Friday, April 22, 2011

"Academic Paper"

Since I've commented on the "Palin's strange pregnancy" story a couple of times in the past, I suppose I should link to Justin Elliott's conclusive takedown of the version that alleges that Palin faked a pregnancy and then covered it up.

(As I've said before, the question of parentage never seemed plausible to me, but some of the other parts of Palin's birth story do, in my view seem odd, but entirely irrelevant to evaluating her as a political figure. That is, if people make parenting choices that seem different from those I can imagine making, or if people inflate and sensationalize their family stories -- and I suspect Palin did one or the other -- then, well, so what?)

At any rate, the one point I want to make here is about what Elliott refers to as the "academic paper" that seems to have sparked the last round of this, eventually resulting in Elliott's story. You know, I just got back from giving a paper at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association. It was an unusually good panel for the Western -- the other three papers were all quite professional, at least in their presentation form (I only have had a chance to look at one of them; another, I think, I will probably post about next week). As it turned out, my paper was the dud of the group; the main finding my co-author and I had at this point was that we either needed to have a much faster computer, or needed to start our data crunching a lot earlier. The next version should be interesting; this one...not so much.*

But I've been to a lot of meetings of the Western, and I think most of us who have been to these smaller conferences will agree that there's just a lot of crap presented. Even at the biggest, most prestigious, conferences, I've been on or at panels in which a paper was presented that just wasn't professional at all. I'm not talking about duds, with boring findings or non-findings, or even papers that appear to have something going for them but turn out to have rather sizable holes, but just unprofessional garbage. More embarrassing than a Matt Bai think piece. Sometimes those are given by grad students, but not always.

Now, I know some other disciplines are different, but we in political science do our conferences applications (at least most of the time) on spec...we write an abstract up to a year before the conference, and then the organizers choose from what they see, which isn't much. In other words, knowing that a paper was given at a political science conference means absolutely nothing in terms of quality control. Of course, that's also true for many working paper series, not to mention obviously true for papers one posts on a personal web site. I'll also note that there are plenty of academics out there who have little caution about attaching their credentials to claims that have nothing to do with their expertise (you'll note that the academic bloggers I link to try pretty hard to not do that -- if they're outside of their fields, they'll put in an appropriate disclaimer. Me too).

Even something published, alas, can wind up being not very good, especially -- but not only -- if it isn't peer reviewed.

I say all this because as much as I really would like reporters and others to use political science research, it's also important for everyone not to take "academic paper" as some sort of magic seal of quality. It isn't. Peer-reviewed paper is usually fairly reliable, but even then, be careful. That's not to say that you should ignore things at earlier stages; at least in political science, there are plenty of important findings that were nailed in the first draft of a paper that was "published" as a working paper, and sometimes those take years to make their way into proper print form. So don't wait! But do, always, assess the claims on their own merits.

Anyway, I wasted my time actually reading through the paper Elliott referred to, and it was junk. Hey, reporters! Don't let these sorts of things sour you on using serious academic work...but assess it carefully, as you would with any other source.

*I suppose I should mention what our paper is about: we're looking at individual contributors to Clinton and Obama in 2007 and seeing to whom they gave, if anyone, in the 2006 cycle. We'll then use social network tools to see what, if anything, differentiates Clinton and Obama supporters. I'm very optimistic about the project...we know little or nothing about how party networks operate in this way, and I think there's a lot to be learned. My co-author, Casey Dominguez, has already looked at party networks in PAC donations, and before that she and I did a paper on elite activity, including donations, in presidential campaigns. Now, we're going far beyond that into thousands of individual donors. But we're not quite there yet.


  1. Yeah, I once saw a professor (not grad student) give a conference paper titled "Popular Culture in Spain." It consisted of his vacation slides from Spain. Plus, I remember he had a picture of a magazine ad for Ivory soap (or some other such international mega-brand). The ad included a photo of a cute baby, thus establishing, said the professor, that "Family values are very important in Spain." (In all likelihood, the ad was designed on Madison Ave., New York, and the baby wasn't even Spanish.)

    Then there was the "paper" -- can't remember if this was at the same conference -- describing how Hill Street Blues had been influenced by an earlier documentary series called Police Tapes. Turned out the presenters were agents of the distribution company and were there to sell copies of Police Tapes. This had not been disclosed in advance.

