Constructivism in the world of Dragons

Here is an analysis of Game of Thrones from a realist international relations perspective. Inevitably, here is the response from a constructivist angle. These are supposed to be fun so I approached them with a light heart and popcorn. But halfway through the second article I actually felt sick to my stomach. I am not exaggerating, and it wasn’t the popcorn – seeing the same ‘arguments’ between realists and constructivists rehearsed in this new setting, the same lame responses to the same lame points, the same ‘debate’ where nobody ever changes their mind, the same dreaded confluence of normative, theoretical, and empirical notions that plagues this never-ending exchange in the real (sorry, socially constructed) world, all that really gave me a physical pain. I felt entrapped – even in this fantasy world there was no escape from the Realist and the Constructivist. The Seven Kingdoms were infected by the triviality of our IR theories. The magic of their world was desecrated. Forever….

Nothing wrong with the particular analyses. But precisely because they manage to be good examples of the genres they imitate the bad taste in my mouth felt so real. So is it about interests or norms? Oh no. Is it real politik or the slow construction of a common moral order? Do leader disregard the common folk to their own peril? Oh, please stop. How do norms construct identities? Noooo moooore. Send the Dragons!!!

By the way, just one example of how George R.R. Martin can explain a difficult political idea better than an entire conference of realists and constructivists. Why do powerful people keep their promises? Is it ’cause their norms make them do it or because it is in their interests or whatever? Why do Lannisters always pay their debts even though they appear to be some the meanest self-centered characterless in the entire world of Game of Thrones?  We literally see the answer when Tyrion Lannister tries to escape from the sky cells, and the Lannister’s reputation for paying their debts is the only thing that saves him, the only thing he has left to pay Mord, but it is enough (see episode 1.6). Having a reputation for paying your debts is one of the greatest assets you can have in every world. And it is worth all the pennies you pay to preserve it even when you can actually get away with not honoring your commitments. It could not matter less if you call this interest-based or norm-based explanation: it just clicks, but it takes creativity and insight to convey the point, not impotent meta-theoretical disputes.

The International Journal of Indexing

This just needs to be re-posted [from Kottke]:

[F]or the Society of Indexers, book indices are a topic that holds endless fascination. And I do mean endless.

The Prime Minister of England wrote to the Society of Indexers at the society’s founding back in freaking 1958.

“I can scarcely conceal from you the fact that I am at present somewhat occupied with other matters, so that I cannot say all that comes into my mind and memory on the subject of indexing.” 

One of the longest running features of the society’s publication, The Indexer, is its reviews of indices which are snippets culled from book reviews that pertain to the book’s index… They also regularly publish articles that meditate on what it means to be an indexdefend indexing, and a look at the history of indexing societies.

These guys should definitely be invited to the World Congress on Referencing Styles.

Science is like sex…

‘Science is like sex – it might have practical consequences but that’s not why you do it!’

This seems to be a modified version of a quote by the physicist Richard Feynman that I heard last week at a meeting organized by the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (the major research funding agency in the Netherlands). It kind of sums up the attitudes of natural scientists to the increasing pressures all researchers face to justify their grant applications in terms of the possible practical use (utilization, or valorization) of their research results. Which is totally fine by me. I perfectly understand that it is impossible to anticipate all the possible future practical consequences of fundmental research. On the other hand, I see no harm in forcing researchers to, at the very least, think about the possible real-world applications of their work. The current equilibrium  in which reflection on possible practical applications is required, but ‘utilization’ is neither necessary nor sufficient for getting a grant, seems like a good compromise.
Of course, I come from a field (public administration) where demonstrating the scientific contribution is usually more difficult than showing the practical applicability of the results: so my view might be biased. I am not even sure what fundamental research in the social sciences looks like. Even rather esoteric work on non-cooperative game theory has been directly spurred by practical concerns related to the Cold War (and sponsored by the RAND corporation) and has rather directly led to the design of real-world social instituions (like the networks for kidney exchange) which won Al Roth his recent Nobel prize.

