Lorde observes NBA game as an objective observer

Music star Lorde attended a recent Chicago Bulls game and sent these tweets while at the game:

i am at a bulls game this is so intense how does everyone in this room not have a stress ulcer

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

i am such an outsider to the world of sport but i feel very proud of all playing

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

the cheerleaders are doing synchronized movements to small pieces of drum-based instrumental music

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

in the break they rolled out a red carpet on the court and a man did some tricks with his dog

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

This presents an intriguing opportunity to compare how the average American sports fan would view things opposed to an outsider. For sports fans, it is easy to think of all they see as “natural:” the players just do what they do, the fans respond in certain ways, and the stadium experience is fairly similar across the United States. However, it is easy to forget that all of this “natural” behavior or knowledge is all learned. The whole American sports/entertainment package has a fairly set course from sports talk radio to how it is presented on television to how it is experienced live.

In her first experience at a NBA game, Lorde was simply describing what she saw. None of it is wrong and she is making “common sense” observations that might make little sense to non-fans. Why would there be a man with a dog doing tricks during the break? Why are stadium experiences in the US so intense (loud, constant videos)? Why do cheerleaders do what they do? The average sports fan may not even have good answers to these questions; those things happen because that is the way it has always happened. Of course, that is not true: sports experiences can differ widely based on contexts and history.

In this way, an outsider can bring needed perspective to a social norm many of us just take for granted. Is Lorde’s view of the NBA game more objective than those who have lots of basketball knowledge and experience?

Sociologist on how studying an extremist group led to a loss of objectivity

A retired sociologist who studied the Aryan Nation discusses how his research led to a loss of objectivity and a change of research topics:

Aho began his research in the mid-1980s with a focus on the most notorious group in Idaho, the Aryan Nation Church near Coeur d’Alene and Hayden Lake. Annual conferences were held there with people from all around the world to fight what they called the “race war.” The group, originally formed in California, was forced to relocate to Idaho due to pressure from authorities. Aho was able to interview members of the group face to face, conduct phone interviews and correspond with prison inmates who were part of the organization.

“These individuals were genuinely good, congenial folks,” said Aho. “They were very independent, married, church-going people with deep beliefs. It was only when they gathered in groups and reaffirmed each other’s prejudices that things became dangerous…

In his research, Aho tried to place himself in his subjects’ shoes. He expressed how it is important to see yourself in the other person to find mutual ground and truths that can only be obtained by using this research methodology. However, after nearly a decade of research, he felt that he was losing objectivity and only adding to the problem.

“I spent years trying to understand the people who are attracted to violence, but I began to feel like my fascination with violence made me partly responsible for it,” Aho said. “I think I lost my sociological objectivity, and thought it was time to end my efforts of trying to understanding it, and move on to other scholarly activities.”

Some candor about researching a difficult topic. Given statements by some recently that we should not “commit sociology” and refrain from looking for explanations for violence, we could just ignore such groups. But, looking for explanations is not the same as excusing or condoning behavior and may help limit violence in the future. At the same time, spending lots of time with people, whether they are good or bad, can lead to relationships and a humanizing the research subject. This may provide better data for a while as well as dignity for the research subject but can lead to the “going native” issue that anthropologists sometimes discuss. A sociologist wants to be able to remain an observer and analyst, even as they try to put themselves in the shoes of others.

It would be interesting to hear the opinions of sociologists regarding studying clearly unpopular groups like white supremacists/terrorists. Sociologists are often interested in studying disadvantaged or voiceless groups but what about groups with which they profoundly disagree?

Continuing political battles over Census data

Megan McArdle provides a reminder of the political nature of the Census:

If the Census is the key to political control, then you can expect parties to put more energy into gaming the census.  Arguably, you’re already seeing this: Republicans are now making their second attempt to defund the American Community Survey, which uses sampling to generate data between censuses.  The American Community Survey is not used for districting, but it is used for all manner of other policy purposes.

