the polls are alright

I am going to take Dan’s invitation to consider one aspect of the polls that I don’t see getting a lot of attention right now, but that I think could be important: undecided voters could explain much of the polling error being discussed.

Oliver Tacke, FlickrIn other words, I don’t think that the polls were that wrong. I know that this view puts me in the minority, even among people who think about these things for a living. What we have, I think, is a failure to really consider how we should interpret polls given two very unpopular candidates and a possible “Shy Tory” effect where Trump supporters reported being undecided to pollsters.

Let’s break down the vote share by breaking it into its component parts: Continue reading “the polls are alright”

social defense systems

I started teaching Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy in my class last week. Despite being a mathematician by training (she goes by the moniker mathbabe online), the book makes a strong case for the importance of social science generally and sociology in particular.

O’Neil looks ouweaponsmath-r4-6-06t at the land of big data and its various uses in algorithms and sees problems everywhere. Quantitative and statistical principles are badly abused in the service of “finding value” in systems, whether this be through firing bad teachers, targeting predatory loans, reducing the risk of employee turnover by using models that incorporate past mental health issues, or designing better ads to sniff out for-profit university matriculates. Wherever we look, she shows, we can find mathematical models used to eke out gains for their creators. Those gains destroy the lives of those affected by algorithms that they sometimes don’t even know exist.

Unlike treatises that declare algorithms universally bad or always good, O’Neil asks three questions to determine whether we should classify a model as a “weapon of math destruction”:

  1. Is the model opaque?
  2. Is it unfair? Does it damage or destroy lives?
  3. Can it scale?

These questions actually eliminate the math entirely. By doing so, O’Neil makes it possible to study WMDs by their characteristics not their content. One need not know anything about the internal workings of the model at all to attempt to answer these three empirical questions. More than any other contribution that O’Neil makes, defining the opacity-damage-scalability schema to identify WMDs as social facts makes the book valuable.

Continue reading “social defense systems”

a dangerous lack of skepticism

Last weekend, Slate announced the use of social scientific tools similar to those used by campaigns themselves to anticipate results over the course of the day. Slate rejects, in editor-in-chief Julia Turner’s words, the “paternalistic” stance of the traditional media embargo on publishing results during Election Day.

Slate is making a bold move by ignoring the embargo, but in doing so they also appear to be ignoring the flaws of data science and a sacrosanct principle of both social science and journalism: skepticism.


Image by Robert Palmer via Flickr

Continue reading “a dangerous lack of skepticism”

want to live somewhere diverse? find a suburb

I hope that you will forgive the shameless self-promotion, but I recently published a paper in Sociological Science (yay open access!) that examined neighborhood racial change in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston metropolitan neighborhoods with an amazingly talented colleague, Siri Warkentien.

We find mixed results related to future racial integration. On the negative side we find that recent estimates overestimate the stability of long-term racial integration. Previous studies don’t really examine the pace of neighborhood change, which reveals many integrated neighborhoods are in fact resegregating.

On a more positive note, we find that some neighborhoods really do maintain multiethnic segregation over many decades. We call those neighborhoods “quadrivial neighborhoods,” which, in Latin, means four roads coming together. These neighborhoods emerged during the 1990s and seem to make up the fastest-growing category of neighborhood in the past couple of decades (though they are not coming about as fast, nor are they as common as some have estimated).

One of the contributions that I hope we make is showing the geography of neighborhood change. Unlike previous studies, we map where different types of neighborhood changes occur. The model assigns the probability of membership to different types of neighborhood change for each neighborhood (which we defined as Census tracts); we then mapped the results. You can look for yourself on the website which we built for the project. These might be helpful if you are teaching about neighborhood change or segregation, particularly in one of the four metro areas that we studied.

The big take-aways? The black “ghetto” — that area created by malign and benign neglect of black neighborhoods — has expanded out into the outlying suburban communities (places outside of New York and Chicago that are akin to Ferguson in St. Louis.). Increasing Latino and Asian segregation looks more like a checkerboard. Pockets of increasing Latino population are surrounded by neighborhoods experiencing less or slower racial change. And finally, those quadrivial neighborhoods? Not in central cities where we focus on the diversity of the creative class. Almost all are in the suburbs or, at the very least, outlying neighborhoods in the city.

The moral, as far as I can tell from out study: racial segregation will continue to be a problem; and if you want to live somewhere really racially diverse, start looking in the ‘burbs.

(And a huge shout-out goes to Neal Carren who introduced me to d3.js on this very blog.)

crochety rant against open access rants

I am officially a cranky academic curmudgeon. And I don’t even have tenure yet!

I say this because I have become the crotchety Mr. Wilson on Twitter expressing skepticism about moving from our current system of academic publishing to an open access system.

Let me state this clearly for the record: I support efforts to move to open access scientific publication. That said, I also worry about the logistical and distributive consequences (potentially unintended) of doing so very quickly. Open access is a noble and moral goal. But it also needs to become a practical reality. As we progress from our current system to a new one, I am worried that the process might inadvertently exacerbate inequalities in academia. For these reasons, I find it especially important to have a discussion using evidence to establish the best way to move from where we are to where we want to be.

I find polemics on the topic difficult to digest at this point. As a result, I found Ryan Merkley’s Wired essay about Sci Hub’s quest to free gated information by using illegal passwords and using them to access gated academic journal publications. The article is a string of mostly specious arguments ending with a call to arms to let Sci Hub’s founder off the hook for breaking the law. Let’s review them one by one: Continue reading “crochety rant against open access rants”

a chance to interact with randy collins about interaction

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 1.30.20 PMAnnette Lareau asked me to pass along the information and an invitation to the entire sociology community to join in celebrating the career and contributions of Randy Collins. The event has a great line up of speakers including Michèle Lamont, Elijah Anderson, Viviana Zelizer, Philippe Bourgois, Alice Goffman, among many, many more. The event is free with limited first-come first-serve housing opportunities for doctoral students. Check out the event and sign up on the website.

feet, doors, and saying “no”

“You spend the first part of your career trying to get your foot in the door. You spend the rest of it trying to get your foot out of it.”

My advisor gave me this pearl of wisdom during my first month of graduate school. At the time, it seemed farcically false. I was, after all, trying to feel out my first opportunties for research, feeling insecure about the experience and confidence that my cohort-mates brought to grad school, and wanted nothing more than to get my foot in the door.

Now I want it out.

While I’m being too flip to say I don’t welcome the opportunities that I have, one of the most frequent pieces of advice I have received is to “say no.” This simple statement has the benefit of being true, and the disadvantage of being unhelpful. It’s easy to know to say no, it’s much more difficult to do so. Having some experience saying “no” (and much more saying “yes” even when I later regretted it), I thought that I would write down some strategies that have proved helpful. I want to acknowledge that my ability to do many of these things without substantial penalties relates to the privilege I have of being a white, straight, cis-gendered man whose dad holds a Ph.D. Continue reading “feet, doors, and saying “no””