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Month: October 2011

The decline of the death penalty

I just finished reading ‘The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence’ (link, link to book’s website) by Frank Baumgartner, Suzana De Boef and Amber Boydstun. It is a fine study of the rise of the ‘innocence’ frame and the decline of the use of capital punishment in the US (I have recently posted about the death penalty). The book has received well-deserved praise from several academic corners (list of reviews here). In this post I want to focus on several issues that, in my opinion, deserve further discussion. One of the major contributions of the book is methodological. The systematic study of policy frames (‘discourse’ is a related concept that seems to be getting out of fashion) is in many ways the holy grail of policy analysis – while we all intuitively feel that words and arguments and ideas matter more than standard models of collective decision making allow, it is quite tricky to demonstrate when and how these words and arguments and ideas matter. Policy frame analysis became something of a hype during the late 1970s and the 1980s, but it delivered less than it promised, so people started to look away (as this Google Ngram shows). Baumgartner, De Boef and Boydstun have produced a book with the potential to re-invigorate research into the impact of policy frames. So far, the usual way to analyze quantitatively policy frames has been to count the number of newspaper articles on a topic, measure their tone (pro/anti) and classify the arguments into some predefined clusters (the frames). This is what the authors do with respect…

Inspiring scientific concepts

EDGE asks 159 selected intellectuals What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? You are welcome to read the individual contributions which range from a paragraph to a short essay here. Many of the entries are truly inspiring but I see little synergy of bringing 159 of them together. Like in a group photo of beauty pageant contenders, the total appeal of the group photo is less than sum of the individual attractiveness of its subjects. But to my point: It is remarkable that so many of the answers (on my count, in excess of 30) deal, more or less directly, with causal inference. What is even more remarkable is that most of the concepts and ideas about causal inference mentioned by the worlds’ intellectual jet-set (no offense to those left out) are anything but new. Many of the ideas can be traced back to Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) and Ronald Fisher’s The Design of Experiments (1935). So what is most remarkable of all is how long it takes for these ideas to sink-in and diffuse in society. Several posts focus on the Popperian requirement for falsifiability (Howard Gardner, Tania Lombrozo) and skeptical empiricism more generally (Gerald Holton). The scientific method is further evoked by Richard Dawkins on the double-blind control experiment (see also Roger Schank), Brian Knutson on replicability, and Kevin Kelly the virtues of negative results. Mark Henderson advocates the use of the scientific method outside science (e.g. policy) – a plea that strikes a chord with this…

Texas vs. Science

This is from the Guardian: Officials in Rick Perry’s home state of Texas have set off a scientists’ revolt after purging mentions of climate change and sea-level rise from what was supposed to be a landmark environmental report. The scientists said they were disowning the report on the state of Galveston Bay because of political interference and censorship from Perry appointees at the state’s environmental agency. More details here. The public officials changed any reference to climate change, sea level rises, human influence and global warming form the draft report. In response, all scientists associated with the report withdrew their names from it. I guess that last bit is the good news. The bad news is that politicisation of science is no news anymore.

Creative bureaucracy?

Searching for blogs about the study of bureaucracy, I came across the intriguingly-titled: “Creative Bureaucracy“.  That got me excited – we badly need more info about the creative side of bureaucracies. My enthusiasm quickly disappeared, however, after noting that the blog had two posts for the last three years. I guess, bureaucracies are not that creative after all 😉  

The ‘Nobel’ prize for Economics, VAR and Political Science

Yesterday the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel  was awarded to the economists Thomas J. Sargent and Christopher A. Sims “for their empirical research on cause and effect in the macroeconomy” (press-release here, Tyler Cowen presented the laureates here and here). The award for Christopher Sims in particular comes for the development of vector autoregression  – a method for analyzing ‘how the economy is affected by temporary changes in economic policy and other factors’. In fact, the application of vector autoregression (VAR) is not confined to economics and can be used for the analysis of any dynamic relationships. Unfortunately, despite being developed back in the 1970s, VAR remains somewhat unpopular in political science and public administration (as I learned the hard way trying to publish an analysis that uses VAR to explore the relationship between public opinion and policy output in the EU over time). A quick-and-dirty search for ‘VAR’/’vector autoregression’ in Web of Science [1980-2011] returns 1810 hits under the category Economics and only 52 under Political Science (of which 23 are also filed under Economics). This is the distribution over the last decades: Time period – Econ/ PolSci 1980-1989 –   13/1 1990-1999 – 406/15 2000-2011 – 1391/36 With all the disclaimers that go with using Web of Science as a data source, the discrepancy is clear. It remains to be seen whether the Nobel prize for Sims will serve to popularize VAR outside the field of economics.

The present and the future of academic publishing

Academic publishing remains one of the most mysterious industries to me even after being caught in its web for a while. I have found no better presentation of the idiocy of the whole system than this video: more here Unfortunately, recent development (at least in social science journals) do not make me very hopeful about the future. Economic journal are abandoning double-blind review (see for example here) and Political Analysis, which prides itself to be the number one political science journal, recently announced that it will do the same (there does not seem to be an official announcement yet on the site of the journal). According to the new policy, the identity of authors would be revealed to the reviewers (who remain anonymous). The main argument for doing so is that in many cases the reviewers can guess the authors anyways. It is puzzling that economists and analytical political scientists of all people would fall for this argument – even if many reviewers can guess/google the identity of the authors, double-blind review is still a Pareto improvement over single-blind review: while it may not work in all cases, it doesn’t hurt in any. I would rather encourage more accountability on the side of the reviewers. Anonymous or not, manuscript reviews should be public documents. Why not attach them to the digital copies of the articles when published (or even better, when rejected)? I can see no harm in making the reviews publicly available by default.  Instead, after serving as a reviewer…