    Granted, I'm talking about the Popular Culture Association and related groups, which have never been the gold standard of academic rigor. Things are somewhat better at the Modern Language Association (the main professional group for literary studies), although there the problem is that every paper has to be about race / class / gender / sexual orientation / disability in some way, because those are the only subjects that interest anyone in literary studies these days.

    So yeah, don't assume "academic paper" means much. That said, Palin is a serial liar, and if the guy who write the paper in question was mainly arguing that the press has downplayed this, then the paper's main problem is that it's only stating the obvious.

  2. Jonathan, you consider a "conclusive takedown" one that includes the following, shockingly disingenuous allegation:

    Sullivan, for example, thinks it was irresponsible that, shortly before she went into labor, Palin got on a plane from Texas,

    I don't know Andrew Sullivan. But I'd be willing to bet my house that he believes no such thing, which would be obvious to anyone even paying a shred of attention to Sullivan or the controversy. Let me remind you of the famous quote from "Going Rogue", referring to Palin's speech in Texas:

    "Big laughs...big contractions".

    This is not, as Elliott insanely attributes to Sullivan, a woman "shortly before...labor". That's, uh, LABOR. Taking the point one step further, I am additionally confident that if, as Elliott suggests, labor had not begun at the conference (contra Palin's autobiography) and "sometime later", as in "maybe sometime on the drive from Anchorage to Wasilla", then neither Andrew Sullivan nor anyone else would have a reason to question. The decision would still seem a bit strange, what with Mat-Su hospital not having an NICU, but it wouldn't be way the hell outside of anything else that has ever happened, which is where the claim of labor in Texas (which Elliott bizarrely scrubs) DEFINITIVELY places it.

    So, once we restore the "labor in Texas" detail - frankly, the most important detail, we are left with a story that, in academic parlance, has a p-value of, surely, less than 0.0000001 of happening in reality.

    I don't know how it is with you political scientists, but in the hard sciences, the interpretation of p<0.000001 is that "it didn't happen". Unless you follow Elliott's route, and slip in a change in the assumptions!


  3. CSH,

    Elliott is conclusive, IMO, about what he covers, which is the question over whether Palin was actually pregnant.

    He doesn't look into the birth story other than that either way. As I said, I think her birth story is odd, what? (Which, again, is how I've felt about the paternity question as well).

  4. Andrew Sullivan has certainly insinuated Palin wasn't pregnant. His strongest argument - a very reasonable one - is that the account of her labor and delivery is so far out there, with enough other questions, that it is reasonable to ask for confirmation that the kid is really her biological child. I would personally add that because the account of Trig's delivery is so totally disconnected with anything else we've ever known, there should be no presumption that it is merely an embellishment of an otherwise basically true story. That may of course be the case. But we should hesitate before assuming it to be automatically so. When Elliott's "definitive takedown" of Sullivan adroitly skirts Sullivan's primary argument, that would seem to be a pretty significant weakness in Elliott.

    FWIW, I find it odd to conclude that his "proof" of her pregnancy is dispositive. Even as he makes fun of Scharlott or others for relying on interpretation of pictures, his argument, is, basically...eyewitness. If given the choice between medical records and, er, some unknown reporter claiming to have a weird experience rubbing Palin's middle-aged belly, I'll go for the medical records for my dispositive proof, but that's just me. Weird to think anyone would see a matter as settled without demanding the type of detail, that, by convention, settles such matters.

    Finally, I'm sure everyone has seen this picture. We can agree to disagree, but my own policy is, where there's a dispute between my lying eyes and an account from some stranger I don't know, I tend to place more emphasis on my lying eyes. Maybe that's just me.

  5. As I said, I think her birth story is odd, what?

    I'm not neutral on Palin, but I've generally been uncommitted on this issue. But a few days ago I followed one of Sullivan's links to a site where a vigorous discussion about it was underway.

    To follow up on CSH's point: According to Palin's own account -- the original one, at least -- she was leaking amniotic fluid before boarding the plane (for a long flight). And the pregnancy already had several complications. She didn't tell flight attendants anything about this. So she was risking, at best, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing, or possibly giving birth while on board. That's if she was lucky; any problems, and she could end up killing the baby and possibly bleeding out, herself, at 30,000 feet. (And then, once on the ground, again by her own account, she bypassed a neonatal intensive care unit, thus again putting the baby at further risk for no apparent reason.)

