Archive | Other social science

The Science of Hotness

As John notes below, hotness science has made some remarkable theoretical and empirical advances since my 2009 post. Nonetheless, the claim that political scientists are unusually smart given how hot we are seems to me to smack of special pleading. After all, even if we’re on the right side of the regression line, we’re still collectively subject to the ironclad law that physical hotness is associated with mental notness. Furthermore, using the precepts of Sound Social Scientific Reasoning1, we can surely draw inferences at the individual level too. And, as a complete aside, it might be interesting to inquire into the implications of the fact that Sides rates a sizzling pepper (the highest possible hotness rating) on Rate My Professor

1 A term of art, covering the axiomatic statements “ecological problems, schmecological problems,” and “g, a statistical myth except and unless it’s rhetorically convenient.”

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Autism and the social contagion of information

The news that Jenny McCarthy will become a co-host of TV discussion show The View is generating a lot of controversy – people worry that McCarthy will be able to spread her controversial (for which read: crazy) views on autism, vaccination and chelation therapy to a much wider audience. Some of the theories as to what causes autism point to geographic clustering as evidence for some common physical cause. However, Columbia sociologist Peter Bearman and his collaborators build on a rich body of data from California to show that clustering of autism cases is plausibly caused by increased diagnosis thanks to the diffusion of knowledge across local communities. Ka-Yuet Liu, Marissa King, and Bearman find that at least 16% of the recent increase in diagnoses is down to the spread of knowledge:

One does not “catch” autism from someone else, yet a social diffusion process contributes significantly to the increased prevalence of autism. We observe a strong positive effect of proximity to other children with autism on the subsequent chance of diagnosis, robust to a range of individual- and community-level controls in both urban and less urban areas. In addition, close proximity to a child with autism was inversely associated with the likelihood of subsequent sole MR diagnosis, while it correlated strongly with the chance of autism-MR diagnosis. Proximity also increases the chance of autism rather [than] MR diagnosis given the same level of severity in autism symptoms. Social influence arises strongly for high-functioning cases of autism. The effect of proximity is also more prominent in younger children, when diagnosis is more difficult and parental resources are more important. Children who were diagnosed with autism have a similar mode of referral as that of their nearest neighbor with autism before their diagnosis. All of these findings are consistent with a mechanism of social diffusion of awareness of the symptoms and the benefits of treatment and are inconsistent with competing explanations. Social influence also accounts for the observed spatial clustering of autism. Such clustering could be caused by local environmental toxicants, the diffusion of a virus, or residential selection, but it is hard to see how a toxicant could cause a reduction in MR diagnoses, operate in all types of communities (urban or rural), and affect most strongly the high-functioning end of the severity distribution.

It’s likely that the increase in diagnoses reflects the difficulties in getting assistance within California (and the US education system more generally) for children who urgently need help, and who would be denied it without a full autism diagnosis:

Because the DDS provides services only to children with autism and not to children diagnosed with disorders on the autism spectrum, the importance of an autism diagnosis for parents striving to secure resources for their children is amplified. The steep and sudden cliff creates incentives that may not be present in other contexts, but pressure to do anything to help children is likely widespread and not limited to the California context. As Judith Rapoport of the National Institute of Mental Health told Grinker, “I’ll call a kid a zebra if it will get him the educational services I think he needs.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that parents of kids with autism or related issues face grueling battles if they want local schools to acknowledge their needs and provide for them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if much of the knowledge that is shared locally is knowledge of how to force action from a bureaucratic system where administrators have limited budgets and strong incentives to deny care if they think they can get away with it.

Update: This shorter piece by Bearman on why many parents believe that vaccines cause autism is also interesting.

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The War on Social Science and its Consequences

Unlike other agencies in the federal government with a research charge, the NSF has no laboratories, and it does not carry out its own research. Instead, its mandate is to identify and fund the very best basic science. Indeed, the NSF is regarded as the gold standard for funding basic research. It is envied and emulated across the world. Three features are responsible for this reputation: a culture of scientific independence, an extraordinary system of peer review, and the long tradition of political independence.

…. This mandate notwithstanding, Congress has often attacked individual projects at the NSF. The “Golden Fleece” awards handed out by the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) poked fun at grants that seemed silly on their face. But he selected these individual grants for shock appeal, and neither he nor his budget-minded successors ever went after an entire discipline. These days, however, Congress is wielding a far bigger anti-science axe. Lawmakers are now going after entire programs at the NSF, with political science on the chopping block.

