The Starbucks Curse: A Research Design Thought Experiment

Originally published 13 December 2016 and then re-published following the Great Server Error of 2016,

Answering research questions is one of the hardest and most valuable skills we can impart to students. But we often do this by teaching good research design–demonstrating the ideal, illustrating it with examples of designs that approximate the ideal, and then inviting students to imagine their own ideal research designs.

There are many pedagogical benefits to this method, but it overlooks a central fact: good research design is rare for good reasons.

People, including students and faculty, live in a world in which truth-claims are supported by research designs that wouldn’t pass muster with even the most generous reviewers. We can do a much better service by pointing out how to make a bad research design.

I present one here: The Starbucks Curse.

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The Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack [Review]

Attention conservation notice: Doug Mack has written a good, short, breezy book about the territorial possessions of the United States, a topic that should help to shake conventional ideas of what the “United States” is.
(This post was originally published in February but died in the great server mistake of 2017, so I’m republishing it here.)

One of the great thrills of social science should be the constant rediscovery of the world as begging for explanation. Viewing social life as a dynamic process should prompt a constant unsettling with the superficially —a disenchantment with received wisdom and estrangement from the familiar. When we flatter ourselves, social scientists preen themselves on exactly those dimensions: interrogating this and wrestling with that.

Of course, social life being infinite, most of the time we fail at this task. Intellectual fashions provide the most obvious evidence that much of what seems to be deep engagement really arises from fads. More fundamentally, however, researchers often proceed from “stylized facts” about parts of the social world that are merely better drawn caricatures of social life than the non-specialist presents. Even if we manage to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of conventional wisdom in some particular niche, the necessity of producing a steady stream of work that engages our fellows and our blind spots about our own ignorance (compounded by the epistemic arrogance that a professional standing as an “expert” breeds).

I am at least as guilty of these tendencies as the next social scientist. There is one small region in which I am slightly less guilty than my fellows, however: I think — I hope — that I take the peculiar composite nature of the United States government a little more seriously than the average scholar of international relations. For me, the “United States” is never a unitary actor, even if its outward appearance sometimes puts such a mask over its structurally divided government. Instead, I view the country as a patchwork actor, one marked by multiple traditions of identities, governed by two major parties who alternate according to a coin flip, and divided into fifty states and territories. 

It’s the “and territories” that, as Doug Mack describes in his new book The Not-Quite States of America, people often forget. A chance encounter with ceremonial quarters honoring Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands jolts Mack into realizing that millions of people—many, although not all, American citizens—live in what can only be described as a U.S. empire. Unsettled by this estrangement from the familiar, he sets out to visit them to learn about their people and their culture to make them more comprehensible. Mack’s book is a sugar-coated challenge to the way you will think about the everyday politics of “America”– and a surprisingly sharp (if inadvertent) challenge to categories IR and comparative scholars employ to divide the world.

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Iraq Casualties and GOP Vote Share: A Review of Some Literature

For reasons involving real research, I need to see whether and how much the Iraq war affected the Bush administration’s electoral record. I’m reviewing some of the literature here, partly as a public accountability mechanism, partly as a personal note, and partly to see if anyone else has anything to add.

The theoretical stakes for me here are not, quite, in the realm of voter behavior. Rather, I’m interested in adjudicating whether claims that voters punish incumbents for mishandling foreign policy are well-founded. In particular, what are we to make of the fact that the internationally popular, swift, and decisive 1991 Iraq War was followed by George H.W. Bush’s defeat, while the internationally unpopular, grinding, and essentially doomed 2003 Iraq War was followed by George W. Bush’s victory? Does this mean that Iraq “didn’t matter” for 2004/2006/2008? Such a finding would contrast with the claim that the Iraq war was at the core of Republicans’ electoral reversals in 2006 and 2008.

Although this lit review meandered a bit from a tight focus on the elections, the general findings seem defensible:

  • it’s really hard to establish direct causality between the war and election outcomes–if only we could run experiments!
  • there seem to be clear evidence that war casualties affected evaluations of the president and legislators
  • these effects were mostly driven by local news coverage and local elections (whether that ‘local’ is ‘state’ or ‘county’ remains to be seen)
  • the absolute biggest magnitudes of these effects are distressingly small–enough to shift a presidential election but not to wildly reject a challenger or incumbent on the basis of competence
  • approval for the war and vote returns for presidents seem to track perceptions of success and support for the decision to begin the war as well as costs
  • inference in the first term is compounded by rally effects from 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war
  • to the extent that Republicans suffered because of the war (a finding that seems reasonable), such electoral retribution was largely a result of local casualties  and relatively modest in scope.