    I agree that the possibility that she's actually lying like mad about some or all of this actually reflects better on her than her own story. I also agree with those who see her as having confessed -- no doubt unwittingly -- to an incomprehensible level of irresponsibility. That doesn't matter if she stays in private life, but it has to matter in a candidate for the presidency. I'm wondering what would be made of it if a male candidate, say Barack Obama, told a story about the birth of his child that included urging or helping his wife, in identical circumstances, to do exactly the things that Palin said she did (i.e. not going straight to a hospital, taking a long flight, skipping past available facilities normally indicated for a special-needs child, etc.). Would it just be dismissed as an "odd parenting choice"? I would think everyone would understand that it suggested the guy either was lying or had a screw loose.

  6. Jeff,

    I think if you held up a magnifying glass to most of us and zeroed in on our worst choices in our private lives, and took that as an indication of how we would perform in our public lives, that we would have very few thought able to serve in important positions. Especially if we interpret things unkindly, and we're all apt to do that to people we disapprove of for other reasons (even good ones!).

  7. "Worst choices" still seems a bit mild for this set of facts. We're talking about risking lives -- taking actions that, if things go badly, can get people charged with negligient homicide. I guess the question would be, if that's not disqualifying, what would be -- only an actual conviction for negligient homicide? Or would even that just be a bad "private" choice?

    To be clear, I doubt that Palin actually took the risks she claims to have taken. (I think she's too in love with herself to have risked her own life that way.) Between the incredibility (?) of her claims about the birth and her various other fibs, I think she's more likely a fabulist who lies compulsively -- she actually finds it somehow fun or interesting to spin tall tales and present them as real facts or events. That's a lesser flaw than she'd be guilty of if we took her own account of things at face value, but it still seems to me relevant to assessing someone's suitability for high executive office. It's not hard to imagine what kind of havoc such a quality could wreak in the White House.

  8. What I think Jeff shows is that there are only two possibilities regarding Palin's wild ride: either a) she wasn't pregnant, and needed to rush back to Wasilla to appropriate someone else's baby, or b) she was, but the details were significantly different from the official story. This follows from the official story being so extraordinarily unlikely as to be necessarily rejected by a scientist.

    If the official story is an embellishment of the real one, if labor began, say, on the car ride to Wasilla (and not her speech in Texas!), one still has trouble reconciling her mad dash out of the Republican Governors event. Given her rising profile in the party, there is no conceivable (pun intended) reason for her to draw the attention from rushing out of that event, if labor was still many hours away.

    The incongruity of the mad dash, assuming labor began much later, is significant enough reasonably to expect scientific proof, i.e. something medical. As an aside, the disappointing thing about Elliott is that he brashly advertises a "definitive takedown" of the pregnancy rumors via creepy stories of reporters allegedly touching her stomach and such.

    Maybe that counts as "definitive" over in the Department of English. Or Department of Pornography. For the scientist, "definitive"="medical". That Elliott sees otherwise suggests he doesn't mean the same thing by 'definitive', or else he was just trying to draw attention to himself.

  9. Just wanted to add a quick apology for the Department of Pornography crack above. Pretty tasteless. This stream of consciousness stuff is not without its pitfalls.

    And also a friendly question for those who agree with Elliott that his group of witnesses (who confirmed pregnancy) are more dispositive than other witnesses, (see Dunn, among others) whose witnesses were skeptical:

    How do you reconcile the continuing, missing birth certificate? As Andrew Sullivan has reminded us several times, the birth certificate remains withheld, even several months after Palin, falsely, claimed she released it.

    If, as Elliott concludes, there's no smoking gun on said birth certificate, then the non-release was a mere oversight. The kind of thing that can be fixed in five minutes.

    So where is it?

  10. Jeff,

    No, I'll stick with what I said. How many pols do you think have done one or more of: driving drunk, using drugs that carry serious risk of harm, having unprotected sex, driving recklessly...I'm sure others could think of more things for that list.

    As far as being a "fabulist who lies compulsively," yes, that is a serious problem. But if it can't be shown without recourse to stuff about her family and personal life, then it's probably not actually true.

    Finally...yeah, I think that several witnesses, including the doctor and reporters who were trying to check out the rumor, make a very strong case. Does that leave questions about her story? Yup. But I agree with Elliott: the witnesses are a strong enough case that them plus hospital records (which could be forged) wouldn't be appreciatively stronger. If we were talking about intelligence about invading Iraq or something like that, well, sure, follow up and nail it down even further. But this? No way.

