could we prevent some scientific retractions?

Fabio Rojas and others have been discussing retractions over on our buttoned-up nemesis, and making the excellent point that the presence of scientific retractions is good for science. However, it can only be good for science insofar as bad or even falsified science takes place to begin with. Continue reading “could we prevent some scientific retractions?”

neuro folly: the quest for biological bases for politics

The sociological fad for seeking straightforward biological bases for complex social phenotypes has spread in recent years to political science. A recent collection of articles and blog posts rehashes the rhetoric that garnered widespread criticism in sociology. Essentially the scholarship establishes an entirely noncontroversial position–that biological influences on political ideology are “nonzero”–and spins this into the much broader, and indefensible, claim that inter-person variation in biology is (a) unidirectionally causal; and (b) a significant source of variation in political ideology. Continue reading “neuro folly: the quest for biological bases for politics”

irbs, mission creep, and prior restraint

I am beginning a new thread here to avoid threadjacking the other conversation going on about the relationship between COI and IRBs.

Fabio writes:

How far do we let IRBs go before we actively resist? If the IRB decided they needed to see my medical records, should I just give it to them?


IRBs were initially designed to manage risk related medical research. Now they try to govern social science research as well (which is ok in my view). But they also find it fit to judge whether something is real science, whether people can be paid by researchers, and all sorts of other activities. …. The institution of the IRB has grown enormously in ways that were not anticipated by anyone.

Continue reading “irbs, mission creep, and prior restraint”


It’s humbling to go to the library every once in a while. Standing in the stacks reminds you of all the things you don’t know – regardless of whether you think of these as the things you have left to learn, the things you’ll never know, or the things that others don’t know either so you’re clearly not all that inferior. If you’re too lazy busy to walk to the library, watching this video might suffice.

Edited to add: Apparently BBC blocked the video. UK readers are still able to see it (part of the “Super Smart Animals” program) here.

blood pressure, the slavery hypothesis, and social construction

My wife is a physician, and like many doctors was taught in medical schools that African Americans are susceptible to hypertension, and particularly salt-sensitive hypertension, as a result of genetic selection through conditions during the middle passage. I raised this possibility in chatting with Liana Richardson, a postdoc here at UNC, about her very interesting work  on hypertension as a biomarker for stress over the life course, and in particular as a marker for high stress among African Americans. Her response was very interesting, and illustrates an example of cross-disciplinary information flows.

Continue reading “blood pressure, the slavery hypothesis, and social construction”

on the value of religious experience to sociology

Krippendorf asks why I suggest:

I think lacking religious experience of some sort probably makes it harder to be a good sociologist.

The short answer is that religious experience is an amazingly widespread social phenomenon, and it has a sui generis quality to it that makes it difficult to explain without some sort of experiential link. Continue reading “on the value of religious experience to sociology”

don’t follow the money

The latest issue of Academe, the AAUP’s magazine, features several articles on corporate and other “suspect” funding, under the title “The Conflicted University.” The articles are varied, and I don’t intend a critique of any particular one. But the overall causal logic is simple–too simple. The claim is that corporate funding (and also nonprofit corporate-oriented funding) necessarily corrupts the research it funds. Continue reading “don’t follow the money”

science and morality, harris-style

Sam Harris is back. Since writing The End of Faith, apparently while an undergraduate at Stanford, he wrote Letter to a Christian Nation; he’s also been completing a Ph.D. at UCLA’s interdisciplinary neuroscience program. In his new book, The Moral Landscape, he seeks to bring his new field to bear on one of the thorniest problems in The End of Faith, a book plagued by thorny problems. The issue is whether science alone can provide morality. The End of Faith asserts that we don’t need religion to be moral, but doesn’t actually offer an alternative. The Moral Landscape is an attempt to provide that alternative.

Continue reading “science and morality, harris-style”

frontiers of polling

A commenter on TPM writes about being polled by Rasmussen and how it was “bad practice” because of question ordering and suggestive language.

I’m not sure if I believe this post was actually Rasmussen, though it might have been. But in any case–the question of how to ask questions, how to poll on emotions, and in what order, strikes me as an art more than a science. If you want to know about how emotions figure into voting decisions, maybe this is precisely the right way to ask?

bender, the new metaphysicals

The Immanent Frame asked me to participate in a discussion/forum on Courtney Bender’s great new book, The New Metaphysicals. The book, like the discussion, is really interesting and a fun read on its own. Also interesting, from a disciplinary-boundary sort of perspective, is the way in which this portion of the study of religion transcends the humanities-social sciences boundary, with productive results.