Hedging the bets: The US election outcome in the Dutch press

This is a guest post by Markus Haverland, Professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam and author of a recent book on research methods.
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Causal knowledge about the world proceeds by testing hypotheses. The context of discovery precedes the context of justification. We all know that journalists and pundits often do it the other way around: providing for an explanation after the fact.

A particularly hilarious example can be found in today’s issue of “Spits”, a Dutch daily newspaper. Anticipating that the result of the elections for the president of the US would arrive after the newspapers went to press, the newspaper prepared for both situations. It has turned the backpage into a second frontpage. Depending on the results the reader is advised to either read the frontpage or the backpage. On both pages the well-known  Dutch journalists, a former correspondent in Washington, Charles Groenhuijsen analyses the results. On the “Obama wins” page he explains that it was evident that Obama would win, because he is a better campaigner and Romney’s economic program is inconsistent. On the “Romney  wins”  page he explains this outcome, by stating that, ultimately, the US is a conservative country, that voters were afraid of a turn to the left, laws against gun possession, and tolerance towards gay marriage, and that voters thought he was not effectively dealing with the economic crisis.

Proposal for A World Congress on Referencing Styles

I have been busy over the last few days correcting proofs for two forthcoming articles. One of the journals accepts neither footnotes nor endnotes so I had to find place in the text for the >20 footnotes I had. As usual, most of these footnotes result directly from the review process so getting rid of them is not an option even if many are of marginal significance. The second journal accepts only footnotes – no in-text referencing at all – so I had to rework all the referencing into footnotes. Both journals demanded that I provide missing places of publication for books and missing page numbers for articles. Ah, the joys of academic work!

But seriously… How is it possible that a researcher working in the XXI century still has to spend his/her time changing commas into semicolons and abbreviating author names to conform to the style of a particular journal? I just don’t get it. I am all for referencing and beautifully-formatted bibliographies but can’t we all agree on one single style? Does it really matter if the years of a publication are put in brackets or not? Who cares if the first name of the author follows the family name or the other way round? Do we really need to know the place of publication of a book? Where do you actually look for this information? Is it Thousand Oaks, London, or New Delhi? All three appear on the back of a random SAGE book I picked from the shelf… Who would ever need to know whether it was Thousand Oaks or London in the first place? Maybe libraries, but they certainly don’t get their data from my references. Obviously, the current referencing system is a relic from very different and distant times when knowing the publishing place was necessary to get access to the book. Now, collecting and providing this information is a waste of time and space.

And yes, I have heard of Endnote and BibTeX, and I do use reference management software. But most journals still don’t have their required styles available for import into these programs. So the publisher doesn’t find it necessary to hire somebody for a few hours to prepare an official Endnote style sheet for the journal, but it demands from all authors to spend days in order to rework their references to conform to its rules?!

And why are there different referencing styles anyways? Can you imagine the discussions that journal editors and publishers have before they settle for a particular referencing style?

- Herr Professor, I must insist that we require journal names to be in italics!
- That’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard – everybody knows that journal names are supposed to be in bold, not in italics!
- But gentlemen, research by our esteemed colleagues in psychology has shown that journal names put in a regular font and encircled by commas are perceived as 3% more reliable than others.
- Nonsense! I demand that journal names are underlined and every second one in the list should be abbreviated as well.

And so on and so forth… To remedy the situation I boldly propose a World Congress on Referencing Styles. All the academic disciplines and publishers will send delegates to resolve this perennial problem once and for all. There will be panels like Page Numbers: Preceded by a Comma, a Colon, or a Dash, and seminars on topics like Recent Trends in Abbreviating Author Names. No doubt several months of deliberation will be needed, but eventually the two main ‘Chicago’ and ‘Harvard’ parties will reach a compromise which will be endorsed by the United Nations amid the ovations of the world leaders. The academic universe would never be the same again!

Until that day, happy referencing to you all!

Google tries to find the funniest videos

Following my recent post on the project which tries to explain why some video clips go viral, here is a report on Google’s efforts to find the funniest videos:

You’d think the reasons for something being funny were beyond the reach of science – but Google’s brain-box researchers have managed to come up with a formula for working out which YouTube video clips are the funniest.

