Bill McKibben was a major force behind the Climate March

Here’s an article profiling one of the leaders of the September 2014 Climate March. Bill McKibben is a journalist and environmental activist whose career spans more than three decades.

Bill McKibben wrote the first big book about global warming, a work he hoped would startle the world like a fire alarm. But the planet just kept on hurtling toward an overheated doom, he noticed. So twenty-five years later, he’s come up with a shriller, more literal strategy for reform: actual alarms.

McKibben is also the creator of the website, which is must reading for anybody interested in environmental news and activism. (The 350 stands for the levels of atmospheric CO2 gas (measured in parts-per-million (ppm)) aove which climate scientists believe puts the global climate in serious peril. Another good resource is McKibben’s personal website.

Finally, here’s an interview with Bill Moyers, in which McKibben urges US President Barack Obama (the leader of the world’s greatest historical emitter of GHGs) to “say no to big oil.”

Climate of Doubt–Example of a QIP

Before heading off into the Vancouver evening last week, we watched the first half of the PBS documentary, Climate of Doubt, which examined the manner in which a coalition of powerful moneyed interests, in alliance with like-minded citizens’ groups and (mostly) Republican politicians was able to successfully stymie US congressional efforts to address some of the potential negative consequences of a warming planet.

The documentary takes us through a case of public opinion formation that fits Charles Lindblom’s definition of circularity perfectly. According to Lindblom, government policies that reflect the will of the general public may nonetheless be considered undemocratic if those opinions are formed as the result of undue influence by powerful interest groups and large corporations (read: Exxon Mobil). I have embedded the documentary below, so please watch the remainder. I’ll also use my first post of the semester to provide an example of the what a suitable QIP might look like (after the fold).

Continue reading “Climate of Doubt–Example of a QIP”

Joseph Chan on Confucianism and Democracy

In IS210 today, we viewed a short clip from this interesting lecture by Professor Joseph Chan given at Cornell University. Professor Chan of the University of Hong Kong talks about the shared moral basis of contemporary Chinese society. With Leninism/Marxism/Maoism being discredited amongst most Chinese, the search begins for a new moral basis/foundation for society.

As Professor Dick Miller says in his introductory remarks:

In China, as in the United States, people feel a great need for an adequate, shared, ethical basis for public life. There, as here, people don’t think that freedom to get as rich as you can is an adequate basis.

So, what is that basis, if the official ruling ideology of the political regime no longer seems legitimate. Liberal democracy? Confucianism. There are adherents in China of both of these as the proper ethical foundation. What does Professor Chan have to say about the compatibility of Confucian ideals with democracy? Watch and find out. It’s a very informative lecture.

Maybe there’s a use for Pie Charts, after all.

Pie charts have been justifiably criticized for one very important reason (and many less important reasons: pie charts are bad at “the one thing they’re ostensibly designed to do,” and that is to show the relationship of parts of the whole.  Check out this site for some egregious examples of failing to represent one’s data clearly.

A student of mine in IS240 (Intro to Research Methods in Intl. Studies) may have unknowingly redeemed the besmirched reputation of the pie chart. The upshot, though, is that she was using the pie chart (along with some clever colour manipulation) to compare results across pie charts, not within.
Here are three pie charts, depicting the answers to a question in the World Values Survey that taps into the concept of homophobia. The potential response set for this question was ordinal in nature, ranging from 0 to 10, with 1 representing the most homophobic response, and 10 the least. Using a colour ramp, this student produced the pie charts you can see below. Essentially, the charts are easy to compare across countries: the more red you see, the more homophobic the responses to that question!
Very nicely done! The R-code to produce these is below. You’ll need v202 and v2 of the World Values Surveys in a data frame (which we have called four.df):
Here is the R code to produce three separate PDF files, one with each chart:

for (i in 1:3) {
+ pie(table(factor(four.df$v202[four.df$v2==names[i]])),col=piecolor(10), main=Cnames[i])
+ }

More on Qualitative Research Analysis

50-foot Jesus statue in front of an abortion clinic

In IS240 on Monday we looked at some of the characteristics of  qualitative research methods. such as i) it is inductive, ii) normally interpretivist, and iii)  qualitative researchers view constructionist ontological viewpoints.  A final characteristic of most qualitative research is that its approach is naturalistic. As the textbook notes:

…qualitative researchers try to minimize the disturbance they cause to the social worlds they study.

