Sociology the Powerful

February 27, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociologists often complain that their ideas have little impact on public policy or on the public.  Think again.  Lee Kwan Yew says otherwise, according to an adulatory book review in the Wall Street Journal. 
Sociologists, he says, have convinced Americans that failure isn’t their fault but the fault of the economic system. Once charity became an entitlement, he observes, the stigma of living on charity disappeared.
Me, I have trouble convincing Americans (the ones in my classes) of very much at all.  And what nefarious indoctrination I do manage has an expiration date of about 4 minutes after the final exam.  So it’s nice to know that sociologists are a kind of shadow government with the power to cloud men’s minds. 

I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if Mr. Lee has a similarly dim view of European nations and their much more generous entitlements.  The reviewer, Karen Elliott House, does not mention that, though she does note Mr. Lee’s reservations about American individualism.*
Mr. Lee worries about the breakdown of civil society in the U.S.—individual rights (not paired with individual responsibility) run amok. 
I wonder if the same worry applies to corporate rights and responsibilities. 

Presumably the book will give readers something to chew on, though that something will certainly not be Juicy Fruit.

(HT: Matthew E.Kahn at The Reality-Based Community)
* More properly, American voluntarism, as Claude Fischer identifies it.

Defending Against The Unstoppable

February 25, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston   

(A non-sociological post.  But I love this anecdote.)

I have a colleague who used to play pro basketball.  This was decades ago and in the European league.  But he played in an informal US tournament once – something like the Rucker tournament – and wound up playing against Julius Erving. 

I asked the obvious if tactless question.  “How many points did he score?”

“As many as he wanted to,” he said.  “As it happens it was about 40, but it could have been 60.  It could have been 80.”

Elsewhere, Michael Jordan turned 50 recently, and Emma Carmichael at Deadspin interviewed Craig Ehlo on the topic of guarding Jordan.  At the time of this anecdote, Ehlo was with the Sonics.
We were running up the court side-by-side and he told me: “Listen man, I’m hitting everything, so I’m gonna tell you what I’m gonna do this time and see if you can stop it. You know you cant stop it. You know you can’t stop this. You can’t guard me.

“I’m gonna catch it on the left elbow, and then I’m gonna drive to the left to the baseline, and then I’m gonna pull up and shoot my fadeaway.”

And sure enough ...

I was like, OK, well, if he’s gonna tell me what he’s going to do, then I’m gonna take advantage of this. And I was right there with him when he did—but sure enough he banked it off the backboard. We were heading back down court, and he gave me that kind of shrugged-shoulder look that you’d always see and he’s like: “I told you. I told you.” And I just said, “Don’t do that again.” 
(The full interview is here)

I like Ehlo’s response – don’t do that again.  Better to get beat than to get beat and be humiliated too. 

For the record, Ehlo was not some second-rate benchwarmer.  He played fourteen seasons in the NBA.  The Ehlo incident that stands out in my mind is really a Charles Barkley moment in Philadelphia when Barkley was with the Sixers.  Ehlo had the ball under the hoop and leaped up for a jam, both hands high above his head.  That left his whole body unprotected.  Barkley drove a hard shoulder into his ribcage, and Ehlo fell to the floor in obvious pain. When the screen in the arena showed the replay, even the Philadelphia fans grew quiet.

We’re Number Twelve

February 23, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

US students taking the GRE ranked below students from all but one of the other countries.  Thank Allah for Saudi Arabia. 

As the Inside Higher Ed article, points out, this is not a fair comparison.
 only top potential graduate students in some countries (typically those looking at American or other Western institutions) might take the GRE, while many Americans take the test while seeking admission to a wide range of graduate programs.
How many of those 29,000 Chinese test-takers are applying to Education programs?  Or Sports Management?

Still, the comparison with Canada might be less biased.  It’s also interesting to note that on verbal and writing, the US trails the other English-speaking countries.  But if you have a stack of essays to read this weekend, you probably already guessed that.

Mo’ Data, Mo’ Problems?

February 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston   

“Big data has trouble with big problems,” says David Brooks (here).
we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.
But it’s not the data that has trouble with big problems, it’s the “major players.” You can’t blame the data for the resistance of those players. 

I’m not sure who he means by that phrase. Politicians? If Brooks thinks a politician will renounce a cherished policy just because the data show it to be unfounded, he is indeed naive. 

But economists, too, cling to their theories, and for similar reasons. The theory has served them well in the past.  It rests on evidence, and it has explained and solved many problems.  The economists are like scientists in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. They have been doing “normal science,” science framed by the dominant paradigm, and are now faced with an anomalous bit of evidence.  Kuhn doesn’t really blame them for not jettisoning the paradigm that has been the basis of their life’s work.  After all, the firm commitment to that paradigm, the belief that it can solve all its problems –  “that same assurance is what makes normal or puzzle solving science possible.”  And most science is normal science.

