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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.

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?