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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.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Perception Gap

Trivia. I've been wasting time taking the Guardian's latest perception gap quiz, you know, the one where you're asked some  questions about the population of your country and you get to see whether you are better informed than the average citizen. So in 8 out of 11 questions I did better, usually much better, than the UK average and was pretty much on the money. In 3 I was a bit off target and slightly worse than the UK average. The summary conclusion from the Guardian's algorithm was:  

I don't know the UK as well as people in the UK :(

Uh? Given my pattern of results this is a bit counter intuitive. I'd love to know how the aggregation worked. Hey, who knows? Maybe a life-time of doing quantitative social science means I don't know shit about my own country. I'd be the last to dismiss the possibility. Or maybe this is just the usual Grauniad bollocks. 

Here's my totally speculative guess. Somebody has implicitly given more weight to questions where the responses are scaled in millions of people than to questions where the responses are scaled in terms of percentages.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Greg Lake RIP

So. Farewell then
Gregory Stuart Lake.

You began with frippery,
Stood on a Persian rug
And believed in Father Christmas.

Keith's mum said it
Was pretentious.

We were invited
To the show
That never ends.

But now it has.

R. W. Emerson 12½

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

May: Si tu dois partir

It suddenly struck me that if the EU's Brexit negotiators have need of a motivating anthem they could do worse than this weird franglais version of an original penned by an anglophone Nobel laureate. Listen out for the broken milk bottle (a pint of course) round about 1:57.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Imaginary Friends

It's a peccadillo but  I have to confess that I sometimes listen to old episodes of Desert Island Discs while I'm doing insufferably boring things like cleaning the bathroom. So at the weekend I was listening to Alison Lurie talking to Roy Plomley. 

What I've read of Lurie I  liked, though she came over on the show as uptight and humourless. No matter, it's the kind of setting  that doesn't always bring out the best in people. What surprised me though is what she had to say about Imaginary Friends

Plomley asked her directly whether the novel was based on anything in particular, or words to that effect.  Yes, she answered, it was influenced by Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance and by Henry James' The Bostonians. OK, I can see the former and I'll take the latter on trust, but I always thought the most important influence in the everyday sense of the word was Festinger, Riecken and Schachter's When Prophecy Fails.  I mean, it's virtually a fictional retelling of the same events.

At least that's what I always used to tell my students when I was trying to fake some knowledge of ethnographic fieldwork. Maybe I was wrong or maybe she was thinking about influence in some deeper literary sense than my literal minded interpretation. Still, very odd.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Wednesday morning magic

Two pieces of musical magic for Wednesday morning. First up Chet Baker's Almost Blue. Chet's  doing a Miles pastiche but man can he make that horn sing. And then there is Daniel Kahn's Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. Personally I think the lyrics are better than the original. Kahn also does a nice line in Yiddish worker's songs, but I admit that might be a bit of an esoteric taste. L'chaim.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The class liberation officer

The Oxford Mail has been carrying a story that St Hilda's College students have appointed a 'class liberation officer'. Apparently "...people from working-class backgrounds needed support because [sic] suffered from classism while at university." They go on to quote a student who in a comment to The Sunday Times said: "Insults such as 'chav', chav-themed social nights and questions such as 'why are you wearing Primark?' can make poor students feel upset and worthless."

I can't claim any special insight into the minds of today's undergraduates since I meet so few of them, but I can't help thinking that previous generations were made of sterner stuff. Working class students were very thin on the ground when I was an undergraduate but generally we found much more pressing things to feel upset and worthless about, like third-world poverty, nuclear Armageddon and failed love affairs.

And as for our clothing, well that was a competition to see who could wear the most proletarian gear possible. Combat jackets, donkey jackets, Doc Maarten boots, shoes full of holes,  army surplus jumpers and shirts, jeans that looked as though they hadn't been washed for 5 years. I spent a year wearing a lumberjack coat with an acrylic fleecy collar purchased when I was 13 from C&A. Nobody batted an eyelid and I only threw it away because the arms got ridiculously short  and I could'nt do the zip up any more!

Primark? We used to dream of Primark!

William Trevor RIP

So Farewell
William Trevor Cox.

You wrote
Death in
But you died in

Fool of Fortune.
Keith's mum
Said you should
Have a Nobel.

But they gave
It to Dylan.

And now you
Blowin' in the wind.

E. J. Lundqvist 98¾

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Sartre on class

"Les classes ne sont pas, on les fait"." This seems to me to be right in various ways, not all of which may have been intended by Sartre. I'm guessing it comes from Critique de la raison dialectique but I doubt I'll be reading it soon to find out.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

UK earnings inequality: the view from ONS

A functioning democracy needs good quality economic and social statistics. Politicians may have an easier life in a post fact world but we, the citizens, shouldn't let them get away with it. An important part of holding our elected representatives to account is the existence of a well functioning organization, not under direct government control,  tasked with the production of high quality statistical information. That is what ONS is supposed to be.

It's been common knowledge  that things at ONS have not been going so well. The move out of London to Newport resulted in a significant loss of expertise that has been difficult to replace and the Bean report  confirmed what everyone had long suspected. Yesterday I saw a stunning illustration of just how bad things have gotten.

For reasons that I won't go into I wanted to know the mean and standard deviation of full time earnings in the UK. Let's leave aside the fact that the standard deviation of an earnings distribution is not an especially sensible thing to be inquiring about. I doubted that I would easily be able to find the information, but as always I cheerfully Googled and was surprised to find that I was not the only one with this strange interest.  In March 2014 a certain  Mr Travers made a FOI request to ONS asking for the mean and standard deviation of annual salaries in the UK. Even better ONS provided him with the information and you can see their response on their website.

Great, I thought. That was easy. Then I started looking at the numbers. They come from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE). In 2012-13 the mean earnings of a full-time employee in the UK was about £33,000 which looks plausible. In fact from other sources I know that the median in that year was around £27,000.  Then I looked at the estimate of the standard deviation. Oh dear. ONS expect Mr Travers to believe that the standard deviation is £133. That implies a coefficient of variation of about 0.004 or a Gini of roughly 0.002 (the current Gini for income in the UK is about 0.34). If you take this seriously you reach the conclusion that UK is the most equal society in recorded history.

How can it be that even in its emaciated state our national statistical agency employs people to communicate with the public that  have no  feeling for the correct orders of magnitude of the numbers they deal with? OK, maybe it was delegated to the dimmest of the interns or maybe it was a Friday night rush job, but my guess is that nothing normally gets out of ONS before it is signed off by a more senior supervisor who you would expect to know better.

