Don’t both-sides the war on truth

Glad to see political obituaries for Trump appearing. But don’t let them both-sides it. Case in point is George Packer’s “The Legacy of Donald Trump” in the Atlantic (online version titled, “A Political Obituary for Donald Trump“).

Packer is partly right in his comparison of Trump’s lies to those of previous presidents:

Trump’s lies were different. They belonged to the postmodern era. They were assaults against not this or that fact, but reality itself. They spread beyond public policy to invade private life, clouding the mental faculties of everyone who had to breathe his air, dissolving the very distinction between truth and falsehood. Their purpose was never the conventional desire to conceal something shameful from the public.

He’s right that the target is truth itself, but wrong to attribute this to postmodernism. Trump is well-grounded in modernist authoritarianism, albeit with contemporary cultural flourishes. This ground was well covered by Michiko Kakutani, Jason Stanley, and Adam Gopnik, who wrote the week before Trump’s inauguration:

there is nothing in the least “postmodern” about Trump. The machinery of demagogic authoritarianism may shift from decade to decade and century to century, taking us from the scroll to the newsreel to the tweet, but its content is always the same. Nero gave dictates; Idi Amin was mercurial. Instruments of communication may change; demagogic instincts don’t.

This distinction matters, between Trump the modern authoritarian and Trump the victim of a world gone mad. You can see why later in Packer’s piece, when he both-sides it:

Monopoly of public policy by experts—trade negotiators, government bureaucrats, think tankers, professors, journalists—helped create the populist backlash that empowered Trump. His reign of lies drove educated Americans to place their faith, and even their identity, all the more certainly in experts, who didn’t always deserve it (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, election pollsters). The war between populists and experts relieved both sides of the democratic imperative to persuade. The standoff turned them into caricatures.

Disagree. Public health scientists and political pollsters are sometimes wrong, and even corrupt, including during the Trump era, but their failures are not an assault on truth itself (I don’t know what about the CDC he’s referring to, but except for some behavior by Trump appointees the same applies). We in the rational knowledge business have not been relieved of our democratic imperatives by the machinations of authoritarians. No matter how we are seen by Trump’s followers, we are not caricatures. The rise of authoritarianism and its populist armies can’t be laid at the feet of the reign of experts. In one sense, of course, anti-vaxxers only exist because there are vaccines. But that’s not a both-sides story. Everyone alive today is alive because of the reign of experts, more of less.

This reminds me of Jonah Goldberg’s ridiculous (but very common, among conservatives) attempt to blame anti-racists for racism: “The grave danger, already materializing, is that whites and Christians respond to this bigotry [i.e., being called racist, homophobic, and Islamophobic] and create their own tribal identity politics.” If Packer objects to the comparison, that’s on him.

That said, the know-nothing movement that Trump now leads obviously creates direct challenges that the forces of truth must rise to meet. The imperative for “engagement” among social scientists — the need to communicate our research and its implications, which I’ve discussed before — is partly driven by this reality. In the social sciences we have an additional burden because our scholarship is directly relevant to politics, so compared with the other sciences we are subject to heightened scrutiny and suspicion — our accomplishments are less the invisible infrastructure of daily survival and more the contested terrain of social and cultural conflict.

And, judging by our falling social science enrollments (except economics), we’re not winning.

So we have a lot of work to do, but we’re not responsible for the war on truth.

Sociologist, scientist? Toward transparency, accountability, and a sharing culture

With the help of the designer Brigid Barrett, I have a new website at philipncohen.com, and a redesigned blog to match (which you’re looking at now). We decided on the tagline, “Sociologist / Demographer” for the homepage photo. It’s true I am those two things, but I also like how they modify each other, a type of sociologist and a type of demographer. First some reflections, then a little data.

I shared the website on Twitter, and wrote this in a thread:

Having “sociologist” attached to your name is not going to signal scientific rigor to the public in the way that other discipline labels might (like, I think, “demographer”). A lot of sociologists, as shown by their behavior, are fine with that. Your individual behavior as a researcher can shape the impression you make, but it will not change the way the discipline is seen. Until the discipline — especially our associations but also our departments — adopts (and communicates) scientific practices, that’s how it will be. As an association, ASA has shown little interest in this, and seems unlikely to soon.

A substantial portion of sociologists rejects the norms of science. Others are afraid that adopting them will make their work “less than” within the discipline’s hierarchy. For those of us concerned about this, the practices of science are crucial: openness, transparency, reproducibility. We need to find ways at the sub-discipline level to adopt and communicate these values and build trust in our work. Building that trust may require getting certain publics to see beyond the word “sociologist,” rather than just see value in it. They will see our open practices, our shared data and code, our ability to admit mistakes, embrace uncertainty, and entertain alternative explanations.

There are other sources of trust. For example, taking positions on social issues or politics is also a way of building trust with like-minded audiences. These are important for some sociologists, and truly valuable, but they’re different from science. Maybe unreasonably, I want both. I want some people to give my work a hearing because I take antiracist or feminist positions in my public work, for example. And also because I practice science in my research, with the vulnerability and accountability that implies. Some people would say my public political pronouncements undermine not just my science, but the reputation of the discipline as a whole. I can’t prove they’re wrong. But I think the roles of citizen and scholar are ultimately compatible. Having a home in a discipline that embraced science and better communicated its value would help. A scientific brand, seal of approval, badges, etc., would help prevent my outspokenness from undermining my scientific reputation.

One reply I got, confirming my perception, was, “this pretence of natural science needs to be resisted not indulged.” Another wrote: “As a sociologist and an ethnographer ‘reproducibility’ will always be a very weak and mostly inapplicable criterion for my research. I’m not here to perform ‘science’ so the public will accept my work, I’m here to seek truth.” Lots of interesting responses. Several people shared this old review essay arguing sociology should be more like biology than like physics, in terms of epistemology. The phrase “runaway solipsism” was used.

