Tom Lehrer – “Sociology”

December 18, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tom Lehrer has put all his songs online and has ceded all copyright protection.

Performing and recording rights to all of my songs are included in this permission. Translation rights are also included. In particular, permission is hereby granted to anyone to set any of these lyrics to their own music, or to set any of this music to their own lyrics, and to publish or perform their parodies or distortions of these songs without payment or fear of legal action. [The full statement and the songs are here.]

In the movie White Christmas, Danny Kaye sings a song called “choreography.” It’s  not the most famous Irving Berlin song from this movie (guess what is). You’ve probably never heard of it. It’s gently satirical — a  commentary on the pretentiousness of hoofers in the dance biz. Once, they simply spoke of “dancing”; now they prefer the inflated term “choreography.”

Lehrer used Berlin’s melody and the structure of the song to do a similar skewering of quantitative social science. His target, as he explains in the introduction in this video, was really political science, but you can’t swap out “choreography” in the Berlin song and replace it with “political science.” “Sociology,” on the other hand is a perfect fit.

Can We Talk?

December 8, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Molly Worthen begins her column in the Sunday Times Opinion section by quoting a student who said that if she had known her intro sociology class required oral exams, “I’m not sure I would have taken the class.”  Worthen goes on at length (2500 words) in favor of oral exams.  

I think she’s right in principle, though I cannot speak from experience. I had no oral exams as an undergraduate — Worthen is talking mostly about undergrad courses — and even for the Ph.D., my department did not require an oral defense.

“American universities tend to infantilize students,” says Worthen, “taking attendance in class, employing fleets of student affairs bureaucrats to tend to their needs.” She neglects to mention the most infantilizing and bureaucratic practice of all – multiple-choice exams. Bureaucratic because in the interests of efficiency and universalism (objectivity) multiple-choice exams force students to minimize the information they present. Infantilizing because multiple-choice exams treat students as though they are incapable of complex thought. To take a multiple-choice exam, you don’t have to be able to think about and discuss ideas and evidence. You don’t even have to know the material, though it helps.

Multiple-choice exams replace the original goal of education — learning — with the ability to answer simple questions. My favorite example of the difference is again from grad school, in this case the foreign language requirement. The idea underlying this requirement is that not everything relevant in your field is written in English, especially work that is more recent and not written by superstars like Bourdieu or Foucault.

My French at the time was so feeble that I doubt I could have read a newspaper, certainly not Le Monde, probably not even the French counterpart of the New York Post. But to fulfill the language requirement, all I had to do was get a #2 pencil and pass the standardized test from (if I recall correctly) ETS. I don’t know how low the bar was set, but I passed.

A friend who had gotten his degree at Brandeis told me what the language exam there was like. “You go see Hughes [Everett C. Hughes] and he gives you a piece of paper with a citation for an article in a foreign journal.. ‘Go read this, come back Wednesday, and we’ll talk about it.’”

As Worthen says, “The most empowering thing a teacher can do for her students has nothing to do with constant surveillance of their academic engagement . . . . It is to simply talk with them, face to face, as fellow thinkers.”

When Chappelle Says It, It’s Funny

November 18, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Dave Chappelle, in his SNL monologue, offered an insight about language that I’ve used a few times in this blog. It’s about adding the definite article “the” to a demographic category.

Here’s how I put it in a blog post seven years ago after candidate Donald Trump (remember those good old days? they’re back) had told an interviewer, “I’d be phenomenal to the women.”

When you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society. Without the definite article, they are included. To say, “In our society we have Blacks, Jews, women. . . . .” implies that they are all part of our group. But, “We have the Blacks, the Jews, the women . . . .” turns them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

Chappelle got more laughs.

In another post a year later (here),  I quoted linguist Lynne Murphy on the same topic.

“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering:” treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group.

Turning those individuals into “a large, uniform mass” not only allows for “othering”; it’s also the precondition for paranoid conspiracy theories. Even if, as Chappelle suggests,* there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood, you can still see them as individuals, as Jews trying to turn out successful movies and TV shows. To see them as a cabal conspiring against Kanye or Christians or America it helps to think of them as “the Jews.”

* See also Joel Stein’s 2008 article “Who Runs Hollywood? C’mon” (here).

Poll Problems — the Wisdom of Crowds or Pluralistic Ignorance

November 6, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the last few elections, the pre-election polls have gotten it really wrong. Partly that’s because cell phones and low response rates have made sampling difficult. But it also might be that pollsters are not asking the right question. Maybe the usual question — “Who are you going to vote for?” — is not the best way to predict election results.

The most recent episode of NPR’s Planted Money explored this question and in the end tried a less direct approach that some polls are now using. They went to the Marist College poll and got the directors to insert two questions into their polling on local House of Representatives races. The questions were:

  • Who do you think will win?
  • Think of all the people in your life, your friends, your family, your coworkers. Who are they going to vote for?

At the time, the direct question “Who will you vote for?” the split between Republicans and Democrats was roughly even. But these new two questions showed Republicans way ahead. On “Who will win?” the Republicans were up 10 points among registered voters and 14 points among the “definitely will vote” respondents. On the friends-and-family question, the corresponding numbers were Republicans +12 and +16.

Planet Money sees these results as an example of “the wisdom of crowds” — the idea that the best estimate comes not from the experts but from the collective judgment of everyone with an opinion on the matter at hand. The idea goes back to Galton at the Fair – statistician Francis Galton at the Plymouth (UK) farmers’ fair in 1906.

At the fair, Galton noticed people submitting their guesses on the weight of an ox. Galton the statistician kept track of all the guesses— some 800 in all— and computed the group mean. Galton the eugenist assumed that the guesses of the ignorant would detract from the overall accuracy, while the guesses of farmers and butchers would be closer. The mean of the group was 1197 pounds; the ox’s weight, 1198 pounds. The group did better than the most expert individual

That’s from one of the many blogposts I have done on the topic (here). I’ve looked at predictions in the Superbowl, the Oscars, and securities trading. In some cases, notably the speculation that led to the financial crisis of 2008, the crowd has not always been wise.

Planet Money thinks that the crowd — the people being polled — is wiser than the experts doing the polling and analysis and that Republicans are going to win big.

But there are two other ideas from social science that can also explain the discrepancy between the responses to the questions.
  1. Pluralistic ignorance. This is the cognitive error where people think, mistakenly, think they are in the minority. For example, college students may think that just about everyone else on campus is having great sex and having it frequently when in fact most of their fellow students are in the same unfulfilled boat that they are.

  2. Social desirability. When asked questions in a survey, people avoid answers they think will make them look bad. Ask “How many books have you read this year?” and you’ll probably get an overcount.
If Republicans — the politicians, the right-wing media, Trump, the MAGA hats, et al.  — are making the most noise and generally dominating the political discourse, supporting the Democrats may just seem wrong or at least not the sort of thing you want yo bring up. If Democrats then are keeping their preferences to themselves, even they will perceive Republicans as the dominant party, and that’s what they’ll tell the Marist pollster on the phone asking who’s going to win. They may also think that most others in their social world are going Red.

It’s complicated. The people you call, even the few who don’t hang up, might give answers that are inaccurate — about what others think and even about what they themselves think. That may always have been true, but in what Planet Money calls “the Golden Age of polling,” roughly from the seventies to 2014, pollsters could make the necessary adjustments. Since then, poll problems have been sort of like Covid — you manage to solve one, and then a new variant comes along.