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The Ideas Industry, Daniel Drezner [Review]

My teaching reviews often compare my lecture style to TED Talks. Students, I think, mean this as a compliment, but academics will understand my ambivalence at the comparison. TED Talks  deliver bite-sized, attractive, and simple explanations of complicated topics. That’s why audiences love them, and it’s why the format is beloved of popularizers of science as well as other salesmen. But academics pride themselves on being the opposite. Indeed, for many scholars, it sometimes seems as if having their work described as a “lengthy, plain, and complicated explanation of a simple topic”, it would be a compliment compared to being called a public intellectual. For many scholars, therefore, TED Talks represent what is wrong with the “marketplace of ideas”.

Yet for my students and the world at large, it is TED who is right and we who are wrong. In his new book The Ideas Industry, Daniel Drezner, a professor of political science at Tufts University and a prominent voice in public debates over international relations, ponders why. Drezner’s thesis is that the cozy, stolid, and critical world of the public intellectual—a craftsman of ideational handicrafts who learned his (and it was almost always “his”) trade in an apprenticeship—has been disrupted by a world of corporatized, mercenary, and partisan “thought leaders”.

This is, he argues, not altogether a bad thing.

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Conspiracy Thinking In The Age of Trump

Originally written for Formichewhich published an Italian translation.

Americans long held up the quality of their democracy as a standard for the rest of the world to follow. In many political science metrics, other democracies are—literally—measured against American democracy to determine their quality; in theorizing about how “democracy” works, American institutions are routinely adduced as an unproblematic model. One of the supposed strengths of American institutions was that the sorts of paranoid conspiracy theories that appeared in other countries were, allegedly, never influential in the United States.

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Presenting: From Bad to Good (1 of 2)

Attention conservation notice: Advice on how to give better academic presentations for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members–anyone who has to convey academic research (especially in the social sciences) to non-hyper-specialists at conferences or other situations.

Most people are bad at presenting

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: most presentations you will see are bad. As we’ll see later on, there are many ways that we can interpret the word ‘bad’, and there are many more ways to interpret the word ‘good’, but I think there are some consensus traits to labeling a talk as ‘bad’:

  • going over the allotted time. This is a deadly sin–maybe the deadliest–because it not only affects you but the other presenters and the audience.
  • lack of clarity. By the end of the first 60 to 75 seconds of close to 99% of all talks, the audience should know
    1. your research question/puzzle,
    2. your answer,
    3. the significance of your answer, and
    4. the methods you used to discover your evidence. (In a pinch, you can omit #4.)
  • elementary failures of presentation. Is your talk monotone? Are you too shy to make eye contact (or at least pretend to, using the failsafe ‘look at their foreheads’ method)? Do your slides have more words on them than the average paragraph? Did you read your slides?
  • failure to practice. Is the first time you’ve given this talk the ‘live’ presentation?
  • reading a paper. Sorry, political theorists: this is just as much a failure as submitting a PowerPoint deck to a journal would be.
  • not recognizing an audience’s reactions. Are you so wedded to your outline/script that you can’t change even when the audience is plainly confused?
  • disrespecting yourself. Are the first words out of your mouth “I’m not really an expert in this”? If so, then please don’t waste our time anymore. If you’re really not an expert, then shut up. If you are an expert–at least in this narrow corner of human knowledge–then why would you disqualify yourself in the audience’s eyes?

In my experience, a solid majority of academic presentations, and obviously a much larger share of undergraduate presentations, fall into at least one of these categories, and often more than one.

Three Rules To Give ‘Good’ Presentations

This is not a bit of advice about how to give The Best Talk Ever. This is a simple intervention to stop me from wanting to just Twitter the entire time during bad talks. Here are the three rules:

  1. Practice with a timer until you routinely finish within 90% of the allotted time.
  2. Practice your first 60 seconds two to three times as much as the full talk.
  3. Prepare your presentation as a text distinct from the paper.

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Indulging Predators or Divorcing Research from Researchers?

(What follows is speculative, and I reserve the right to retract it if I’m, well, wrong.)

One of the many ways in which institutions have been shown to have abused the trust placed in them concerns the manner in which universities have conspired to enable and to protect male professors who sexually prey upon women in their orbits.

The fact that (almost always) male professors have long been able to act with near-total impunity toward their (almost always) female victims is unambiguously bad. The fact that institutions are being forced to reconsider their positions and policies toward these tendencies is unambiguously good. The further fact that taking sexual harassment seriously will help to sustain careers and (more important) the wellbeing of women is even better. And the fact that we cannot undo the harms that have been done is a call for serious reflection and unambiguous regret.

These cases have also demonstrated, again, that sexual predation and violence is endemic, and flourishes wherever trust exists to be abused. Consider the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s analysis of sexual assault cases involving doctors and patients, for instance. Parallel discussions involving campus sexual assault (usually stylized as student-against-student) have reshaped, however incompletely and imperfectly, the way that universities as institutions deal with such issues among the studentry.

