social science, earthquakes, and the law

L’Aquila, after the 2009 earthquake. Source.

I just had the pleasure of reading Federico Brandmayr’s forthcoming article in Science, Technology, & Human Values on “How Social Scientists Make Causal Claims in Court: Evidence from the L’Aquila Trial.” I highly recommend it. The article examines the testimony of three expert witnesses in a surreal trial about the culpability of scientists for making a bad prediction, and specifically the possibility that the scientists’ claims could have affected the behavior of individuals (to evacuate or not).

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sunday morning sociology, spring break edition!

A weekly link round-up of sociological work – work by sociologists, referencing sociologists, or just of interest to sociologists. This scatterplot feature is co-produced with Mike Bader.

This week is Spring Break here in Providence, so without further ado here’s some beach(?) reading.

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factory jobs are not inherently “good jobs”

Actual killer robots. Source.

This story from Bloomberg on workplace accidents in Alabama’s booming auto plant sector is grim:

After several minutes, Elsea grabbed a tool—on the video it looks like a screwdriver—and entered the screened-off area around the robot to clear the fault herself. Whatever she did to Robot 23, it surged back to life, crushing Elsea against a steel dashboard frame and impaling her upper body with a pair of welding tips. A co-worker hit the line’s emergency shut-off. Elsea was trapped in the machine—hunched over, eyes open, conscious but speechless.

No one knew how to make the robot release her.

Workers with little to no training are coerced into working long shifts on machinery with known safety problems all to make barely more than minimum wage. Apart from the direct human misery, what’s most striking to me about these stories is how little impact they rate to have on our misguided national debate about the loss of manufacturing jobs and the need to bring factory jobs back on the presumption that such jobs are “good” (high-paying, safe, stable, full-time, benefit-providing, etc.) and are vehicles into a middle-class life. But the idea that “factory jobs are good, middle-class jobs” is only true in a world where workers and unions have the power to make them so. Factory jobs in the late 19th century were hellish. There’s nothing inherently good about jobs in any industry. Working for 10$/hour to get crushed by a robot because you are trying to make quota and no one trained you on how to shut the machine off when it malfunctions is back in that hellish direction.

best academic first lines

A lighter topic for a grim and heavy news day: what are your favorite academic first lines? First lines are tricky, and most are forgettable enough, but a few stand out. I’ll post a couple below the cut, and ask you to supply your favorites in the comments! And while “first line of the book” is the usual rule, I think first lines of articles or chapters may be equally important for some texts (given how academic texts circulate), so interpret the instructions a bit liberally.

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sunday morning sociology, grad recruitment edition

syphilis map
“What syphilis was called before it was called syphilis” via r/MapPorn. Sources at link.

A weekly link round-up of sociological work – work by sociologists, referencing sociologists, or just of interest to sociologists. This scatterplot feature is co-produced with Mike Bader.

It’s grad recruitment season for many sociology PHD programs. If you need a discussion topic to fill in those awkward silences, follow the links below!

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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 correlation-causation two-step, police shootings edition

Reducing fatal shootings by police officers is an incredibly important policy problem. Researchers have been stymied in studying the problem due to poor data, and limited resources for studying gun violence in general. The Monkey Cage today has a new post on a useful study that advances our understanding of police shootings. The authors, Jennings and Rubado, show in their research that police departments with policies that mandate reports by officers whenever an officer points their weapon at someone – not just when they fire a weapon – have significantly lower rates of shootings.

The interpretation of this important finding runs into a classic and immensely frustrating tension in social science research. Is this correlation or causation? And here the authors want to have it both ways, from the title of the piece on down. In so doing, they engage in what I have come to call the “correlation-causation two-step,” a ritual social science dance where results are described in clearly causal terms in one breath and then immediately disclaimed as mere correlations in the next.

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