Mistaking Beauty for Truth

November 13, 2009

Peter Klein agrees with Paul Krugman that economists have mistaken beauty for truth, but disagrees that it has anything to do with the financial crisis so he won’t be signing the Hodgson petition.

Also at the Organizations and Markets blog, Nicolai Foss discusses a special journal issue entitled “Economic Models as Credible Worlds or as Isolating Tools?”

Speaking of models and truth and beauty, I found Murray Gell-Mann’s TED Talk fascinating.  He argues that in physics, a beautiful theory is more likely to be true.  This makes me a little nervous.  I would be especially worried about using this heuristic in the social sciences because the objects we are studying are complex, and have so much meaning to us that our aesthetic sense is more likely to attach to theories for reasons other than truth.  Truth may be beautiful, but so are our cognitive biases and ideologies.

Forced to Defend Rational Choice Theory

November 10, 2009

I’m finally responding to Eli Thorkelson, who asked for my comments on an article by feminist economist Julie Nelson.  The article is a critique of rational choice theory (RCT) and I think it has some omissions and misleading claims.

I regularly come across particular instances of rational choice theorizing that I dislike, but non-economists, including sociologists, often dismiss rational choice theory without understanding it, so when the topic comes up among non-economists, I almost inevitably find myself defending it.  My claim is that rational choice theory, broadly construed, is an important, though certainly not the only, useful framework for understanding human behavior.  This should be considered an utterly boring claim.  What is interesting is how any social scientist could deny it… Read the rest of this entry »

homophily in sexual networks

November 10, 2009

Today in my social networks class, we covered Bearman, Moody and Stovel’s 2004 AJS paper. Virtually every time i have heard that paper presented (by Peter or Jim, i’ve never actually met Stovel in person), and the couple of times i’ve talked about it in class, some variant of the following has been part of that discussion:

So, we know that there are any number of factors on which homophily operates in the formation of social networks in general. And in the particular case of romantic networks, the story’s much the same. However, there is one particular trait on which homophily is a much more robust predictor of a relationship than any others. Any guesses what that might be?

At which point the audience guesses a long list of traits, and virtually never hits #1 on the head (my class today got it on about guess 14, when i made it multiple choice from about 15 options). So, i pose the question to you, fair reader. What do you think it is?* If you’ve read the footnotes/appendices to the paper closely you can likely guess, but i’m not sure whether its actually explicitly stated anywhere in that particular paper or not.

*If no one gets it, i’ll post the answer in the comments in a day or two.

Suggestions for a Snappy Blog Subtitle/Slogan?

November 5, 2009

Please leave suggestions in the comments.  I would offer some of the ones Matt and I have considered, but research on brainstorming suggests that more unique ideas are generated if individuals try to come up with them independently before sharing them.

In case you haven’t noticed…

November 5, 2009

Fabio over on orgtheory is asking what Mathematical Sociology has done for the discipline lately:

Here’s a question: what are the main contributions of mathematical sociology? Although I’ve published a little bit on the topic, I don’t know things deeply enough to provide examples. So I am asking our friends at Permutations (and our readers) to provide examples.

Seems like he’s calling us out. So what do we think?

Isolated (or not) on the internet

November 5, 2009

A few years ago it came out that western civilization was doomed. Well, not really, but that’s the impression you might have gotten from the coverage of an article that Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and I published that suggested that American discussion networks were shrinking. Needless to say, we didn’t intend to give the impression that western culture was crumbling, but doomsaying can be amazingly difficult to quash once it gets started.
Read the rest of this entry »

Which Mathematics to Teach?

November 4, 2009

In 2002, Paul Lockhart wrote an article about the state of mathematics education called A Mathematician’s Lament.  Lockhart argues passionately that what children are typically taught is neither useful nor interesting.  He believes children would get far more from emulating what mathematicians actually do, unstructured mathematical exploration and proofs.  One of the problems, Lockhart acknowledges, is that many math teachers don’t understand or appreciate what he calls “real math,” leaving them unable to teach it.  While I agree we need to improve our math teaching, and I agree that exposing many more children to “real math” is a good idea, I think Lockhart is at once too optimistic and too pessimistic. Read the rest of this entry »

pardon my self indulgence

November 4, 2009

While i think up to now we were still trying to sort out how this venture might go, there’s no turning back now that we’ve been linked over on OrgTheory. Not for the next week or so anyway. And given Kieran’s link i think i am going to try to take advantage of the impending/underway OrgTheory bump.

i’m currently teaching an undergrad social networks class. And following discussions with my chair, i may be doing so most semesters for the foreseeable future. This is a good thing. However i am taking a slightly different tack on it than most SN courses i’ve seen previously, so i am actively tweaking it as i go, and know it could definitely benefit from others’ input. Read the rest of this entry »

Claude Levi Strauss est mort*

November 3, 2009

Story here

*The title was the entirety of the first message i saw releasing this news ~30 minutes ago. I’ve since already seen it come through a handful of other channels.

Performativity and Models (barely scratching the surface)

November 1, 2009

Andrei Boutyline mentions something important in the comments to the Krugman on Modeling post.

“…another line of criticism of formal models should be mentioned too: the performativity thesis. I am not sure I can do it justice, but as far as I understand the performativity thesis, it claims that, if powerful enough actors adopt certain simplifying models of understanding the world, the modeled actors will modify their behavior to better fit the model. The clearest example of thesis I’ve encountered is with the introduction of rankings of law schools (here, I may be wrecking an argument of Wendy Espland’s). The rankings intended to capture the criteria of law schools that the schools valued, but had to make simplifying assumptions to focus on common quantifiable elements. This had the effect of creating a strong incentive for schools to focus on specifically those areas–eventually at the cost of the unquantified ones. So, the introduction of simplifying (in this case, not into policy but into incentive structures) had the effect of transforming the world. I think this may be a better depiction of what Krugman’s “humanists” actually fear about these models.

The concept of performativity is a can of worms, but it needed to be brought up, even if I can’t say everything that needs to be said about it in one blog post.  There is much to like about Espland’s article, academic rankings are fine example of how something “intended” to describe the world, can change it.  Interestingly, widespread knowledge or use of a mathematical model, or an individual’s overconfidence in a model, can make the model more accurate, or make it less accurate, or both in different ways depending on the context.  But all this is true of ideas that are less formal than mathematical models.  In fact, academic rankings are not a mathematical model in the sense that Krugman or I am talking about.  Perhaps people using mathematical or statistical models are more prone to overconfidence, but I’m not sure…

A discussion of this topic with economists requires mention of Keynesian beauty contests, and the Lucas Critique.  The former is used to help explain bubbles.  The latter is used to argue that macroeconomic models require microfoundations, in other words, more (not less) formal mathematical modeling, to complement and combine with statistical analysis.

Of course, sociologists have been thinking along these lines long before performativity became a popular buzzword.  As W.I. Thomas said, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”


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