Category Archives: Uncategorized

piketty on piketty: it’s not just r > g

Thomas Piketty has just published an interesting follow-up to his epic Capital in the 21st Century (a book important enough to already have its own wikipedia page). Perhaps the most surprising claim he makes is that commentators have put too much emphasis on the role of “r > g” in his analysis of the dynamics of inequality:

… the way in which I perceive the relationship between r > g and wealth inequality is often not well-captured in the discussion that has surrounded my book…

I do not view r > g as the only or even the primary tool for considering changes in income and wealth in the 20th century, or for forecasting the path of income and wealth inequality in the 21st century.

For an example of that overemphasis, see this delightful Colbert Report t-shirt:

r g t

Continue reading

the normative aspects of positive thinking

I love economics papers with “optimal” in the title. When I was first starting out in sociology, I planned to study immigration, remittances, and development. For a literature review I was working on, I spent some time reading about the economics of migration. I came across a gem titled Optimal Migration: A World Perspective. The first line of the abstract struck me as a brilliant example of “the normative aspects of positive thinking” – the way that economics sometimes emphasizes the normative conclusions of seemingly positive models. Here it is:

We ask what level of migration would maximize world welfare.

Continue reading

the imitation game

Quote from Alan Turing that I came across while reading Lee and Wagenmakers’s Bayesian Cognitive Modeling:

“I assume that the reader is familiar with the idea of extra-sensory perception, and the meaning of the four items of it, viz. telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psycho-kinesis. These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming.”

assessing james coleman

From Sharon McGrayne’s The Theory That Would Not Die, about Bayesian statistics (versus frequentism):

The chasm between the two schools of statistics crystallized for [Howard] Raiffa when Columbia professors discussed a sociology student named James Coleman. During his oral examination Coleman seemed “confused and fuzzy . . . clearly not of Ph.D. quality.” But his professors were adamant that he was otherwise dazzling. Using his new Bayesian perspective, Raiffa argued that the department’s prior opinion of the candidate’s qualities was so positive that a one-hour exam should not substantially alter their views. Pass him, Raiffa urged. Coleman became such an influential sociologist that he appeared on both the cover of Newsweek and page one of the New York Times.

Bonus for those interested in standardized tests: How did Raiffa end up as in a position to evaluate James Coleman?  The same book tells his academic origin story: Continue reading

one book, one _____

My favorite contemporary novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is the selection for One Book, One Chicago. I was surprised when I heard this, because I thought, “But… it’s a novel.”

I realized that I’d just assumed that the trajectory of One Book, One Northwestern was a general phenomenon, where the history has been:

2014-5: Whistling Vivalidi, Claude Steele (non-fiction)
2013-4: Last Hunger Season, Roger Thurow (non-fiction)
2012-3: Never a City So Real, Alex Kotlowitz (non-fiction)
2011-2: Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (non-fiction)
2010-1: Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder (non-fiction)
2009-10: Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman (non-fiction)
2008-9: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quarmmen (non-fiction)
2007-8: Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin (novel)
2006-7: Othello, Shakespeare (play)
2005-6, Antigone, Sophocles (play)

Most obviously, a sharp movement away from literature. Do other universities have a One Book program? Has their trajectory been like Northwestern’s, or have they remained more literary-focused?

the personal touch

I got a video message from Northwestern’s football coach about renewing my season tickets:

The fun part is, if you change the 090 in the URL, you can see the greetings to other first names. As of now, it goes up to 108. He certainly does a better job than I would at being engaged through each of these different messages.

7th annual fiscal sociology grad student workshop

For the past six years, Isaac Martin, Monica Prasad, and Ajay Mehrotra have worked tirelessly to promote interest in “fiscal sociology” (the historical and sociological study of public finances, especially taxes). In addition to producing a great reader and publishing fantastic books on various aspects of the topic, they have also organized a one-day workshop each year for graduate students interested in fiscal sociology. As usual, the workshop will be held the day before SSHA (this year in Baltimore on November 11th), with a slightly different cast of instructors. Below is the full call for participants and details. Note that participation is (partially) funded, so it’s a great way for graduate students to get an introduction to SSHA.

Continue reading

how long should asa papers be allowed to be?

My last post noted that ASA changed its rule from having a 20 page limit to having now saying 15-35 pages. I think this is a good change. Fabio dissents:

Dissent here: I oppose paper bloat. Thus, I always praised the 20 page limit because it forced people to get to the point. You only have 15 minutes to present, for crying out loud.

My view on this is that I would never write a paper just so I can present at ASA, and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to, either, except maybe people who are in positions where they have no interest in publishing but are really desperate for travel funds. In my preferred world, ASA would allow people to submit slide decks, as well as something much more promissory than a full paper if it’s going to be due over 7 months before the conference. Specifying “working/draft paper” is definitely progress.

In the end, ASA does require papers. In that world, I’m for whatever minimizes the extent to which people end up doing work that diverges from the paper they are writing for publication, simply for the purpose of pleasing the one person that will end up looking at the abstract and possibly skimming the paper (i.e., the ASA session organizer). The problem with the 20-page rule is naive folks would spend irrational amounts of time cutting or revising longer papers in order to meet the page limit. This makes no sense.

asa rule change?

