Friday, April 3, 2009

Sampling and Professors

Two posts in one today. First, students often have a hard time understanding why research methodology (such as survey research, sampling, validity, etc.) is important or even controversial. Here's a great example of how statistics and sampling can become partisan in D.C.

Obama's Census Choice Unsettles Republicans:

WASHINGTON — Robert M. Groves, a former census official and now a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, was nominated Thursday by President Obama to run the Census Bureau, a choice that instantly made Republicans nervous.

Republicans expressed alarm because of one of Mr. Groves’s specialties, statistical sampling — roughly speaking, the process of extrapolating from the numbers of people actually counted to arrive at estimates of those uncounted and, presumably, arriving at a realistic total.

If minorities, immigrants, the poor and the homeless are those most likely to be missed in an actual head count, and if political stereotypes hold true, then statistical sampling would presumably benefit the Democrats.

Republicans have generally argued that statistical sampling is not as reliable as its devotees insist. “Conducting the census is a vital constitutional obligation,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House minority leader, said Thursday. “It should be as solid, reliable and accurate as possible in every respect."
In which case, you should support sampling and Grove's expertise. I can't think of a better choice to head the Census count next year than a sociologist.

Regarding professors, the academic world has been abuzz over the trial of Ward Churchill, the tenured professor who published the "little Eichmanns" essay after 9/11 and was subsequently run from his position at University of Colorado for academic dishonesty and fraud.

Yesterday, he won his wrongful termination suit against UC but the jury only awarded him $1 in damages.
DENVER — A jury found on Thursday that the University of Colorado had wrongfully dismissed a professor who drew national attention for an essay in which he called some victims of the Sept. 11 attacks “little Eichmanns.”

On Sept. 12, 2001, Mr. Churchill wrote an essay in which he argued that the United States had brought the terrorist attacks on itself. He said that some of those working in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 were not innocent bystanders but “formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire.” He described the financial workers as “little Eichmanns,” a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who has been called the architect of the Holocaust.

The jurors found that Mr. Churchill’s political views had been a “substantial or motivating” factor in his dismissal, and that the university had not shown that he would have been dismissed anyway.

A spokesman for the university, Ken McConnellogue, said administrators would oppose the request [to reinstate Churchill]. Reinstatement, Mr. McConnellogue said, would probably draw a sharp reaction among many faculty members, because a faculty committee was instrumental in his firing.

While the [jury] agreed with the argument that an environment of political intolerance for Mr. Churchill’s views was a factor in his firing, Mr. McConnellogue, the university spokesman, contended that its decision to deny him financial damages also sent a message — that Mr. Churchill was not necessarily a figure to be revered, either. Mr. Churchill, he said, was using the Constitution as a smokescreen. “You can’t take the First Amendment and use it to justify fraud,” he said.

The case has been seen as a struggle between freedom of speech and academic integrity, and it revived the longstanding debate about whether hate speech deserves protection by the First Amendment.
It would be richly ironic if the judge forced Churchill to be reinstated at the university. While Churchill's original essay was shoddy in its reasoning and juvenile in its conclusions, the university's Cold-War style dismissal of him over unrelated academic dishonesty smacked of fear mongering and "Red Scare" hysteria. We forget that only four short years ago, to be branded as "unpatriotic" in the War on Terror was to risk civil death.

I interpret the jury's verdict thusly: UC and Churchill deserve one another.

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