Author Archives: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

the revolution will not be invite-only

Still, an Ello invitation would be nice.

UPDATE: Thanks to Tina Fetner, I’m now on Ello, as jeremyfreese.  Friend me or whatever the appropriate verb for that service is.


“Few things portend a protracted mess as powerfully as an insane person with a totally legitimate grievance about which little can actually be done.”

the jellybean problem

I’m not as big a fan of xkcd as many geekly friends are, but, in my mind, this cartoon remains the most incisive depiction of the basic problem of low-sigma null hypothesis significance testing in practice.

(Was reminded of it because of Matt’s comment yesterday about how he uses Twenty Questions as an example while teaching. While this use of twenty questions isn’t at all like what Matt was saying, the jellybean comic is the idea that you get to ask twenty hypotheses, the universe will probably lie to you once, and as long as you get one “YES” you can publish it like it is the only question you ever asked.)

replicating the future

Gelman post on meta-analysis of the Daryl Bem research on precognition (yes, precognition):

The ESP context makes this all look like a big joke, but the general problem of researchers creating findings out of nothing, that seems to be a big issue in social psychology and other research areas involving noisy measurements. … I have a feeling that the authors of this paper think that if you have a p-value or Bayes factor of 10^-9 then your evidence is pretty definitive, even if some nitpickers can argue on the edges about this or that. But it doesn’t work that way. The garden of forking paths is multiplicative, and with enough options it’s not so hard to multiply up to factors of 10^-9 or whatever. And it’s not like you have to be trying to cheat; you just keep making reasonable choices given the data you see, and you can get there, no problem. Selecting ten-year-old papers and calling them “exact replications” is one way to do it.

I think the parapsychology research is actually extremely useful, especially if one is willing to take as incorrigible the proposition that parapsychological phenomena aren’t real. Because then parapsychology serves as a kind of control group for science practice, and what’s striking about the Bem research is how much it looks like ordinary psychological science–even psychological science that goes above and beyond the norm–and yet the findings are what they are.


David Mitchell, author of the sublime Cloud Atlas and this new book that’s gotten mixed reviews but my wife says I would enjoy, on focus and writing:

The internet—it’s lethal, isn’t it? Maintaining focus is critical, I think, in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing.

For me, that one other thing is: I’ve got to be writing. I have a few ways to make sure I can carve out time. Continue reading

fun with a purpose: no longer fun enough?

From Kieran on Twitter, I learned that the Neal Stephenson Kickstarter project Clang! has been abandoned. The idea was to break out of existing videogame conventions and provide a realistic depiction of longsword fighting. As it turned out, apparently, the most fun thing about it proved to be the name. As Stephenson says, “I probably focused too much on historical accuracy and not enough on making it sufficiently fun to attract additional investment.”

I was reminded of the failure of Arden: The World of Shakespeare, which once upon a time was supposed to be an instructive MMORPG that was based on Shakespeare’s world and that would also provide a platform for behavioral scientists to run experiments (on things like, say, pricing of in-game goods). The project leader’s exegesis of the failure involved two things: (1) designing a videogame that can successfully compete for player attention involves a scale that is hard to imagine, but, more notably, (2) after building a big prototype, it became clear that “it’s no fun.”

Broader upshot that I wonder about is how society is evolving with not just increasing entertainment options but, with the implied competition, increasing refinement and specialization on being entertaining itself. In other words, if you aren’t in the first instance–and second instance, and third instance–entertaining, you are done. To take an entirely different example, I enjoy the weekly John Oliver clips that circulate on Facebook, but, man, that guy has to try really, really hard with all kinds of digressions just to be able to hopefully strike home with his main point.

david vs. goliath

A small woodland creature takes on the man responsible for the technique-revolution in competitive eating. Whatever, I found it inspiring. [HT: RCM]

does asa speak for sociology? do they even try?

Sociologists will often profess especial concern for inclusiveness and minority rights. So, when it comes time for sociologists to set up a democratic system of their own, how do they do it? The ostensible governing body of the ASA Membership, its Council, has 20 or so sociologists in the room. By the system that sociologists have devised, it is possible for 49% of voting ASA members to have voted for none of those 20 people. How can that possibly be morally defended?

(Note: in the United States, the winner-take-all system at least comes about as a by-product of the constraint that individuals only vote for one person in a particular election, so it’s hard then to see how the system could be changed without a radical overhaul of what being a Congressperson means. Sociologists have set up their systems so that multiple Council-Members-At-Large are elected via the same election, and sociologists have chosen to run the election so that voters each vote for X candidates and the top X vote-getters are chosen–the most “tyranny of the majority” method of doing so.)


Upon returning to blogging, I told myself I would not write posts about the main professional organization for American sociologists. Nevertheless, the front page of the ASA website currently links to a letter hosted in the “Advocacy” section folder of the site that is presented on ASA letterhead, which opens with the following statement:

We write as elected leaders of the American Sociological Association to express our support for your decision not to hire Dr. Steven G. Salaita as a faculty member at the University of Illinois.

