ICANN policy blegging

by Maria on July 3, 2006

It’s not often (well, ever) that I blog about anything directly work related. That’s because I work for an organisation that gets sued every 5 minutes, has a unique (and uniquely exposed) institutional model, deals with complex and controversial issues, and has endless stakeholders from dozens of bloggers to international organisations. That’s all by way of encouraging you to join in the fun!

[click to continue…]

Appropriate empirical evidence?

by Eszter Hargittai on July 3, 2006

An image of a man who is definitely not a college student (certainly not traditionally aged) accompanies an article called “Men Assume Sexual Interest When There May Be None” in a recent piece by a HealthDay reporter, a piece that’s been published on various Web sites. (In case of link rot, I’ve placed a screen shot here.)

In the sixth paragraph of the piece we find out that the study is based on 43 male and 43 female college students aged 18-22. That is the only part of the article where the participants are referred to as college students. Otherwise, the entire piece is about the behavior of men and women generally speaking.

There are several fields that base a good chunk of their empirical research on studies of students.* This is usually done due to convenience. And perhaps regarding some questions, age and educational level do not matter. But the issue is rarely addressed directly. In many instances it seems problematic to assume that a bunch of 20-year-olds in college are representative of the entire rest of the population. So why write it up that way then? At best, in the conclusion of a paper the authors may mention that future studies should/will (?) expand the study to a more representative sample, but these studies rarely seem to materialize.

This is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to certain types of scholarship. And I do mean scholarship. Because it is not just the journalistic reports that make the leap. The academic articles themselves use that kind of language. It is part of a larger question that’s been of interest to me for a while now: Historically, how have various fields settled on what is acceptable empirical evidence in their domain and what are the appropriate modes of analysis? Papers that get into top journals in one field wouldn’t even make it off the editor’s desk for review in another field due to the data and methods used. But then when it comes to reporting findings to the public, it all becomes one big general pool of work where the methods and the validity of the findings don’t seem to matter anymore.

[*] Note that recently I have been doing studies on college students myself. First, I have a concrete substantive reason for doing so (they are the most highly network-connected age group, which helps to control for regular use). Second, when I write up the work, I never draw huge generalizations about all users. I always report on “college students” or “study participants”. I do not simply conclude that whatever I find about college students is representative of all Internet users. It would be wrong to do so.

Philosophers and the World Cup

by Chris Bertram on July 3, 2006

Thomas Scanlon in What We Owe to Each Other:

bq. Suppose that Jones has suffered an accident in the transmitter room of a television station. Electrical equipment has fallen on his arm, and we cannot rescue him without turning off the transmitter for fifteen minutes. A World Cup match is in progress, watched by many people, and it will not be over for an hour. Jones’s injury will not get any worse if we wait, but his hand has been mashed and he is receiving extremely painful shocks. Should we rescue him now or wait until the match is over? (p. 235).

Hmm. I can see that some members of the Harvard philosophy department might act now, but as an appeal to commonly-held moral convictions, I think this one fails. (h/t Martin O’N and a few others.)

Chomsky wars

by Steven Poole on July 3, 2006

Since Noam Chomsky was voted the world’s top public intellectual last year, another backlash has been gathering force. The problem, for anyone who would like to see a substantive conversation, is that Chomsky’s critics too often mix concrete observations with wild, unfocused accusations – exactly, indeed, what they accuse Chomsky himself of doing.

Reviewing Chomsky’s new book, Failed States, in the Observer a couple of weeks ago, for example, foreign editor Peter Beamont congratulated himself on applying “a Chomskian analysis to [Chomsky’s] own writing”. Let’s see some of this Chomskian analysis:

But what I find most noxious about Chomsky’s argument is his desire to create a moral – or rather immoral – equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history. Thus on page 129, comparing a somewhat belated US conversion to the case for democracy in Iraq after the failure to find WMD, Chomsky claims: ‘Professions of benign intent by leaders should be dismissed by any rational observer. They are near universal and predictable, and hence carry virtually no information. The worst monsters – Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, Suharto, Saddam Hussein and many others – have produced moving flights of rhetoric about their nobility of purpose.’

Plainly, Chomsky’s use of the superlative “worst”, in calling Hitler, Stalin and Saddam etc “the worst monsters”, is grammatically doing the opposite of creating an “equivalence” between them and other leaders. To note uncontroversially that there is one point of comparison between all leaders – they profess benign intent – is not to assert an overarching “equivalence” between them, any more than it would be to note accurately that they are all human beings. Still, the reactionary narrative of “moral equivalence” is evidently too attractive to abandon.
[click to continue…]