ASA rule for submissions:

15-35 page draft paper/working paper either converted to a PDF file or prepared as a Word, or WordPerfect document stored locally and ready for uploading.

This is new, right? Didn’t it used to be 20 pages, without anything to imply it shouldn’t be a fully complete paper?

My preferred belief is that this is a new change and that, regardless of whatever story exists about its provenance, blog & Twitter whinging helped bring it about (e.g., here). But I’m open to counter-facts and counter-narratives.

In any event, regardless of why, kudos to the organization for the change.

lizardo, “the end of theorists”

Omar Lizardo just posted his Lewis Coser award lecture “The End of Theorists: The Relevance, Opportunities, and Pitfalls of Theorizing in Sociology Today” as a delightful pdf pamphlet. Omar argues that theory today suffers from several structural problems, including the lack of a well-functioning hierarchy of modes of doing theory, the deinstitutionalization of “theorist” as a position in the field (as more and more programs now assign theory courses to specialists in other, empirical fields who only dabble in theory), and a lack of new, high quality theory to import from France and Germany. The solution for theory’s woes, Omar argues, has two parts:

The first is a move towards institutionalizing a new set of “positions” for the increasingly uprooted theory people floating around in the field. I will propose one model for such a position based on the role that philosophers play in the disciplinary collective known as cognitive science. Here the theorist is a generalist that is both familiar with the nitty-gritty empirical problems of the different fields and who uses a selective, generalist strategy to provide conceptual solutions to those problems.

The other productive pathway that I see opening up (and here I have been inspired by the recent work of Richard Swedberg) is a revival of interest in the notion of theorizing as a process and as an acquired skill. My recommendation will be that we should begin to move away from our obsession with theory as a finished product or as canon of works and towards a conception of theorizing as a creative activity.

The whole thing is short and witty, and highly recommended if you’re interested in the state of sociological theory today.

beckieball and the study of not-quite-elite selected groups

Beckieball is a new sport sweeping the country. Beckieball performance is the result of three things: height, skills, and desire, all of which are uncorrelated with one another. Let’s fire up Stata and show what the correlation matrix would look like for the population:

             |  perform   height   skills   desire
     perform |   1.0000
      height |   0.5751   1.0000
      skills |   0.5751  -0.0072   1.0000
      desire |   0.5774  -0.0000  -0.0005   1.0000

Unfortunately, scouts cannot really assess desire well, so when they are picking players for professional beckieball leagues, their assessment is just based on equal parts height and skills. What happens?
Continue reading

that nba example

OK, so the NBA analogy I invoked the other day has prompted some confusion. I’m in Australia and have two ASA papers to finish and several more room-escape-puzzles to try, so I don’t have time for a longish post about this, but: Continue reading

great moments in graduate advising

From Diederik Stapel’s memoir:

When students gave presentations of research that I knew was based on my fake data, I could barely wait for them to finish. Maybe someone would burst the bubble, pointing out a fundamental error that would show that the whole thing was completely fictional. I sat and watched a great show, but I was the only one there who knew that it was just an illusion. I watched students, doctoral candidates, and research assistants talking enthusiastically about their work, and I knew that the data they were presenting were all fake. It was hard to keep up the pretence. What they were presenting was fantastic, as coherent as anyone could hope for. They had the results they’d hoped for, they’d passed the test, they were full of self-confidence, they believed in themselves and in the reliable structure of science, but I knew that their faith was built on sand.


Among NBA players, there’s very little correlation between a player’s height and how many points they score. Michael Jordan was slightly below average height for an NBA player; Allen Iverson was in the bottom decile. And yet no one would argue the height is irrelevant for someone’s prospects at playing pro basketball: the average NBA player is nearly 6’7″, that is, in the top percentile of the male population.

The relationship between GRE and graduate outcomes is like this. If you take a group that has already been selected on a number of characteristics, including test scores, then there is often only a modest correlation between test scores and outcomes. But exactly the same could be said for any of the other criteria that were used, like GPA, or like the quality of the writing sample or the ever-amorphous assessment of “fit”, if either of the latter were to be assigned scores.

One can not extrapolate from this reasoning to draw conclusions about how people should be selected in the first place. If you did, you’d conclude that nothing departments use to admit students matters much for whether or not they will succeed, and that perhaps the fairest thing to do would just be to admit students completely at random. Admittedly, this would save departments a lot of time.

Continue reading

the internet doesn’t want us to get along

Editor’s note added to a story in In These Times by a professor at Michigan:

Editor’s note: This article was originally titled “We Can’t All Just Get Along” in the print version of the magazine. The title was then changed, without the author’s knowledge or approval, to “It’s Okay to Hate Republicans.” The author rejects the online title as not representative of the piece or its main points. Her preferred title has been restored. We have also removed from the “Comments” section all threats to the author’s life and personal safety.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,890 other followers