a peril of public sociology?

As you may remember, I got in a somewhat public tiff with a local Republican/libertarian blog, the Red Clay Citizen, over the veracity of their poll numbers on a state labor issue. Among other things, I was accused of being “basically a government-paid lobbyist for the labor unions,” a particularly incredible idea since NC government is deeply anti-union!

When I returned from vacation this weekend, I had a message waiting for me from UNC’s head of internal audit, whose job is to insure that UNC employees don’t abuse their positions for commercial or political gain.apparently someone had called the state auditor’s tip line–anonymously–to complain that I was “using state resources and your position to conduct and publish the results of public opinion polls.” The auditor laughed out loud and pointed out that this is precisely what I’m supposed to do!

This brings up two lessons worth considering:

1.) People who don’t like the results of the research are, apparently, willing to resort to anonymous intimidation (however pathetic their real-world results) instead of mounting a substantive argument; and

2.) We have descended to a point in at least some political discourse in which the only thing left is opinion; presentation of data, ideas, arguments, etc., is considered always-already charged with political partisanship and therefore to be discounted without even considering the content. I find myself making very old-fashioned, frankly conservative (intellectually) arguments about the value of truth and data.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

8 thoughts on “a peril of public sociology?”

  1. Lesson number two is what I find particularly disconcerting; data are disregarded due to the “inherently biased” nature of polling. You can “use statistics to prove anything.” I used to find myself arguing against this line of reasoning quite often but now have basically given up.

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  2. Our state legislators periodically try to “get” university people whose research they don’t like, some of which has been targeted at people in or around our department. You can be complained about for the political implications of your work, or for its lack thereof (“this is stupid – why waste taxpayer money studying something nobody is interested in”). Most of the complaints are about units that do applied research in aid of . So the extension unit that provides consulting services to unions was attacked for its biases while, of course, the unit that provides consulting services to businesses was not considered political. One legislator was trying to abolish the entire law school — this appeared to be because of an unpleasant divorce experience.

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  3. BTW they did a very similar poll, similarly biased: results here. Right to work repeal isn’t on anybody’s agenda, and their description is very far from neutral – perhaps even factually wrong given what is actually practiced in non-right-to-work states!

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  4. I’ve also had unpleasant recent experiences re: sharing my work with a broader audience. A reporter at a newspaper with a highly-educated readership posted a very good short synopsis of my work on women’s employment to one of the newspaper’s blog. I suppose I’m just naive, but I was shocked at how many readers posted on the blog that the research was bad because it didn’t fit with what they see among their friends, in their mom-and-tot playgroups, or in their neighborhoods. Other postings seemed to suggest that my research was making a value judgment about stay-at-home versus working mothers. The implication of many posts was that employment statistics are somehow a matter of opinion. This is more evidence of andrewperrin’s point #2. Collectively, these experiences suggest to me that there is a real need to revise high school (and college) curricula to better teach reasoning and evidence evaluation skills.

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  5. My experiences have been both good and bad. If you are going to be quoted in public you have to get used to being responded to in ways that seem weird or hostile, as well as other people saying that you made good points, etc. Once a reporter sat through my hour-long presentation on racial disparities in criminal justice and wrote the story about how I oppose the drug war, which I do, but the talk as a whole is an examination of all the patterns and alternate explanations. Letters to the editor said “Prof OW is stupid, she does not know that the black murder rate is higher than the white murder rate and that is why there is a difference,” or “If you do the crime, do the time,” or “The whole problem is the breakdown of the family and single mothers.” In fact, the hour long talk had addressed all those points. But a reporter can’t ever do justice to the complexity of an issue in one story, and people will say just about anything in comments.

    While I’d be the first to join a complaint about statistical illiteracy, it’s probably a mistake to overgeneralize from the folks who make on-line comments. People who felt that they learned something from what they read are less likely to bother to comment. And crackpots are more likely to comment than non-crackpots.

    I think I also tend to discount research when the conclusions don’t fit my expectations. Dueling experts and contradictory studies don’t help the general public sort out the wheat from the chaff, either.

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  6. One legislator was trying to abolish the entire law school — this appeared to be because of an unpleasant divorce experience.

    That’s fantastic.

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  7. Forget the general public, I’ve had to convince staff at my agency that our research findings were still valid when they didn’t neatly align with their anecdotal experiences (site visits to investigate complaints!)–and I wasn’t doing anything remotely close to opinion polling. Luckily, I was able to make my case, the report was published and the general public couldn’t care less because the topic was so obscure.

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  8. I’m perfectly happy to debate in public – in fact, will be on a statewide public radio show today on this topic – but what’s distressing to me is not so much statistical illiteracy but this sense that findings can be judged by their implications without any reference to the substance!

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