We can see the nature of this quality implicitly teased out by Lori Freedman, who discusses some of the research she did for her Master’s degree. Freedman writes about the relationship between abortion and religion (it’s not what you’re expecting) and the time she spent observing in a hospital that performed abortions. Here’s the part related to her research methods:

Claudia [a deeply religious Catholic woman who was having an abortion–JD] told me this story 13 years ago, while I was conducting ethnographic research as a participant-observer in a hospital-based abortion service. I spent considerable time there helping, observing, and intermittently conducting as many interviews as I could with counselors, doctors, and nurses, in order to gain a rich view of abortion clinic life. This study became my master’s thesis, but nothing else. I feared publication might amount to a gratuitous exposé of people I respected dearly. I couldn’t think of any policy or academic imperative that necessitated revealing the intimate dynamics of this particular social world—certainly nothing that could make the potential feelings of betrayal worthwhile. Ultimately, I just tucked it away.


Field Experiments in the Social Sciences–Health Outcomes

One of the more well-known examples of a field experiment in the social sciences is Esther Duflo’s experiment on the usage of mosquito bed nets. Duflo argues that there has been much debate about the effects and efficiency of aid in less-developed countries.

Regarding the bed nets issue, it is well understood that sleeping under a mosquito bed-net in malaria-ravaged regions greatly decreases the chances of contracting malaria. Bed nets are cheap to make and distribute (about $10 US per net), so it’s a relatively efficient way to prevent people (particularly young children) from dying from one of the world’s most deadly diseases. So, why not just give bed nets to those wanting/needing them? Duflo discusses some reasons for and against. Indeed, there are many good reasons a prior to support both the view that bed nets should be given away and that people should be forced to pay for them. There are other issues as well, which you can learn about from the video.

Randomization in a Field Experiment
Randomization in a Field Experiment

For this post, what is most crucial is that prior to Duflo (and her colleagues’) field experiments, there was no empirical evidence as to what the best approach to dealing with the bed-nets issue was. Following these field experiments, we have the first concrete empirical data to adjudicate amongst the approaches. In order to guarantee the internal validity of these experiments, however, the researchers had to be careful about ensuring randomization. Remember, random does not mean haphazard. The word has a specific meaning, which we’ll discuss next week. The image above is a screenshot from Duflo’s TED talk, showing the result (but not the method of) randomization in one experiment. How is randomization important for both internal and external validity?

Resources for First Paper (IS 210)–Risk Assessment

World Map of The Failed States  Index for 2013
World Map of The Failed States Index for 2013

Here are some data resources that may be helpful to you while researching and writing your first paper assignment.

Clouds, Clocks, and Sitting at Tables

Here are some data resources that may be helpful to you while researching and writing your first paper assignment. I’ll be showing you how to use/access some of these sources in class on Thursday, September 23rd.

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Statistics, GDP, HDI, and the Social Progress Index

That’s quite a comprehensive title to this post, isn’t it? A more serious social scientist would have prefaced the title with some cryptic phrase ending with a colon, and then added the information-possessing title. So, why don’t I do that. What about “Nibbling on Figs in an Octopus’ Garden: Explanation, Statistics, GDP, Democracy, and the Social Progress Index?” That sounds social ‘sciencey’ enough, I think.

Now, to get to the point of this post: one of the most important research topics in international studies is human welfare, or well-being. Before we can compare human welfare cross-nationally, we have to begin with a definition (which will guide the data-collecting process). What is human welfare? There is obviously some global consensus as to what that means, but there are differences of opinion as to how exactly human welfare should be measured. (In IS210, we’ll examine these issues right after the reading break.) For much of the last seven decades or so, social scientists have used economic data (particularly Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita as a measure of a country’s overall level of human welfare. But GDP measures have been supplemented by other factors over the years with the view that they leave out important components of human welfare. The UN’s Human Development Index is a noteworthy example. A more recent contribution to this endeavour is the Social Progress Index (SPI) produced by the Social Progress Imperative.

