20
Sep
stored in: social science, statistics and tagged:

Occasionally when I try to convince someone I am talking to that there is a logical flaw in their argument, I get a response along the lines of “I was not trying to be scientific, it’s weekend!”

I was just reading a blog post (in Dutch) by Jaap Donkers in response to critique on scores he provided of the quality of schools in the Netherlands, where he used predicted values of an explanatory regression model to correct national test scores for the demographic background of the school. I have no issues with much of the blog post, but this remark triggered my response: “The task of science is not exclusively to write good scientific articles or books. The task is also to be a service to society (…) With such service by scientists other criteria should be applied than for an article in a peer-reviewed journal” (my translation).

Both statements appear to be about the same thing: that scientific logic applies to science, but not outside, and, more importantly, that even when scientist contribute to society as scientists, that criteria are still different. This is certainly true in terms of the intelligibility of statements: academic jargon should be avoided in public discourse. But how about other scientific criteria?

Scientists criticize each other’s work on a variety of grounds, whereby some typical examples include criticizing the generalizability of claims (e.g. “the sample you used has characteristics that are not representative of the population as a whole, about which you draw conclusions”); criticizing the reliability of measures (e.g. when based on highly subjective judgments); pointing out confounding factors of a causal claim (e.g. “eating ice cream really does not increase the risk of drowning – it’s the weather!”); criticizing the validity of a measure (“what you say you are measuring is not actually what you measure”); etc.

Given these types of critique, it is highly doubtful whether scientists should apply different criteria outside academia. How is a claim that generalizes from an unrepresentative subsample to a population valid in public discourse while invalid in an academic article? Or a causal claim where there really is an alternative explanation? Or policy advice on the basis of statistics on invalid measures?

The issue is of course exacerbated when scientists are called in as scientists. Here the public tends to listen because these are not just numbers, but scientific numbers. They are not just claims or arguments, but they are statements made by a scientist. The audience attaches extra value to these statements exactly because they, by virtue of being expressed in the role of scientist, implicitly claim to be scientific. Surely then, the criteria that are normally applied to the evaluation of scientific argument should be strictly applied?

Of course, scientific criteria do not apply in all contexts. Art, intuition, etc. are alternative methods of acquiring knowledge of the world that are outside the scientific domain. But in many contexts, scientific criteria do apply, even when one does not attempt to be scientific (first example); and when someone acts in public in the role of scientists, certainly all criteria apply in full (second example).

09
Jan

A while ago I asked the main mailinglist for Political Methodologists whether anyone had any suggestions for readings for one class on an undergraduate course where I would be providing a very brief introduction to quantitative political science. It is customary to collate responses and make them available to the list, and I decided to do so by writing a very brief note: Polimetrics.

There are a number of topics I have been wanting to blog about for ages, but I never get around to it. Some because I just don’t have had the time or the right priorities to get it written, some because it would actually require a lot of research to be a reasonable blog post. So let me just mention them for future reference or for if anyone knows about any existing ideas / publications / etc. that are relevant. The third one is:

Last Friday I was teaching my research design class on experiments. In political science, this is a small but quickly growing field of research. One topic that always comes up in that class is ethics – it is the one area in social science research where ethics are most clearly an issue. Is it alright to mislead people during the experiment? Is it alright to have people involved who did not volunteer for the research? But while there are very serious ethical concerns, this kind of research is ideal for figuring out human behaviour with regards controversial issues such as discriminatory practices, authoritarian personalities, effect of hierarchy, etc. Issues that are absolutely crucial to understand human behaviour and to understand how humanity commits its worst atrocities. At what point does the importance of this understanding outweigh the ethical issues with the experiment? The Milgram experiments are the most famous example of “unethical” research that nevertheless leads to crucial insights about human behaviour and Eichmann-like obedience.

