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.”