This is not the association expressing a concern about the perceived importance of either protecting free speech or protecting students from speech-of-certain-sorts, but instead this is ostensibly the association straight-up taking a position regarding a decision made by the Chancellor on this question. The letter does proceed to note that “some” in the organization may not agree with this position. Likewise, subsequent text–as well as the fact that it is signed only by a Vice-President Elect and one Council member of the association–creates some ambiguity about its status as an official Association document. In this respect, one might also wonder about the preceding letter signed by persons including the outgoing, current, and incoming presidents of the association. At least in that case, the standing of these persons as “leaders” of the Association is stronger and the letter is carefully framed as a statement of concern about a particular principle and not as an explicit position on a decision.

I have known of instances in which individuals make unauthorized use of organizational letterhead to make statements of personal opinion that are not statements made in their official capacities. But of course being presented on the website would suggest this was, in some sense, authorized by the organization (see response from ASA president). Regardless of whether one believes the University of Illinois did or did not do the right thing in this case, the process by which this organization has come to issue its statements on the matter appears peculiar, to say the least.

double take

From a PLoS ONE article on publication bias in psychology:

A random sample of 1000 English-language peer reviewed articles published in 2007 was drawn from the PsycINFO database. As keywords we used ‘English’ ‘peer reviewed’ ‘journal article’ in ‘year 2007’. Three articles could not be acquired, another article was a duplicate.

very cross words

The NYT always has some gimmick with its Thursday crossword puzzle (the app store package of Thursday puzzles are called “Tricky Thursdays”).  This past week’s took my beloved and me twice as long as usual to complete it, even though the clues themselves were ostensibly not that difficult, because it turned out the trick was really tricky. For us, the trickier the better, so we found the puzzle gratifying once we solved it. However, it turns out there was a whole online outcry against it. Example:

This is not the puzzle I needed today. It’s 9/11, and the memorials have already started, broadcast on TV. I’m planning to view the light towers illuminating the skyline tonight, which I can see from my home. Frankly, to run this puzzle today is an abomination of insensitivity.

In any event, if you’re a cruciverbalist and feeling suitably psychologically robust, I recommend going for it. (The NYT did recently increase the cost of their crosswords to $7 a month, which is still a great price for us, but I think you can get a month free, which access to all the archives, and then cancel.)

equal environments assumption

The equal environments assumption in behavioral genetics is the assumption that environments for identical twins are not more similar than the environments of fraternal twins. One might say the assumption is violated more than many behavioral geneticists would like to admit and less than many sociologists would like to think. The point of this post, however, is just to share a video of an example of unmistakable violation:

zee mortgage of zee body on zee mind

A decade or more ago I was at a talk on cognitive aging giving by a old guy with a thick German accent. My only memory of this talk whatsoever is the guy repeatedly using the phrase “the mortgage of the body on the mind” to describe the idea that bodily problems interfere with cognitive potential as one gets older.

In related news, I went to a personal trainer for the first time in my life for a couple of days, which involved attempting to lift weights for the first time since high school. In addition to the expected but substantial new-to-exercising-this-part-of-the-body soreness in my arms and shoulders, I seem to have messed up my back in a more worrisome way, as in the spell last fall where I would fill a long sock with tennis balls and lie down with my spine on that for awhile.

In any event, it’s compromised my writing goals for the past couple days. I start to settle in and then think, “Holy [bother] does my back hurt”, followed by reminiscing about the German guy and his cognitive aging catchphrase. It’s like Harrison Bergeron, only instead of a dystopian satire it’s simply midlife.

the shock and awe memo

Comment by a well-known sociologist and friend on Facebook:

“We have turned from a discipline of article writers into a discipline of revision memo writers. This is a very sad thing.”

This concerns me, too. But what can be done? I’ve wondered if memos could be capped, but not sure if that would end up as routinely ignored as the page limits on ASA papers.

Thing is, my belief–and I’m very confident I’m not alone in this–is that long memos work. I’ve even said things like, “You need to write a shock-and-awe memo” (along with doing the actual revisions to the actual paper). But of course I think the discipline as a whole would benefit by maximizing the research time spent on the research products themselves, and not unpublished memoranda about those products.

UPDATE: An obvious answer to “What can be done?” is “Reduce the number of R&Rs” and/or “Promote non-R&R-giving outlets like Sociological Science and As Yet Untitled.” And, yes. But, is that it?

i suspect there is a third way

An example (otherwise unimportant to his argument) that Harry Collins uses to illustrate a concept in his 1998 AJS on evidential cultures:

Consider that there are two ways to organize an undergraduate course in sociology during periods of high politicization of the subject. One can insist that every teacher of sociology presents an unbiased course, so that if, for example, they favor a Marxist approach, they also put the counterarguments, or one can allow each teacher to teach according to his or her biases but make sure that the faculty as a whole is balanced.

Indeed, I suspect that these two approaches are correlated: the more “balanced” the department, the more likely the individual instructors are to be “unbiased” in their courses.


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