This from Rice University political scientist Rick Wilson writing in the new online Symposium Magazine. He goes on to warn:

Some scientists may view these attacks as minor matters. After all, the focus has been with a small program at NSF, and many in the natural sciences may believe that the study of politics cannot be scientific. But the larger scientific community should not ignore the shackling of one program at the NSF. If politics dictates what is worth studying, all disciplines are at risk. If politicians decide that they can judge the merit of cutting-edge research, then the peer review system is at risk. Why stop at political science, when the entire NSF Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences could be eliminated? Why stop there if biology continues to insist on using evolutionary models? The challenge to science is clear. If politics inserts itself into science, we must ask ourselves whether any of our fields survive — and who will be the next target.

The full article is worth a read and is available here.

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Social Science Is Losing the War on Social Science

That’s Dave Weigel’s pessimistic conclusion here.  About social scientists, Weigel says:

…it’s difficult for them to justify their own funding in a time of severe government cutbacks. Since March 1, when Congress and the president failed to replace sequestration with anything less idiotic, the human faces of austerity have included children whose Head Start programs are being cut, older people who are going without Meals on Wheels, and—less heart-tugging—business travelers and tourists whose flights were delayed. (We fixed that last one.)

All of those victims have infinitely more marquee value than social science professors.

Weigel has kind words for this blog and links to Greg Koger’s previous post (at the moment, misattributed to me).  The upshot, it seems to me, is that congressional scrutiny is no longer being directed only at political or social science.  All of the programs at the NSF could face restrictions akin to those of the Coburn amendment, depending on what House ultimately does and how the Senate and the White House respond.

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Renewed Threats to the American Community Survey

The bill is here, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC).  The key language:

Beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Commerce and the Bureau of the Census—

(1) are not authorized to carry out any activities with respect to—

(A) a census conducted under chapter 3, subchapter I or subchapter III of chapter 5, or section 141(d) of such title, as in effect on the day before the date of the enactment of this Act; or

(B) a survey (including the survey, conducted by the Secretary of Commerce, which is commonly referred to as the “American Community Survey’‘), sampling, or other questionnaire conducted under such title;

(2) shall terminate any activities being carried out with respect to any such census, survey, sampling, or questionnaire; and

(3) may only conduct the decennial census of population, as authorized under section 141 of title 13, United States Code.

This is not the first time this has been tried.  See Andrew R.’s post from 2012 and links therein.  Eliminating the ACS would be a real blow not only to social science but to many others, including private businesses, who use these data.

Hat tip to Ryan Enos and Kevin Collins.

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Smart Hurricane Names: A Policy Intervention that Costs Almost Nothing but Should Attract Billions of Dollars in Aid

The following guest post is from Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and the author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave. This piece was adapted from an earlier post at Psychology Today.


On September 8, 1900, a terrible storm made landfall in the city of Galveston, Texas.  The Galveston storm was five times deadlier than Hurricane Katrina, and in today’s dollars it’s still the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history.  But as the hurricane approached the Texas coast, no one was quite sure what to call it.  When it sailed southeast of Cuba, the U.S. Weather Bureau described it inelegantly as a “storm of moderate intensity (not a hurricane).”  It was impossible to link the storm to Galveston or any other place until it made landfall, because, like so many tropical storms, it zigged and zagged before making a beeline for Galveston.  In the aftermath, the storm acquired many names: the Hurricane of 1900; the 1900 Galveston Hurricane; the Great Galveston Hurricane; the Galveston Flood; the Great Storm; the 1900 Storm.

It took more than half a century, but in 1953 the World Meteorological Organization began naming storms before they made landfall.  As the Organization explained, “the use of short, distinctive given names…is quicker and less subject to error than the older more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods.”  Today, the world is divided into ten distinct hurricane regions, and each region names its hurricanes with locally familiar names.  In 2013, the first storm to hit the North Atlantic will be named Andrea, the first to hit the North Pacific will be named Ana, and the first to hit the Southwest Indian will be named Anais.  The second storm in each region will take a name that begins with the letter B, the third with the letter C, and so on (though the lists omit the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z).  These names are chosen arbitrarily, and the World Meteorological Organization prefers alphabetical lists only because they are more “efficient and organized” than randomly ordered lists.

