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Confirmation bias in the study of human rights

Jay Ulfelder published a post today about what he called “advocascience” – when political scientists have an ideological agenda and this potentially ends up biasing their results.  In a connection that I think is interesting, he analogizes this phenomenon to cases where researchers have financial conflicts of interests with their research – a bioresearcher may skew results if s/he thinks it might be lucrative, a political scientist may skew his/her results if that will support a favored normative position or policy prescription.

Ulfelder says sometimes this skew comes from publishing in a forum that favors a particular position (e.g. the National Endowment for Democracy) or because the scholar may want not want to offend a source or some other person s/he has a relationship with (this episode of RadioLab comes to mind as an illustration of that), but it may also come from the scholar sub-consciously interpreting the results in a way that s/he favors.

This is something that comes up a lot in discussions between grad students and faculty at my program at the University of Nebraska, and I think the reason is because NU is a human rights program, and human rights scholarship is a bit sensitive to the problem because of the findings in Hafner-Burton and Ron’s 2009 paper “Seeing Double: Human Rights Impact Through Qualitative and Quantitative Eyes.”  Ungated version here.  They find that qualitative research on the efficacy of human rights law is significantly more optimistic about the effectiveness of human rights law than quantitative research.  One of the reasons they propose for this is that qualitative researchers sometimes privilege cases where human rights appear to work, whether in case selection or in interpretation of data.

The general consensus that has emerged in our grad student bull sessions is that this is not a problem with qualitative research per se – most of us, including me, use qualitative methods in our research – but that this potential bias is something to be aware of when we do our research.

A person does not start studying human rights unless they want to identify ways to change the world for the better.  However, wanting something to be so does not make it so, and we scholars do not do anyone any favors by describing the world incorrectly.


Dan Drezner and Dan Nexon on blogging by academic political scientists

The link is here.

This is an interesting discussion if you have time to listen to it.  It reminded me of how I wish I blogged more – I think they’re right that it would make me a better writer and a better academic.  This is one of those things that probably has to be ingrained as a habit.  It’s probably worthy of late new year’s resolution.

Things I liked from 2012

I’m seeing a lot of blog posts today taking a retrospective look at 2012, so I thought I’d make a list of some of my favorite web finds from the year.

Favorite Blog Post: Xavier Marquez “The Great Norm Shift and the Triumph of Universal Suffrage

See also “A Very Short Quantitative History Democracy, Dictatorship and Other Political Regimes

Another favorite blog post: Jay Ulfelder “211 Years of Political Evolution in 60 Seconds

Favorite academic book: Francis Fukuyama, “The Origins of Political Order

Favorite fun book: Neil Gaiman, “American Gods

Favorite New Band / Album: Divine Fits / “A Thing Called Divine Fits”

Favorite music video: Woodkid, “Run Boy Run

Favorite podcast: Freakonomics, “The Upside of Quitting” (recorded in 2011, but I heard it this year)

Favorite Tweet: Jessica Link, commentary on presidential debates 

Favorite Tumblr: When in Academia

Favorite Meme: Grumpy Cat

Favorite funny video: Dragon Baby 

Google’s amazing visualization of the small arms trade

It’s available here.

I have often thought that academics could make some real progress in making our work interesting and relevant to the public by identifying ways to present our research other than regression tables and dense jargon.  Efforts like this one on small arms are exactly on the right track.

Even if we don’t have the resources to make visualizations like this, there are ways to make regression tables much easier to interpret for people who haven’t taken a lot of statistics classes.  This paper by Jonathan Kastellec and Eduardo Leoni provides some nice suggestions

“We need activists that complexify better…”

Continuing on yesterday’s theme, I found this blog post today by James McCarty (via Dave Algoso) where McCarty makes the argument against the “just do something” mentality.  I recommend it in its entirety, but I want to highlight a few passages:

“One theme consistently raised by my students this semester is that social analysis can become so complex, and           never-ending, that it can become paralyzing. One can quickly feel the desire to “throw one’s hands up” and do nothing because determining the right thing to do can be so difficult. However, the more they’ve used the tools of social analysis they’ve also become convinced that simple analyses don’t usually lead to long-term change for the better. …

I hear the cries of those who want academics to help them “simplify better.” Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do so in this situation. This situation calls for, insists upon, complexity and more complexity. If that is paralyzing for some, or many, I am sorry, but I don’t know any other way to be morally responsible in a situation like this. Sometimes complexity is the enemy of the good and sometimes simplicity is. In this situation I think what we need is not academics who “simplify better” but activists who “complexify better.””

The point I was trying to make yesterday is precisely this “complexify better” argument, though with a nod to the gains of specialization.  If the normal person thinks they want to “do something” about global poverty or human rights issues, the things that will spring immediately to most of their minds will be things that are not helpful, like giving away food (with the consequence of wiping out local agriculture), or armed intervention, or building orphanages, etc.  The reason these tactics come to mind is because they are deeply rooted in Western culture, probably as a hold-over from colonialism.  They are scripts available to the uninformed and so they are the scripts that will be used unless some alternative is presented by those who know better.

Which is precisely why we need activists to do more in their interactions with the public (and students) than criticize what doesn’t work – they need to give illustrations of what good aid looks like.  Done correctly, describing positive steps can actually illuminate why the complexity is so important to achieving the goals of reducing poverty and protecting human rights.

Moreover, there is some portion of the public (i.e. most) that will never sit through a lecture on foreign aid, but who still want to do something and could be useful in raising money for the right kinds of programs or lobbying for the right kinds of governmental policies if activists would just tell them what those were.  Anyone who has ever worked in politics know that the way you get people to take action is to 1) fire them up, and then 2) make the action easy.  Step 1 is easy to do in the development field.  Step 2 is something that only the religious aid organizations do very well.