I intended my tweets to focus on the open “science practices” which which I have been centrally concerned, centered on scholarly communication: openness, transparency, replicability. That is, I am less interested in the epistemological questions of what is meaning and truth, and solipsism, and more concerned with basic questions like, “How do we know researchers are doing good research, or even telling the truth?” And, “How can we improve our work so that it’s more conducive to advancing research overall?”

Whether or not sociology is science, we should have transparency, accountability, and a sharing culture in our work. This makes our work better, and also maybe increases our legitimacy in public.

Where is ASA?

To that end, as an elected member of the American Sociological Association Committee on Publications, two years ago I proposed that the association adopt the Transparency and Openness Promotion Guidelines from the Center for Open Science, and to start using their Open Science Badges, which recognize authors who provide open data, open materials, or use preregistration for their studies. It didn’t go over well. Some people are very concerned that rewarding openness with little badges in the table of contents, which presumably would go mostly to quantitative researchers, would be seen as penalizing qualitative researchers who can’t share their data, thus creating a hierarchy in the discipline.

So at the January 2019 meeting the committee killed that proposal so an “ad hoc committee could be established to evaluate the broader issues related to open data for ASA journals.” Eight months later, after an ad hoc committee report, the publications committee voted to “form an ad hoc committee [a different one this time] to create a statement regarding conditions for sharing data and research materials in a context of ethical and inclusive production of knowledge,” and to, “review the question about sharing data currently asked of all authors submitting manuscripts to incorporate some of the key points of the Committee on Publications discussion.” The following January (2020), the main committee was informed that the ad hoc committee had been formed, but hadn’t had time to do its work. Eight months later, the new ad hoc committee proposed a policy: ask authors who publish in ASA journals to declare whether their data and research materials are publicly available, and if not why not, with the answers to be appended in a footnote to each article. The minutes aren’t published yet, but I seem to remember us approving the proposal (minutes should appear in the spring, 2021). So, after two years, all articles are going to report whether or not materials are available. Someday. Not bad, for ASA!

To see how we’re doing in the meantime, and inspired by the Twitter exchange, I flipped through the last four issues of American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the association, to assess the status of data and materials sharing. That is, 24 articles published in 2020. The papers and what I found are listed in the table below.

There were six qualitative papers and three mixed qualitative/quantitative papers. None of these provided access to research materials such as analysis code, interview guides, survey instruments, or transcripts — or provided an explanation for why these materials were not available. Among the 15 quantitative papers, four provided links to replication packages, with the code required to replicate the analyses in the papers. Some of these used publicly available data, or included the data in the package, while the others would require additional steps to gain access to the data. The other 11 provided neither data nor code or other materials.

That’s just from flipping through the papers, searching for “data,” “code,” “available,” reading the acknowledgments and footnotes, and so on. So I may have missed something. (One issue, which maybe the new policy will improve, is that there is no standard place on the website or in the paper for such information to be conveyed.) Many of the papers include a link on the ASR website to “Supplemental Material,” but in all cases this was just a PDF with extra results or description of methods, and did not include computer code or data. The four papers that had replication packages all linked to external sites, such as Github or Dataverse, which are great but are not within the journal’s control, so the journal can’t ensure they are correct, or that they are maintained over time. Still, those are great.

I’m not singling out papers (which, by the way, seem excellent and very interesting — good journal!), just pointing out the pattern. Let’s just say that any of these authors could have provided at least some research materials in support of the paper, if they had been personally, normatively, or formally compelled to do so.

Why does that matter?

First, providing things like interview guides, coding schemes, or statistical code, is helpful to the next researcher who comes along. It makes the article more useful in the cumulative research enterprise. Second, it helps readers identify possible errors or alternative ways of doing the analysis, which would be useful both to the original authors and to subsequent researchers who want to take up the baton or do similar work. Third, research materials can help people determine if maybe, just maybe, and very rarely, the author is actually just bullshitting. I mean literally, what do we have besides your word as a researcher that anything you’re saying is true? Fourth, the existence of such materials, and the authors’ willingness to provide them, signals to all readers a higher level of accountability, a willingness to be questioned — as well as a commitment to the collective effort of the research community as a whole. And, because it’s such an important journal, that signal might boost the reputation for reliability and trustworthiness of the field overall.

There are vast resources, and voluminous debates, about what should be shared in the research process, by whom, for whom, and when — and I’m not going to litigate it all here. But there is a growing recognition in (almost) all quarters that simply providing the “final” text of a “publication” is no longer the state of the art in scholarly communication, outside of some very literary genres of scholarship. Sociology is really very far behind other social science disciplines on this. And, partly because of our disciplinary proximity to the scholars who raise objections like those I mentioned above, even those of us who do the kind of work where openness is most normative (like the papers below that included replication packages), can’t move forward with disciplinary policies to improve the situation. ASR is paradigmatic: several communities share this flagship journal, the policies of which are serving some more than others.

What policies should ASA and its journals adopt to be less behind? Here are a few: Adopt TOP badges, like the American Psychological Association has; have their journals actually check the replication code to see that it produces the claimed results, like the American Economic Association does; publish registered reports (peer review before results known), like all experimental sciences are doing; post peer review reports, like Nature journals, PLOS, and many others do. Just a few ideas.

Change is hard. Even if we could agree on the direction of change. Brian Nosek, director of the Center for Open Science (COS), likes to share this pyramid, which illustrates their “strategy for culture and behavior change” toward transparency and reproducibility. The technology has improved so that the lowest two levels of the pyramid are pretty well taken care of. For example, you can easily put research materials on COS’s Open Science Framework (with versioning, linking to various cloud services, and collaboration tools), post your preprint on SocArXiv (which I direct), and share them with the world in a few moments, for free. Other services are similar. The next levels are harder, and that’s where we in sociology are currently stuck.

COS_Culture_and_Behavior_Change_model.width-500 1

For some how-to reading, consider, Transparent and Reproducible Social Science Research: How to Do Open Science, by Garret Christensen, Jeremy Freese, and Edward Miguel (or this Annual Review piece on replication specifically). For an introduction to Scholarly Communication in Sociology, try my report with that title. Please feel free to post other suggestions in the comments.