But there remains a question about how we will deal with scholars as scholars once we have determined that they have committed sexual abuse. This will, over time, play out in myriad ways, from debating whether to rename scholarships, named chairs, and prizes given in the name of scholars found to be responsible of committing such abuses, to deciding whether professors and graduate students can socialize in the presence of alcohol. One core problem, however, will be this: scholars produce work that exists independent of themselves, and we will want to decide on whether their theorems, proofs, articles, and theories should continue to be employed, taught, cited, and honored after the scholar who produced them is found to be a predator.

For a long time, the answer was “no”. If you were a male professor and a “star”, your university, discipline, and colleagues would sanction what seems (to me, a relatively young male professor) to be a wholly unimaingable (but creepily, aggressively, violently real) level of sexual predation. For “stars”, you could earn sobriquets like being a “bad boy” or live by excuses like “he’s from an older generation,” but lurking in the background was always the reasoning that, at some level, being a really, really good physicist meant that you could also be a sexual predator. Your scholarship could outweigh–could serve as penance or an indulgence for–your sins.

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Is Democracy Bunk?

Attention conservation notice: Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have written a very good book that deserves a wide audience. Their critique of behavioralist and liberal (Manchester not FOX) verities raise real doubts about how political scientists and others study and justify democracy. Their points also matter for prominent IR theories of foreign policy behavior. Their book suffers from a lack of comparative perspective, an overreliance on cross-sectional observational data, and some presentist biases in their history–all of which argue for more, not less, research in their program.

***

High school civics teachers across the United States preach a happy catechism of the virtues of American democracy. The people form a body of free citizens. Endowed with the power to vote, these citizens choose representatives to advance their interest in lawmaking and enforcing the laws. Those representatives act according to the will of the people, and should they disobey, they will be replaced through the peaceful revolution of the ballot box by a new representative who will serve the people’s bidding. Democracy thereby constitutes a self-correcting machine for the translation of the wishes of the people into the best possible policy.

In Democracy for Realists (2016, Princeton University Press), Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels refute that litany. In place of the happy vision’s individual citizens calculating whether the government of the day has succeeded, they describe a world in which individuals invent facts to justify the positions their group identifications has supplied them with. In place of a citizenry rationally deciding that the government of the day is competent despite setbacks beyond its control, they show that even an exemplary president is apt to lose if some event beyond his or her control causes a spike in prices or joblessness. And instead of a democratic system correcting its errors and improving the policies it produces, they depict instead a myopic Leviathan randomly lurching from policy to policy, reversing itself on a whim, responding only to the tyranny of popular opinion.

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Crude Nation, Raul Gallegos [Review]

One of the punchiest descriptions of the resource curse comes from Venezuelan oil minister and OPEC founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, who called oil the devils excrement. Yet the saying obscures more than it reveals. Perez Alfonzo’s pessimism about oil dated to an era before contemporary scholarship admits of an oil curse (the most recent resource-curse literature argues that the curse began in 1980 or so, and Perez Alfonzo’s bon mot dates to 1975). It is also the money from oil, not the properties of petroleum itself, that is said to be the cause of the curse, whether through the knock-on effects on productive sectors competitiveness through the Dutch Disease of currency appreciation or the conversion of productive competition into indolent rent-seeking through the corruption of political institutions by the replacement of taxation.

The biggest problem for Perez Alfonso’s wit, however, is the simple fact that for much of the twentieth century, it was hard to say that Venezuela had been particularly cursed by oil revenues.

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The Gendered Resource Curse

My co-author, Yu-Ming Liou, and I wrote this for the ISQ blog when we published our article on the gendered resource curse, Oil, Autocratic Survival, and the Gendered Resource Curse, explaining how oil rents can lead to worse political outcomes for women. But I don’t think ISQ ever used it, so Im using it now.

Generally, increasing gender equality accompanies economic development. Figure 1 shows this relationship: as GDP per capita increases (rightward along the x-axis), gender inequality tends to decline (downward along the y-axis).

Social scientists and casual observers have long recognized that oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia form an important exception to this rule. As Figure 2 demonstrates, autocratic countries that receive more than $1,000 per capita in income from oil and natural gas (shown in red) tend to have greater levels of gender inequality at nearly every level of income.

Why does oil income affect gender equality differently than other sources of wealth? We argue that this discrepancy results from a set of policies that oil-rich autocrats pursue to consolidate their hold in power. As we explain more below (and in the paper), the greater rulers’ dependence on political elites who value ideological fidelity, the more likely rulers are to enact the ideologically-informed policies they demand—even when those policies harm national welfare and make it harder to pay off supporters demanding more traditional forms of patronage.

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