It's easy to make mistakes with numbers,  I know because I make them all the time (but mostly spot them before I embarrass myself) but ONS should do better. They owe it to us and we have a right to expect it. In a world where populist politicians get off on denigrating experts making mistakes like this is another small step towards the new age of darkness.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Leonard Cohen RIP

So long
Leonard Norman Cohen.

Poet, singer, melancholic.


You were
The favourite game
Of the beautiful losers.

But now it's game over.

W. B. Yeats 11 ¾

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Legitimate concerns

On the first Wednesday after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November 1980 I was sitting in Bob McKenzie's Political Sociology lecture  listening to him assure us that though the election of Ronald Reagan seemed like the end of the world it probably wasn't going to be as bad as we feared. The gist of his argument was that although Reagan was a fool, he at least was a lazy fool  who had just about enough sense to appoint competent people to his cabinet and to hire advisors who actually  knew something about the world. 

As things turned out he  got it broadly right. The course of events was not particularly edifying but things could have turned out a lot worse. I'd like to believe something along those lines today. But I'm not confident I can. For sure the sun will rise tomorrow, but come January we may be looking at a much uglier world.

So what's to be done? Well firstly not to go off on a self-righteous bender. I heard an emotional Simon Schama on the radio yesterday saying that Trump is a fascist. This is nonsense. His "ideas" aren't coherent enough to be sensibly described in that way. He's certainly a ruthless bigot, but that isn't quite the same thing. I don't think that Trump has an ideology of any kind other than whatever serves to promote his infantile ego. But that is besides the point. Narcissism among politicians is just a matter of degree. Trump is actually heir to a much more native tradition, that of Huey Long, champion of the small guy against the establishment. They share the same  mixture of crude populist rhetoric and  authoritarian instinct. The main difference is that Long actually did achieve something for his constituency while all that Trump will do, if he has his way, is make them poorer, more disillusioned, more angry.

What I'm pondering is the response of the liberal-left  in America to Trump and in Britain to Brexit. And all the while I hear the same phrase: "we have to respond to the legitimate concerns of...". But what if these concerns are not, in fact, legitimate? What if they are incoherent or  unintelligible? What if behind the rage is just a toxic soup of muddle, misinformation, fantasy, incompatible wishes and yes, racism, fear, envy, xenophobia and nostalgia for a past that never happened? How are you going to address the "legitimate concerns" of someone who wants to close the border to all wage undercutting foreigners, put the names of foreigners who are already here on a list and restrict their  access to health care, education and other public services, who at the same time wants that nice Polish lady to care for his demented mother (without it costing too much),  a cheap car, cheap electronic goods  and protection from foreign competition? Yes day to day politics is about compromise, but as Weber pointed out  politics is also about ultimate values and sometimes you come to a point where to compromise means either pretending that 2+2=5 or even worse just giving up even pretending to pursue the things that made the game worth playing in the first place.

"Legitimate concerns" are not just things that are given. They are created. It's too simplistic to blame their creation just on the tabloid media. But certainly the constant drip of poison, albeit into the mouths of people who already have a taste for it, doesn't help. What the liberal-left lacks is a strategy to aggressively shape the terms of the debate rather than simply go along with what they are too eager to accept as given. They've forgotten that politics isn't just about what people in Westminster believe and know. Sometimes you have to dare to tell people that they can't have all the good things they want and that anyone that promises them is a charlatan and a fraud. Sometimes you have to tell them that their gut instincts are wrong and unworthy of them. Sometimes you have to tell them that what they say they want will actually make them and every one else poorer and less happy than they otherwise would be. And you have to persuade them without patronizing them. 

It's a big ask. But all the alternatives look worse.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Heteroscedastic Park

When I taught at the Essex Summer School they produced every year a souvenir T-shirt. One year it, must have been in the early 90s, the T- shirt had a cartoon of a dinosaur wrestling with some Greek symbols and the legend Heteroscedastic Park.  I always wondered who came up with it: I bet most of the students and  even some of the faculty didn't  get all of the joke. 

Which is all in aid of saying that I've put some STATA code up on my web-site (scroll to the bottom) to estimate a heteroscedastic normal pdf regression which allows predictors both for the mean and the dispersion.

If you looked hard enough there has always been code floating about to do this sort of thing. Scott Eliason has some Gauss code in his little ML book, and the old SYSTAT manuals had an example of how to do it (anyone remember SYSTAT?). More recently Bruce Western and Deirdre Bloome discuss this sort of model and provide code in their Sociological Methodology piece. I thought their code, which as far as I can see works fine, was a bit involved, so I've written something simpler and more direct.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Nobel Bob

Literary prizes are silly. Blood on the tracks is one of the greatest popular music albums of all time. I haven't listened to the rest of my Dylan albums since I was 18. I loved them when I was fighting the battles of the sixties ten years too late. After that they just seemed irrelevant. Saw him at Globen in Stockholm in the 90s during the phase where he changed all the tunes so you couldn't tell which song he was singing. Wouldn't have missed it for the world, but not a great musical event. If we are being honest Paul Simon is a better musician and a better lyricist. Neither Dylan nor Simon should get a Nobel for literature. How much longer can the Swedes ignore Philip Roth?

Couldn't find a decent Dylan version on YouTube, but this cover by Shawn Colvin captures the spirit of the original pretty well. You're gonna make me lonesome when you go.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

On being tone deaf

Today is National Poetry Day. The BBC's contribution is to set new standards in cultural tone deafness by broadcasting on Radio 4 the Prince of Wales reading Seamus Heaney's The Shipping Forecast.

 I wonder what we'll be offered next year? Julian Clary reading If? Tony Blair reading Dulce et decorum est? Theresa May reading Refugee Blues?

Monday, 26 September 2016

Post Fact Politics

John McDonnell, Labour's Shadow Chancellor on the Today programme this morning:

 "...up until the leadership election took place I thought we were doing pretty well...in a number of polls we had levelled with the Tories and in some we had actually gone ahead of them."

It's difficult to think of a better example of pure bone-headed delusion.  John, the facts are the things that don't go away when you close your eyes put you hands over your ears and say "nah-nah-nah not listening."

Here is the Conservative lead in every public domain poll since January 2015. Jeremy Corbyn was first elected party leader on 12th September 2015. Hilary Benn was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet and triggered the revolt of the parliamentary party on 26th June 2016.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

End class warfare: chutzpah on stilts

I'm not going to waste my time on a line by line dissection of everything that is  muddle-headed, deluded or demonstrably false in this. What the author should not be allowed to get away with however is  a paragraph which appears towards the end of the piece:

"One way of making progress would be to give further consideration to how occupational classes are associated with cultural, social and economic processes. Here, it is possible to take advantage of new forms of data to explore congruencies and differences in their perspectives. Nationally representative surveys often do not have developed questions on cultural or social capital. And with sample sizes rarely extending beyond 10,000 people, there are often limits to examining outliers and 'microclasses'."