Four 2020 issues of American Sociological Review

ReferenceQuant/QualData typeData available?Code available?Note
Faber, Jacob W. 2020. “We Built This: Consequences of New Deal Era Intervention in America’s Racial Geography.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 739–75.QuantCensus+NoNo
Brown, Hana E. 2020. “Who Is an Indian Child? Institutional Context, Tribal Sovereignty, and Race-Making in Fragmented States.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 776–805. QualArchivalNoNo
Daminger, Allison. 2020. “De-Gendered Processes, Gendered Outcomes: How Egalitarian Couples Make Sense of Non-Egalitarian Household Practices.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 806–29. QualInterviewsNoNo
Mazrekaj, Deni, Kristof De Witte, and Sofie Cabus. 2020. “School Outcomes of Children Raised by Same-Sex Parents: Evidence from Administrative Panel Data.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 830–56. QuantAdministrativeNoUpon requestInfo on how to obtain data provided.
Becker, Sascha O., Yuan Hsiao, Steven Pfaff, and Jared Rubin. 2020. “Multiplex Network Ties and the Spatial Diffusion of Radical Innovations: Martin Luther’s Leadership in the Early Reformation.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 857–94. QuantNetworkNoNoSays data is in the ASR online supplement but it’s not.
Smith, Chris M. 2020. “Exogenous Shocks, the Criminal Elite, and Increasing Gender Inequality in Chicago Organized Crime.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 895–923. QuantNetworkNoNoCode described.
Storer, Adam, Daniel Schneider, and Kristen Harknett. 2020. “What Explains Racial/Ethnic Inequality in Job Quality in the Service Sector?” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 537–72. QuantSurveyNoNo
Ranganathan, Aruna, and Alan Benson. 2020. “A Numbers Game: Quantification of Work, Auto-Gamification, and Worker Productivity.” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 573–609. MixedMixedNoNo
Fong, Kelley. 2020. “Getting Eyes in the Home: Child Protective Services Investigations and State Surveillance of Family Life.” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 610–38. QualMixedNoNo
Musick, Kelly, Megan Doherty Bea, and Pilar Gonalons-Pons. 2020. “His and Her Earnings Following Parenthood in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom.” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 639–74. QuantSurveyYesYesOffsite replication package.
Burdick-Will, Julia, Jeffrey A. Grigg, Kiara Millay Nerenberg, and Faith Connolly. 2020. “Socially-Structured Mobility Networks and School Segregation Dynamics: The Role of Emergent Consideration Sets.” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 675–708. QuantAdministrativeNoNo
Schaefer, David R., and Derek A. Kreager. 2020. “New on the Block: Analyzing Network Selection Trajectories in a Prison Treatment Program.” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 709–37. QuantNetworkNoNo
Choi, Seongsoo, Inkwan Chung, and Richard Breen. 2020. “How Marriage Matters for the Intergenerational Mobility of Family Income: Heterogeneity by Gender, Life Course, and Birth Cohort.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 353–80. QuantSurveyNoNo
Hook, Jennifer L., and Eunjeong Paek. 2020. “National Family Policies and Mothers’ Employment: How Earnings Inequality Shapes Policy Effects across and within Countries ,  National Family Policies and Mothers’ Employment: How Earnings Inequality Shapes Policy Effects across and within Countries.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 381–416. QuantSurvey+YesYesOffsite replication package.
Doering, Laura B., and Kristen McNeill. 2020. “Elaborating on the Abstract: Group Meaning-Making in a Colombian Microsavings Program.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 417–50. MixedSurvey+NoNo
Decoteau, Claire Laurier, and Meghan Daniel. 2020. “Scientific Hegemony and the Field of Autism.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 451–76. QualArchivalNoNo“Information on the coding schema is available upon request.”
Kiley, Kevin, and Stephen Vaisey. 2020. “Measuring Stability and Change in Personal Culture Using Panel Data.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 477–506. QuantSurveyYesYesOffsite replication package.
DellaPosta, Daniel. 2020. “Pluralistic Collapse: The ‘Oil Spill’ Model of Mass Opinion Polarization.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 507–36. QuantSurveyYesYesOffsite replication package.
Simmons, Michaela Christy. 2020. “Becoming Wards of the State: Race, Crime, and Childhood in the Struggle for Foster Care Integration, 1920s to 1960s.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 199–222. QualArchivalNoNo
Calarco, Jessica McCrory. 2020. “Avoiding Us versus Them: How Schools’ Dependence on Privileged ‘Helicopter’ Parents Influences Enforcement of Rules.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 223–46. QualEthnography w/ surveyNoNo
Brewer, Alexandra, Melissa Osborne, Anna S. Mueller, Daniel M. O’Connor, Arjun Dayal, and Vineet M. Arora. 2020. “Who Gets the Benefit of the Doubt? Performance Evaluations, Medical Errors, and the Production of Gender Inequality in Emergency Medical Education.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 247–70. MixedAdministrativeNoNo
Kristal, Tali, Yinon Cohen, and Edo Navot. 2020. “Workplace Compensation Practices and the Rise in Benefit Inequality ,  Workplace Compensation Practices and the Rise in Benefit Inequality.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 271–97.QuantAdministrativeNoNo
Abascal, Maria. 2020. “Contraction as a Response to Group Threat: Demographic Decline and Whites’ Classification of People Who Are Ambiguously White.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 298–322.QuantSurvey experimentNoNoPreanalysis plan registered. Data embargoed.
Friedman, Sam, and Aaron Reeves. 2020. “From Aristocratic to Ordinary: Shifting Modes of Elite Distinction.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 323–50.QuantArchivalNoNo

ASA’s letter against the public interest and our values

youdidwhat

Update 1: I submitted a resolution to the ASA Committee on Publications, for consideration at our January meeting. You can read and comment on it here.

