Category Archives: Uncategorized

Cause and effect on myopia

It’s funny for a non-eye specialist to read articles about myopia, which in my line of work rarely means myopia, literally, which is nearsightedness. Takes some getting used to.

Anyway, in my book I use as an example of misleading correlations the link between night lights and myopia in children. Checking it to make sure it is still a good example to keep for the second edition, I was glad to see that it holds up well.

Here’s the story. In a 1999 paper (paywalled | sci-hub), Quinn and colleagues reported a “strong association between myopia and night-time ambient light exposure during sleep in children before they reach two years of age.” That is, kids who slept with night lights were more likely to be nearsighted. This was potentially big news, because we actually don’t fully understand why people become nearsighted, except we know it has to do with reading a lot and spending a lot of time indoors as a kid. They had some idea that light penetrating the eyelids at night might do something, but no real mechanism, just an association over a few hundred kids.

The paper didn’t have some important variables controlled, notably parents’ nearsightedness. Since the condition is also genetic, this was acknowledged as a problem. Still, they wrote:

Although it does not establish a causal link, the statistical strength of the association of night-time light exposure and childhood myopia does suggest that the absence of a daily period of darkness during early childhood is a potential precipitating factor in the development of myopia.

As I stress ad nausem in this post, the “strength” of an association is not an argument for its causal power. And neither is the number of studies in which the association is found. Real spurious findings can produce very strong, easily-reproducible results. And when researchers have a story to fit the rationale can seem strong. Also, the prospect of publishing in a top journal like Nature has to figure in there somewhere. (This problem is endemic in studies of, for example, family structure and child outcomes, among many other subjects.)

In this case there is a very nice explanation, which was reported less than a year later by Zadnik and colleagues (paywalled | sci-hub), who found no association between night lights and myopia – but they did report a very strong relationship between night lights and parents’ myopia. The same pattern was reported in another response to the Quinn paper, in the same issue, by Gwiazda and colleagues. It appears that nearsighted parents like to leave night lights on. Alternately, some other factor causes parental nearsightedness, child nearsightedness, and night light preference, such as education level (e.g., more-educated people read more and use night lights more).

Several other studies have also failed failed to confirm the night-light theory, and now the thing seems to have blown over. It’s not a perfect example, because the bivariate correlation isn’t always found, but I like it as a family-related case. So I think I’ll keep it in.


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Poverty, marriage, and single mother update

With the annual Census report on poverty out, here are two quick updates.

First, updating this post, the share of all poverty (using official rates) found in single-mother families remains lower than it was from 1974 to 2000. Since 1995, as the poverty rate has gone up and down between 10 and 15 percent, the share of poor people in single-mother families has fallen. As of 2015, 34% of poor people are found in single-mother families.


Marriage has declined, and single motherhood has increased, but that has not produced a poverty population more dominated by single-mother families. Of course these families are more likely to be poor than married-couple families, but they’re not the main poverty story.

Second, updating this post a little, it’s important to keep two major trends in the back of your mind when thinking about social change. The first is that marriage has declined precipitously since 1960. It’s unremitting decline is one of the major social facts of our time. The other trend to keep in mind is that poverty rates fell a lot after the 1960s, but since then have bounced around at an atrocious 10-15%. Now try to keep them both in mind at once: marriage falls, poverty goes up and down. This year’s update puts those together (sorry people who hate this kind of figure), as change in the percentage of women married, and change in the percentage of the population poor.


For a recent op-ed on poverty and marriage, here’s the unpaywalled version of my essay in the Washington Post‘s Post Everything.

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Do we get tenure for this?

My photo. For the occasion I titled it, Openness.

For the occasion I titled this photo of Utah “Openness.”

Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed has written up the American Sociological Association’s committee report, “What Counts? Evaluating Public Communication in Tenure and Promotion.”

I was once a member of the ASA Subcommittee on the Evaluation Of Social Media and Public Communication In Sociology, which was chaired by Leslie McCall when they produced the report. (It is a subcommittee of the task force on engaging sociology, convened by then-President Annette Lareau.)

