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.


Kieran Healy has written a paper about nuance and posted it here.  It’s an argument that resonates with my own experience, especially in terms of various forays of reading efforts of social theory to talk about the relationship between what they are doing and psychology or, worse, “biology.” While there’s various colorful language throughout the paper, this unadorned sentence hit home for me in that regard:

there is a desire to equate calling for a more sophisticated approach to a theoretical problem with actually providing one, and to tie such calls to the alleged sophistication of the people making them.

genes and infidelity

Phil mentioned in the comments of an earlier post the recent news story about how martial infidelity has a heritability of .4, and the news story also features various more specific claims about the specific genes and systems supposedly involved and the purported evolutionary psychology of it all. Eric Turkheimer, who is hopefully already established as Sociology’s Favorite Behavioral Geneticist, has a nice blog post in which he explains problems with the news story. Enjoy!

aside on the heritability of everything

(Substantial prelude with some light technical bits, feel free to jump to [UPSHOT] or [BOLDFACE PUNCHLINE])

As is shown in the meta-analysis Andy references in his last post, more or less every measurable outcome anybody cares about in any study of human beings is more similar among identical twins than it is among fraternal twins, which in the classical model applied to twin study data means the trait has a non-zero heritability.

Perhaps the major motivation of the giant meta-analysis, however, is evaluation of the extent to which identical twin correlations are twice the fraternal correlation. Continue reading

the imitation game

Quote from Alan Turing that I came across while reading Lee and Wagenmakers’s Bayesian Cognitive Modeling:

“I assume that the reader is familiar with the idea of extra-sensory perception, and the meaning of the four items of it, viz. telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psycho-kinesis. These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming.”

assessing james coleman

From Sharon McGrayne’s The Theory That Would Not Die, about Bayesian statistics (versus frequentism):

The chasm between the two schools of statistics crystallized for [Howard] Raiffa when Columbia professors discussed a sociology student named James Coleman. During his oral examination Coleman seemed “confused and fuzzy . . . clearly not of Ph.D. quality.” But his professors were adamant that he was otherwise dazzling. Using his new Bayesian perspective, Raiffa argued that the department’s prior opinion of the candidate’s qualities was so positive that a one-hour exam should not substantially alter their views. Pass him, Raiffa urged. Coleman became such an influential sociologist that he appeared on both the cover of Newsweek and page one of the New York Times.

Bonus for those interested in standardized tests: How did Raiffa end up as in a position to evaluate James Coleman?  The same book tells his academic origin story: Continue reading

one book, one _____

My favorite contemporary novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is the selection for One Book, One Chicago. I was surprised when I heard this, because I thought, “But… it’s a novel.”

I realized that I’d just assumed that the trajectory of One Book, One Northwestern was a general phenomenon, where the history has been:

2014-5: Whistling Vivalidi, Claude Steele (non-fiction)
2013-4: Last Hunger Season, Roger Thurow (non-fiction)
2012-3: Never a City So Real, Alex Kotlowitz (non-fiction)
2011-2: Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (non-fiction)
2010-1: Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder (non-fiction)
2009-10: Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman (non-fiction)
2008-9: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quarmmen (non-fiction)
2007-8: Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin (novel)
2006-7: Othello, Shakespeare (play)
2005-6, Antigone, Sophocles (play)

Most obviously, a sharp movement away from literature. Do other universities have a One Book program? Has their trajectory been like Northwestern’s, or have they remained more literary-focused?

the personal touch

I got a video message from Northwestern’s football coach about renewing my season tickets:

The fun part is, if you change the 090 in the URL, you can see the greetings to other first names. As of now, it goes up to 108. He certainly does a better job than I would at being engaged through each of these different messages.

how long should asa papers be allowed to be?

My last post noted that ASA changed its rule from having a 20 page limit to having now saying 15-35 pages. I think this is a good change. Fabio dissents:

Dissent here: I oppose paper bloat. Thus, I always praised the 20 page limit because it forced people to get to the point. You only have 15 minutes to present, for crying out loud.

My view on this is that I would never write a paper just so I can present at ASA, and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to, either, except maybe people who are in positions where they have no interest in publishing but are really desperate for travel funds. In my preferred world, ASA would allow people to submit slide decks, as well as something much more promissory than a full paper if it’s going to be due over 7 months before the conference. Specifying “working/draft paper” is definitely progress.

In the end, ASA does require papers. In that world, I’m for whatever minimizes the extent to which people end up doing work that diverges from the paper they are writing for publication, simply for the purpose of pleasing the one person that will end up looking at the abstract and possibly skimming the paper (i.e., the ASA session organizer). The problem with the 20-page rule is naive folks would spend irrational amounts of time cutting or revising longer papers in order to meet the page limit. This makes no sense.

asa rule change?