Like many decisions that seem arbitrary at first, hurricane naming has unexpected practical consequences.  In the mid-1980s, Belgian psychologist Jozef Nuttin showed that people like their initials more than they like other letters in the alphabet.  For example, in one study Nuttin found that Europeans who spoke 12 different languages were 50% more likely to identify their own name letters among their top six favorite letters of the alphabet.

In a more recent twist on Nuttin’s basic result, psychologist Jesse Chandler and his colleagues found that people donate significantly more money to hurricanes that share their initials.  So Roberts, Ralphs and Roses donated on average 260% more to the Hurricane Rita relief fund than did people without R initials.  Also in 2005, people with K initials donated 150% more to the Katrina relief fund, and in 2004 people with I initials donated 100% more to the Ivan relief fund.

This information isn’t just idly interesting.  Since we know that people are more likely to donate to hurricanes that share their first initials, the World Meteorological Organization has the power to increase charitable giving just by changing the composition of its hurricane name lists.  In the United States, for example, more than 10% of all males have names that begin with the letter J—names like James and John (the two most common male names), Joseph and Jose, Jason, and Jeffrey.  Instead of beginning just one hurricane name with the letter J each year (in 2013, that name will be Jerry), the World Meteorological Organization could introduce several J names each year.  Similarly, more American female names begin with M than any other letter—most of them Marys, Marias, Margarets, Michelles, and Melissas—so the Organization could introduce several more M names to each list.

CAPTION: This figure illustrates the relative frequency of each first name initial in the U.S. population by linking the size of each letter to its frequency as an initial.  Ms, Js, As, and Rs are very common; Qs, Us, Xs, and Zs are obviously less common.

Of course some names are associated with wealthier people than others, so they might attract greater donations as well.  As I note in my new book, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave (and as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner discussed in their modern classic, Freakonomics), white males named Sander and Guillaume tend to be wealthier than white boys named Ricky and Bobby, and white girls named Alexandra and Rachel tend to be wealthier than white girls named Amber and Kayla.  Instead of just choosing hurricane names according to how many people share those initials, policymakers should consider choosing names that mirror the initials of the wealthiest members of the population.  (It’s certainly possible that the distribution of wealthy-name initials matches the distribution of all-name initials, but if they differ it might be wiser to adhere to the wealthiest names.)

We also know that people tend to pay more attention to their own names, so hurricanes with popular names rather than uncommon names are likely to attract far more attention from possible donors.  For example, the 2013 North Atlantic list features the name Joyce—the first name of approximately 6,000 American women—but it could just as easily feature the name Jennifer, which is shared by 1,500,000 American women.  The name Dorian (the first name of 9,000 American males) will also be on the 2013 North Atlantic list, but a Hurricane David (a name shared by more than 3,500,000 American males) would attract far more attention.  These are simple, inexpensive tweaks, but, since people donate upwards of 50% more when hurricanes share their first initials, they have the capacity to increase charitable giving by many millions of dollars over time.  (According to one simple back-of-the-napkin calculation, aid agencies might have attracted up to $700 million more since 2000 had they named the hurricanes using this “optimal” approach.)

This is just one simple illustration of how policymakers can capitalize on our psychological foibles to encourage beneficial outcomes.  I discuss how so-called cues, like our names, influence our thoughts and behaviors in Drunk Tank Pink, and propose a number of other policy solutions in the book that similarly address real world problems without costing policymakers or the government very much at all.  Understanding human psychology sometimes gives you the sort of leverage that you might achieve otherwise only with millions of dollars in inefficient brute force policies.

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Democratic Response to Cantor Defends Social Science Funding

From Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology:

I’m starting to feel like a broken record but I’m just going to keep saying it – the social sciences are important.  They help us understand what we do, why we do what we do, and how we can do things better.  There is almost always a social sciences angle in the most important issues of the day like energy, national security, and health.  For example, in disaster preparedness and response preparation, the social sciences helps us understand how people respond to risk, and how they respond differently to different ways of communicating risk. This knowledge helps emergency management planners develop the most effective strategies for keeping members of their communities safe from natural disasters.  And then once the immediate danger has passed, social science helps us understand how individuals and communities respond to these highly stressful events over the long term.