It’s worth reading the whole article, which also includes comments from Sara Ovink, McCall and me, in addition to the report. Having thought about this issue a little, I was happy to respond to Flaherty’s request for comment. These are the full comments I sent her, from which she quoted in the article:

1. We don’t need credit toward promotion for every thing we do. Scholars who take a public-facing stance in their work often find that it enhances the quality and quantity of their work in the traditional fields of assessment (research, teaching, service), so that separately rewarding the public work is not always necessary. I don’t need credit for having a popular blog – that work has led to new research ideas, better feedback on my research, better grad students, teaching ideas, invitations to contribute to policy, and book contracts.

2. We’d all love to be promoted for authoring a great tweet but no one wants to be fired for a bad one. Assessment of public engagement needs to be holistic and qualitative, taking into the account quality, quantity, and impact of the work. Simplistic quantitative metrics will not be useful.

3. It is also important to value and reward openness in our routine work, such as posting working papers, publishing in open access journals, sharing replication files, and disseminating open teaching materials. Public engagement does not need to mean separate activities and products, but can mean taking a public-facing stance in our existing work.

The SocArxiv project is one outcome of these conversations (links to latest infosubmit a paper), especially relating to point #3 above. Academics who open up their work should be recognized for that contribution to the public good and for promoting the future of academia. In that spirit also I proposed a rule change for the ASA Dissertation Award, which now includes this:

To be eligible for the ASA Dissertation Award, candidates’ dissertations must be publicly available in Dissertation Abstracts International or a comparable outlet. Dissertations that are not available in this fashion will not be considered for the award.

It’s hard to change everything, but it’s not that hard to make some important changes in the right direction. Rewarding engagement and openness is an important step in the right direction.

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What, my workers? (Hershey park edition)

The previous post was about interracial civility at Hershey Park.. This is about something else I noticed there.

The “free” “chocolate” “tour” at Hershey Park is probably not best enjoyed on a Saturday in August while the roller coasters are closed due to inclement weather. Unless what you enjoy is people watching — which, although an odd omission from the tour itself, you will have plenty of time to do in line.


The tour promises “NEW features,” including:

  • Immerse yourself in the cocoa farms of West Africa and the dairy farms in Central Pennsylvania
  • Hear and see the story of chocolate making through new technological effects
  • See the new, state-of-the-art animated figures, including our famous barnyard cows
  • Sing along to the sweet, catchy, and new theme song
  • Experience the social media-enhanced finale, featuring Hershey fans from around the world

When you finally get to the little train car that will take you on the tour, you ride past a series of big video screens showing machines, some big machines simulating chocolate-making, and some fake cows:


The voices you hear belong to a woman who says she’s a quality control expert, and some animated or mechanical pieces of candy. There are literally no humans visible on the immersive tour of chocolate making. Hershey of course does have many people working to make chocolate for them, in Mexico and Brazil and Pennsylvania, among other places. But the tour designers who figured out how to pump chocolate smell into the confined, warmed, darkened, orange-glowing oven your car creeps through to simulate roasting, decided not to include any reference to those workers.


At the very end, a high-school aged temp worker hands you a free sample, though!


Maybe before Trump and Clinton bring back “our” manufacturing jobs, they can start by bringing back some pictures of our manufacturing jobs.


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Racist pile on, Storified

I made a Storify story out of a Twitter conversation I had with a bunch of racist Trump supporters yesterday. Here it is: Racist pile on. I can’t embed it here, probably just as well because a lot of readers probably don’t want to read Nazi propaganda, racial slurs, and gas chamber references.

This was the only thing they gave me that I actually laughed at.


It sums up the power theory of racism nicely. But you have to stop to think about it. That’s not really how it happens, two innocent kids saying the same thing. In real life it’s more like Black Lives Matter saying “We like to be Black, and I don’t want our people to be killed for it,” and a mob of DavidDuke/Trump supporters burning a cross and yelling back at them, “White power!”