I know of at least one colleague who as far back as 2014 tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain from the GBCS team a version of their data that contained the four digit occupational SOC codes that would be needed to implement Professor Savage's vision of intellectual reconciliation. The version of the GBCS deposited in the public domain does not contain these codes and therefore cannot help us to bring about the meeting of minds he claims he desires. 

After Social Class in the 21st Century was published I myself contacted one of the authors and asked when the detailed SOC code data would be in the public domain. I pointed out that the GBCS team must have these data since Tables 4.2 & 6.2  are based on them. Towards the end of February 2016 I received the reply:

"...we should have a version to the data archive in the next 6 weeks or so with the SOC 2010 codes (generated by CASCOT from the text-entry field). "

Why it should take six weeks to disseminate something that has already been created (how else could it be used in the book?) is a puzzle  to me, but I extended the benefit of the doubt. What else can one reasonably do? And here we are almost seven months later and is the GBCS data with the detailed occupational SOC codes in the public domain and available from the UK Data Archive? No it is not.

Nature is one of the world's leading science publications even if it is notoriously flaky in what it chooses to publish from the social sciences. If you want to pass yourself off as a scientist though, it is a good idea to at least make an effort to adhere to some of science's most important norms. Like exposing yourself to the risk of being shown to be wrong. That requires allowing others to scrutinize your data.  If you don't do that and there is no obvious good reason why you can't, then you forfeit the right to be taken seriously. Assuming you ever were.

Lord Nuffield in fiction

If you thought that the founder of my college, William Morris (Viscount Nuffield), would be unlikely to turn up in a work of fiction, you would be wrong. I came across this passage in Nevil Shute's 1932 thriller Lonely Road:

I don't know what time it was when we drew up before the motor garage in Longwall Street, but I remember chucking a sovereign to Jardine to catch as we stood upon the pavement waiting for the young manager to come and open up. In that place there was a light in the offices upstairs to all hours of the night. I think he used to design cars up there by night after the work of the garage was over for the day; I remember going up there one night when I was late and drinking coffee with him and listening as he told me of the cars he had in mind to build. Cars for everybody; the cars of a dream. He was very lean and restless; he brushed his hair straight back from his forehead and he worked all night.

The context is a rather stream of consciousness opening chapter such as you would not expect from a writer who is usually regarded as a bit of a middle-brow hack.

Shute was an engineering student at Oxford immediately after WW1 and it is entirely possible that he might have made Morris' acquaintance then. It is well known that they had professional contact later when Shute was working in the aviation industry.

His reputation as a writer faded in the 1960s when he began to be perceived as stuffy and old-fashioned. Certainly there are an awful lot of stiff upper-lipped heroes and English roses at the centre of his plots. His politics - which as he got older moved sharply to the right - probably didn't appeal much to literary folk. 

Nevertheless some of his novels give you very interesting insights into the mood of the times he was writing about. For instance, What Happened to the Corbetts, written in 1938 is extraordinarily insightful about the effects of mass aerial bombing on the morale of the civilian population. Whereas in Coming Up for Air Orwell deals in rather windy generalities, Shute actually gets down to detail even if, as it turned out, he was wrong about some things.

Shute led an extremely interesting life. His father was head of the postal service in Ireland during the Easter Rebellion and actually had his office in the GPO building taken over by the rebels. In the first days of the fighting Shute and his mother, sitting in a Dublin hotel suite, actually controlled the only telephone line between Dublin and London! 

It's remarkable what a 3rd class engineering degree from Balliol can do for you.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Incidental pleasures of academia

Earlier this month I found myself on one of the LSE's roof gardens looking at a hole in the ground. LSE is truly an empire on which the concrete never sets. The East Building, Clare Market, The Anchorage and half of the St Clement's Building have all been demolished.

I doubt anyone will mourn their loss. They were cramped and ugly. I  remember as an undergraduate attending a class on Sociological Theory in the East Building in a room that was so narrow that everyone sitting around the table had to stand up and pull their stomach and chair in so that a newcomer could be admitted. Latecomers were not popular.

I was  a bit shocked though to discover that the part of the Old Building that at one time housed Sociology's Departmental Offices has been turned into a staircase. O tempora  o mores!

Still intact though is the nearby Graham Wallas Room, one of the most dysfunctional and difficult to find rooms in the whole of the School. Its obscurity was not aided by a tendency to refer to it, even in official publications, as the Graham Wallace Room. I always had a feeling that there were few faculty, even in the Department of Government, who knew who Wallas was.

All of which is a preamble to the confession that I've just finished reading his Human Nature in Politics.  There are two copies in my college's library and I picked one off the shelf at random. Someone has written in pencil on the inside of the cover that it is the third edition, which was published in 1920. But this is obviously incorrect, for on the facing page as well as the stamp that tells me that the book was donated to the library by G. D. H. Cole is the inscription: M. I. Postgate, Butler Prize, 1914. Margaret Postgate, was, of course, Mrs G. D. H. Cole and the (Agnata) Butler Prize was awarded at Girton for Classics. I imagine the other copy was Cole's own  and now they sit in connubial bliss on their library shelf. I imagine it will be a long time until they are parted again.

Which is a shame, because Wallas has very perceptive things to say about the psychology of politics. His big point is that a lot of political thinking is irrational which must have been a bit dispiriting for someone who started as a Fabian:

The empirical art of politics consists largely in the creation of opinion by the deliberate exploitation of subconscious non-rational inference.

By the time he wrote that he had already left the Fabians over the dog-whistle issue of the day - tariff reform. You can't imagine he would be very surprised by the tactics of the Brexit campaign. He was still Fabian enough though to believe that the facts and the accurate representation of the facts actually matter:

If official figures did not exist in England, or if they did not possess or deserve authority, it is difficult to estimate the degree of political harm which could be done in a few years by interested and dishonest agitation on some question too technical for the personal judgment of the ordinary voter.

Wallas wrote that in 1908 and it took another 100 years before the UK Statistics Authority was established. It is abundantly clear that UK politicians of all shades still detest being brought to book when they fiddle the numbers. They may prefer to live in a fact free world, but it isn't good for the rest of us if we let them.

My favourite part of the book though is just a little incidental anecdote. Wallas is talking about political representation and pouring  cold water on the ideas of the Proportional Representation Society. He relates a mock ballot experiment run by the PRS in 1906 in which voters are to choose  five out of twelve candidates for an imaginary constituency.:

...in my case the ballot papers were distributed at the end of a dinner party. No discussion of the various candidates took place with the single exception that, finding my memory of Mr Arthur Henderson rather vague, I whispered a question about him to my next neighbour."