To abandon the old paradigm in favor of a new one, says Kuhn, is “a conversion experience.”  Scientists “whose productive careers have committed them to an older tradition of normal science” are unlikely converts.  He quotes Max Planck:
a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Paul Krugman  has a better quote from Planck.  “Science progresses funeral by funeral.”

Purity and Danger, Politics and Persuasion

February 16, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston                       

You’re not going to persuade a conservative by appealing to liberal moral principles. Tell a Tea Party type that industrial waste harms the environment and should be regulated, you won’t get very far.  But if you appeal to conservative moral principles, you might have more luck.

I’ve been skeptical about Jonathan Haidt’s conservative moral principles – group loyalty, purity, and authority – mostly because they are used to justify practices I find wrong or immoral –  things like anti-gay legislation, torture, assassination, terrorism, etc. (an early post about this is here.) 

But a recent experimental study by Robb Willer* shows that the right kind of persuasion can make conservatives a bit more eco-friendly.  The moral principle at issue is Purity. Participants read a pro-environmental message that was based either on “Harm/Care” or on “Purity/Sanctity” along with photos that matched the appeal. 
  • a destroyed forest of tree stumps, a barren coral reef, and cracked land suffering from drought (Harm)
  • a cloud of pollution looming over a city, a person drinking contaminated water, and a forest covered in garbage (Purity)
There was also a Neutral condition: “an apolitical message on the history of neckties.” (Willer has a fine sense of humor.)
Participants were then asked questions to determine their support for pro-environmental legislation.  

For people who identified themselves as liberal, the type of material they saw – Harm, Purity, or Necktie – made no difference in their environmental position. Conservatives, as expected, were generally cooler to environmental legislation, but only in the Neutral and Harm conditions. Once they were shown the Purity materials, conservatives were as pro-environment as the liberals. 

Other aspects of the conservative mind-set seem to go along with this emphasis on purity:  simplicity rather than complexity and a lower tolerance of ambiguity.  It’s a view that sees the need for clearly marked and rigidly enforced boundaries – the boundaries of the nation, the boundaries of the individual, the boundaries of cognitive categories. 

We can’t know which part of the Purity presentation was most effective, but my money is on that picture of a person drinking contaminated water.  That picture, but more so the broader point of the study, reminded me of another political conservative, Gen. Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.  Facing a conflict between Purity (purity of water, purity of essence) and Harm (nuclear war does qualify as harm, doesn’t it?), the choice was a no-brainer.

He has ordered US planes to drop nuclear bombs on the USSR and has closed off the base to communications from outside, including the President, who is desperately trying to get him to call back the planes.

Gen. Ripper explains to his adjutant, Major Mandrake (Peter Sellers). I have edited the script, removing Mandrake’s responses

Have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rain water, and only pure grain alcohol?
Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water?
Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?

A minute later Gen Ripper further expounds on fluoridation, amply illustrating this firm-boundaries idea:


Gen. Ripper is fictional and exaggerated, but a caricature can reveal real quirks and characteristics that usually go unnoticed. So can a social psych experiment.

* Willer is in the Sociology department at UC Berkeley. The article is online here, probably behind the Sage paywall.  A Berkeley News Center article about it (which is where I got that glass of water photo) is here.

Simplicity Patterns

February 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston 

John Sides at The Monkey Cage ran some of Obama’s important speeches through a content analysis program.  In his scan of the speeches, Sides was looking for two factors
  • the complexity of worldview *
  • the belief in ability to control events**
The results show that Obama, in his post-election State of the Union, was much lower on complexity (four standard deviations) and slightly higher on control than in his earlier speeches.

Sides concludes
Obama is indeed more assertive and definitive post re-election.
He says that as though it’s good news.  But I wonder.  How is the reduction in complexity different from “dumbing down”?  And didn’t the Greeks had a word for “belief in ability to control events”: hubris?

I haven’t run any of George W. Bush’s speeches through this program, but I would expect that he would score fairly low on complexity and high on belief in control – just in case you were wondering  how Iraq happened.

So while on policy Obama may be tougher about compromise with the Republicans, he is moving closer to them on rhetorical style. There is much research showing that in general conservatives tend to favor less complexity of thought (they score higher on “intolerance of ambiguity” and other measures of simple-vs.-complex).  That difference is probably reflected in the speeches of their leaders. 

