What Can I Do With an MA?

October 12, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Undergraduates often ask what they can do with a degree. Students who go into graduate programs presumably have resolved that question. So without further comment, here's a sign I saw posted at a bookstore in New Haven last month. I've blacked out the phone number, though I'm not sure why.

Scholarship as an Avocation

October 10, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Max Weber wrote an essay about “Scholarship as a Vocation” (the more commonly used translation is “Science as a Vocation”). It’s a classic, but Weber, in focusing on the professionals, forgot about the hobbyists tinkering in their garages. Sometimes, they do it better.

When I was an undergraduate, there was a lab technician who worked for the biochemistry department – I don’t think he had a college degree, he may even have been a high school droupout – who knew more than most of the doctoral students and probably some of the faculty. He was also the quarterback on the biochem intramural football team, which is why they usually won.

I was reminded of this by two things this week: my sister-in-law’s birthday dinner and Andrew Gelman’s Social Science Statistic Blog.

Gelman prints a rant (his word, not mine) that someone sent him about a wrongheaded statistical analysis done by some consultant for a local government project.
Gelman agrees and adds:
This certainly doesn't surprise me: I've seen worse from paid statistical consultants on court cases, including one from a consultant . . . who reportedly was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for his services.
The key problems seem to be:
1. Statistics is hard, and not many people know how to do it.
2. The people who need statistical analysis don't always know where to look.
The people with credentials can be wrong. And sometimes the uncredentialed guys – like the lab technician – surprise you.

Take Howie, a guy you would never mistake as an academic. He’s an old friend of my brother- and sister-in-law, and Sunday we were celebrating her birthday somewhere out in Queens at an unpretentious Italian restaurant (decent food, reasonable prices, no tablecloths, Yankees on a couple of TVs in the bar). I was seated down at the end of the table with my brother-in-law and Howie. Talk turned to politics – Hillary, Obama, Rudy – and what about Gore? That got us to Gore 2000 and the electoral college, then to Kerry and the Ohio vote in 2004. Were the elections stolen?

It became clear that Howie knew a lot about voting and irregularities and how you might audit results to detect vote-count tampering. He knew about sample sizes and statistical errors. He knew that no single sample size or percentage was perfect and that you optimize sample size by taking account of of electoral shifts and winning margins. He knew all the ways that a House bill on election audits was flawed. He also knew about hacking electronic voting machines, but he thought the computer scientists were focused on the wrong part of the problem. If you wanted to ensure voting integrity, you had to go for statistical audits. (“The computer science guys, they’re not interested in this stuff.”)

But as far as I knew, this was purely a hobby for him. It certainly wasn’t his job. (The last job he had was for an airline.) He had learned the statistics on his own – books, the Internet – after he’d gotten interested in the problem of election integrity. Now he’s publishing papers with academic co-authors and offering expert testimony on proposed federal legislation.

Moral Wars

October 6, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, came out against the War on Drugs.
“You want to get serious? Reduce crime in this country by 70-percent overnight? End this war on drugs.”

The mayor calls the national drug policy an abject failure, especially crack cocaine sentencing.
The mayor’s comment was all the more surprising for coming in response to news that San Francisco’s murder rate is up sharply this year. Instead of saying the war on drugs is a failure, an American leader should be calling for a surge. At least that’s what we would expect.

Why do we find war such an attractive idea? The appeal of war and its metaphors seems to clash with the American pragmatism. We supposedly prefer looking for practical solutions to problems. Yet we also seem to gravitate naturally towards moralistic views of the world. If there’s something we don’t like, we prefer to think of it as an evil. The next logical step is to ban it and then to declare war on it. Prohibition wasn’t the first such effort, and it wasn’t the last. It’s just the only one that’s written into the Constitution. Later wars, on terror or on drugs, are written in legislation and in judicial decisions. And in our consciousness.

We are, of course, a peaceful nation; we never start a fight. We’re Gary Cooper in High Noon. We react to a threat from the bad guys. When that threat is so evil as to require a war, the obvious corollary is that if we don’t fight this war and achieve victory, our very existence will be undermined. That’s the logic behind the idea that if we don’t fight them over there, we’ll have to fight them here. It’s the logic of moral absolutes rather than the logic of geography, politics, and strategy.

Framing something as war has some important consequences. First, even to question the usefulness or effectiveness of the war becomes tantamount to treason. There’s a war on drugs, and Mayor Newsom wasn’t supporting the troops. He was practically on the side of the enemy.

Second, since the enemy is evil incarnate and threatens our existence, and since we must defend ourselves against this aggression, anything we do is justified. If we’re fighting for our life, anything goes. The war on terror has given us a running tab of $10 billion a month, Abu Ghraib, Guantànamo, torture, and the Patriot Act. The war on drugs has had similar consequences (see “This is Your Bill of Rights on Drugs”). It has cost an enormous amount of money, giving rise to the incarceration-industrial complex, and it has needlessly and wastefully locked up tens of thousands of people. All with meager results.

It turns out there has been some progress in the war on drugs. In the past few months, cocaine prices are up and purity is down. The cause, however, is all on the supply side of the equation and the Mexican side of the border. The Mexican government is cracking down on the cartels, trying to win back cities controlled by the them. Perhaps more important, the cartels are in the midst of a serious war with one another for control of border crossings. Neither of those factors has anything to do with the long sentences we are still handing out to US buyers and sellers.

Other countries, at least their governments, prefer to approach drugs and terror as problems to be mitigated or even solved. Last month, in a lighter post on men’s room carelessness, I contrasted the Dutch solution (a trompe l’oeil fly in the urinal for guys to shoot at) with an imagined American approach – a War on Splashing with severe penalties for bad aim.

Punitive solutions are morally satisfying – I’d really like to stick it corporate polluters rather than let them trade emissions allowances; it’s just that non-moralistic approaches often work better and at less cost to our finances and our freedoms.

Survey This

October 4, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Often in class when I ask students how they might find out about some variable, their response is, “Do a survey.” It’s almost as though a survey were a magical rite with mystical powers able to reveal the unknowable. Maybe some of them are, but the reality – the way many surveys are actually done – has made me a bit skeptical.

I was polled twice yesterday. My phone number must be on a “do-call” list for pollsters. I don’t mind. In fact, I find it interesting to be on the other side of the questionnaire. When the interviewer asks if I’d be willing to participate, I say, “Yes, if you’d be willing to answer some of my questions when we’re done.”

I usually ask the same questions. Last night for example, I discovered that my interviewer was in New Mexico, though he was asking me about a court case – a complicated civil suit – in New York. He was getting $6 an hour, which is maybe why the polling company hires people in Las Cruces rather than in Las Bronx. In three nights of calling, he’d completed five interviews and had a lot of refusals. So we respondents were not exactly a random sample. He didn’t know whether it was the defendant or one of the plaintiffs who was footing the bill for this research, which we agreed was probably good methodology.

The case was complex – it involved at least four “parties,” verbal agreements vs. written ones, and multiple deals that were contingent on other deals. I’d tell you more but I promised I’d keep mum till after the trial. Besides, I’m still not sure I understand it. The questions setting up the case were long and involved, and my interviewer (a college kid studying athletic management) read through them at verbal warp speed. I was surprised that anyone would respond. Or if they did respond, whether they knew what they were responding to. It wasn’t until he’d gone through three or four questions that I was able to form even a murky picture of the case. I'm still not sure I have the names straight.

On the basis of this, I thought, they’re going to decide who to select for the jury and how to present the case. And then I wondered: if they lose, are they going to sue the company that sold them on this survey?