Update 2: The Committee on Publications on January 23 voted to approve the following statement: “The ASA Committee on Publications expresses our opposition to the decision by the ASA to sign the December 18, 2019 letter.”

The American Sociological Association has signed a letter that profoundly betrays the public interest and goes against the values that many of us in the scholarly community embrace.

The letter to President Trump, signed by dozes of academic societies, voices opposition to a rumored federal policy change that would require federally funded research be made freely available upon publication, rather than according to the currently mandated 12-month embargo — which ASA similarly, bitterly, opposed in 2012. ASA has not said who made the decision to sign this letter. All I know is that, as a member of the Committee on Publications, I wasn’t consulted or notified. I don’t know what the ASA rules are for issuing such statements in our name, but this one is disgraceful.

The argument is that ASA would not be able to make money selling research generated by federal funding if it were required to be distributed for free. And because ASA would suffer, science and the public interest would suffer. Like when Trump says getting Ukraine to help him win re-election is by definition in the American interest — what helps ASA is what’s good for science.

The letter says:

Currently, free distribution of research findings is subject to a 12-month embargo, enabling American publishers to recover the investment made in curating and assuring the quality of scientific research content. … The current 12-month embargo period provides science and engineering society publishers the financial stability that enables us to support peer review that ensures the quality and integrity of the research enterprise.

That is funny, because in 2012 ASA director Sally Hillsman (since retired) said the 12-month embargo policy “could threaten the ability of scholarly societies, including the ASA, to continue publishing journals” and was “likely to seriously erode and eventually jeopardize our financial ability to perform the critical, value added peer review and editorial functions of scientific publishing.”

The current letter, at least with regard to ASA, tell this whopper: “we support open access and have a strong history of advancing open access through a broad array of operational models.” They literally oppose open access, including in this letter, and including the current, weak, open access policy.

The ASA-signed letter is very similar to one sent about the same time by a different (but overlapping) large group of publishers, including Elsevier, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, claiming the rumored policy would hurt ‘merica. But there are subtle differences. The ASA letter refers to “the current proven and successful model for reporting, curating and archiving scientific results and advancing the U.S. research enterprise,” which should not be tampered with. The other letter warns of the danger of “step[ing] into the private marketplace” in which they sell research. Knowledge philosopher Peter Suber offered an excellent critique of the market claims here in this Twitter thread:

ASA and the other money-making societies really want you to believe there is no way to do curation and peer review without them. If we jeopardize their business model, ASA says, the services they provide would not happen. In fact, the current subscription models and paywalls stand in the way of developing the cheaper, more efficient models we could build right now to replace them. All we need to do is take the money we currently devote to journal subscriptions and publisher profits, and redirect it to the tasks of curation and peer review without profits and paywalls — and free distribution (which is a lot cheaper to administer than paywalled distribution).

The sooner we start working on that the better. In this effort — and in the absence of leadership by scholarly societies — the university libraries are our strongest allies. This is explained by UNC Librarian Elaine Westbrooks in this Twitter thread:

Compare this forwarding thinking librarian’s statement with Elsevier. In proudly sharing the publishers’ statement, Elsevier vice president Ann Gabriel said, “Imagine a world without scientific, medical societies and publishers who support scholarship, discovery and infrastructures for peer review, data archiving and networks.” Notice two things in this statement. First, she does not mention libraries, which are the academy-owned institutions that do literally all this as well. And second, see how she bundles publishers and societies. This is the sad reality. If instead of “societies and publishers” we had “societies and libraries” maybe we’d be getting somewhere. Instead, our societies, including the American Sociological Association, are effectively captured by publishers, and represent their interests instead of the public interest, and the values of our community.

I remain very pessimistic about ASA, which is run by a professional group with allegiance to the paywall industry, along with mostly transient, naive, and/or ineffectual academics (of which I am certainly one). But I’m torn, because I want to see a model of scholarly societies that works, which is why I agreed to serve of the ASA Committee on Publications — which mostly does busy work for the association while providing the cover of legitimacy for the professional staff.

Letter of opposition

So I posted a letter expressing opposition to the ASA letter. If you are a sociologist, I hope you will consider sharing and signing it. We got 100 signatures on the first day, but it will probably take more for ASA to care. To share the letter, you can use this link: https://forms.gle/ecvYk3hUmEh2jrETA.

It reads:

In light of a rumored new White House Open Access Policy, the American Sociological Association (ASA), and other scholarly societies, signed a letter to President Trump in support of continued embargoes for federally-funded research.

We are sociologists who join with libraries and other advocates in the research community in support of federal policy to make the results of taxpayer-funded research immediately available to the public for free. We endorse a policy that would eliminate the current 12-month waiting period for open access to the outputs of taxpayer-funded scientific research. Ensuring full open access to publicly-funded research contributes to the public good by improving scientific productivity and equalizing access — including international access — to valuable knowledge that the public has already paid for. The U.S. should join the many other countries that already have strong open access policies.

We oppose the decision by ASA to sign this letter, which goes against our values as members of the research community, and urge the association to rescind its endorsement, to join the growing consensus in favor of open access to to scholarship, including our own.

Science finds tiny things nowadays (Malia edition)

We have to get used to living in a world where science — even social science — can detect really small things. Understanding how important really small things are, and how to interpret them, is harder nowadays than just finding them.

Remember when Hanna Rosin wrote this?

One of the great crime stories of the last twenty years is the dramatic decline of sexual assault. Rates are so low in parts of the country — for white women especially — that criminologists can’t plot the numbers on a chart.

Besides being wrong about rape (it has declined a lot, but it’s still high compared with most countries), this was a funny statement about science (I’ve heard we can even plot negative numbers now!). But the point is we have problems understanding, and communicating about, small things.

So, back to names.