But anyway, interested to hear what you think if you go read the Storify thing.


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Why male and female ‘breadwinners’ aren’t equivalent (in one chart)

Here’s a quick addition to some old posts on breadwinners (here and here).

Nowadays, women are much more likely to earn more income than their husbands do. But this is a shift, not a revolution, because very very few women are the kind of breadwinner that men used to be.

Using data on 18-64 year-old married wives (and their husbands*) from Decennial Censuses and the 2014 American Community Survey (via, here are some facts from 2014:

  • In 2014, 25% of wives earn more than their spouses (up from 15% in 1990 and 7% in 1970).
  • The average wife-who-earns-more takes home 68% of the couple’s earnings. The average for higher-earning husbands is 82%.
  • In 40% of the wife-earns-more couples, she earns less than 60% of the total, compared with 18% for husbands.
  • It is almost 9-times more common for a husband to earn all the money than a wife (19.6% versus 2.3%).

Here is the distribution of income in married couples (wife ages 18-64; the bars add to 100%):


Male and female breadwinners are not equivalent; making $.01 more than your spouse doesn’t make you a 1950s breadwinner, or the “primary earner” of the family. (Also, you might call a single mother a breadwinner or primary earner, but not if you’re describing trends from a gender-equality perspective.)

* I forgot that in 0.5% of the 2014 cases the wife’s spouse is also a woman, so it would be more accurate to replace “husband” with “spouse” in the facts that follow.


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Perspective on sociology’s academic hierarchy and debate


Keep that gate. (Photo by Rob Nunn,

It’s hard to describe the day I got my first acceptance to American Sociological Review. There was no social media back then so I have no record of my reaction, but I remember it as the day — actually, the moment, as the conditional acceptance slipped out of the fax machine — that I learned I was getting tenure, that I would have my dream job for the rest of my life, with a personal income in the top 10 percent of the country for a 9-month annual commitment. At that moment I was not inclined to dwell on the flaws in our publishing system, its arbitrary qualities, or the extreme status hierarchy it helps to construct.

In a recent year ASR considered more than 700 submitted articles and rejected 90% or more of them (depending on how you count). Although many people dispute the rationality of this distinction, publishing in our association’s flagship journal remains the most universally agreed-upon indicator of scholarship quality. And it is rare. I randomly sampled 50 full-time sociology faculty listed in the 2016 ASA Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology (working in the U.S. and Canada), and found that 9, or 18%, had ever published a research article in ASR.

Not only is it rare, but publication in ASR is highly concentrated in high-status departments (and individuals). While many departments have no faculty that have published in ASR (I didn’t count these, but there are a lot), some departments are brimming with them. In my own, second-tier department, I count 16 out of 27 faculty with publications in ASR (59%), while at a top-tier, article-oriented department such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (where I used to work), 19 of the 25 regular faculty, or 76%, have published in ASR (many of them multiple times).

Without diminishing my own accomplishment (or that of my co-authors), or the privilege that got me here, I should be clear that I don’t think publication in high-status journals is a good way to identify and reward scholarly accomplishment and productivity. The reviews and publication decisions are too uneven (although obviously not completely uncorrelated with quality), and the limit on articles published is completely arbitrary in an era in which the print journal and its cost-determined page-limit is simply ridiculous.

We have a system that is hierarchical, exclusive, and often arbitrary — and the rewards it doles out are both large and highly concentrated.

