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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, 19 June 2015

When is a myth not a myth?

This is a place marker because with exam marking and other stuff to do I can't write at length just now. You'll have to believe me that I really did intend to write no more here about the Great British Class Survey. I'll have to remind myself that in future I shouldn't make rash promises. The thing is that the target keeps getting bigger and bigger as the guys and gals over at GBCS feel compelled to say more and more daft things as they attempt to rewrite history.

One could just shrug one's shoulders and say "whatever" but  to do so would amount to giving up on British quantitative empirical sociology. I should say that sometimes I feel  like doing just that, but then I tell myself I would have no right to expect things to get better. In any case I simply don't think people should be allowed to get away with claiming things that  aren't true or, even if unintentionally, highly misleading. Those involved with the GBCS are not small fry. Some of them are extremely influential in British sociology. They do know better or if they don't they should.

So what provoked these thoughts? It was the latest Sociological Review Blog post by Daniel Laurison: Three Myths and Facts About the Great British Class Survey in which he employs casuistical skills worthy of the Jesuits to argue that that the GBCS has been misunderstood by its critics and that in consequence various myths about it have passed into common currency.

My take on this is that two of the three are not myths at all and that the substance of these is essentially correct. To convince you I would have to make a much more careful argument than I have time to write down at the moment. But I can give you a flavour of where I'll go when I have more leisure.

Myth 2 as stated by Laurison is that the GBCS team "proposed their seven new classes to take the place of all heretofore existing measures in class analysis, especially the NS-SEC."

You can immediately see the sophistry coming out in this. Taking it literally I can indeed find no statement in what the GBCS team have written to the effect that their class scheme should "take the place of all heretofore existing measures in class analysis". But this is just a rhetorical dodge. 

The first GBCS article  starts off with a page and a half of criticisms (pp. 221-223) purporting to show that the NS-SECs are deficient in all sorts of ways. Never mind that almost everything that is said is either half-baked or in some cases just factually wrong the GBCS  people persuade themselves that the NS-SECs are just not up to the job (though they never really say what the job is). This seems to be an important reason for developing their own approach to measuring social class. 

The obvious thing to ask is: why would you bother to develop something new if you didn't think it was better than what already exists? What is the point of difference for its own sake? You wouldn't purposely try to invent something that was worse than whatever exists and surely if you thought it was better you would want people to use it in preference to what went before. To now say  that there was no intention or attempt to discredit the NS-SEC scheme or indeed all occupation based ways of measuring class is to invite utter incredulity. 

How for instance is this compatible with Professor Savage making public utterances to the effect that occupational based schemes are becoming less useful because over time they explain less between occupation variance in earnings (or income)? As I've pointed out before this is just factually incorrect and Professor Savage, to judge by the citations he makes, has read the research that shows this to be the case, so he can scarcely say that he was unacquainted with the facts. Did he misspeak? Or is he just of the opinion that the facts don't matter (when they are inconvenient). I think he owes it to us to come out from the shadows and enlighten us.

And then there is Myth 3. This according to Laurison is: "Because the GBCS is not a random-sample or representative survey, it cannot be used to say anything worthwhile about class (or anything else) in the UK". Again the same tactic, create a straw man kind of statement that is so extreme it is easy to discredit.

Do I think any useful empirical knowledge has come out of the GBCS? I sincerely believe that none has. Might some be produced in the future? It is certainly possible and I've even suggested in print what I think  a sensible way would be to make the best of a decidedly bad job. Are the GBCS team likely to produce that knowledge? Well on their showing so far it looks unlikely. In fact they seem to be in a state of denial. I can't interpret this statement from Laurison in any other way: "Multiple regression and related methods can essentially help ‘control’ for the skews. While the mean value of any variable in the GBCS is almost certainly different from that for the population as a whole, the relationships between variables will often be similar." 

Only Daniel  under very special circumstances which are unlikely to hold in the case of the GBCS. Jim Heckman got a Nobel Prize for showing why sample selection bias is a matter of both the slopes and the constant and what, in some circumstances,  you can do about it.

It's actually very easy to run a simulation to show how severe the impact can be. This morning it took me about 30 seconds to grab some STATA code from the web to sample from a population with a known correlation structure, adapt it to mirror the structure of the GBCS data collection strategy and calculate what happens when what you observe involves selection on unobsevables. Thirty years ago, if not quite rocket science, it was at the cutting edge of social science and now I teach it routinely to my MSc students in the compulsory Research Design course. I can assure you that " the relationships between variables" was most definitely not similar. What my MSc students get apparently LSE sociology faculty don't. Perhaps with all the riches gleaned from the REF they should engage in some in service training.

And finally, what are we to make of the puff put out by Penguin about the forthcoming GBCS book? After losing six of the classes for the SR special issue, the seven classes are back again: "The book presents the ideas and facts behind their new conceptualization of class: a new British class system composed of seven classes" What about the inconvenient 8th that they admit to in the documentation deposited at the UK Data Archive? Did it get forgotten at the back of the cupboard? Or like an unwanted child has it been put up for adoption?

Monday, 15 June 2015

Ken Loach - In Conversation

If your have an hour to spare you could do a lot worse than spend it watching Ken Loach in conversation with Cillian Murphy.