In 2009, the peak year for the name Malia in the U.S., 1,681 girls were given that name, according to the Social Security Administration, or .041% of the 4.14 million children born that year (there are no male Malias in the SSA’s public database, meaning they have never recorded more than 4 in one year). That year, 7.5% of women ages 18-44 had a baby. If my arithmetic is right, say you know 100 women ages 18-44, and each of them knows 100 others (and there is no overlap in your network). That would mean there is a 30% chance one of your 10,000 friends of a friend had a baby girl and named her Malia in 2009. But probably there is a lot of overlap; if your friend-of-friend network is only 1,000 women 18-44 then that chance would fall to 3%.

Here is the trend in girls named Malia, relative to the total number of girls born, from 1960 to 2016:

names.xlsx

To make it easier to see the Malias, here is the same chart with the y-axis on a log scale.

names.xlsx

This shows that Malia has been on a long upward trend, from less than 50 per year in the 1960s to more than 1,000 per year now. And it also shows a pronounced spike in 2009, the year Malia peaked .041%. In that year, the number of people naming daughters Malia jumped 75% before declining over the next three years to resume it’s previous trend. Here is the detail on the figure, just showing the Malia in 2005-2016:

names.xlsx

What happened there? We can’t know for sure. Even if you asked everyone why they named their kid what they did, I don’t know what answers you would get. But from what we know about naming patterns, and their responsiveness to names in the news (positive or negative), it’s very likely that the bump in 2009 resulted from the high profile of Barack Obama and his daughter Malia, who was 11 when Obama was elected.

What does a causal statement like that that really mean? In 2009, it looks to me like about 828 more people named their daughters Malia than would have otherwise, taking into account the upward trend before 2008. Here’s the actual trend, with a simulated trend showing no Obama effect:

names.xlsx

Of course, Obama’s election changed the world forever, which may explain why the upward trend for Malia accelerated again after 2013. But in this simple simulation, which brings the “no Obama” trend back into line with the actual trend in 2014, there were 1,275 more Malias born than there would have been without the Obama election. This implies that over the years 2008-2013, the Obama election increased the probability of someone naming their daughter Malia by .00011, or .011%.

That is a very small effect. I think it’s real, and very interesting. But what does it mean for anything else in the world? This is not a question of statistical significance, although those tools can help. (These names aren’t a probability sample, it’s a list of all names given.) So this is a question for interpreting research findings now that we have these incredibly powerful tools, and very big data to analyze with them. The number alone doesn’t tell the story.

What’s with the historical trend juxtapositions?

When is it OK to juxtapose historical trends?

You have to watch out for this (via Boing Boing):

There is no reason to suspect that the rise in autism is linked to the rise in organic food sales.

But other times it seems reasonable to me, like this:

fert-wlfp-trend

There are lots of reasons the long-run decline in fertility is related to the rise in women’s employment rates. We know from lots of research that women with more children are less likely to have jobs; women with jobs are less likely to have children; and over time the proportion of women in the second group has grown relative to the first.

So it’s OK to use eyeballed historical trends when you have good research backing up the association. Your conclusions, then, don’t rely on the simple trend comparison. The trends are an illustration.

But trends need not have have a simple cause-and-effect relationship — or a unidirectional relationship — for it to be important to compare them. Sometimes the relationship is just descriptively important. So, looking at the graph above, it would be reasonable to say, “Women’s lives sure have changed. They have fewer children and more jobs, on average, than they used to.”

And then there is the negative case. The other day I complained when Kay Hymowitz implied that the rise in father-absent families caused an increase in crime among boys. And I offered this simple trend comparison to undermine that story:

It was not my intention to say there is no connection between father absence and boys’ criminal behavior. (I’ve sketched out some possible links in this old post; and made essentially the same comparison about single mothers and crime before.) But the lack of a strong correlation in the trends over time is a challenge. That’s what I’ve been arguing about cell phones and traffic accidents:

Of course driving and texting is dangerous. And of course single parents have a harder time (on average) supervising and disciplining their children than married parents. But if there is a big discordance between the trends — texting and driving, single parents and crime — then that’s a problem for the story that one trend is driven by the other. Causal relationships may be apparent in a lab, or at the margins, but to explain large-scale social change is more difficult — and that’s often what we’re trying to do when we draw from specific research to make political, policy, or theoretical arguments.

So, it’s OK to use discordant trends to take potshots at a proposed causal story, to express skepticism. The discordant trends are a hurdle for the theory to overcome.

If you have good research showing that single parenthood, and especially father absence, is harming boys more than girls, then it would be to OK to use trends as an illustration. It just can’t be your main evidence. So Kay Hymowitz could reasonably include a graph like this to accompany her extensive review of the research on family structure and trouble for boys:

hymowitz-response2

Yes, women’s advantage in high school and college completion has accompanied the trend toward father-absent living arrangements for young boys. That doesn’t fulfill her need to present more direct evidence, but it’s a piece of supporting evidence.

Conclusion: Juxtaposing historical trends is not how you prove a theory. It is a great tool for illustrating known associations, for describing social change, and for challenging theories or narratives.

Regnerus delivers deceptive dialogue to delighted devotees

Not rehashing the whole thing, just a brief field report.

regnerus-10-4-2013
Grainy hidden-camera footage of shadowy propagandist.

I happened to hear Mark Regnerus deliver a lecture yesterday, titled, “Children and Sociology under Fire: Conducting Research on Same-Sex Parenting.”

The talk was sponsored by something called the Pontifical Studies John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, but you might know it as the Mark Regnerus fan club. In the talk, he presented his paper from last year (read all about it under the Regnerus tag) to a fawning audience of, let’s just say, mostly White Catholics.

I went to see how he would present it (very boringly), what he might say about the controversy (nothing substantive), and whether there would be any pushback (if anyone objected, they did so silently).

I came away with three observations about his presentation (these were all apparent in the paper — as Andrew Perrin, Neal Caren and I wrote — but seeing him present it showed how they work on a receptive audience).