The Political Science Program at NSF, funded at roughly $11 million per year, advances knowledge and understanding of citizenship, government, and politics.  Data from national longitudinal surveys help us understand the changing face of our own democracy and what can be done to promote civic engagement and voting among the general public.  I firmly believe that it is in the interest of the American taxpayers that their leaders understand what their constituents believe and why, and attend to removing barriers to participation in our great democracy.  Political science research supported by NSF also helps us understand foreign societies and governments, including the societies and governments of countries such as Iran and China.  When the leaders of countries such as Iran posture about war and nuclear weapons, is it not in the interest of the American taxpayer that our own nation’s leaders understand what is motivating those foreign leaders and where we have the most leverage to negotiate or take other actions?

I do agree with the Majority Leader that biomedical research is critically important to the health and well-being of our citizens. But I do not agree that federally funded research should be considered on an either/or basis.  Biomedical research is important, social science research is important, energy research is important, and defense research is important.  The list goes on and on. We need to be discussing how to fund all of this important scientific research, not how to get rid of it.

The press release is here.

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Why Study Social Science

Kindred Winecoff, himself a political scientist, writes in reaction to my earlier post:

This is an opportunity for the social sciences to demonstrate their value by making a clear, coherent argument. Simply pointing to research on topics of possible public interest (as Sides does) is not enough… it must be accompanied by an argument that that research is more deserving of public funding than something else. So far I have not seen such an argument made. I have seen social scientists act like any other interest group: they want public spending on programs that benefit them because those programs benefit them. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a bit distasteful to equate common rent-seeking behavior with a broad public interest. If the social sciences deserve public funding they ought to be able to make the case on its merits. In a way, Cantor is challenging us to think like civically-minded social scientists.

As I responded to him and to a commenter, I think I and others have tried to make an argument that goes beyond “rent-seeking” and, indeed, we’ve tried over and over again.  But let me try to engage this question again, and at the broadest possible level.

We study social science because social phenomena affect people’s lives in profound ways.  If you want to start with Cantor’s focus—physical illness and death—then social phenomena are tremendously important.  Social ills—poverty, lack of formal education, family dysfunction, ineffective governments, wars—are associated with and arguably cause a great deal of physical illness and death.  You can do a lot to fight malaria with medicine, and we need new and better medicines to do so, but those treatments aren’t going to go very far in some developing countries—or at least as far—without more stable political institutions and more effective civil society organizations.  Doctors in labs can create a miracle drug.  However, that drug won’t do that much good if you can’t get it to needy populations because roaming militias set up roadblocks and kill NGO workers. If social and political scientists can figure out how to help create stable democratic institutions, how to help resolve civil wars, whether and how foreign intervention can help ameliorate conflict, etc., etc., then they will help save lives—both on their own and in concert with other scientists who focus on new medicines, or more efficient cookstoves, or new ways to filter drinking water, or what have you.

Now let’s leave killing and death behind, since much social science isn’t about that.  Social phenomena also matter in less dramatic ways, but in ways that still make people’s lives profoundly better or worse.  Consider this partial list:

  • Families.  What makes families more or less successful?   What makes marriages more successful?  What makes them fail?  What are the effects of divorce?  Does it hurt the children of divorce?  How much, in what ways, and for how long?  A medical doctor can treat the effects of family dysfunction and divorce—say, with anti-depressants or therapy and so on—but we can learn and know more about how to prevent some of this dysfunction from doing social science.
  • Schools. What are effective means of educating children?  What makes for good teachers?  How can we measure and evaluate teaching and learning?  How can we overcome inequalities in educational achievement created by socioeconomic status and other factors?  The “hard” sciences and medicine might be able to help a bit here, but these too are mostly questions for social science.
  • Economies.  Fundamentally, what makes them grow or shrink?  Few things are as central to people’s quality of life as economic prosperity.  Here again, there is synergy with, say, medicine: getting sick affects your ability to be economically productive.  But doctors are not going to be shed much light on this question.  Economists and other social scientists can.
  • Mass Media.  The information conveyed through mass media—cultural, political, and otherwise—can profoundly influence how we understand the world.  How is that information produced?  What are the incentives and norms that govern media organizations?  How does that information affect people?  How does that information help or hurt people—for example, by dismantling or reinforcing stereotypes, or by mitigating or fomenting outright violence?  Social scientists spend a lot of time trying to figure this out.
  • Attitudes.  Why do people develop particular attitudes about social and political phenomena?  How does those attitudes affect subsequent behavior?  Whether people like or dislike social groups, for example, has an impact on the quality of life for those groups.  So we must understand the origins and evolution of attitudes like prejudice.
  • Social networks.  The networks which people are embedded—which encompass families and schools as well as other institutions—can affect many things about them.  Whether they are healthy, whether they are prejudiced, whether they can survive natural disasters, and so on.