I was lucky enough to hear him once when he was a guest at the annual LSE SCR Dinner. He talked for 10 minutes or so about his career and then took questions for more than an hour. It was absolutely spell-binding. Modesty, simplicity, humanity and idealism  One of the giants of British cinema who has had to struggle to get almost all of his movies into production and in some cases fight again to get them distributed and shown.

Friday, 12 June 2015

GBCS - shades of Gray

You can now read the published version of my final salvo against the Great British Class Survey which is out today in the latest (special) issue of the Sociological Review.

Getting into print has been a strange experience not least because of the extensive evasive action taken by some of the principal targets. Notable was the complete rewrite of one paper after I had already written my critique of it.

The final oddity is that, without informing me,  between the draft I received and the final published version, the authorship of one of the papers I agreed to comment on has mysteriously changed. I'm astounded to see that what I had been led to believe was a paper written by Sam Friedman and Mark Taylor is now credited to Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison and Andrew Miles.

A peccadillo no doubt, but readers of my piece may wonder why on earth I refer to an apparently non-existent contribution by Friedman and Taylor. For F&T you need to read FL&M. Sorry, but not my fault, and particularly unfortunate for Mark who should no longer be associated with the piece.

A final observation: enough shells, not only from myself but from others too, hit the GBCS's magazine to send it to the bottom, but the captain and the crew make no effort to reply. 

Mute,  inglorious,  and buried without an elegy.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Sociology reader survey

The journal Sociology is fielding a survey that gives readers an opportunity to say what they think about the journal. This has got to be a good thing and I urge everyone with a serious interest in the future of the discipline in the UK to respond. 

For better or worse Sociology plays an important role in setting the domestic intellectual agenda and there is some, albeit anecdotal, evidence that whatever the official public line is, REF panelists think positively about publishing in domestic outlets.

It's a pity though that Sociology doesn't seem to have consulted anyone who knows something about constructing online surveys. It would appear that there is nothing to stop multiple submissions from the same IP address. And the last question on your general views - which is pretty much the only one that collects anything other than marketing information - forces you to write your views in a tiny box in one long line.

Sometimes a little practical knowledge helps in ways that "perspectives" "debates" and "poems" can't really simulate.

The Spectator and the facts

When I was more footloose and had more time on my hands I took the Spectator, not I hasten to add because I liked its politics, but because it was quite amusing and an antidote to the dull illiteracy that characterized the Staggers in its declining years. I also took the Economist and I wonder how I ever managed to get through them all and still have time for some semblance of a normal life.

It's been a long time  since I regularly looked inside the pages of the Spectator, but somehow I formed the impression that Fraser Nelson was doing a pretty good job as editor and that though we are never going to be on the same page politically he belonged to the breed of conservatives that one could have a civil conversation with. 

I was somewhat confirmed in that belief when I saw this item on the Spectator's blog under Fraser Nelson's byline offering paid work to people that can ferret out difficult to find factual information. OK, some of the things he wants to know can't really be established because the data don't and never will exist, but the general idea is not absurd and hey, the political right being interested in the facts has to be a good thing.

And then he goes and undoes all that good work by publishing this vile infantile rant by Niall Ferguson against Jonathan Portes for having the temerity to insist that  Ferguson actually gets the facts right and presents them in a way that is not deliberately misleading. 

Bit of an own goal there Fraser.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Is it a hoax?

Clearly I've taken my eye off the ball these last few months. Probably I've been distracted by the fun and games occasioned by the discovery that the data underpinning an article published in Science by two American political scientists was probably faked. It was even more delicious when it turned out that the senior author was technically blameless because he had never seen the data or had anything to do with the nitty-gritty of the study.

While all this was going on I missed an amusing episode more or less in our own backyard - well, at least closer than UCLA. Hat tip to Clémentine Beauvais for this blog on a Sokal like hoax perpetrated on the French sociology journal Sociétés. 

It is not, I should confess, a journal I would normally read as under the editorship of Michel Maffesoli it epitomizes all the worst aspects of French cultural post-modern sociology BS. Le Monde has a report here and the ever reliable Crooked Timber also covered the scandal.

Now here's the thing. As I was going into my office the other day my next door neighbour asked me whether I had seen the latest edition of Sociology. I hadn't. He suggested that I might like to look at the lead article: "A Sociologist Walks into a Bar (and Other Academic Challenges): Towards a Methodology of Humour". It's an extraordinary piece, very, er..., original. And then I had an epiphany. Read the abstract, read it closely. Is somebody havin a laff?

I wonder if the editors of Sociology are feeling a little nervous. Here's The Who singing something appropriate.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Labour supply in models and in reality

Great piece here about how labour markets actually work. Rather differently to the way they are assumed to work. 

The odd thing is that if you asked a sociologist with a serious interest in the empirics of the labour market - say someone like my colleague Duncan Gallie - they would probably say something very similar, in fact it would be part of their background assumptions as to how things worked. 

And people say that sociologists have nothing useful to say about the important issues of the day? Very often they have. The problem is that nobody listens until somebody with a different, usually more prestigious, label says more or less the same thing.