The relationship between left-leaning intellectuals and the Labour Party has always been contaminated by a hint of ambivalence. Oh well, if things carry on as they are we won't have an electorally viable left in the UK, so at least that problem will be solved.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The mothballs of memory

"You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory." So Steinbeck tells us towards the end of Travels with Charley when  he relates the feelings of a late middle-aged man revisiting the haunts of his youth. It's a commonplace observation but no less striking for that. I certainly felt something akin to it when I noticed the other day that the nonconformist church my family attended while I was growing up is to be auctioned off

The origins of the congregation go back to 1813 but the church building itself only to 1926. For the last 20 years the building has apparently been shared with a, presumably more vigorous, evangelical church and a local playgroup. When I knew it, in the 1970s, Sunday morning service would easily attract 80 or 90 congregants, even more on a good day, and at Christmas it was packed to the gunwales. The congregation has now merged with another a few miles away and, I read, the joint congregation of the new church is 30. That's institutional secularization for you: Bryan Wilson 1, David Martin 0.

We were not a particularly religious family, or at least religion didn't play much of a role in our everyday lives, but church on Sunday morning was a fixed part of the weekly family ritual. I suppose that theologically a watered down Calvinism was what we were supposed to believe in, but I would have been hard pressed at any time to list any elements of church doctrine beyond a vague identification with the brotherhood of man, a do as you would be done by approach to behaviour and a very uncalvinistic belief in the desirability of good works. In a way the church was as much defined by what it did not go in for rather than what it did. 'Enthusiasm' was definitely out as was any form of ritual beyond the bare minimum that was necessary to get through the monthly communion service. Sermons were definitely in and if delivered by the right person looked forward to. What was also in were a large number of essentially social activities.

When I think back on it a very large part of my adolescent week was spent either on the church premises or doing things connected with it. Youth club on Wednesday, Boy's Brigade on Friday, collecting newspapers for recycling on Saturday morning, playing football on Saturday afternoons and then church on  Sunday morning where, even if the service was dull, there would be girls! And it didn't stop there. Every Summer my father and I climbed up on the roof and cleaned the gutters and I've lost count of the number of times we  repaired and painted various bits of the premises.

Nonconformist churches only exist if the community organizes and finds leadership capacity in itself. In class terms our congregation was upper-working and lower middle-class which pretty much reflected the social demography of the area. Clerks, primary school teachers,  shop-keepers, people with a small business run from a shed in the back-garden, these were the mainstay and among them there were more than enough capable people to create and sustain a living, breathing community focused on the church building.

I now realise that what I got from it all was a poor man's version of the extra-curricular experiences that the privately educated got at their expensive public schools: soccer, cricket, badminton, table tennis, hiking, camping, playing music, marching around in a uniform, community service, learning to get on with people and, of course, chapel on Sunday. All organized at one easy to get to place. The costs in terms of having to believe or even do anything in particular were so minimal that the slide into agnosticism and  atheism was easy. As Bryan Wilson pointed out, nonconformity itself is one of the staging posts of secularization.

And now the physical focus of all these memories is about to disappear. We've all moved on and can't go back. Again Steinbeck catches the mood: "What I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless."

Friday, 29 July 2016


It's Friday and time for more Chet the musician 'bittersweet' was coined for. Looking forward to seeing the biopic Born to be Blue  that was released in the UK earlier this week. Chet is another example of the rule that a great artist is allowed to be an arschloch. The same rule does not apply to academics. Tenderly.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Social Structure of Brexit 3

Last time around on this theme. It seems to me that  a fair amount of silliness has emerged in the discussion of what drove the Brexit vote. Two moves seem popular, neither of which are terribly enlightening. One is to condition on the outcome and then ask what are the people who voted Out like? There is nothing inherently wrong with this, it answers a perfectly well defined question, just not the scientific question of interest. The problem is that p(c_1, c_2, c_3...| y_1) where c_1 etc is a characteristic - class, gender, vote preference -  and y_1 is Brexit vote is influenced by the marginal distribution of the characteristics. What you actually want is  p(y_1| c1, c2,c_3...).

The second move I've observed is to argue that Brexit voting isn't really a matter of social structure at all, but has to do with holding certain attitudes.  As I showed in my first post it is certainly true that holding certain attitudinal views - on immigration, political inclusion and welfare is strongly correlated with views about the EU. However it is quite another thing to argue that one causes the other. Certainly it is not wise to condition on an endogenous attitudinal variable and then claim that this shows that social structure doesn't matter. You need to consider both indirect and direct effects and it has something of the flavour  of saying - to steal the words of a very perceptive sociological colleague - "God did it" (hat tip to BTH). Sometimes, as I say to my students, you don't want an explanatory variable that is too close to the dependent variable.

So this brings me around to my last bit of empirics on the subject. Again I'm using the 2015 BES cross-section with the same measure of attitude to the EU the construction of which I described in my previous post, but simplified so that I only consider the contrast between those that are supportive of the EU and those that are anti EU (I drop the ambivalent). I estimate a linear model for the probability of being anti EU with fixed effects for the 300 odd constituencies in the sample. I control for age and gender. I'm interested in: 1) coefficient for socio-economic characteristics of the respondents ( occupation, household-income and whether or not they are a graduate) mainly so we can get some idea of the magnitude of the differences between groups; 2) getting some idea of the predictive impact of these characteristics. 

In case the binary regression police are watching I should say that if you estimate a conditional logit model with fixed effects you  will draw exactly the same substantive conclusions (but feel slightly better about your standard errors).

So, if you estimate this regression with just the fixed effect and a constant you "explain" about 20% of the variance. I don't recommend this as a way to estimate a variance component - but I need some sort of baseline against which to evaluate the contribution of the individual level predictors. Next throw in the demographics -age and gender. That "explains" 21%. Add in the socio-economic predictors - occupation, income and graduate status - and this leaps up to 35%.  However you look at it adding more socio-economic structure improves the prediction by a substantial amount.

Let's look at the estimated slope coefficients and associated t values. These are shown in the columns headed  (1) in the table below (the fixed effects and demographic controls are in the model but I don't show them here).
Controlling for the constituency fixed effects and the demographics, occupation, income and being a graduate all capture substantively important differences in the propensity to be anti EU.  Being self-employed or working class makes you more anti, as does having a low household income, and being a non-graduate.

 Consider the magnitude of the estimated  %  point difference in taking an anti-EU stance for two typical cases. The conditional average difference between a graduate higher manager with a household income in the £40,000-£74,999 bracket and a working class, non graduate with household income in the £15,600-£39,000 bracket: it's 39 percentage points. Assuming that these data have some bearing on people's behaviour in June 2016, then anyone who wants to argue that something like social class is a minor factor has some explaining to do.

