Archive for April, 2009

Revenge of the Geeks in Tweed



Blue tweed, very serious

Blue tweed, very serious

Ah, it must be Spring. Yesterday the NYT had a slow opinion day, so they published a pithy little essay by a Mark Taylor (a theologian) on how “the University” is hopelessly arcane and of little value. Funny, the same day the Census Bureau released a report showing that university education continues to yield enormous benefits to those who pass through the doors. The constant drone of dipsticks who claim that a real (not online diploma-mill) college education provides no preparation for the “real world” is simply pigshit. Even philosophy majors are better off than people who go to vokie-techie to pick up a $10-an-hour-and-no-benefits service job.

But, the anti-intellectualism (as Andrew Perrin correctly penned it) of Taylor’s essay was just the hook. Taylor is really talking about GRADUATE education. Taylor argues that nobody gets jobs, that it is pointless to even try to publish, and that because of this we need to transform the structure of education by getting rid of departments and disciplines (which teach people how to do research and publish it) and instead forge working groups around big questions or problems—like Water, and Mind, and shit like that. This whets the hackles of the “interdisciplinary” types, who are always whining about the constraints of disciplines (what with their nasty attention to things like theory, method, and evidence). And, since it’s pointless to even hope that graduate students (those poor little things) could ever produce a book or article worthy of publishing, we should instead give them degrees for making web sites and video games. Shitfire, I should put my blog on my vita!! Except I don’t even put half of my conference presentations on my vita.

Why is he saying shit like this? Because he’s a geek in tweed. A humanities whore. A guy who likes to go to meetings and make things happen. And, to make sure that what happens continues to benefit the geeks in tweed who have always controlled academe (while the rest of us are doing research and shit). It is true that most people who go to graduate school ain’t gonna make it in academe. Big fucking deal. It’s a great job, but there’s a lot of work involved. And, you have to be genuinely interested in your scholarship in order to make a contribution. But, shitloads of people DO make it. They DO get their dissertations published. They DO get jobs. They DO make tenure. In sociology and most social sciences, the proportion who do make it is about half of graduate matriculates. So, yeah, half of the grad students won’t make it. And, it may have been a total waste of everyone’s time and of scarce resources. But, for the other half, they finish their dissertations, they get tenure tracked (yes, tenure tracked) jobs, they publish, and they wind up having a nice career in a cool industry that doesn’t require you to steal pensions from old people.

Ah, but there’s the problem. Unlike Taylor, I’m describing what happens in graduate education in a real discipline. Sociology, the queen of the social sciences. In other discplines, Zoology, psychology, physics, economics, political science, chemistry, etc. the story is pretty much the same. Taylor’s gloom and doom view reflects his position in an arcane arena of the humanities. Religion. What the fuck is that? Nothing. Why? No discipline. A fractured bunch of remnants of divinity schools. Their specialization isn’t the problem. The problem is that there are too many people studying the topic, and NO, there is no demand for scholarship on the citation style of 14th century monks. When I was at Vanderbilt, we admitted hoards of students into each of five core areas of the PhD program in the Graduate Department of Religion. My area was “history and critical theories of religion”, I still don’t know what that means. Notably, “church history” was a different core area. In my ten years at Vanderbilt, only two of my students in the GDR finished and got tenure tracked jobs. The problem is that SOME DISCIPLINES NEED TO BE SCALED BACK. Most graduate programs in English, philosophy, religion, and such disciplines need to be eliminated. Others need to be cut back in dramatic fashion.

Notably, almost all of the overenrollment of graduate students is in the humanities. The graduate assistantship budget for the Department of English in my humble university is more than ten times that for Sociology. All of our graduates get tenure tracked jobs, while almost none of theirs do. Taylor’s right about one thing, a lot of this is being done to staff courses with cheap labor. And, that’s bad. The answer is not to eliminate all departments or disciplines. The answer is to get rid of the graduate programs in most of the humanties, and hire the excess PhD’s into permanent jobs to teach the remedial and core courses.

Ah, but the geeks in tweed need to keep their status–they don’t wanna teach remedial writing or intro to humanities or art of the western world. That’s why they wear tweed. So, instead of eliminating their departments and disciplines, they want to eliminate ours! Then, they’ll lord over us by making sure that every new working group is headed by some humanities moron in a tweed jacket. Some philosopher/theologian will be the head of a “working group on Mind”,  and she’ll divvy up the department budget to give herself and a few other humanities folks $20k in travel and book money, while the poor biologist who needs $50k just to start her research project will get $20k. I mean, it’s only fair, right?

Interdisciplinary organization is almost uniformly a ruse used by humanities types to coopt university resources. Women’s studies, ethnic studies, cultural studies, whatever. How many social scientists benefit from these? Who is the head? Whose students do they fund? Who gets credit for the bodies in the classrooms? The answer is almost always “english, history, and philosophy.” We get token appointments (freebies), no credit for joint listed courses, and no influence over any real resources. Interdisciplinary programs are a clever mechanism for herding more bodies into required humanities courses, which then requires expanding the graduate programs in the humanities, which then produces more PhD’s than jobs….