The Google researcher behind the project is quoted saying:

‘If a user uses an “loooooool” vs an “loool”, does it mean they were more amused? We designed features to quantify the degree of emphasis on words associated with amusement in viewer comments.’

Other factors taken into account are tags, descriptions, and ‘whether audible laughter can be heard in the background‘. Ultimately, the algorithm gives a ranking of the funniest videos  (with No No No No Cat on top, since you asked).

Now I usually have high respect for all things Google, but this ‘research’ at first appeared to be a total piece of junk. Of course, it turned out that it is just the way it is reported by the Daily Mail (cited above), New Scientist and countless other more or less reputable outlets.

Google’s new algorithm does not provide a normative ranking of the funniest videos ever based on some objective criteria; it is a predictive score about the video’s comedic potential. Google trained the algorithm on a bunch of videos (it’s unclear from the original source what the external ‘fun’ measure used for the training part was) in order to inductively extract features  associated with the video being funny. Based on these features, the program can then score any possible video. But these scores are not normative measures, they are predictions. So No No No No Cat is not the funniest video ever [well, it might be, it's pretty hilarious actually], it is Google’s safest bet that the video would be considered funny.

The story is worth mentioning not only because it exposes yet another case of gross misinterpretation of a scientific project in the news, but because it nicely illustrates the differences between measurement, prediction, and explanation. The newspapers have taken Google’s project to be an exercise in measurement. As explained above, the goal is actually predictive in nature. But even if the algorithm has 100% success rate in identifying potentially funny videos, that would still not count as an explanation of what makes a video funny. Just think about it – would a boring video become funny if we just put funny tags, background laughter, and plenty of  loools in the comments? Not really. In that respect Brent Coker’s approach, which I mentioned in a previous post, has real explanatory potential (although I doubt whether it has any explanatory power).

So, no need to panic, the formula for something being funny is as distant as ever.

P.S. In an ironic turn of events, now that  No No No No Cat has gone viral, Google would never know whether the algorithm was very good, or just everyone wanted to see the video Google declared the funnies ever. Ah, the joys of social science research!

No use for big data in electioneering, according to Hollywood

Over the last year two major Hollywood movies that touch upon the use of big data and sophisticated data analysis hit the big screen. Which, of course, is two more than the mean (or was that the median). Moneyball shows how crunching numbers helps win baseball games and Margin Call shows how crunching numbers helps ruin financial firms. It’s kind of fun to see Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey stare at spreadsheets and nod approvingly while being explained some statistical subtleties. But watching someone stare at somebody else’s spreadsheets quickly becomes tiresome … which probably explains why Regressing with the Stars, Dotchart Master, and America’s Next Multilevel Model haven’t yet taken over reality TV.

So I was really disappointed to see that a third 2011 movie – The Ides of March – misses a golden opportunity to show the use of big data and sophisticated analysis for winning elections. The movie revolves around the primary presidential campaign of George Clooney (pardon, Governor Mike Morris) and the dirty politics behind the scenes. But for Hollywood in 2011, electioneering is still a game of horse-trading, media spinning and good-ol’ stabs in the back. All these things about election campaigns are probably true, but I was disappointed that there were no fancy graphs plotting approval ratings and prediction market quotes, no real-time election forecasts (or nowcasts) at which  George Clooney to stare and nod approvingly, no GIS-supported campaign targeting, not even focus groups, twits, facebook pages, not to speak of google circles. Now, I have never been involved  in an election campaign but I would have guessed that some of what political scientists are doing to analyze election outcomes and the effects of various elements of election campaigns has filtered through to campaign managers. But according to The Ides of March, electioneering is still stuck in the 1990-s. Someone get Hollywood a subscription to Political Analysis.

In fact, the only difference between The Ides of March and The War Room – the 1993 documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign – is that the actors in The Ides of March wear less hideous suits. And the intern is blond (just joking). Now when I think about it, the documentary The War Room actually packs more drama and suspense than the scripted The Ides of March. Which in fact is true about the documentary Inside Job vis-a-vis Margin Call as well.

P.S. My recent movie ratings can be found here.