As the political fault lines harden in Congress, the battlegrounds are moving back to more hidden levers of policymaking.  There are the courts, of course: we’re now in the third decade of a mostly undeclared war to gain control of the Supreme Court and do some unelected legislating.  Data gathering and research funding are coming under fierce scrutiny.  And on the national security front, secrecy and executive orders seem to be the order of the day for whoever is in the White House.

Before you say it, no, this isn’t just Republicans.  But it’s not good on either side.  As the legislature has ceased being able to legislate, both parties almost have to resort to more undemocratic methods to achieve their goals.  The casualties, like judicial impartiality and good data for policymaking, are vastly more important than the causes for which this war is allegedly being fought.

To see more details of the recent Republican defunding attempt, see here.

Data is rarely impartial: the processes of by which it is collected, interpreted, and then used in policy can be quite political. That doesn’t mean that is has to be. Much of the grounding for social science is the idea that data can be more objectively collected and analyzed. Yet, within the realms of politics where data is often a means to victory, having a good handle on data can go a long way, as we saw in the 2012 presidential election or currently in debates among Republicans about how to handle voter data.

In the end, it will be fascinating to see how big data, from the Census to Facebook, does or does not become political. There are a couple of fault lines in this debate. First, there are people who will argue that having such data is in itself political and dangerous while the opposite side will argue that having such data is necessary to have more efficient and business government and business. This could be a debate between libertarians and others: should there even be big data in the first place? Second, there is a good number of people who like the idea of collecting and using big data but debate who should be able to benefit from the data. Can the data be used for political ends? If government should have its hands on big data, perhaps it is okay for businesses? Should individual consumers have more power or control over their contributions and participation in big data?

h/t Instapundit

Social psychologists respond to claim of liberal bias in their field

The New York Times describes a recent speech by a social psychologist arguing that liberals are underrepresented in academia. While this argument is not new to academia (the article cites several studies of recent years saying similar things), it is interesting to note how the social psychologists responded:

The fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology have long attracted liberals, but they became more exclusive after the 1960s, according to Dr. Haidt. “The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy,” he said, arguing that this shared morality both “binds and blinds.”

“If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” he said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” It’s easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace “intelligent design” while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks — violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism…

Can social scientists open up to outsiders’ ideas? Dr. Haidt was optimistic enough to title his speech “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology,” urging his colleagues to focus on shared science rather than shared moral values. To overcome taboos, he advised them to subscribe to National Review and to read Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions.”

For a tribal-moral community, the social psychologists in Dr. Haidt’s audience seemed refreshingly receptive to his argument. Some said he overstated how liberal the field is, but many agreed it should welcome more ideological diversity. A few even endorsed his call for a new affirmative-action goal: a membership that’s 10 percent conservative by 2020. The society’s executive committee didn’t endorse Dr. Haidt’s numerical goal, but it did vote to put a statement on the group’s home page welcoming psychologists with “diverse perspectives.” It also made a change on the “Diversity Initiatives” page — a two-letter correction of what it called a grammatical glitch, although others might see it as more of a Freudian slip.

In the old version, the society announced that special funds to pay for travel to the annual meeting were available to students belonging to “underrepresented groups (i.e., ethnic or racial minorities, first-generation college students, individuals with a physical disability, and/or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered students).”

As Dr. Haidt noted in his speech, the “i.e.” implied that this was the exclusive, sacred list of “underrepresented groups.” The society took his suggestion to substitute “e.g.” — a change that leaves it open to other groups, too. Maybe, someday, even to conservatives.

Several questions come to mind:

1. What will social psychologists do about this in the long run? It’s not surprising that the executive committee didn’t support the 10% by 2020 plan but what will they actively do to promote conservative involvement in this discipline?

2. How will the response to this within academia differ from the response outside of academia, particularly among groups who consistently already make noise about academics being too liberal?

3. In the long run, does this liberal bias mean that all or most of research within this field (and others) is not objective or true?