First, he crudely manipulated his audience’s ignorance of research methods. He first described in some detail the “standard set of controls” he used to test the relationship between having a father or mother who ever (reportedly) had a same-sex romantic relationship and his many negative outcome variables. And then he proceeded to present bivariate relationships as if they were the results of those tests. He didn’t say they were adjusted, but everyone thought the results he showed were controlling for everything.

For example, to gasps from the crowd, he revealed that 17 percent of “intact bio family” kids had ever received welfare growing up, compared with 70 percent for those whose mother (reportedly) ever had a same-sex romantic relationship. If you don’t realize that this is mostly just a comparison between stable married-couple families and single-mother families, that might seem like a shockingly large effect.

Second, Regnerus pitched his audience the simplistic version of “reduced kinship” theory from the paper, in which people caring for children naturally care less about them if they are not biologically related. This was quite self-evident to the audience, so he didn’t dwell on it. Then he arranged his unadjusted means more or less from best to worst, left to right, from “intact bio” on the left, to adopted, widowed, divorced, separated, single-mother-divorced, single-mother-never-married, and finally “mother lesbian relationship” on the right.

“As you move left to right,” he explained with regard to one variable, “you see the challenges facing these young adults increase.” With another variable he said, “If you graph this, you sort of see a big surge as you get to reduced kinship.”

What you actually get as you move along that row, of course, is not reduced kinship (after all, adopted were just next to “intact bio” on the left side), but rather increasingly female-headed. But the writing on the slide was small, the groups were poorly defined, and the “reduced kinship” narrative was pertinent.

Finally, Regnerus made a few explicit statements about how his study was not intended to show causality (and insisted that he intended it to have no impact on public policy, that he only wrote a brief against marriage equality because he was sure other brief-writers would misrepresent the true science regarding same-sex parents). But he tipped his hand grotesquely, making an argument I don’t remember tucked away in the original paper.

As you might remember, in the results there are more negative outcomes for the children of “mother lesbian relationship” than for the “father gay relationship” children. This is logical since you’re talking about female-headed versus male-headed families. In the paper Regnerus wrote:

While I have so far noted several distinctions between IBFs and GFs—respondents who said their father had a gay relationship—there are simply fewer statistically-significant distinctions to note between IBFs and GFs than between IBFs and LMs, which may or may not be due in part to the smaller sample of respondents with gay fathers in the NFSS, and the much smaller likelihood of having lived with their gay father while he was in a same-sex relationship (emphasis added).

I don’t think I noticed that at the time. Or maybe I discounted it because of the “may or may not be due in part to” language. But now he’s quite a bit more sure. He told the Catholic audience:

There are fewer differences when we look at adult children of fathers who had a gay relationship. I don’t encourage you to read too much into this, except to say that there are fewer cases of them. Those for whom this was true were less likely, of course, to have lived with their father [and his partner]. Plenty of people did not live with their dads, so it would be not surprising to see they have fewer distinctions. Plenty of them did not live with this person.

It came up again in the Q&A, when David Crawford asked:

Q: “… adverse outcome that we’re finding also more centered in the lesbian mothers rather than the gay father relations. I also found that to be interesting. Is that a question of the children tending to spend more time with the mothers and being exposed to whatever causes…”

A [interrupting]: “That would be my best guess.”

So, although he would never dream of making causal claims, his “best guess” for why children living with their mothers rather than their fathers had tougher childhoods is because they spent more time with a lesbian in the household (a very small amount of time, compared to almost none for the children of suspected-gay dads). As Crawford put it, “being exposed to whatever causes…” Or, although he would never dream of making causal claims, his “best guess” for the pattern he sees is that one group was more exposed to the treatment effect he was ostensibly not testing.

As for the whole subject of the hostile reaction from academia, that just boiled down to a few moments of saying that social scientists are all liberals, that the truth can’t come out because real scientists are afraid to touch controversial subjects, and that he’s suffered unbearably as a result of his devotion to the truth. The applause was strident.

Anyway, I also discovered that attempting to sketch him gets harder the more times you try.

regnerus-sketch

Teachers might help students finish high school

In Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond presents a story of world history in which the rise to power of some societies over others was driven by geographic and environmental dynamics.

Some of the stories involve simple chains of evidence like this: societies with more fertile territories settled down earlier and had greater population density, which led to more complex politics, including elites who controlled surpluses and then diverted resources to non-food producers such as artists, craftspeople and bureaucrats, resulting in the development of more advanced language and technology.

We rarely have such large-scale analyses of current social dynamics. One reason contemporary analyses is so much more complicated is because the variations involved are much more subtle and the time frames are much shorter. For example, trying to explain women’s market labor force participation rates that mostly vary between 70% and 85% across rich countries. Or looking at small, marginal effects that tell us something interesting without explaining what really drives the larger outcomes. For example, I found that 34% of mothers with girls named pink or purple as their favorite color, compared with 45% among those with boys — a subtle effect on a minor personality trait. Similarly, we learned recently that boys with sisters are more gender-traditional. But the effect is within a narrow range, and certainly smaller than other more fundamental determinants of gender attitudes.

As I listened to the audio version of Diamond’s book, I tried to imagine how he might describe some recent changes in the U.S., treating differences between states over recent decades as the outcome of such fundamental processes. Here’s one thing I think he might have said:

Those states that assigned greater numbers of people to the task of teaching children more rapidly produced populations with higher levels of education. In half a century, states tripled the number of teachers per student from about 5 per 100 to about 15 per hundred. As a result the percentage of young adults dropping out of high school fell by about half, from near 60% to about 30%.

Here is my figure, plotting teachers per student (age 6-14) against dropout rates (age 16-24) 10 years later:

teachers per kid and dropouts

Source: My analysis of Census data from IPUMS.org.

Is that a fair characterization of the history? Or does it overwrite fundamental variation or complexity and lead to the wrong story?

I want more simple stories, and I would also like them to be true.

Fundamentally opposed to science?

Conservative religious fundamentalists really don’t trust the scientific establishment.

