Sunday, February 15, 2004

(boring) things that make me wonder if I'm actually a sociologist, continued

I just finished reviewing a manuscript for a journal, an activity that I must admit often induces within me some combination of surliness and despair. While one cannot properly quote or cite a manuscript under review, one can discuss it in broad conceptual terms, which is all that is needed for the point of the present post.*

Consider the following empirics: Molly and Polly are identical twins. Even though identical twins tend to be more alike than fraternal twins and much more alike than a pair of randomly selected students, there are certainly still many differences between them. We take a snapshot of their lives at age 16, and we see this:
Molly gets better grades in school and does better on academic tests than Polly. Molly has more friends who are high-academic-achievers than Polly, and she belongs to more nerdy extracirricular activities (e.g., debate, the school paper). When you talk to Molly and Polly's parents,they seem to have higher aspirations for Molly than for Polly. For that matter, Molly herself also reports having a greater desire to go to college than Polly does.
It would seem reasonable to imagine that these above differences are all somehow connected to one another. But how? Two possible narratives:

#1: Molly and Polly's parents, for reasons unrelated to any observable characteristics of either child, begun having higher aspirations for Molly than for Polly. Also, for reasons unrelated to any observable characteristics of either child, Molly began hanging out with higher-achieving friends and joining nerdy clubs. As a result of these activities, Molly has become more interested in going to college. Then, as perhaps the combined result of these differences in the aspirations of her parents, in her extracirricular activities, and in her own college plans, Molly has now started doing better in school.

#2: Molly has for many years done better than Polly at school. Because of this, and because people tend to make friends with people like themselves, Molly has more friends who are academic high achievers than Polly does. As people who do well in school also tend to show the most interest in nerdy academic clubs (for various reasons), Molly's higher academic achievement also explains why she is in more nerdy clubs than Polly. Their parents have observed the difference in how well Molly and Polly have done in school, and this is mostly why they have higher educational aspirations for Molly. The twins' own knowledge of their performance mostly explains why Molly sees college in her future more than Polly does.

The reason for today's post-review despair is that, in the way that I apprehend This Society In Which We Live, possibility #2 seems much more plausible than possibility #1. Or, alternatively, it may be that Possibility #1 describes what happens for some pairs of twins and Possibility #2 describes what happens for some others, but, in that case, my guess would be that Possibility #2 happens a good deal more often than Possibility #1. And, in any case, if one was going to decide which possibility should be given the benefit of the doubt if there is no evidence distinguishing the two, my idioepistemology sees Possibility #2 as more straightforward and so more deserving of this presumption than Possibility #1.

Meanwhile, the paper I was reviewing today seemed based on an apprehension of This Society in which Possibility #1 was regarded as easily the more plausible scenario, and Possibility #2 indeed only warranted occasional and mostly cursory mention. Indeed, the paper mainly concerned with whether or not data were consistent with the empirics presented above than with whether those empirics, if observed, could maybe perhaps be construed as evidence for Possibility #2 instead of Possibility #1. Everything was based on cross-sectional data (data based on taking a single snapshot in time) where the empirics implied by the two possibilities are mostly the same; indeed, since the possibility of Possibility #2 entered the story only peripherally, that everything was based on cross-sectional data was not acknowledged as any way problematic.

Obviously, the paper didn't present things in anything remotely like the stark-Molly-Polly-twins terms I presented above. But, at least as far as I can tell, the key and thorny causal-ordering issue can be re-expressed and boiled down to those terms.

The despair is that the paper was using fully orthodox sociological reasoning in interpreting the world as a Possibility #1 World. Meanwhile, my own way of thinking sees this reasoning as kind of like Bizarro World, in the Superman Comics, where everything is switched the wrong way around. I sometimea even feel a little like I'm being some kind of disciplinary spoilsport for being so insistent about the plausibility of Possibility #2. Ugh.

* I've also changed some things to further insure that I am not engaging in an unseemly divulgence (but, without, making any distortion germane to the logic of what I present).

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