But let's test the case for individual level socio-economic differences a bit more. Does it stand up even if we condition on an obviously endogenous variable like party voted for in the 2015 General Election? The columns labelled (2) hold the answer. And it is, broadly speaking, yes. Controlling for political preference (and in fact participation) doesn't really change anything very much.  We get a similar outcome if we condition on the, again obviously endogenous, attitudinal variables  - towards immigration, politics and welfare - that I discussed in my last two posts. The socio-economic coefficients shrink slightly towards zero, but they don't go away.

It may be the case that something like class dealignment has happened with regard to party choice, but that does not imply that "class" per se is dead. 

"As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!"


Friday, 8 July 2016

The Social Structure of Brexit 2

 I'm surprised by how much interest (judged by page views) there has been in my last post. Especially since I didn't put much effort into explanation or indeed  interpretation of the graphs. And  I didn't devote any effort at all to answering the $64,000 question which is why  we went from a situation in Spring/Summer 2015 in which roughly 40% of the electorate was decidedly pro EU and only 30% decidedly anti to in June 2016 52% of voters opting for Leave?

 As I said before, the best evidence on this is going to come from the ESRC's EU Referendum Study which among other things will, I assume, be able to tell us something about  change and crystallization of opinion at the individual level in the months leading up to the vote. So you should look out for the stuff coming out from those guys.

What I thought it might be useful to do though is return to the 2015 BES cross-section and explain a little about what went into the measures of  support for the EU, concern about immigration, alienation from politics and scepticism about welfare that I used last time round. 

To get anywhere you have to simplify, so this is my simplification. BES asks the following questions:

1) Overall, do you approve or disapprove of Britain's membership in the European Union?
2) If there was referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, how do you think you would vote? Would you vote to leave the EU or to stay in?
3) Which of these comes closet to your own views? Britain should: - respondent should choose a position from an 11 point scale anchored at one end by the statement ' Do all it can to unite fully with the European Union' and at the other by 'Do all it can to protect its independence from the European Union'.

4) Do you think that too many immigrants have been let into the country, or not? How strongly do you feel about this?
5) Do you think immigration is good or bad for Britain's economy?
6) As far as your concerned what is the single most important issue facing the country at the present time? An open ended question from which I pick out all those who mention immigration. The latter are 35% of those that mention an issue. Immigration roughly 3 times more likely to be picked out than any other single issue.

I'd like to read a few statements about public life. Using an answer from this card, please tell me how strongly you agree or disagree with each of them.
7) Politicians don't care what people like me think.
8) People like me have no say in what government does.
9) Politicians ignore the issues I really care about.

How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
10) If welfare benefits weren't so generous people would learn to stand on their own two feet.
11) The welfare state encourages people to stop helping each other.
12) Many people who get social security don't really deserve any help.

This is my raw material. In most cases I chunk up the answers into three groups, putting, where it makes sense, the don't knows in the same groups as the neither agree nor disagrees. Measure 3) (in the EU group) naturally only has two categories - you either mention or don't mention immigration. Measure 4) in the immigration group has four categories since I distinguish between those who strongly and less strongly believe that there has been too much immigration.

If you assume that the answers people give to these questions reveal their latent underlying attitudinal disposition then you can construct a statistical model for the responses that recovers the underlying attitudinal groups that people belong to. So I estimate a latent class model for each of the four sets of items. In each case I recover 3 groups:

1) Pro EU; ambivalent towards the EU; anti EU.
2) Positive about immigration; ambivalent about immigration; negative and strongly concerned about immigration.
3) Believing that politics and politicians reflect their views; ambivalent about politics and politicians; alienated from politics and politicians;
4) Supportive of welfare; ambivalent about welfare; negative about welfare and the people that receive it.

What happens when you look at the world in this way is illustrated below (click to enlarge).

A number of things strike me about these numbers. Firstly, the 10 percentage point difference between those who were positive & those who  were negative about the EU is nothing compared to the potential for swaying the almost one-third who were ambivalent.  There was lots of potential for the campaign to draw voters to one side or the other.

But now look at the scale of the persuasion job the Remain side had to do. Forty-five percent of the electorate strongly believed that immigration was a major problem and a further third were ambivalent which actually meant they thought it was a concern but expressed their views a little  less strongly than the diehards. More than half of the electorate felt alienated from politics and politicians, meaning, among other things, that they felt ignored and that their views  (which presumably included their views about immigration) were not of concern to the political elite. Finally just under a half had negative views about welfare and somehow felt that it wasn't going to the right people.

As my last post showed, concerns about immigration, alienation from politics and negative views about welfare are predictive of taking a negative view about the EU. In fact they are  all part of  the same ideological syndrome. It's clear why the Leavers campaigned the way they did. Already in 2015 it should have been obvious that a populist, anti-immigration, anti-elite, pro" hard-working families" campaign would be very appealing. It didn't take great political skill to link all these things together. The audience already believed it. All that was needed were the populists who were willing to exploit it and a Remain campaign that confirmed its elite and 'out of touch' image by trying to avoid mentioning those particular inconvenient facts.  The Leavers also, of course, ignored many other sorts of inconvenient facts, but these were not the ones the punters cared about. Ideologically they had an incumbent advantage.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Social Structure of Brexit

The high politics of the fall-out from Brexit are so fascinating that it is difficult to take one's eyes off the rapidly evolving tragedy/farce. Even so, just to get things clear in my own mind, I took a little time out to look at some data. My idea is nothing more profound than to illustrate what my old LSE tutor Eileen Barker used to call "what goes with what".  I suppose the definitive source for this sort of thing will be the ESRC referendum study that is being directed by my colleague Geoff Evans. We also already know quite a bit from the polls  and from the aggregate level picture. What I'm going to ask here is what can we have learn from the 2015 British Election Survey cross-section? The BES data were collected between May and September 2015, so long before campaigning began in earnest, but my guess is that for our purposes this doesn't matter too much.

One caveat before I go further: this is a blog post not an academic article so I'm going to cut to the chase rather quickly without going into all the details about how I've processed the data.

The first thing I want to look at is support for the EU and how it relates to other issues and dispositions that are likely to be of  relevance to how people voted on June 23rd. I look simultaneously at four things: 1) support for the EU; 2) immigration; 3) feeling alienated from politics in the sense that you don't believe politics reflects your concerns; 4) believing that welfare benefits are a bad thing or are abused. I take 3 items on each of these things from the BES and estimate four latent class models. In each case the model fits very well and divides the population into three groups: 1) those who are positive about the EU/immigration/feel politics reflects their concerns/think welfare is a good thing; 2) those who are ambivalent or don't know what they think about these issues; 3) those who are negative about the EU/ concerned about immigration/feel alienated from politics/dislike welfare.