The whole discussion is at and my post is at .

that smoking article

Did y’all see this article in Contexts:

“In Defense of Smokers,” Contexts Summer 2009

What a truly bizarre argument, presented apparently without irony (intentionally at least). The article assumes, without demonstrating in any way, that the evidence that smoking causes health problems is incorrect or trumped up; it then goes on to call upon sociologists to “recognize, analyze, and (perhaps even) disrupt the public attack on smoking and smokers.” The rhetoric is overheated to the point of silliness; the author implies that smokers are denigrated while cocaine and heroin users and rifle-carriers are left to roam the streets.

The punch-line, though, is the claim that the spread of “no smoking” rules impedes the “open spaces of conviviality.” Again: no evidence offered whatsoever.

Sociology can’t succumb to the totalitarian medical views toward cigarette smokers. Sociology is meaningless if we allow other fields of social knowledge tell us what the precise meaning of “public” is. Public life and the rituals of group solidarity should be kept alive, free from excessive forms of social  control.

The article reads like a complaint letter from a disgruntled smoker. I thought sociologists were supposed to offer some kind of evidence to support arguments in professional publications!

intellectual, scholar, scientist, academic

I’ve been musing about the above terms. In particular, I’ve been suggesting to graduate students recently that the goal of academic life ought to be to strive for one of the first three without ever becoming the fourth. Rather, academic behavior ought to be understood as one — perhaps even the best — way to institutionalize the ideals of being an intellectual, a scholar, or a scientist. Here are some quick thoughts on the distinctions:

  • Intellectual: broad thinking, crosses disciplines and potentially boundaries of the academy; integrative, synthetic.
  • Scholar: steeped in traditions of thought and writing; less likely to cross disciplines widely, though perhaps maintains cordial relations with neighboring disciplines; cautious in expansiveness of thought, but ambitious with respect to its import.
  • Scientist: approaches many matters of interest with a commitment to evidence and a clear-eyed, “show me the data” manner; disciplined with respect to conclusions but often expansive with respect to questions.
  • Academic: understands work as about lines on a CV, whether funding or publications; works on “inside dopester” lines, tends to know who is doing what but not to think all that much about it.

on the robustness of evolutionary explanations

I just finished reading Rosemary Hopcroft’s interesting article, Gender Inequality in Interaction – an Evolutionary Account (Social forces 87:4, June 2009). If I understand the article correctly, it argues essentially that frequent female deference to men is (a) well demonstrated; (b) subconscious; and (c) the result of evolutionary pressures. There’s an interesting spin, which is that because these preferences or behaviors are subconscious, feminist approaches like consciousness raising might work to change them. But otherwise the article strikes me as open to several important alternative hypotheses.

The principal alternative hypothesis results from the time problematic. Like other studies based on evolutionary psychology, the article is premised on behaviors having emerged during the Evironment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), a period of historical development in which human genetic characteristics are said to have become relatively fixed. But there are important differences in gendered behavior, including sex deference, sexual preferences, and male “control” of female mates, across the historical time period that comes after the EEA. Thus the constant the article seeks to explain really isn’t a constant at all!

This is true synchronically as well as diacronically. The studies cited, as is common in psychology, are based overwhelmingly on US college students from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This may be less of a problem in standard psychological studies (though of even that I’m not convinced) but it’s a huge problem when what you want to demonstrate is that something is a human constant!

If, in fact, male sexual domination is essentially a variable instead of a constant, it follows that whether it is conscious or subconscious, it can’t be explained by a constant (fitness during the EEA).

It seems to me that the only way an article like this can be said to demonstrate its claim is if we take that claim to be a valid premise–that is, if we begin with the assumption that humans are essentially evolved actors, their behavior a more-or-less clear reflection of adaptation during the EEA, then we can arrive at that conclusion as well. But if we allow even the possibility that culture is an independent force of its own, distinct from the individual predispositions inherited from the EEA, I don’t see how we can arrive at the point of understanding evolution during the EEA as the essential cause of human behavioral patterns.

the depressed grinch

One of the posts I’ve been meaning to write for a while is on using cartoons in teaching social theory, specifically a couple I’ve used this semester. But I haven’t had time to write it up. Meanwhile, though, a friend and colleague in UNC’s med school put together this analysis of the Grinch:

I thought this was interesting for its straddling of the fiction/nonfiction boundary as well as for its combination of biological, social, and experiential factors.