HDI–Map of the World (2013)

How much better, though, are these measures than GDP alone? Wait until my next post for answer. But, in the meantime, we’ll look at how “different” the HDI and the SPI are. First, what are the components of the HDI?

“The Human Development Index (HDI) measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.”

So, you can see that it goes beyond simple GDP, but don’t you have the sense that many of the indicators–such as a long and healthy life–are associated with GDP? And there’s the problem of endogeneity–what causes what?

The SPI is a recent attempt to look at human welfare even more comprehensively, Here is a screenshot showing the various components of that index:

Screen shot 2014-01-23 at 2.17.50 PMWe can see that there are some components–personal rights, equity and inclusion, access to basic knowledge, etc.,–that are absent from the HDI. Is this a better measure of human well-being than the HDI, or GDP alone? What do you think?

How much does political culture explain?

For decades now, comparativists have debated the usefulness of cultural explanations of political phenomena. In their path-breaking book, The Civic Culture, Almond and Verba argued that there was a relationship between, what they called, a country’s political culture and the nature and quality of democracy. (In fact, the relationship is a bit more complex in that the believed that a country’s political culture mediated the link between individual attitudes and the political system.) Moreover, the political culture was itself a product of underlying and enduring socially cultural factors, such as either an emphasis on the family, bias towards individualism, etc. Although Almond and Verba studied only five countries–the United States, West Germany, Mexico, Italy, and the United Kingdom–they suggested that the results could be generalized to (all) other countries.

How much, however, does culture explain? Can it explain why some countries have strong economies? Or why some countries have strong democracies? We know that cultural traits and values are relatively enduring, so how can we account for change? We know that a constant can not explain a variable.

The 1963 Cover of Almond and Verba's classic work.

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Professor Stephen L. Sass asks whether China can innovate its way to technological and economic dominance over the United States. There is much consternation in the United States over recent standardized test scores showing US students doing poorly, relative to their global peers, on science exams. (How have Canadian students been faring?)

Professor Sass answers his own question in the negative. Why, in his estimation, will China not innovate to the top? In a word (well, actually two words)–political culture:

Free societies encourage people to be skeptical and ask critical questions. When I was teaching at a university in Beijing in 2009, my students acknowledged that I frequently asked if they had any questions — and that they rarely did. After my last lecture, at their insistence, we discussed the reasons for their reticence.

Several students pointed out that, from childhood, they were not encouraged to ask questions. I knew that the Cultural Revolution had upturned higher education — and intellectual inquiry generally — during their parents’ lifetimes, but as a guest I didn’t want to get into a political discussion. Instead, I gently pointed out to my students that they were planning to be scientists, and that skepticism and critical questioning were essential for separating the wheat from the chaff in all scholarly endeavors.

Although Sass admits that there are institutional and other reasons that will also serve to limit China’s future technological innovation, he ends up affirming the primacy of political culture:

Perhaps I’m wrong that political freedom is critical for scientific innovation. As a scientist, I have to be skeptical of my own conclusions. But sometime in this still-new century, we will see the results of this unfolding experiment. At the moment, I’d still bet on America.

Do you agree? What other important political phenomena can be explained by political culture?

Television makes us do crazy things…or does it?

During our second lecture in Research Methods, when asked to provide an example of a relational statement, one student offered the following:

Playing violent video games leads to more violent inter-personal behaviour by these game-playing individuals.

That’s a great example, and we used this in class for a discussion of how we could go about testing whether this statement is true. We then surmised that watching violence on television may have similar effects, though watching is more passive than “playing”, so there may not be as great an effect.

If television viewing can cause changes in our behaviour that are not socially productive, can it also lead viewers to change their behaviour in a positive manner? There’s evidence to suggest that this may be true. In a recent study, 

there is evidence to suggest that watching MTV’s 16 and Pregnant show is associated with lower rates of teen pregnancy. What do you think about the research study?