In the discussion of academia’s liberalism, we should also consider the public’s mistrust of science, especially the conservative and fundamentalist public. Why would people who don’t trust science become scientists?

Last year Gordon Gauchat reported in American Sociological Review that Americans’ trust in the scientific community was holding steady except for political conservatives and those who attend church regularly, and that the trend was not explained by the lower education levels of conservatives or religious people (in fact, educated conservatives expressed the lowest levels of trust in science). His conclusion was that the trend showed the politicization of science, which is not the way modernity is supposed to go.

In response, Darren Sherkat blogged that Gauchat underestimated the importance of religion in explaining conservatives’ opposition to science because he only used the General Social Survey’s measure of the frequency of religious attendance instead of a measure of beliefs. And he provided a chart from the GSS showing that religious fundamentalists had lower trust in science whether they were Republicans or not. Sherkat wrote:

Any social scientist who studies politics, religion, and science should know that the reason why Republicans are at war against science is to court the vote of fundamentalist Christian simpletons who are opposed to science and reason. … What drives Republican opposition to science is that more Republicans are fundamentalists who believe that the Bible is the literal word of god.

You got your fundamentalism in my conservatism

As I look at it, conservatism and fundamentalism are both at fault. My take on the trends shows that, in addition to the growing divide between politically conservative fundamentalists and politically liberal non-fundamentalists, liberal fundamentalists have grown more trusting of science, while conservative non-fundamentalists have grown less trusting.

I used the GSS from 1974 through the latest 2012 survey. To highlight the polarization I show only those who are “extremely liberal,” “liberal,” “conservative,” or “extremely conservative,” leaving out those who are “slightly” liberal or conservative, or moderate. So this is not the whole population (I’ll return to that below).

The question was:

I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them? … Scientific community.

It’s as close as we get to a question about science itself. For fundamentalism, GSS asked whether the respondent’s religion was fundamentalist, moderate, or liberal. I dichotomized it to fundamentalists versus everyone else (including people with no religion).*

These are the people expressing a great deal of confidence in the scientific community:

confidence-in-scienceThese trends are heavily smoothed (down to four decades), because the numbers bounce around a lot from year to year, as the samples are only between 60 and 220 in each cell in the individual years. To do a simple test of the trends, I ran a regression using time and interactions between time and politics-fundamentlism dummy variables, with controls for age and sex (old people and men hate science more than regular people, net of religion and politics).

The regression confirms what the graph shows: significant declines in trust among conservatives whether fundamentalist or not, and an increase in trust among liberal fundamentalists. The trend for liberal non-fundamentalists was flat. (Details on request.)

I left out of that analysis the people who were slightly conservative, moderate, or slightly liberal. That’s a shrinking majority of the population, which breaks down like this from the 1970s to the last decade (click to enlarge):

confidence-in-science-popsSo the bad news for science is that the increasingly anti-science groups are increasing in the population: conservative fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. The big green majority is not growing more or less anti-science (even when you break it down by fundamentalism), but it’s also shrinking. The liberal fundamentalists are getting more into science, but also vanishing.

Just wait till they find out (some) sociology is part of the “scientific community.”

Note: This is a blog-post, not peer-reviewed research. I might be wrong.

* Skerkat instead uses a question about how to interpret the Bible instead of the fundamentalism question (literal word of God, inspired word of God, book of fables). 95% of the people who described themselves as having a “fundamentalist” describe the Bible as either the literal or the inspired word of God.

 

 

Responses on fatherhood: hormones, science and god

The fatherhood post yesterday has gotten (for this blog), a lot of readers and some interesting responses. As I wrote out some extended, disorganized comment responses, I realized I may as well elevate them to an independent post (still a disorganized rant though).

I like the discussion by the authors on the Scientific American blog suggested by szopeno. Like I said in the original post, it’s quite reasonable that caring behavior affects hormone levels, as we know things like stress and fear do as well, with all kinds of mental and physical effects. If you randomly subjected some people to competitive athletic coaching, and handed others an infant, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the competition people behaving more aggressively and the baby-holders being more nurturing on average three months later. That would be interesting.

What is the implication? Are we shocked that some aspects of fatherhood (or childcare or sex) provoke a “biological” response? If that shocks you, you might like to know that by simply showing people pictures of other people behaving in certain ways, their bodies are are more likely to undergo spontaneous physical transformations. Just from sitting there looking at pictures! Also, if you inject an athlete with testosterone he can ride his bike really fast.

Schwarzenegger

It does not follow from these findings of a hormonal response to life events that we should promote certain family arrangements as “natural,” which is where Wilcox and the religious-sociological-complex is taking this. If the goal is to change men’s testosterone levels, that might be done with medication. If the goal is to reduce aggressiveness, try teaching meditation in public schools. If we want people to be better parents, we can give them jobs, healthcare, housing and childcare support.

We have lots of ways of trying to promote happiness and pro-social behavior. However, like the crazy list of potential risks and side effects for men taking low-T medication, there are consequences to any such intervention.

Fortunately for individual freedom and human rights, some of us know that we can punish or prevent bad behavior — and reward or encourage good behavior — without attacking or rewarding whole status categories of people. Children with rich, married, college-educated parents are more likely to get into and finish college. So, we ought to fund a public school system, fund student loans for college — and also protect the children of the evil, sick or ineffective rich, married, college-educated parents from harm. But that doesn’t mean we should sterilize poor people.

So, is fatherhood good?

It’s not a question with one answer. One of the things Wilcox and the family “gold standard” promoters do is find ways that people in “traditional” families are doing better on average and use that to promote family conformity. But the averages conceal the sources of variation. Comparing the average father to the average non-father won’t tell you much about how fatherhood affects men because fatherhood occurs along with so many combinations of other transitions, experiences and resources. If you randomly assigned fatherhood to random men — at random moments in their lives — you could come up with an answer. Otherwise I’m not optimistic, and if it’s not answerable I doubt it’s a good question for social science.