I say all this to put in perspective the grief I have gotten for publicly criticizing an article published in ASR. In that post, I specifically did not invoke ethical violations or speculate on the motivations or non-public behavior of the authors, about whom I know nothing. I commented on the flaws in the product, not the process. And yet a number of academic critics responded vociferously to what they perceive as the threats this commentary posed to the academic careers and integrity of the authors whose work I discussed. Anonymous critics called my post “obnoxious, childish, time wasting, self promoting,” and urged sociologists to “shun” me. I have been accused of embarking on a “vigilante mission.” In private, a Jewish correspondent referred me to the injunction in Leviticus against malicious gossip in an implicit critique of my Jewish ethics.*

In the 2,500-word response I published on my site — immediately and unedited — I was accused of lacking “basic decency” for not giving the authors a chance to prepare a response before I posted the criticism on my blog. The “commonly accepted way” when “one scholar wishes to criticize the published work of another,” I was told, is to go through a process of submitting a “comment” to the journal that published the original work, which “solicits a response from the authors who are being criticized,” and it’s all published together, generally years later. (Never mind that journals have no obligation or particular inclination to publish such debates, as I have reported on previously, when ASR declined for reasons of “space” to publish a comment pointing out errors that were not disputed by the editors.)

This desire to maintain gatekeepers to police and moderate our discussion of public work is not only quaint, it is corrosive. Despite pointing out uncomfortable facts (which my rabbinical correspondent referred to as the “sin of true speech for wrongful purpose”), my criticism was polite, reasoned, with documentation — and within the bounds of what would be considered highly civil discourse in any arena other than academia, apparently. Why are the people whose intellectual work is most protected most afraid of intellectual criticism?

In Christian Smith’s book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology (reviewed here), which was terrible, he complains explicitly about the decline of academic civilization’s gatekeepers:

The Internet has created a whole new means by which the traditional double-blind peer-review system may be and already is in some ways, I believe, being undermined. I am referring here to the spate of new sociology blogs that have sprung up in recent years in which handfuls of sociologists publicly comment upon and often criticize published works in the discipline. The commentary published on these blogs operates outside of the gatekeeping systems of traditional peer review. All it takes to make that happen is for one or more scholars who want to amplify their opinions into the blogosphere to set up their own blogs and start writing.

Note he is complaining about people criticizing published work, yet believes such criticism undermines the blind peer-review system. This fear is not rational. The terror over public discussion and debate — perhaps especially among the high-status sociologists who happen to also be the current gatekeepers — probably goes a long way toward explaining our discipline’s pitiful response to the crisis of academic publishing. According to my (paywalled) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of “publish” is “to make public.” And yet to hear these protests you would think the whisper of a public comment poses an existential threat to the very people who have built their entire profession around publishing (though, to be consistent, it’s mostly hidden from the public behind paywalls).

This same fear leads many academics to insist on anonymity even in normal civil debates over research and our profession. Of course there are risks, as there tend to be when people make important decisions about things that matter. But at some point, the fear of repression for expressing our views (which is legitimate in some rare circumstances) starts looking more like avoidance of the inconvenience or discomfort of having to stand behind our words. If academics are really going to lose their jobs for getting caught saying, “Hey, I think you were too harsh on that paper,” then we are definitely having the wrong argument.

“After all,” wrote Eran Shor, “this is not merely a matter of academic disagreements; people’s careers and reputations are at stake.” Of course, everyone wants to protect their reputation — and everyone’s reputation is always at stake. But let’s keep this in perspective. For those of us at or near the top of this prestige hierarchy — tenured faculty at research universities — damage to our reputations generally poses a threat only within a very narrow bound of extreme privilege. If my reputation were seriously damaged, I would certainly lose some of the perks of my job. But the penalty would also include a decline in students to advise, committees to serve on, and journals to edit — and no change in that lifetime job security with a top-10% salary for a 9-month commitment. Of course, for those of us whose research really is that important, anything that harms our ability to work in exactly the way that we want to has costs that simply cannot be measured. I wouldn’t know about that.

But if we want the high privilege of an academic career — and if we want a discipline that can survive under scrutiny from an increasingly impatient public and deepening market penetration — we’re going to have to be willing to defend it.

* I think if random Muslims have to denounce ISIS then Jews who cite Leviticus on morals should have to explain whether — despite the obvious ethical merit to some of those commands — they also support the killing of animals just because they have been raped by humans.


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