If you put all four of these latent classifications into a multiple correspondence analyses (MCA) you get a pretty clear picture of what goes with what (click to enlarge).
People who don't like the EU (-) also don't like immigration (-), feel politically alienated (yes) and think that something has gone wrong with welfare (-). Conversely if you like the EU (+) you don't mind immigration (+) , don't feel politically ignored (no) and feel positive about welfare (+). Nothing particularly surprising here, apart from perhaps quite how closely the four domains map onto each other.

Next step. How do these attitudes relate to party politics? We can add to the MCA plot information about how people voted in the 2015 election.

Again, no particular surprises. UKippers are very decided in their views, Labour, Nationalist and other voters are strongly for the EU and the other things that go with it. LibDems are also pro EU but are also pulled towards ambivalence. The Conservatives and those that didn't vote tend towards an anti EU position but also feel the gravitational pull of ambivalence.

OK, what about the social structural stuff then? Let's start with social class. Yup, that seems to work.

The routine and semi-routine employees (labelled here "working class") and the self-employed dislike the EU, immigration etc. What about if we do class in a different way by looking at household income?
 That's pretty clear too. The rich like the EU, the poor don't. And age?

Pretty clear relationship there as well.  I could on. I've got similar plots for graduates versus non graduates, students versus non students and of course for geographical regions.

If you do something fancy like estimating a multinomial logit with the latent pro, ambivalent and anti EU groups as the response variable, all these relationships stand up as partial "effects" when you include all the others as predictors. It's probably worth emphasizing though that it is difficult to know what sense to give to the coefficients from that sort of exercise. What you really want to know is the discriminating power of the predictors. An ROC plot would probably be revealing.

Punch line. Social structure is important, but then we knew that anyway didn't we?

Friday, 1 July 2016


It's Friday afternoon, everything's gone to Hell in a handcart, but at least we still have Chet Baker.

Tears before bedtime

Has anyone  noticed that our politicians seem to be rather lachrymose these days? When exactly did the trembling lower rather than the stiff upper lip become a public relations asset? Or are they all really regressing back to the emotional world of the nursery?

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Orwell on Brexit

If you want a vision of the future, imagine an Icelandic boot kicking the ball past a fumbling English goalkeeper - forever.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Die Lösung

Nach dem Aufstand des 17. Juni
Ließ der Sekretär des Schriftstellerverbands
In der Stalinallee Flugblätter verteilen
Auf denen zu lesen war, daß das Volk
Das Vertrauen der Regierung verscherzt habe
Und es nur durch verdoppelte Arbeit
zurückerobern könne. Wäre es da
Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
Löste das Volk auf und
Wählte ein anderes?


Independence Day

Just through with wiping the egg off my face. Anyone for an independent city state of London that is part of the EU? The border could be the M25. If they ask nicely we could let a few other cities join too.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Who is going to win?

It's a mugs game to try and call popular votes. Everyone is wise after the event but nobody has a magical prediction machine. I've really no more idea than the next person as to where we will stand on Friday.  Unlike the 1975 referendum which was a shoo-in for Remain it could go either way. Two months ago I was confident that Remain would win. Two weeks ago I was much more pessimistic. A week ago I thought the game was over and Leave would shade it.  

The polling evidence is not clear cut. My colleague Steve Fisher, who did the least worst job at the last General Election, has Remain slightly ahead in his model based forecast but the confidence intervals are so wide that Leave can't be sensibly excluded. The message from the financial and currency markets  now seems to favour Remain, but the signal is weak and there is still a lot of volatility. The betting odds heavily favour Remain. At the moment you can get between 2/9 and 2/7  on Remain  in other words roughly an 80% chance of staying and between 3/1 and 11/4 on Leave - about a 25% chance of quitting.

One of my colleagues put a sizeable sum on Remain at very good odds more than a year ago.  He may be feeling a bit nervous right now, but if you are a betting man you have to trust the odds. I'm not a betting man, but I do tend to put more weight on what people do rather than on what people say so my best guess is that Remain will win and since I'm now well down the path to getting egg on my face I may as well venture a guess at the winning margin. Let's say 4%.

And if I'm wrong, well, all bets will be off and we'll wake up on Friday in a rather different world. Will everything be utterly changed? No. Will the UK be a somewhat more unpleasant place to live in ? Probably yes. If we leave the EU and Scotland votes for independence I'll be joining the queue for a Scottish passport.


With a slightly heavy heart I voted in favour of inviting Michael Gove to become a Visiting Fellow of my college. It is part of the college's charter to actively forge links between the academic world and the world of business, administration, politics and civil society. This seems to me to be an entirely appropriate thing to do. It's not good for us to sit  alone  in the ivory tower all the time and it is good for non academics to have a space in which to reflect about their concerns away from the day to day pressures of their particular calling. I think that both sides gain from this. Maybe it  helps us do our jobs just a little bit better.

Once you accept the idea of Visiting Fellows you also have to accept that it will be necessary to deal with the world as it is, not as you would like it to be. In practice that can quite literally mean supping with people you profoundly disagree with, even with people whose ideas and actions you find somewhat distasteful. It would be a strange kind of engagement with the outside world if you only invited into the club people you agree with. Moreover, a college community is not a monolithic bloc with one mind. Like the world itself a college contains people with different opinions, tastes and beliefs.

In appointing Visiting Fellows great care is taken to achieve balance across the mainstream political spectrum and that is entirely as it should be.  Just about the only significant disqualifications are a habit of serial incivility such that interaction with members of the college is unlikely to be productive and actions  on the part of a Visiting Fellow that are likely to bring the college into disrepute, for example the sort of thing that leads to detention at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Having said all that I now find myself wondering where exactly the boundaries of productive interaction lie. Today I read in the newspapers of an interview that Michael Gove gave to LBC. I didn't hear the interview so I only have the written reports to go on.  After being asked why he was disregarding the vast majority of expert economic opinion on the likely consequences of Brexit, Gove is quoted as saying:

"We have to be careful about historical comparisons, but Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong and his theories were denounced, and one of the reasons of course he was denounced was because he was Jewish."

"They got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say that he was wrong and Einstein said: ' Look, if I was wrong, one would have been enough.'"

