the criteria and has had much more "impact" than most sociology papers. I can't see anything in the guidelines that says that the impact must be positive and the science must be sound.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Darwin, Carlyle and Buckle

Another bit of recreational reading has been Darwin's Autobiography. It is a really delightful piece of writing which in its simplicity succeeds in being, matter of fact, witty and charming. 

As a young man Darwin had been quite sociable and was well connected with the leading scientific and literary figures of the day. He is not averse to telling the odd catty story about some of them.  Here are a couple of  my favourites:

"His [Carlyle's] talk was very racy and interesting, just like his writing, but he sometimes went on too long on the same subject. I remember a funny dinner at my brother's where amongst a few others were Babbage and Lyell, both of whom liked to talk. Carlyle, however, silenced everyone by haranguing during the whole dinner - on the advantages of silence. After dinner Babbage in his grimmest manner thanked Carlyle for his very interesting Lecture on Silence."

"Buckle was a great talker, and I listened to him without saying hardly a word; nor indeed could I have done so, for he left no gaps. When Effie [his wife's niece] began to sing, I jumped up and said that I must listen to her. This, I suppose, offended him, for after I had moved away, he turned round to a friend, and said (as was overheard by my brother), 'Well Mr. Darwin's books are much better than his conversation.' What he really meant, was that I did not properly appreciate his conversation."

On dissing Popper

Recently I was reading, with great enjoyment, Peter Medawar's Memoir of a Thinking Radish. In one part he discusses Karl Popper's reputation and what he says strikes me as spot on:

"... a good many philosophers are jealous of Popper, pick fault where they can, and find reasons to praise philosophers who put forward views different from his, even when those views are somewhat flimsy. I have a feeling that many lecturers on scientific method are oppressed by the sheer reasonableness of Popper's philosophy, and in taking a different or very critical line they feel that their personal identity has somehow been enlarged. Worse still, it has become the thing for literary intellectuals to pretend that there is something a little passé about Popper's philosophy and that he has been supplanted by a number of mavericks and clowns."

When I started as an undergraduate at the LSE Popper had already been retired for 10 years, but his views were still taught and, my impression was, in the main, taken seriously. Just over a decade later when I joined the faculty the mood had changed. It was fashionable to deride Popper, often for views that it was hard to demonstrate he actually held and just as frequently for views that he definitely did not hold. Attitudes towards his politics, personality, the manner in which he ran his department, how he conducted his seminar, dealt with colleagues and carried out his teaching seemed to get thoroughly mixed up, in quite absurd ways, with questions to do with the soundness or utility of his ideas. In fact to defend Popper in public more or less condemned you in some eyes as a witless simpleton.

Changing the proper name and a few nouns in the quotation would lead to an equally accurate description of certain tendencies in British sociology.

A Field in England

We watched Ben Wheatley's  A Field in England on Saturday night. I didn't know what to expect so it wouldn't be right to say I was disappointed. Still, I did find it pretentious and actually in places rather boring, though the fact I  fell asleep in the middle of it might be attributable to the early effects of the stomach bug that kept me in bed for most of Sunday. The plot is minimal and incoherent, the mood is something like an attempt at a 17th Century Sergio Leone spaghetti western and well, that's it. One of those films where there is less to it than meets the eye. Much less.

The weans are all right

The Guardian has a slightly daft story today about a primary school in Halesowen that has banned Black Country dialect from its precincts in the interest of getting the kids to express themselves in "Standard English". The usual gloom is accompanied by  laments for the loss of  linguistic diversity and connection with  more authentic modes of expression.

What puzzles me a bit is the either/or way in which this kind of argument is often put. It's perfectly possible for children and adults to adapt the way they speak to the social circumstances they find themselves in. And in any case most British dialects are not that different from Standard English so what is the great problem?

Growing up in the Midlands with immigrant Scottish parents, I spoke  differently at home from  how I did in the playground, which was different again from the way  I spoke in the classroom. Admittedly outside of the confines of the family the first was of little  practical  use, though later on it meant I had little difficulty  understanding  Gregor Fisher's Rab C. Nesbitt surely one of the finest pieces of absurdist comedy ever produced by the BBC.

In other countries, for instance Germany, regional dialect happily coexists with the standardized version of the language. Children speak Hochdeutsch in school and dialect in the street or home (if they choose). Some of the dialects are not as mutually intelligible as almost all British dialects are but nobody seems to get excited about that. And the appetite for culture in dialect seems to be enormous. Look at the size of the audience standing in the rain to watch Brings singing in Kölsch.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Q-Step not enough?

The Higher is running with a piece today quoting John MacInnes saying that though the new Q-Step Centres are a good start, they will still essentially  be a drop in the ocean compared to the UK's social science quantitative methods deficit.  Of course he is  right. 

Still, the Oxford Q-Step Centre, which will be hiring soon, will try, albeit in a modest way, to do something of benefit for the wider social science community. We will be running vacation courses, open to u/g students from outside of Oxford. So students from universities without their own Q-Step Centre won't be entirely excluded, at least not from some of the  teaching that  Oxford will provide. This outreach aspect of the Oxford Centre will be located in the Sociology Department.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

UK Census

Here is a nice piece by Danny Dorling arguing for the retention of the Census. I'd add to it only one thought. What we actually need is a UK population register. And someone to explain that Swedes, Norwegians, Finns and even Germans are not less free than Brits because in one way or another the state (or local government) requires them to register where they live. (I'm standing by for the inevitable flaming I'm going to get from assorted libertarian crazies).

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Bad Statistics

Nice article by John MacInnes and Sing Yi Cheung  in Discover Society about  the dishonest use of data and the credulity of the British press. These are good targets to begin with, but one can find much the same sort of thing going on within the academy...