In fact, one of the commenters on Sides’s post ran the Rubio SOTU response through the same content analysis program.  While Obama’s new dumbed-down complexity came in at .49 (Inaugural) and .52 (SOTU), the Republican response level of complexity, .40, was lower still.

* “a simple ratio of words tagged as complex and contingent versus those tagged as simple and definitive”
** “verbs indicative of taking or planning action as a proportion of total verbs”

When NRA Ideology Fails

February 12, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last month, a freshman at the University of Idaho committed suicide in his dorm room. He shot himself with his Smith and Wesson .357.  In his obituary, his parents wrote, “Let us drag the evil hiding in the darkness of the most dangerous places on earth: Gun free zones.” 

At first this reaction seems hard to understand.  True, the university is a gun-free zone, but it’s hard to see how allowing guns on campus could have prevented his death.* More logical is the idea that if the campus had been truly gun-free, if he had not had a gun in his room, he might still be alive. So the suicide should make his parents soften their pro-gun absolutism rather stiffen it.  The suicide is evidence that the danger lies not in gun-free zones but in guns themselves, . 

My guess is that the parents’ reaction can be understood as cognitive dissonance, much like the reaction of the believers in When Prophecy Fails.  When the flying saucer failed to appear, when, instead of being whisked away to the planet Clarion, they were still in a living room in Illinois, they did not give up their belief.  Instead, they went public and tried, as they never had before, to bring others into their group. (An earlier post on post-election dissonance is here.)

When a piece of evidence, even a huge piece, is dissonant with beliefs, people rarely change their beliefs.  Instead, they find a way to explain away the evidence.

In the debates over crime, conservatives liked to say that a conservative is a liberal who’s just been mugged.  Cute, but there was no evidence to support it.  There was no correlation between victimization and ideologies about crime.  (I don’t remember any research on the obverse proposition: a liberal is a conservative who’s just been arrested.)  It’s not just a matter of “if the facts don’t fit the theory, too bad for the facts.”  A single fact need not invalidate a theory or ideology. 

But if that fact is truly weighty, it does threaten the ideology.  To defend against that threat, the believer goes out proselytizing.  If he can persuade other people, then the belief must be true after all.  And even if other people are  not persuaded, the effort of repeating and elaborating a position solidifies the belief in his own mind.

(HT: Dave Purcell, who tweeted this story.)
* The student, Jason Monson, had kept a Desert Eagle handgun under his pillow, against university regulations. His roommate reported the gun, the police came and took it.  On Saturday, he went to the police station to retrieve the gun – it violated no state law, only the university regulations – but was told that because of the long weekend, he couldn’t get it back till Tuesday.  Instead, he got the .357 he kept in his pick-up, returned to the dorm, and shot himself. 

We don’t have a clue as to what precipitated the suicide. The NBC news story (here) has no hint of an explanation.  Monson left notes to his family, but the parents haven’t spoken with the media.  Still, it seems unlikely that his suicide was a reaction to having his gun temporarily confiscated. 

The Wi-Fi Nazi

February 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
(This post has no sociological commentary or content.)

I can’t remember where this was – probably an airport – but I was looking for free Wi-Fi.  When I clicked on the icon to search for networks, these were the results:

No net for me, but at least a smile.

More College Grads? Not Here.

February 6, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

You may have seen this chart already – Paul Krugman  and others have posted it – originally posted by Jared Bernstein nearly a year ago.  It’s from OECD data comparing college graduation rates across a generation.  The US has had zero increase.  The graduation rate for the 55-64 year old boomers was 40%.  The rate for the cohort thirty years younger (does anyone still call them Gen X?) was 40%. 

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

South Korea meanwhile has gone for higher ed Gangnam style, and in the years between the two cohorts, their economy has boomed.  Other countries seem not to fit the education-vs.-stagnation story.  Germany,* like the US, has also seen no increase in college grads, and their economy has not done badly.  Brazil has been doing very well, despite a rate of college graduates that has remained unchanged and at a low level. 
* In Germany’s educational system, high-school graduates have choices other than college for education for new-economy work.

America’s Team Is Not in the Superbowl

February 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

Six years ago, I blogged (here) that the Pittsburgh Steelers had become “America’s Team,” a title once claimed, perhaps legitimately, by the Dallas Cowboys. 

Now Ben Blatt at The Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective concludes that it’s still the Cowboys. (His post is here.)  
Still, based on their huge fan base and ability to remain the most popular team coast-to-coast, I think the Dallas Cowboys have earned the right to use the nickname  ‘America’s Team’.
To get data, Blatt posed as an advertiser and euchred Facebook into giving him some data from 155 million Facebook users, about half of the US population.  Blatt counted the “likes” for each NFL team.