What this reveals to me is an attitude of complete contempt for intellectual expertise. It's the 'they're all in it together' know nothing attitude of a flat earth crank.  In fact it's worse than that because there is the implication that in some sense academic expertise has been prostituted. And to crown it all the comparison implies not just financial but intellectual corruption - the German scientists knew that Einstein was right but chose to say otherwise. In what way is that similar to economic experts trying to forecast the consequences of Brexit?
I'm not an economist, but if I were I would be insulted by such a comparison. It's one thing to disagree, that's the bread and butter of academic life, its another entirely to imply that you are only saying something because of a dishonorable ulterior motive.
It's not the first time that Gove has let slip what he really thinks about people who are making a genuine attempt to understand how the world works. I'm having second thoughts about the likelihood of productive conversations.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

On heterogeneity and homogeneity

Human populations are heterogeneous. That's a low level, but extremely important  fact of life that social scientists have to deal with. Heterogeneity  is, of course, a matter of degree and knowing when to treat differences as too trivial to merit attention is something that is mostly  learned by experience. Why these abstract musings? 

My 20 minute walk into work takes me through two distinct residential areas. The first is the South Oxford academic ghetto that I live in. As I'm walking along this morning I count the number of houses displaying an EU referendum poster.  I estimate that 10-15% of houses have a poster taped to a front window and 100% of these posters are for Remain.

Then I cross over the bridge and pass though a rather different area, mostly 1970s social housing.  The adults heading in the opposite direction to me, mostly taking their kids to school on the other side of the river, are different in all sorts of respects. When I look at the houses and flats they have come from  one thing is immediately obvious: not a single one has a referendum poster in the window. 

Two worlds separated by 25 metres of water. One confident enough to express their opinion the other...actually I don't know. Maybe most are not interested. Maybe nobody asked them. Maybe their tenancy agreement doesn't permit the display of posters in the window.

Friday, 17 June 2016

The break up of Britain

Whether they knew it or not, the interest that drew them there was purely psychological - the expectation of some essential disclosure as to the strength, the power, the horror, of human emotions. Naturally nothing of the kind could be disclosed.

Konrad Korzeniowski

Monday, 13 June 2016

In praise of being wrong

A kindly reader of my last post pointed out  to me that  Habitus and Social Science: a Virtual Roundtable which appears on the website of the Sociological Review could supply a lot of material to substantiate what I was complaining about. Indeed it does and more. I'm not going to even try to discuss most of it for the simple reason that I don't understand large chunks.  Anyone want to have a go at translating this by Helene Aarseth into something that mere mortals can comprehend?

"Bourdieu’s concept of habitus offers a notion of a subject that escapes autonomous and transcendent conceptualizations, yet without resorting to the de-corporealization evident in much constructivist and deconstructivist approaches. Also, habitus may provide a conception of libidinal attachments that does not resort to a notion of affect as a non-signifying force or intensity, as is the case in some strands of affect theory. Bourdieu’s habitus is ‘socialized subjectivity’ that emerges in praxis, as a product of the interaction between body and environment and as a way of responding to and investing in these environments."

To me it reads like something out of the Postmodernism Generator. Before I checked whether Helene Aarseth actually existed - she seems to have at least a virtual existence at Oslo University - I entertained the thought that this name was actually a pseudonym for Alan Sokal and that in this de-corporealized form (what else would you expect from a virtual roundtable) he was treating us to another Social Text hoax. Perhaps he is. I mean, if you wanted to make your hoax really convincing wouldn't you make an electronic footprint to lend it credibility? Let's not go there, that way madness lies..

I want to try and rescue something of value from this mare's nest and I'm pinning my hopes on Sam Friedman's contribution. It seems to me that he deserves some applause for at least writing in relatively clear English. In doing so he fulfills in theory  one of the requirements of academic debate: that you should put your head above the parapet in such a way that there is a possibility that it could get knocked off. So, two cheers for Sam. At least he has some notion of  how to play the game. I'll reserve one cheer though because the company he keeps  in practice ensures that nobody is going to call him on inconvenient things like facts. That's not so great if you take the view that debate is supposed to advance matters by introducing the possibility that our errors might be corrected.

What does he get wrong? So there is no wriggle room let's do this by quoting his exact words:

1) He starts by saying that he is interested in how the concept of habitus might be useful for social mobility researchers and goes on to say: "This largely quantitative research community has largely ignored the works of Bourdieu...". Really? Let's take a representative text from this "largely quantitative research community". I don't want to be accused of citing something obscure so how about one of the two major outputs from the 1972 Oxford Social Mobility Study, Halsey et al.'s Origins and Destinations

If I turn to the index I see that Bourdieu receives 9 citations, the same number as his compatriot Boudon and rather more than Basil Bernstein (2), Samuel Bowles (4), James Coleman (1), Ralph Dahrendorf (2), Jean Floud (7),  Herbert Gintis (4), David Glass (3),  John Goldthorpe (6), Richard Hoggart (2), David Lockwood (1), J. S. Mill (1), R. H. Tawney (7), John Westergaard (2), and Max Weber (1). How can this possibly be construed as ignoring Bourdieu? In fact a large part of the book is an explicit empirical refutation of some of Bourdieu's ideas about educational reproduction. You could only claim that this text ignores Bourdieu if you construe ignore to mean something like: shows through rigorous empirical inquiry that in the British case Bourdieu's ideas about educational reproduction were of little value. 

But we don't have to stop there, after all 1980, when the book was published, is a long time ago for some people. What about the more recent work of Alice Sullivan, Mads Meier Jaeger, Paul de Graaf,  Nan Dirk de Graaf, Paul Di Maggio, Harry Ganzeboom, Adam Gamoran and even John Goldthorpe himself? What possible reading of the relevant literature could lead you to conclude that: "This largely quantitative research community has largely ignored the works of Bourdieu..."? You can only get away with this sort of claim if you confine yourself to conversation with people as uninformed as yourself.

2) Let's have another quotation:

"...habitus allows for a much more sensitive understanding of the relationship between time and social mobility. Standard quantitative mobility research usually involves inspecting standard mobility tables, comparing origin and destinations taken from two points in time, and measured with a single occupation-based variable. This approach has obvious merits, notably in allowing a form of standardisation which permits comparative analysis. However, there are fundamental limitations to rendering time in this linear way, not least the fact that it conflates occupational ‘access’ with class ‘destination’ and fundamentally elides the stickiness of one’s class origin. In contrast, habitus represents a much more temporally-sensitive tool - allowing us to conceptualise how the capitals that flow from class origin can shape mobility trajectories well beyond occupational entry. I have explored this in recent work that has highlighted the existence of significant class-origin pay gaps in top occupations."

If we strip away all the irrelevancies this can be expressed in even plainer English. Here is my précis: 

If you select a sample of people who hold professional and managerial positions and estimate a regression of their earnings on their social class origins and a bunch of control variables you will find that in some cases the coefficients for the social class origin indicators are significantly different from zero.

