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

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vague questions for fragmented publics

Timothy Carney wrote an article earlier this week decrying what he calls the “rampant abuse of data” by pollsters and the press this election season. He faults North Carolina’s hometown polling company, Public Policy Polling (PPP), among others, for asking “dumb polling questions” such as the popularity of the erstwhile Cincinnati Zoo gorilla Harambe; support for the Emancipation Proclamation; and support for bombing Agrabah, the fictional country in which the Disney film Aladdin is set.

While I agree with Carney that many of the interpretations of these questions are very problematic (and I should note that I have used PPP many times to field polls for my own research), I think he’s wrong that these are dumb questions and that the answers therefore do not constitute “data.” Quite the opposite: asking vague and difficult-to-answer questions is an important technique for assaying culture and, thereby, revealing contours of public opinion that cannot be observed using conventional polling.

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what does ‘why’ mean?

A couple of weeks ago I got in a friendly back-and-forth on Twitter with my friend and colleague Daniel Kreiss. Daniel was annoyed by this article, which purports to reveal why Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan to be his running mate by deploying median-voter theory. Daniel’s frustration was this:


Here’s the record of our conversation. More thoughts below the break.

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ask a scatterbrain: managing workflow.

As I have admitted before, I am a terrible electronic file-keeper. If I was to count up the minutes I have wasted in the last 15 years searching for files that should have been easy to find or typing and retyping Stata code that would have (and should have) been a simple do-file or doing web searches for things that I read that I thought I wanted to include in lectures or powerpoints or articles but couldn’t place, I fear I would discover many months of my life wasted as a result of my organizational ineptitude.

For a long while, these bad habits only affected me (and the occasional collaborator). It was my wasted time and effort. Now, though, expectations are changing and this type of disorganization can make or break a career. I think about my dissertation data and related files, strewn about floppy disks and disparate folders, and I feel both shame and fear. Continue reading “ask a scatterbrain: managing workflow.”

coding, language, biernacki redux

Dylan Riley’s Contemporary Sociology review (paywall, sorry) of Biernacki’s Reinventing Evidence is out, and an odd review it is. H/T to Dan for noting it and sending it along. The essence of the review: Biernacki is right even though his evidence and argument are wrong. This controversy, along with a nearly diametrically opposed one on topic modeling (continued here) suggest to me that cultural sociology desperately needs a theory of language if we’re going to keep using texts as windows into culture (which, of course, we are). Topic modeling’s approach to language is intentionally atheoretical; Biernacki’s is disingenuously so.

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productivity, sexism, or a less sexy explanation.

I apparently attended the same session at the ASA conference as Scott Jaschik yesterday, one on Gender and Work in the Academy. He must have been the guy with press badge who couldn’t wait to fact-check his notes during the Q&A.

The first presenter, Kate Weisshaar from Stanford University, started the session off with a bang with her presentation looking at the glass ceiling in academia, asking whether it was productivity that explained women’s under-representation among the ranks of the tenured (or attrition to lower-ranked programs or out of academia all together). A summary of her findings – and a bit of detail about the session and the session organizer’s response to her presentation – appeared in Inside Higher Ed today. Continue reading “productivity, sexism, or a less sexy explanation.”