ASA rule for submissions:

15-35 page draft paper/working paper either converted to a PDF file or prepared as a Word, or WordPerfect document stored locally and ready for uploading.

This is new, right? Didn’t it used to be 20 pages, without anything to imply it shouldn’t be a fully complete paper?

My preferred belief is that this is a new change and that, regardless of whatever story exists about its provenance, blog & Twitter whinging helped bring it about (e.g., here). But I’m open to counter-facts and counter-narratives.

In any event, regardless of why, kudos to the organization for the change.

beckieball and the study of not-quite-elite selected groups

Beckieball is a new sport sweeping the country. Beckieball performance is the result of three things: height, skills, and desire, all of which are uncorrelated with one another. Let’s fire up Stata and show what the correlation matrix would look like for the population:

             |  perform   height   skills   desire
     perform |   1.0000
      height |   0.5751   1.0000
      skills |   0.5751  -0.0072   1.0000
      desire |   0.5774  -0.0000  -0.0005   1.0000

Unfortunately, scouts cannot really assess desire well, so when they are picking players for professional beckieball leagues, their assessment is just based on equal parts height and skills. What happens?
Continue reading

that nba example

OK, so the NBA analogy I invoked the other day has prompted some confusion. I’m in Australia and have two ASA papers to finish and several more room-escape-puzzles to try, so I don’t have time for a longish post about this, but: Continue reading

great moments in graduate advising

From Diederik Stapel’s memoir:

When students gave presentations of research that I knew was based on my fake data, I could barely wait for them to finish. Maybe someone would burst the bubble, pointing out a fundamental error that would show that the whole thing was completely fictional. I sat and watched a great show, but I was the only one there who knew that it was just an illusion. I watched students, doctoral candidates, and research assistants talking enthusiastically about their work, and I knew that the data they were presenting were all fake. It was hard to keep up the pretence. What they were presenting was fantastic, as coherent as anyone could hope for. They had the results they’d hoped for, they’d passed the test, they were full of self-confidence, they believed in themselves and in the reliable structure of science, but I knew that their faith was built on sand.


Among NBA players, there’s very little correlation between a player’s height and how many points they score. Michael Jordan was slightly below average height for an NBA player; Allen Iverson was in the bottom decile. And yet no one would argue the height is irrelevant for someone’s prospects at playing pro basketball: the average NBA player is nearly 6’7″, that is, in the top percentile of the male population.

The relationship between GRE and graduate outcomes is like this. If you take a group that has already been selected on a number of characteristics, including test scores, then there is often only a modest correlation between test scores and outcomes. But exactly the same could be said for any of the other criteria that were used, like GPA, or like the quality of the writing sample or the ever-amorphous assessment of “fit”, if either of the latter were to be assigned scores.

One can not extrapolate from this reasoning to draw conclusions about how people should be selected in the first place. If you did, you’d conclude that nothing departments use to admit students matters much for whether or not they will succeed, and that perhaps the fairest thing to do would just be to admit students completely at random. Admittedly, this would save departments a lot of time.

Continue reading

the internet doesn’t want us to get along

Editor’s note added to a story in In These Times by a professor at Michigan:

Editor’s note: This article was originally titled “We Can’t All Just Get Along” in the print version of the magazine. The title was then changed, without the author’s knowledge or approval, to “It’s Okay to Hate Republicans.” The author rejects the online title as not representative of the piece or its main points. Her preferred title has been restored. We have also removed from the “Comments” section all threats to the author’s life and personal safety.


I found myself becoming the guy I had always wanted to avoid being: That Guy, With The Bad Back. Fall 2013 I had some horrible back problems, and I was pro-active about it with a combination of buying a better chair, doing yoga, and being sure to jog every day (doable because I was on sabbatical). All this really helped, which isn’t to say there weren’t still problems.

I decided I could do better, though, and when I got back to the United States I made an appointment with a personal trainer, and said that I really wanted to work on strengthening my core, which I understood to be key to minimizing back pain. The result of this one session with a personal trainer–which for the love of god involved doing deadlifts for the first time since high school–was a full-on back injury that led me to my first experiences with a physical therapist. I had to start bringing a mini-foam-roller to meetings just so I could bear to sit through them.

Skip ahead. I am now happy to report that my back feels great: no pain whatsoever, so better than it has felt in a year and a half and likely much longer. My secret? I had an emergency appendectomy, and as a result have not exercised one bit in five weeks and have had intentionally to take it easy with everything else. It’s also been a great month in terms of getting writing and reading done.

There is some lesson in all this, but I am having trouble figuring out what.


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