Something's rotten in the state of Denmark

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Revenge of the sociologists

One of the particularly dumb conversations, which only particularly dumb 20 year old men could have, that I remember having when I was a particularly dumb 20 year old man was about what majors were "hot." Which majors in college -- particularly the university we attended in Providence, Rhode Island -- seemed to attract the most attractive women, yes, but also which majors, when chosen by a woman, made her more attractive to us.

The friend of mine who enabled this conversation and I disagreed over the plusses and minuses of several majors -- he liked the little green or red books that classics majors always seemed to be reading on the main green, while I thought Comp Lit majors, reading Flaubert not in translation, held great mystery beneath the dark sweaters and behind the clove cigarettes. And art history majors, of course, resided in their own special eschelon.

But one thing we agreed on: sociology majors. Feh. Sociology seemed like the most boring major around. And often seemed to attract their fair share of boring people majoring in the field. Then one of my best friends married a sociology professor, and she's terrific, so I started shedding my old stereotypes. But I can't help but think in reading the fine print on analyses like the Hout Report that this is God's revenge for my mocking the sociology field.

A good friend of RD -- in fact, the one who married a sociologist -- sends us this link to Crooked Timber, a Kerry-sympathetic collective of bloggers. One of their crew, Kieran Healey, a sociologist from the University of Arizona, has some skepticism towards the Hout paper. Healey disputes any notion that all electronic voting touchscreen machines in Florida were the source of aberrations, pointing out that "Broward and Palm Beach counties (which have very large populations and lean strongly Democratic) swung much more toward Bush than was typical for counties where Republicans won less than 47 or 48 percent of the vote in 2000. It turns out that these two counties are driving the findings of Hout et al’s model." The question then is what's happening in those two counties.

Andrew Gelman, a Columbia statistician, also analyzes the Hout paper. Gelman's explanation: "One possibility, as suggested by Hout et al., is cheating, possibly set up ahead of time (e.g., by loading extra votes into the machines before the election or by setting it up to switch or not count some votes) … but an obvious alternative explanation is that, for various reasons, 3% more people in those counties preferred Bush in 2004, compared to 2000. As can be seen in the graphs above for 2000, 1996, and 1992, such a swing would be unusual (at least compared to recent history), but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen!… It would make sense to look further at Broward and Palm Beach counties, where swings happened which look unexpected compared to the other counties and compared to 2000, 1996, and 1992. But lots of unexpected things happen in elections, so we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that e-voting is related to these particular surprises." Well, fine, true: it's certainly possible that in two counties in all of Florida, there was a situation that didn't exist in any other counties in the state given the demographic makeup where the two counties, which used touchscreen voting, experienced an unexplained jump in their Bush votes. Sure, it's possible, just like it's possible to win a lottery, or, using better odds, a raffle of 1000 people. That's not reason enough to push away the questions of why this anomaly existed.

Healey takes Gelman's thoughts, and summarizes: "In other words, if there is cheating it’s not centralized cheating where all the e-voting machines mess up in the same way. If you believe that the machines were rigged, focus on the ones in Palm Beach and Broward county. But it seems more likely that these results show the Republican Party Machine was really, really well-organized in Palm Beach and Broward, and they were able to mobilize their vote better than the Democrats. The general swing toward Bush in Florida seems consistent with this story."

I'd disagree with Healey's last statement. Why would the Republican Party Machine be particularly strong and make a particularly successful showing -- particularly successful described as bucking the previous models in 1996 and 2000 -- in Palm Beach and Broward Counties, rather than in other counties (such as one's more hit by the Hurricanes and thus more likely to be sympathetic towards Bush?) I think Healey makes a jump here that I can't join him on.

But where I do agree with Healey -- and think he makes a good case for this in his blog -- is that rather than focusing on evidence of a widespread discrepancy in all of the Florida counties which used touchscreen technology, eyes should be trained on the aberration/problem in Broward and Palm Beach Counties.

And I'll never cast an eye down on sociology majors again. Forgive me. You are all beautiful, beautiful people. Some of you are maybe even hot.