That is just a quick jaunt through some of the foundational topics in sociology, economics, psychology, and other social sciences.  I should say that the politics, and therefore political science, is immanent in all of those.  The policies that governments produce can affect families—for example, by providing child care subsidies, or by allowing same-sex couples to be married and build their own families.  Politics also affects the economy, needless to say.  Witness the gains or losses of wealth that could be attributed to government stimulus, to austerity, to debt ceiling debates, to financial crises.  How political institutions function—and the roles played by voters, leaders, reporters, activists—will also end up affecting people’s lives in myriad other ways.  Whether they live in poverty, whether they get parental leave when their kids are born, how easy it is to buy a house, how long they sit in traffic, how much tax they pay, how good their health care is, and so on and on.

My problem with this laser focus on the hard sciences and on medicine is that it pretends that people’s quality of life simply depends on physical phenomena—how fast computers are or how much their knee hurts and so on.   That’s simply not true.  Much of people’s happiness—indeed, including whether they have access to computers or can endure a physical malady—depends on social phenomena.  If I wanted to turn the tables, it wouldn’t be hard to find research in medicine and the “hard” sciences that seems much further removed from people’s daily lives—and their actual happiness living those lives—than is much social science.

But none of that speaks to trade-offs: why should the government fund social science over, say, medicine?  At one level, that’s not a fair question, because it assumes a zero-sum game that doesn’t necessarily exist or need to exist.  Why not fund both social science and the “hard” sciences by reducing agricultural subsidies?  But I’ll grant the question for the sake of argument.

One answer I’d give is that it’s very hard to determine the value of any research ahead of time.  It’s hard because any one research project is narrow.  It’s hard because you can’t anticipate how one project might inform later ones.  It’s hard because some funding goes to create public goods—like large datasets—that many others will use, and those myriad projects also cannot be anticipated.  It’s hard because some research won’t work, and we can’t know that ahead of time.  (Commenter Eric L. makes this point as well.)   For example, my mom worked on a multi-million dollar NIH grant to see whether certain vitamins would reduce the risk of a second stroke among stroke victims.  Null effect.  Here’s the JAMA article.  Easy to say, “What a waste.  I can’t believe Sides’s mom got all that dough.  Should have given those millions of dollars to political scientists studying civil war.”  But how can you know?  And even if the medical research did work, it’s very hard to measure its impact relative to other research in other fields.   If a new drug extends the lives of patients with a particular kind of terminal, but rare, pancreatic cancer by 2 months, what is the value of that relative to research that shows how to improve the reading abilities of thousands or even millions of children?

You can’t answer questions of relative benefit very easily.  And thus to say that entire fields of study are worth $0 in federal funding but other fields of study are worth millions or billions of dollars reflects very little about the actual or potential real-world impact of those fields’ research programs.  Even a more nuanced claim—the marginal impact of every dollar spent on medical research is greater than the marginal impact of every dollar spend on social science—is hard to test.  Nor is it clear why the most impact wouldn’t be attained not by doing zero-sum calculations between sprawling and disparate fields like “medicine” and “social science” but by funding only the most promising medical research and only the most promising social science research.  Alas, then we’re back to figuring out what is “promising” a priori.

Given these challenges, what the federal government does do and should do is allow its elected leaders to make decisions about how to allocate resources across multiple fields of study—via funding of the NIH, NSF, etc.—and then allow processes of peer review by experts in those fields to determine which specific projects seem most promising.  Eric Cantor and others are perfectly within their rights—indeed, it is their job—to decide how much funding these agencies receive or whether they receive any funding.  It is also their job to exercise oversight over these agencies to ensure there is minimal fraud and waste. Scientists are not entitled to federal funding any more than farmers or highways.

My point is simply that what political leaders seek to do—what good government seeks to do—is make the lives of citizens better.  Social phenomena are central to the quality of our lives.  Thus we gain from funding the disciplines that illuminate those phenomena.

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