Religion and Science


 Table 1


Adjusted Mean Number of Correct Answers on the 2006 GSS Science Exam by Religious Affiliation and Religious Belief  



Religious Belief


Std. Error

95% Confidence Interval


Lower Bound

Upper Bound

 % of Sample

Bible is literal Word of God






Bible is Inspired Word of God






Bible is a Book of Fables






Religious Affiliation






Sectarian Protestant












Other Protestant














 Religious activists, funded by religious foundations, have become fond of asking idiotic survey questions which appear to blur the lines between religion and science. I don’t know what “Religion” or “Science” really mean at this level of abstraction (that’s for philosophy and theology), but I do know that particular variants of religious beliefs which are promoted in particular religious institutions generate considerable hostility towards scientific research and pedagogy. Still, many like to dress up their ignorance in a veil of pseudo science, hence we have “creation science,” and “theories”of intelligent design.

The 2006 General Social Surveys included a brief science examination. I shorten it to 13 items to exc lude a question on evolution, since fundamentalists may reflexively get that one wrong. Using data from 1780 respondents to the most recent General Social Surveys, I found that that Americans who believe that the Bible is the literal word of god (about 30% of respondents in the nationally representative sample of U.S. Adults) scored substantially lower the other respondents on a test of basic scientific literacy. Bible believers averaged 54% on the 13 question examination, which included questions about basic scientific understanding (like experimental design, and probability), earth science (such as whether the core of the earth is cold or hot, and whether continents have and continue to drift), and biology (such as whether antibiotics kill viruses). The test excluded controversial items such as evolution. In contrast, more skeptical believers averaged 68% on the exam, and non-believers answered 75% of the questions correctly.

     Notably, my findings are not a function of race, social class, region, or gender. Even after statistical controls for these factors, religious conservatives scored significantly lower than non-Christians and non-believers. In fact, the effect of conservative religious identifications (affiliation with Baptists, Pentecostals, and other sectarian groups, or with Catholicism), and fundamentalist beliefs in the Bible have a stronger predictive effect on scores on the science examination than do income, race, or gender. While much has been made about racial and gender differences in scientific ability, my results suggest that cultural factors like religion are much more important impediments of scientific literacy.

From ‘Just Say No’ to ‘Yes, We Can’


Click for Cool figure with real trend data!! 


Support for legalizing marijuana is one of the very few social attitudes on which you can find clear period effects—people shifted their preferences in line with the perceived mood of the nation. First, in the 1970s legalization became an acceptable position, so much so that even Jimmy Carter expressed support for decriminalization. But then, the conservative revolution took over, and drugs became “bad”. Just say no. This is your brain on drugs. Manditory life sentences for dealers, and manditory jail time for users. Even pot was targeted, and equated with much more dangerous and addictive drugs. Cocaine was relabled “crack” to allow stiffer sentences to be applied based on the race of the “offender.”  Low and behold, American public opinion follows that same trend. In 1973, under 19% of Americans supported legalization, but this increased to nearly 31% in 1978…before falling under 17% in the late 1980s. During the Clinton years people wanted to inhale more. By 1994, nearly a quarter of Americans supported legalization, and by 1998 support was almost back to where it was two decades earlier. And, enthusiasm for marijuana legalization continued to climb even under W. In 2008, nearly 40% of Americans favored the legalization of marijuana. Yes, we can.

 Since 1992, every President of the US has been a former stoner. We’re spending billions of dollars poisoning crops and arresting and imprisoning people for weed. Most of the weed consumed in the US is “home grown”, and all of it would be if it were legal. It could be taxed, regulated, and legitimate money could be made. Instead, money goes to drug dealers with shady associations and truly criminal propensities. It’s kindof like Wall Street, only the opposite, and you wind up with criminals in charge of both industries….

SSS in New Orleans, coming back….



 I missed Audubon!

I hate academic meetings. I’m beyond the point of even much needing them for an excuse to do another paper. Generally, my time is better spent making sure that papers I’ve already written get published. But, the Southern Sociological Society is really different. I see people who I really want to see. Mike Hughes, Jeff Will, Dave Gay, John Lynxweiler, Chris Ellison, Patty Lou McCall, the whole Duke and Vanderbilt bunch (Ken Spring, Koji Ueno, Karen Campbell, Ellen Granberg), and the old Tulane crowd of Jim Wright, Charlie Brody, and Beth Rubin.  And, Tom Shriver made the SSS this year after a long hiatus. Got to see Jay Corzine, and meet a lot of cool people I hadn’t met before.

     The best part of the meetings wound up being chats at the Publications Committee.  Ida Simpson busted in looking for registration, and Stephanie Bohon tried her best to get Ida hooked up. I really like how Stephanie is running the SSS as exec. director, and it was great to have Ida sit in for my last meeting with the Publications committee and tell us about her new theories about childhood. Ida remains the consumate sociologist, and she was truly excited about her new work.

New Orleans is coming back to some semblence of order. Cajun sociologist Steve Picou took us to a great restaurant after the student party, and most of the quarter seems to be thriving. I did a bike ride around the South part of town and out around Lake Ponchatrain and there was still some evidence of damage, but not much (those were expensive neighborhoods, but must have been devastated). 

I’m definitely skipping most meetings next year, but if I go anywhere, it’ll be to SSS.