  11. How many pols do you think have done one or more of: driving drunk, using drugs that carry serious risk of harm, having unprotected sex, driving recklessly...

    No doubt quite a few -- but I can't recall any who bragged about it, let alone claimed to have done such things when they hadn't actually done them. That's what we apparently have with Palin.

    And let's be clear, she didn't ASK for privacy about any of this -- she's the one who put it on the record, who cast herself as the hero of this bizarre story, apparently thinking (correctly, I guess) that it would win her political points with certain constituencies. It's not like the tale of Trig's birth is something that reporters went and dug up over her objections. I would be much more inclined to agree with you about the privacy issue if we were talking about something the person in question wanted kept private, as opposed to something s/he loudly touted for political advantage. If the public case a politician makes for him/herself, the persona s/he deliberately constructs, is not something that voters should evaluate, then what is?

    As to the lies: Even if, notwithstanding what I just said, we set aside the whole Trig business as part of her "personal life," it's not needed to establish that Palin is a compulsive liar:

    That's just as of late '09. Most of these are about public affairs or related to the offices she's held. Granted, some (like "death panels") are "normal" political lies, but some are just plain lies. Sullivan calls them "odd" because so many of them are just gratuitous and/or easily disproven, as one would expect if the lying is compulsive.

  12. Jeff: in re: your "in re: the lies": yes, that's the point. The weirdness of this personal issue doesn't, at all, add to the oddities of her public self-presentation.

    As to overstating one's past recklessness: every pol with a military record has done this, for purposes of enhancing heroism (which some think incompatible with common sense), and absolutely scads of politicians whose Narrative is an important part of their self-presentation exaggerate their past wretchedness for the sake of improving the drama of rebirth. For instance remember the story in the Times a year or two ago about how no one who knew him at the time could remember the President actually behaving as recklessly with cocaine and such as he's implied? -- Certainly it's more obvious why redemption stories are exaggerated, but Palin's tale seems to fit in with the genre of embellished military exploits, which are certainly not vetted to make the teller look more cautious than he really was.

    Finally, as to privacy: yes, Palin's forfeited some claim by making such a spectacle of, well, so very many elements of her life -- and before that, by accepting the VP nomination. That's why it's not illegal to write awful, speculative things about her the way it could well be wrt a private citizen. But she didn't exactly do the Gary Hart "double dog dare you" thing, either -- and frankly it was super distasteful when reporters took him up on that, too.

    Idk, I'm sure she wasn't prepared for just how crazy everyone would go about her. If she had received the level of scrutiny that Joe Biden did upon his selection, she probably wouldn't look so messy. And note that when Biden received more scrutiny in '88 it drove him out of the race over something ridiculously petty. (See Seth Masket on this point: .)

  13. Yeah, TC, Biden plagiarized Neil Kinnock, then-Labour leader -- I'm old enough to remember that. Well, it was a good speech. :-)

    (The irony being, of course, that it's not like Biden of all people has trouble generating words on his own. But anyway.)

    I agree that there's something of a PT-109 element in this Trig story. That's probably how the story feels to many of Palin's supporters, and perhaps to Palin herself: her Big Moment of Heroism. Of course, that also points out why it would be significant if, in fact, Trig was not her kid -- it would be like discovering in, say, 1959 that JFK had actually been on shore leave in Hawaii when 109 went down. You could certainly argue that what he did while on shore leave was a "private" matter, but the fact that a story used to tout him as a potential president was actually false would be relevant public information.

  14. The circumstances of the birth are weird but the reality was cleared up for me a long time ago after one of my best friends told me that her Democratic sister was in Gov. Palin's exercise class in Juneau and it was clear that Palin was pregnant. I really wonder why some reporters didn't talk to people like that, folks who were in the position to observe Palin's changing body.

  15. Jeff: Totally. That's why JB referred to the Salon piece as "conclusive" -- because only the outright lie would be potentially an issue, and it disproves the "outright lie" theory.

    And I certainly didn't mean to make it sound like I was assuming you didn't know this or that bit of only-political-junkies-remember-this info -- on the contrary, I've never yet gone wrong assuming that all other Plain Blog commenters know more such than I do ;)

  16. classicist, let's just hope that there aren't too many more discussions of Palin in our (or anyone's) future. Also, Happy Easter -- unless you classicists observer only Pagan Spring Festivals of some kind. :-)


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