Indeed. I don't doubt that this is the case. However, without a making a lot of assumptions this says nothing whatsoever about the usefulness of the concept of habitus as an explanation of these findings. 

Rule number one  of serious research is that before you resort to exotic explanations you should make a reasonable attempt to discount more mundane but highly plausible reasons for finding what you find. So in this case you would want to really make sure that the ceteris paribus condition is satisfied. 

If you measure things  that you place  in an intermediate position in the  causal chain  at a high level of aggregation - for example crude measures of educational  qualifications and achievements - and then include predictors in your regression that are further back in the causal chain  - such as social class origin - which themselves predict the hidden heterogeneity in the intermediate level outcome, then it will appear to be the case that social class origin predicts earnings differences even after controlling for education when actually what it is partly doing is  capturing qualitative differences in education. 

In other words you are giving yourself an easy ride by setting things up to maximize the possibility that social origin effects appear. Is this the whole story? Probably not, but it is quite likely to be a more important part of the story than some kind of quasi mystical hand waving in the direction of  the concept of habitus. In case you think I'm being hard on Friedman I'm happy to extend the same criticism to others, for example I think the whole literature on grandparent effects tends to sweep this kind of aggregation bias under the carpet.

3) Finally let's take up Friedman's claim that: 

"...habitus allows for a more fruitful integration of the objective and subjective features of social mobility. In this way, habitus allows us to understand the long shadow of class origin not just in terms of material outcomes but also in terms of identity. Here, as my article probes, the identities of the mobile tend to always carry – at least in some form—the symbolic baggage of the past, and this historical imprint often has important consequences for how they act and feel in the present."

More fruitful than what exactly? Claims that X is better than Y  can only be subjected to rational discussion if we are given some kind of a clue as to what the Y is that the claimant has in mind.  Nothing said here in any way gives us a reason to believe that the concept of habitus aids the understanding of anything to do with the subjective features of social mobility or with identity italicized or not. 

Anyone would think that nobody had heretofore considered investigating the subjective aspects of the mobility experience. Oh, hang on a minute, there is a book  called Social Mobility and the Class Structure in Modern Britain by that arch quantifier J. H. Goldthorpe that contains a chapter called 'The Experience of Social Mobility'. Would that by any chance be of relevance? Perhaps not as it doesn't appear to once mention the concept of habitus. Thus, I guess, according to Friedman it won't be of much use. I wonder if he has read it.

Friday, 10 June 2016

The Kenny G of sociology

People with absurdly elevated opinions of themselves are common in all walks of life. In some parts of academia they compound the sin by writing endless screeds of garbage & then cry foul when they get taken apart. Hey guys, wise up. Criticism of what we write is part of the point of it all. If you just want an admirer go buy a mirror.

I get increasingly  irritated by the  blowhards of British sociology who are always going on about the importance of debate but who do their very best to avoid it with anyone who poses the slightest threat to their delusional world view. If  debate never involves moving out of your chummy comfort zone and avoiding anyone with teeth then it is difficult to see how the discipline is going to survive academic natural selection. 

Calls for sociological unity in the face of a cold and threatening environment are really just a  convenient ruse when what one is being asked to unite behind is just so much confused nonsense tricked out to look appealing to the media, a gullible trade book audience and a few tame adherents of other disciplines who are tagging along so they can pursue their own agenda.

In other walks of life they have the balls to call a spade a spade. When Pat Metheney expressed contempt for Kenny G after he had the effrontery to overdub his appalling muzak inspired sax on a Louis Armstrong recording, Richard Thompson penned a little ditty by way of comment. I agree with Pat Metheney. Oh for some inkling of the same degree of honesty in our neck of the woods.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Our friends in Economics

There seems to be a very unpleasant spat going on over at the American Economic Review. The details can be gleaned here. The crux of the matter is that an article scheduled for publication seems to have been, how shall we say, less than than generous in citing prior work stemming from a different discipline on essentially the same matter & in one case using essentially the same data.

Such practices are, of course, not entirely unknown and it should be said, are not unique to economics. Hype, over claiming, selectively citing to make work look more original than it is are pretty much standard operating procedure in many academic fields. As is the claim that everyone else is just doing correlations but with your cool IV you are doing causality.

An interesting take on this particular episode can be found here. What is amazing is  the fear & loathing that leads the authors to hide behind anonymity. I guess in some fields there are just a lot of big swinging dicks.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Our friend in the North

I see that our friend in the North has just received a bit of a duffing up in the pages of Sociological Research Online for the nonsense he writes about hypothesis testing. I expect Nicholson and McCusker, who deserve a medal, will eventually be repaid with a bucketful of  ad hominem abuse  unless the  editor shows a little backbone and insists on civility.

The scandal though is that SRO -  a journal that supposedly uses peer review -  thought that the article that provoked N&M's response was fit to publish in the first place. Retraction? Or are they just going to carry on with the line that it is all a matter of opinion?

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Allan McCutcheon RIP

I'm saddened today to learn of the untimely death of my friend and colleague Allan McCutcheon. I first met Allan in 1992 when we were  teaching at the Essex Summer School in Social Science Data Analysis. Allan taught a course on latent-class analysis and I taught a course on log-linear models so we immediately had a common interest. 

We were part of a little group of instructors, including, among others, Neal Beck, Harold Clarke, Jörg Blasius, Peter Schmidt and Steffen Kühnel who, after the work was done, would chew the cud    over a bottle of wine before cramming into my tiny Peugeot and heading off into the Essex countryside in search of a good dinner.

Everyone warmed to Allan. He was a true gentleman, generous with his time (especially with students) and unfailingly enthusiastic about whatever he was doing or currently reading ( which was just about everything). He always wanted to learn something new and he was one of those people who just had a lust for life. It was inspiring  to see him again every year and hear about his latest hobby or interest: flying, long-distance swimming, cookery, fine wines, sky-diving, fast cars...

Professionally I learned a lot from him, especially about the dark art of estimating latent class models. Allan was the first person to show me Jeroen Vermunt's Lem program for categorical data analysis. That must have been back in 1993. He had already mastered all the tricks  and to me it was real eye opener. I retired my copy of GLIM and became a convert. 

We contributed a jointly authored chapter on categorical data analysis to a volume celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Essex Summer School and he was a joy to write with. I found  money from somewhere to invite him over to London, got him to give a seminar and we spent a bit of time sorting out data for our examples and probably more time sampling dining opportunities. A couple of weeks later I received the draft of his part of the piece and soon we were done.

Reading all the Facebook tributes pouring in today, many from former students as well as from friends and family, you can get a sense of  just how many lives Allan touched and how much of a difference he made. I don't know how Allan would like to be remembered, but this is how I will remember him, having fun and treating life as an awfully big adventure.