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

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Comedians

The important things to be done this week disposed of I sat down last night and started to read Social Class in the 21st Century. I wish I hadn't. I managed  the introduction but I now have doubts as to whether I'll be able to get to the end of the book without losing the will to live. Life really is too short for this sort of masochism.

Where to start? Problem number one is the word salad. I wonder what the Penguin editor was doing? Certainly not making sure that the prose always makes sense. They wouldn't need any specialist scientific knowledge to do that, so I  guess  they just didn't care as long as there were actual words on the page and units shifted off the shelf.

What should have happened is something like this:

Editor: Hi guys, great draft, just a few changes I'd like to run past you.

GBCS team: Er... OK, this won't take long will it? We're due at the BBC in half an hour.

Editor: Relax, I've booked you into Fawlty Towers for a week or two.

GBCS team: [Looks of uncomprehending astonishment]

Editor: Let's get going. You say on page 4 that: "Understanding class as based on these three capitals allows us to understand how growing economic inequality is also associated with growing class inequality between the top and the bottom." Nice sentence. Just one small problem. How can you say anything about, let alone understand,  "growing class inequality" when you only have information about one point in time? If you guys have solved that problem then you should patent it.

GBCS team: [Nervous smiles, rolling of eyes and black looks] Sure, whatever, only we are rather busy...

Editor: And another thing, on page 7 you write:  "Scientific experiments are normally expected to stand back from the research they are conducting in order to provide distanced and 'objective' results, for instance using randomized controlled tests when comparing which medical interventions are effective. However, in the case of the GBCS, we could not do this. Interests in class are themselves so highly loaded that if we stand back, then we miss the energies, intensities, but also the hostility and insecurity that are bound up with class."

Now then, let's look at that first sentence. It is usually the human being ie the experimenter, rather than the experiment itself which, as you so charmingly put it,  is "expected to stand back". But that is a mere bagatelle, a slip of the pen and easily corrected.

 But then you go on to put 'objective' inside those scare marks. What are you implying exactly? Shouldn't you spell it out? It looks like you are casting aspersions but don't have the courage to say explicitly what you mean. Do you think objectivity is a bad thing, or simply an impossible thing? Don't you owe it to your readers to be straight and tell them exactly what you mean? 

Let me put it this way, if someone wrote: "Professor X the renowned 'public intellectual'" you could, quite reasonably, interpret it as a disparaging remark suggesting doubt as to whether he really was an intellectual, or even scepticism about the pretensions of public intellectuals in general. What precise shade of meaning was intended would be difficult to pin down (which is why it was used). It would, in effect, be a lazy jibe which leaves the reader to fill in the gaps with a wink from the author. That's OK in boulevard journalism, but not in an academic book - even a trade book on an academic subject.

So  are you for objectivity? If you are not, why should anyone pay any more attention to you than to the bloke down the pub?

Oh, and one more thing, I believe you mean randomized controlled trials. A classical education at Balliol does instill  respect for precision in a chap you know [pursed lips, looking down nose].

GBCS team: [Impatient and unimpressed] How much longer is this going to take?

Editor: [Headmasterly] Well perhaps you should have taken a bit more time with your prep...Sit down, you're not going anywhere until I'm done.

I want to talk to you now about your figures and tables. I'm wondering why you felt it necessary to put a scale in units of 20 miles on your map (pp 8 Figure 1.1 or 0.1, note to copy editor: you're fired) of Great Britain?  I mean, nobody is going to be using it as a route map  to get them from say Basingstoke to Aberdeen and the distances involved are quite irrelevant to the point being made. And  why is the legend on page 9 so incomprehensible.  I'll give you that all becomes clear when you read the body of the text, but didn't they teach you in grad school that figures and tables should be understandable without having to refer to extraneous material?

And then there is the case of the mysterious column labels to Table 0.3 (pp 15). The first two I got, but the third had me baffled for a bit. What it says is: "% of the population who undertook the GBCS (2011 Census, England and Wales)". After a bit of thought I realized that what you meant was just  "% of the population of England and Wales". Your description is a) confusing and b) tells me you have the wrong reference population (though that is among  the least of your worries).

Now we come to column four and there you really got me. The label says "% of each group's graduates who undertook the GBCS". I was really struggling now to understand what the numbers meant until the penny dropped that what the column should have said was simply "% graduates" and that thus inter alia you were telling me that 71.9 percent of the Chinese respondents to the GBCS were graduates. At least that is what I think you meant to say, but who knows? Do you? Does it even matter except as an indicator of a rather, shall we say, casual, attitude towards data, evidence, facts and that sort of thing.

GBCS team: This is  just petty nit picking. Most of our audience is innumerate anyway so what do they care? Let's face it, you can fool most of the people most of the time and we should know.

Editor: Quite. But don't you as Britain's foremost quantitative experts on the sociology of class care about the possible damage to your reputation? [mulls over ancient AJP Taylor quip about Professor Hugh Very Ropey] Let's treat that as a rhetorical question. Anyway, I read with great interest what you write on page 5.

"The current explosion of interest in questions of class came home to us in 2013 when we published findings from the BBC's Great British Class Survey, which was publicized by the media and provoked astonishing interest across the globe."

I was so interested in fact that I asked the ever obliging Maureen to do a little internet research for me  using Google Trends. I feel sure you approve of the method. First of all let's look at the frequency of searches originating in the UK using the words "social class". 

To interpret this correctly (I'm sure you are really keen on that) you have to know how Google normalizes the data. It starts by expressing the number of searches mentioning the search term as a proportion of all searches in a particular time period. It then sets the highest proportion to 100 and expresses the rest of the series relative to that.  The important point is that this is a measure of the relative salience of interest in the search term. Absolute interest in the term could be increasing even though relative salience is decreasing.

Still, for what it is worth, the trend in (relative) interest between 2014 and today is, if anything, downwards and more of an exhausted fart than an explosion. The exception to this trend is the spike in 2013 corresponding to the  publicity puff given to the initial GBCS paper  by the BBC. So what we learn is that if a massive public service broadcaster makes a news article out of something it has itself manufactured then you can get people interested for a short while. But then their interest returns to roughly the same level as before. Big whoop. Should anyone be surprised by that?

But hold on, this is a little unfair I hear you say. OK, though we can't get numbers on the absolute number of searches from Google we can try and contextualize interest in "social class". Let's compare searches on "social class" with three other probes into the Great British Public's interests. Maureen thought it would be a good idea to also search on "Britain's got Talent", "Manchester United" and another abstract idea "religion".
"Britain's got Talent" peaks and troughs depending on whether the show is running. Interest in "Manchester United is high and has been gently climbing since 2013. "Religion" which is just as abstract an idea as "social class" has been pretty steady. The overall levels of all three make interest in "social class" look insignificant and the spike in 2013 look like a pimple. If interest in "Britain's got Talent" in 2009 were K2 interest in "social class" in 2013 would be Richmond Hill.

In the big picture the 'explosion' was more like the pricking of a small  balloon filled with hot air.

99 Düsenflieger
Jeder war ein großer Krieger
Hielten sich für Captain Kirk
Es gab ein großes Feuerwerk

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good to see someone picking up on the comedy value of the GBCS - gives it some kind of purpose. Interestingly, I did it twice and jumped from technical middle to elite, merely it would appear on the basis of a modest pay rise. What nonsense. Then again, one of the team is now running a business school, so maybe it is just all about the money.