Archive for October 2010
Last night, thanks to a productive procrastination binge, I finally got around to watching this documentary about data visualizations in journalism. It’s nice to see data journalism getting some attention, but I also hope that the shiny side of the field doesn’t eclipse writing and analysis.
Even the best visualizations can’t represent more than two or three variables. To analyze most complex problems, we need to discuss data that we can’t imagine in 3D. One of the things I’m trying to wrap my head around is how to bring real regression analysis, or at least some knowledge of statistical significance, into journalism. If we really want to use the avalanche of information that is hitting the web, we need to communicate better about statistics and statistical methods.
Interactive visualizations are supposed to replace old-fashioned, static infographics. Today, most writing about statistics is equivalent to the bar charts of old. You know: This number is bigger than that number; some other indicator is going up. Let’s take for granted that the difference isn’t random. Don’t worry your pretty little heads about selection bias. You don’t need to know how or why this survey was conducted. Let’s imply that any two studies with competing conclusions cancel each other out. And on and on and on. It’s time for a new model.
(h/t to kottke)
This is related to another question, namely, why anyone votes at all. The chance that your vote will alter the outcome of an election is extremely small, which makes the marginal benefit of that trip to the polls effectively zero. This piece suggests that if you care about social good in general, your payoff is very high in the unlikely event that your vote is pivotal. I think this argument is complicated by the relative similarity of front-running candidates, among other things. As far as I can tell, I vote for some sort of emotional and social return.
Strategic votes express a preference for some second- or third-best candidate. They are, on some level, an attempt to increase the marginal impact of a vote. But their effect is still very close to zero, and in my experience, voting strategically doesn’t bring anyone much joy. And yet we continue to do it. In fact, in the aggregate, strategic voters can be pivotal. In Toronto’s despair-inducing mayoral campaign, every other candidate is scrambling to collect votes from the otherwise disenchanted anyone-but-Rob-Ford contingent.
A few years ago, I vowed that I would never cast another strategic vote. This has made voting more fun, but in some ways it’s similar to Gordon Tullock’s decision not to vote at all. (That’s a reference to the first link.)
On a trial basis, I’m going to post some links on gender and economics without (much) comment. Let me know if you find them useful or interesting.
Frances Woolley calls out Steven Levitt on Emily Oster’s gender balance research. A good summary, though I find her conclusion a bit unreasonable.
Via Economix, US women are leaving the financial services industry; it’s not clear why.
In US graduate schools, women are in the majority in most fields. Between 1999 and 2009, they caught up somewhat in engineering, business, education and a few other fields. (But not math.) To comment briefly: This is a pretty imperfect metric for occupational achievement. Graduate school, especially at lower-tier universities, isn’t a guaranteed job, and in many cases it’s a backup when good jobs aren’t available.
Mothers seem more likely than fathers to pass on resources to their children. Why?
I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about online activism. I find the social media expert industrial complex pretty obnoxious, and like Gladwell, I don’t think the micro-donations and “awareness raising” that characterize most online activism can challenge the status quo. But this piece, like so much old media coverage of new media, is lazy and dumb.
(Note: I wrote this before reading other commentary online. That was lazy and dumb of me. Alex Madrigal has made similar points, better than I ever could, here.)
One of Gladwell’s main arguments is that real-life activism is based on “strong ties,” while social media enables “weak ties.” (I’m breaking out the scare quotes to remind myself, as much as anyone else, that Gladwell has an unnerving ability to make a concept feel true just by labelling it. For a good takedown of this concept, check out this post, via Madrigal.)
This ignores the strong ties that are reinforced online. But in my experience, Twitter is also a tool that can turn weak ties into strong ties. And while it isn’t automatic, social media is particularly suited to creating friendships across traditional social divides like age, class, and race.
A couple years ago, most of my time was spent with other students and high school friends. The folks I followed on Twitter were ex-colleagues, casual friends, and strangers. But all of that communication has bred intimacy, and lead to more face time. The divide between online and offline relationships is increasingly fuzzy, and as a result, I interact with a broader group of people.
Gladwell doesn’t account for this because, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t bothered exploring or even thinking deeply about social media. At one point, he sets up Wikipedia in opposition to hierarchical offline activist groups. The implication is that all online networks are leaderless and chaotic. The thing is that Wikipedia has both a leadership structure and institutionalized structures for dispute resolution. There isn’t one editor who reads every entry, but there is definitely one guy with final say on strategic direction. And yet we get nonsense like this:
If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure.
There’s no such thing as a “wiki-boycott”—it’s just a funny combination of words, a diminishing shorthand for all online organizing. The internet, apparently, is the one thing the New Yorker is allowed to be inaccurate about. And that’s too bad, because whether the revolution is tweeted or not, I’d hate to see it missed by the world’s best magazine.