There are a number of topics I have been wanting to blog about for ages, but I never get around to it. Some because I just don’t have had the time or the right priorities to get it written, some because it would actually require a lot of research to be a reasonable blog post. So let me just mention them for future reference or for if anyone knows about any existing ideas / publications / etc. that are relevant. The second one is:

One consequence of more open borders would be a collapse of the welfare state as we know it. So one thing I have always wanted to spend more ttime thinking about, but never get around to, is how structures similar to the welfare state could function without strict delineation of nation, state, or citizenship. Various vague ideas exist in my head, but nothing concrete. Perhaps KickStarter is an example of a small step in the right direction. The Indonesian phenomenon of an arisan also provides a hint. Perhaps an online community with membership fees, which are distributed to members who need it, with their need evaluated on the basis of a plee, which is evaluated by the crowd of members, with a maximum pay-out per person per time period, the rest being saved as a provision for future problematic cases – if you still follow me. In any case, some kind of system that is based on voluntarism, that cannot run into deficit by design, and that contains some incentives to join and pay.

There are a number of topics I have been wanting to blog about for ages, but I never get around to it. Some because I just don’t have had the time or the right priorities to get it written, some because it would actually require a lot of research to be a reasonable blog post. So let me just mention them for future reference or for if anyone knows about any existing ideas / publications / etc. that are relevant. The first one is on territorial rights:

I find it very difficult to see why people born in a particular location inherit significant rights to that territory, such as to be able to exclude outsiders from this section of the planet. So how do Western states have the right to exclude others from access to their countries? Why does the coincidental fact that I was born in the Netherlands give me access to almost all over the world, while someone who is similarly incidentally born in Indonesia has much more limited access? And thus, by extension, what gives the Netherlands the right to decide that restrict employment rights in the Netherlands to EU citizens only (with exceptions)? So basically two questions follow:

  • Is there a moral / ethical basis for territorial group rights?
  • If not, what would be the practical / pragmatic consequences for present day politics?

A new (free) Applied R manual for social scientists was published, with the author’s introduction. Note that the author’s blog also has many other interesting posts on using R.

A Dutch guy might become mayor in Germany, where the mayor is properly elected, no “appointed by the King” as in the Netherlands, and where according to the law any EU citizen can stand in the elections. Quite an advancement on the Dutch situation. Now the only thing that’s puzzling me is why one would limit this to EU citizens. Why not allow any mayor who has sufficient support among the local population? What’s so different about a Portuguese mayor in Germany or a Brazilian one?

07
Feb

Here’s an interesting article about how a radical muslim group in Indonesia capitalizes on the Merapi disaster by assisting villagers to build up their village to gain goodwill, and how this new goodwill will longterm be a terrorism threat. The article makes sense – as I understand, Hamas in Palestine gained popular support in a similar way. But it makes you really wonder why, say, liberal democratic groups are not doing the same thing. Instead of writing articles about how this is a threat and how on the long run this will lead to more popular support for terrorism, should we not be out there helping those villagers?

(At the very least, we can blame the government for acting very slow in terms of disaster relief, of course, which is true, but that wasn’t the point I wanted to make.)

04
Feb

Computer programming code can of course be beautiful. I just stumbled on docco, which I think is a perfect example. The code is simple and clear, but nevertheless very sophisticated. The documentation is excellent. And the idea behind it – a simple script that helps improve the documentation of code – is quite nice as well.

Alas, the parts of Cantr II code I wrote is neither a good example of beautiful nor of good documentation …

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07
Jan

This case really, really bothers me. The story, as I understand, is this: one of the most famous Indonesian pop singers, Ariel, of the band Peterpan, was arrested last year on the basis of the new Indonesian anti-pornography law. He had a habit of sleeping with plenty of women and recording these activities on tape for private use. One of his “friends” found some videos on his phone and decided to distribute them on the internet. They spread like an epidemic and some estimates have it that more than half of Indonesia’s huge population has seen them. Ariel was arrested and now faces five years in jail.

Whatever you think of recording your sexual activities on tape, I cannot see any justification for putting someone like this in jail, since he never intended to distribute any of those tapes. I cannot see any good moral justification to disallow distribution in the first place, but at least you could argue that’s the law. Also, his recording activities took place in 2006, two years before the new law became active – only the distribution happened later.

His music career is, for now, destroyed – other Indonesian bands are taking over the top of the national charts. I just discovered his music this Christmas and really enjoy it. Really sad it has to end like this … Now I just hope the courts will see the lack of sense in this and find him not guilty.