blame it on pomo

Postmodernism is the first intellectual movement to acknowledge its own historical partiality. From that spring many of its faults and virtues, not to mention its caricatures. Because for a movement in some ways so arrogant — so insistent on its own epistemic correctness — to insist as well that it was always already partial evokes the kind of unease that many pundits (and social and natural scientists) feel when discussing postmodernism. Unfortunately, it also evokes the caricatures (not to say reaction-formations) that are common among those same pundits and scholars. Continue reading “blame it on pomo”

newfield, the great mistake

Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them is a great book – you should buy it, read it, teach it, and recommend it to your friends. In an increasingly crowded field of books about the ills of contemporary higher education (many of which I also like), this one is particularly strong for its insistence on a systemic, political-economic analysis and its refusal to offer overly simplistic answers. In what follows I offer a discussion of the book’s argument and successes along with two critiques of elements that I think weaken its claims.

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the voter fraud investigation: an opportunity for science?

President Trump’s announcement that he will launch an investigation of voter fraud is interesting for many reasons. Some of these have been well-documented, such as that he continues to believe massive voter fraud caused his popular-vote loss, and that the main “evidence” cited for such fraud has been thoroughly debunked.

In the context of other recent announcements, it’s also interesting because it may offer an opening for demonstrating the value of evidence-based, systematic inquiry: that is, of science as a basis for policy.

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cost-cutting in higher ed

In the Washington Post earlier this week, Steve Pearlstein published a piece promoting four things universities should do to cut costs:

  1. Cap administrative costs
  2. Operate year round, five days a week
  3. More teaching, less (mediocre) research
  4. Cheaper, better general education

The next day, Daniel Drezner responded with four things columnists should do before writing about universities.

  1. Define what you mean by “universities.”
  2. Don’t exaggerate the problems that actually exist.
  3. Don’t rely on outdated data.
  4. Be honest that you’re using higher ed reform as an implicit industrial policy.

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are all human traits heritable?

A new article by Polderman et al. in Nature Genetics, nicely summed up by Jeremy:

is a meta-analysis of essentially every twin-based study of heritability of any trait between 1958 and 2012. The top-line coverage, encouraged by the authors’ press release, is:

One of the great tussles of science – whether our health is governed by nature or nurture – has been settled, and it is effectively a draw.

This is based on the fact that, across 17,804 traits in 28 “general trait domains,” the overall mean heritability was 49%. That prompted me to write:

Read on for why I think that, what value there is in the below-the-fold part of the article, and why I think this kind of work is in desperate need of an injection of theory. Continue reading “are all human traits heritable?”

prestige trumps quality in faculty hiring? not so fast

This article (Clauset, Arbesman, and Larremore. “Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks”) has been making the rounds lately. The article uses a network method to extract prestige rankings from the set of graduate degrees and faculty hires. It shows “that faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality.”

Blog posts, tweets, and stories about the article (e.g., this one from the Monkey Cage) have mostly picked up on the idea that the fact that prestigious departments generally hire Ph.D.s from other prestigious departments must mean that “academia is not a meritocracy.” While I would certainly not claim that academia is a meritocracy, I don’t think the Clauset et al. paper demonstrates that.

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reflexive anti-geneticism

This is my contribution to the ongoing symposium on genetics,race, and sociological theory as well as its twin on that other blog. A quick disclaimer: I was in graduate school with J. Shiao, lead author of the paper being discussed, and we talk occasionally at conferences.

My view of the original paper is that its contribution is real but quite modest in the scheme of theory. The best way to read it is as a social-constructionist “friendly amendment” to constructivism’s tacit, yet stubborn, insistence that there is no biological basis for racial categorization. Genetic information can be used “to distinguish race/ethnicity from the existence of genetic clusters” (emphasis mine). Shiao et al. suggest that constructivist approaches to race need not cling to a strong no-genetic-clustering claim in order to maintain most of the findings of constructivism (“In sum, relatively little of the empirical explanations made by sociologists of race/ethnicity require the claim of biological nonreality traditionally associated with racial constructionism.”). In short, race is a

social reality that is historical, processual, stratified, and analytically multilevel but that is also entangled with biological inputs inherited from the geographic distribution of humans in genetic watersheds over the past 50,000 years.

While I’m no fan of genetic essentialism, I don’t think that’s what’s actually going on in the Shiao et al. article, and overall I find the critiques in the special issue quite disappointing because by and large they respond reflexively to something else instead of engaging the article’s actual contents. I actually think the most important criticism of Shiao et al. is that it’s not really all that important of a finding: the idea that minor, generally meaningless, and ancient genetic variations produce phenotypes that then become inputs to the social construction of race and ethnicity is a minor correction to social constructionism. It becomes important enough for an article in ST because of the sheer symbolic importance of race and the reflexive anti-geneticism in the field. And the character of much of the responses provide further evidence that the objections are to the symbolic affront of the article instead of to its content.

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