Imagine three sets of outcomes: money, happiness and healthiness. Each is affected by social background and context. Then consider men entering fatherhood with different levels of each beforehand, and see how each outcome changes for all the different combinations (e.g., income changes for rich, happy, healthy; income changes for poor, happy, healthy; etc.). The possibilities multiply. If you’re Brad Wilcox you can work back from your goal — married nuclear families — and compare them to everyone else to cherry-pick any worse outcome at any time, and lo, discover that the Bible was right after all. If you really want to know it’s not so easy.

I haven’t yet read Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, the new book by Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, but that seems promising for an in-depth look at fatherhood in the flow of men’s lives, with a lot of attention to the social context (education, employment, incarceration, complex families and relationships, etc.).

candle

Don’t take my Word for it

If you start from a God-given definition of what’s good, and science can’t change that, then science becomes just a convenient way of explaining what you already knew, which is not science — it’s what the Church calls “natural law.”

Wilcox denies that’s how it works, naturally. At a conference on the family and natural law, he was quoted as saying,

Our support for the renewal of marriage is not predicated on some … religious worldview. Rather, it’s based on a reasonable understanding of the human condition that is accessible to all men and women of good will. … Evidence suggests to us that intact, biological marriage is still the gold standard.

That depends on what you mean by “predicated.” Years before the “Regnerus affair,” during which Mark Regnerus joined Wilcox in a scheme to use science against marriage equality in the courts, Regnerus gave his view of the importance of (a certain kind of) marriage, and it did not originate from his scientific training:

The importance of Christian marriage as a symbol of God’s covenantal faithfulness to his people—and a witness to the future union of Christ and his bride—will only grow in significance as the wider Western culture diminishes both the meaning and actual practice of marriage. Marriage itself will become a witness to the gospel.

That divine law and natural law do not conflict is an article of faith (literally). I think Pope Leo XIII put it well when he wrote:

Now, reason itself clearly teaches that the truths of divine revelation and those of nature cannot really be opposed to one another, and that whatever is at variance with them must necessarily be false. Therefore, the divine teaching of the Church, so far from being an obstacle to the pursuit of learning and the progress of science, or in any way retarding the advance of civilization, in reality brings to them the sure guidance of shining light.

Thus, rather than see science as a candle in the dark, natural law says that science needs a candle in the dark, and God has one. Could any research penetrate that mindset? If your research contradicts the “truths of divine revelation” then your research is wrong. Try again! Science in this vein is just looking for ways to convince secular society that the Church is already right. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy (literally). From the same natural law conference news report:

While there’s limited data on the effects of same-sex marriage on children, Wilcox hypothesized that in a few years, research will show that children in lesbian or gay family situations will exhibit some of the same problems as children from father-less or cohabiting relationships.

That conference was in January 2011. At that point Wilcox already had the New Family Structure Study machinery in motion, which would end up confirming to the faithful what they already knew.

What is the logic of marriage denial?

And this should wrap up Homogamy Week here at Family Inequality…

I am confused by the logic in the arguments against extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.

I earlier pointed to an essay I agree with, arguing that denying marriage rights on the basis of a child well-being argument is wrong-headed. And that’s even before we got the excellent review from the American Sociological Association reaffirming that homogamous-couples cause no demonstrable harm to children.

But now on the other side, Mark Regnerus and his colleagues have submitted a stunning brief for the Supreme Court’s upcoming marriage-rights cases. In it they argue that man-woman parents are best for children, but also that there are too many unanswered questions to draw any firm conclusions about child well-being in gay- and lesbian-parent families — so therefore the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 should be upheld.

Back up

When Regnerus’s awful study came out — purporting to show (but not actually showing) that children of gay and lesbian parents were worse off then those in “intact biological families” — he disavowed any political intent or implications. When he interviewed himself, it went like this:

Q: Is there a political take-home message in the study?

A: No. As I stated in the article, “this study cannot answer political questions about same-sex relationships…”

Q: Come on. You can’t surmise what people will make of this study politically?

A: You know, I don’t think it easily lends itself to one particular answer to any of the politicized questions that are circulating about gay marriage, or parental rights, etc.

And when he wrote in Slate, he offered an ostensibly even-handed interpretation:

The political take-home message of the NFSS study is unclear, however. On the one hand, the instability detected in the NFSS could translate into a call for extending the relative security afforded by marriage to gay and lesbian couples. On the other hand, it may suggest that the household instability that the NFSS reveals is just too common among same-sex couples to take the social gamble of spending significant political and economic capital to esteem and support this new (but tiny) family form while Americans continue to flee the stable, two-parent biological married model, the far more common and accomplished workhorse of the American household, and still—according to the data, at least—the safest place for a kid.

In fact, Regnerus and his defenders were incensed that he was being treated as if his motives were political. And in his own defense he wrote of the original paper: “Some perceive it as a tool for this or that political project, a role it was never designed to fill. It cannot answer political or legal questions…”

That was then. So now to the amicus brief filed by Regnerus and several other social scientists. Their review of the evidence is irrelevant to their argument, because they conclude that we don’t know enough to draw any empirical conclusions. Still,

With so many significant outstanding questions about whether children develop as well in same-sex households as in opposite-sex households, it remains prudent for government to continue to recognize marriage as a union of a man and a woman, thereby promoting what is known to be an ideal environment for raising children. Marriage is the legal means by which children are stably united with their biological mothers and fathers and poised for optimal development. Opposite-sex parenting allows children to benefit from distinctive maternal and paternal contributions. Given these facts, safeguarding marriage is a liberty to be accorded to children at least as much as to their parents.

So man-woman parenting is good, OK. And we don’t know enough to say anything about gay and lesbian parenting causally. Therefore it is “prudent” to deny marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, because “safeguarding marriage is a liberty to be accorded to children.”

That is, it was right to tax Edith Windsor $600,000 more because her spouse was female. For the children.

Edith Windsor

I really hope Regnerus gets a chance to testify as an expert on all this someday, because I’d love to hear more about this logic under cross examination.