 It’s Superbowls X, XIII, and XXX all over again – Steelers vs. Cowboys.  And the Cowboys have a slight edge.  But does that make them “America’s Team”? It should be easy to get more likes when you play to a metro area like Dallas that has twice as many people as Pittsburgh.  If the question is about “America’s Team,” we’re not interested in local support.  Just the opposite – we want to see how many fans a team has away from the home field. 

Blatt measures nationwide support by seeing which team gets the most likes in each Congressional district.  Unsurprisingly, each local team dominates its area.

The Cowboys are number one in the hearts of a wider area.  In Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, Idaho, and Utah they crush the non-existent competition.  Curiously, Blatt does not report the number of likes those states contributed. He says only that in those regions there were more likes for the Cowboys than for any other team.  By this measure, the Steelers don’t even win all Pennsylvania, but that’s because, unlike the Cowboys, the Steelers  face other NFL cities close to home.  Their home state and every bordering state except West Virginia has one or even two competing NFL teams – Eagles, Browns, Bengals, Ravens, Bills.   

The map makes the it appear that the 3.6 million Steeler fans are crowded into a small area while the 3.7 million Cowboy fans are widely spread.  But those wide open Western spaces may not contain all that many people.  And it’s fans, not real estate, that root for a team. 

If you want to know who America’s team is, you should find out how many fans it has outside its local area.  Unfortunately, Blatt doesn’t provide that information. So for a rough estimate, I took the number of Facebook likes and subtracted the metro area population.  Most teams came out on the negative side. The Patriots, for example, had 2.5 million likes. but they are in a media market of over 4 million people.  The Cowboys too wound up in the red  3.7 million likes in a metro area of 5.4 million people.

Likes outnumbered population for only five teams.  The clear winner was the Steelers.*

I made one final comparison –Steeler bars and Cowboys bars in Los Angeles  It’s the second largest media market in the country but hasn’t had a home NFL team to support in nearly two decades (how do economists explain this?).   The Cowboys should have an advantage in LA since more Angelenos have roots in Texas than in Pennsylvania.  According to FanLoop, there are 16 Cowboys bars within a 25-mile radius of 90210 (the first Los Angeles zip code that came to mind).  In that same circle, there are 31 Steelers bars.** 

* The Packers also have a legitimate claim to the title.  To get the numbers to come out in favor of the Steelers, I assigned the Pack the Milwaukee metro area as its local support even though Milwaukee is 100 miles from Green Bay.  (Milwaukee  is closer to Chicago, but as the map makes clear, Packer and Bear loyalties split at the state line.)  Subtract the Green Bay population instead of Milwaukee from the Packer likes, and the Packers win the America’s Team trophy by two touchdowns.

** I my own zip code +25 miles, the score is Steelers 45, Cowboys 18.  (See this earlier post about Steeler bars.)

UPDATE:  It turns out that a few days ago, an intern at Facebook, Sean Taylor, published data on this same topic (here). Taylor’s map. by county rather than Congressional district, is a bit clearer than the one above.

But this repeats the shortcoming of the other map.  It shows which team was most popular, but it does not show the level of support for other teams.  Looking at the map, you would never suspect that the Packers get a lot of love (or rather a lot of likes) nationwide, not just in Wisconsin.  But it’s never enough to overcome the home team advantage. (Note also that the Steelers kick ass even in far away places like Alaska and Hawaii.) 

Bye-bye Hilary

February 1, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m generally skeptical about claims that names in the media have a big impact on parents’ choices of what to name the baby (see this earlier post on “Twilight” names).  But Hilary Parker points out some examples where celebrity influence is unmistakable.  Like Farrah.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

“Charlie’s Angels” came to TV in 1976, and the angel prima inter pares was Farrah Fawcett.  This poster was seemingly everywhere. (And in 1976, that barely noticeable nipple was a big deal.)

But as with most names that rise quickly, Farrah went quickly out of style.  If you see a Farrah on a dating site listing her age as 29, she’s lying by six or seven years. 

Hilary is different.  The name grew gradually in popularity, probably flowing down through the social class system.  There was no sudden burst of popularity caused by the outside force of a celebrity name.  (See Gabriel Rossman’s post on endogenous and exogenous influences.)  Then in 1992, Hilary seemed to have been totally banned from the obstetrics ward. 

Surely, the effect came not from word of mouth but from a prominent Hilary (or in this case, the rarer spelling Hillary), the one who said she wasn't going to stay home and bake cookies..

Maybe now that Hillary is getting a favorable press – good reviews for her stint as Secretary of State – the name might return to its 1980s popularity.