Social science research during COVID-19

What a time to be alive. The coronavirus pandemic is a global problem and social scientists use this unique opportunity to write novel papers with the novel COVID-19 as the case (or the context of the study). There is not a single day without a new study saying something about either social distancing or the social behaviour of mass publics in relation to COVID-19.

I have already seen a lot of good papers with direct relevance for the COVID-19 crisis. However, interestingly, some of the best research you will see these days rely on data collected prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. The best example of this is this working paper on the potential implications of vote-by-mail programs (using data from 1996 to 2018).

Similarly, I am convinced that we will see a lot of interesting research coming out over the next years by political scientists on the different policy responses across the world (Denmark and Sweden will serve as a great most similar system design) and the social and political behaviour of citizens during the crisis. In other words, we do and will see great social science research coming out of this crisis.

That being said, we are in the midst of a global crisis with a lot of uncertainty and bad incentives for researchers. This is not to say that social scientists shouldn’t consider studying COVID-19 or in other ways contribute to our understanding of the crisis. However, the bad incentives researchers face combined with the uncertainty and rapid development of the crisis makes me critical towards how social scientists can contribute with to the crisis (at least in the short term).

To illustrate, let us take a look at a paper interested in how people estimate the spread of the virus. The first version, version 1 of the paper, was online on March 8. The study talked about “widespread misperceptions” and that people overestimated the severity of the virus. I made it clear when the study came out that I was not convinced by the study. This was before there was a lot of daily deaths in the US, but I found it weird that the researchers talked about the importance of not overestimating the spread of the virus at this stage (especially when taking the uncertainty about the spread of the virus into account).

Interestingly, version 2 of the paper came out on March 19. Now the paper did not talk about the problem of overestimating the virus at all. Instead, the paper had changed the framing substantially. However, this version has so far received less attention (compared to the first version). It is interesting that the paper changes its focus from ‘overestimating the severity of the crisis’ (version 1) to ‘successful containment’ (version 2) once the researchers themselves (economists, of course) acknowledged the severity of the crisis.

The paper in question got several limitations but my criticism is not related to the findings or specific methodological choices. Instead, I am critical towards the extent to which social scientists can (and should) bring important research into the world these days (taking the high level of uncertainty into account). Again, I am not saying that we will not see good social science research coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for consumers of social science research I suggest that you remain skeptical towards all of the papers coming out these days (independent of whether they are peer-reviewed or not).

Another important aspect to keep in mind is data quality. Data is not cheap and a lot of the research we see coming out these days will rely on data that we know is less than ideal. We will see a lot of small samples (most of them collected on mTurk) and surveys of a questionable quality. However, the challenge is not only with self-reported data in surveys.

I have already seen multiple papers using Google search data to study topics such as racial prejudice, economic anxiety and religiosity in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. We might learn a lot from this body of research but we should be aware of a lot of the limitations with such data (see this blog post for more info). My concern is that there are very specific limitations to what kind of inferences we can make using such time-series data in the time of COVID-19.

More generally, the COVID-19 pandemic is not a good case for a lot of social science questions. This article describes the challenge: “The best natural experiments usually look at similar groups of people where one group experiences a very specific change”. The problem with the COVID-19 pandemic is that everybody is affected (“treated”) by the pandemic and we cannot make sensible counterfactual claims on the impact of specific initiatives these days. For example, if we are interested in the impact of lockdowns, such lockdowns will not be exogenous to the crisis and other relevant factors.

I am not the only one to be concerned about the quality of the research coming out these days and the potential implications. Anne Scheel describes it best here: “My point is not that all of this research is pointless or harmful — some of it may have a genuine positive impact. But I do feel that our concern about the extremely unusual and serious situation we’re in leads us to overlook the potential costs of conducting and consuming research in emergency mode.” Also, I agree 100% with the points made by Stuart Ritchie here.

Social science will contribute with a lot of interesting research related to the COVID-19 global pandemic. However, we should remain skeptical towards a lot of the work coming out these days.

Potpourri: Statistics #64

Tidymodels: tidy machine learning in R
The Seven Key Things You Need To Know About dplyr 1.0.0
Introduction to Data Science
When Is Anonymous Not Really Anonymous?
Empirical Papers for Teaching Causal Inference
Why log ratios are useful for tracking COVID-19
Effect Sizes and Power for Interactions in ANOVA Designs
Why I’m not making COVID19 visualizations, and why you (probably) shouldn’t either
Word Rank Slope Charts
Displaying time series with R
New parsnip-adjacent packages
Exploring tidymodels With Hockey Data
Conducting and Visualizing Specification Curve Analyses
How John Burn-Murdoch’s Influential Dataviz Helped The World Understand Coronavirus
Spatial Aggregation
Bayes’ theorem in three panels
The Evolution of the American Census
How to standardize group colors in data visualizations in R
Calibrating time zones: an early bird or a night owl?
Program Evaluation

COVID-19 og ulighed

I begyndelsen af 2020 havde de færeste nok forestillet sig, at det største emne på den offentlige dagsorden – og i vores daglige liv – ville blive coronavirussen (COVID-19).

Min forventning er, at coronavirussen vil øge uligheden i samfundet — økonomisk, socialt, kulturelt og politisk. Dette ikke ved at der bliver gennemført radikale ændringer i samfundet, men ved at der ikke bliver gennemført radikale ændringer. Dette vil ske ved at krisen på mange måder vil sætte eksisterende politikker ud af kraft og alle politiske tiltag vil forsøge at ikke alene opretholde men også konsolidere status quo.

Jeg har set flere argumentere for, at coronakrisen er en anledning til at iværksætte nye økonomiske og politiske tiltag. Slavoj Žižek har eksempelvis argumenteret for, hvor “nødvendigt det er at reorganisere den globale økonomi”. Jeg vil undlade at tage stilling til, hvad man bør gøre i forbindelse med en krise som denne, men i dette indlæg blot bringe et par observationer og reflektere kort over, hvad jeg finder sandsynligt vil ske.

De fleste politologer, jeg har set udtale sig omkring krisen, har i meget lidet omfang forholdt sig til de politiske aspekter af krisen – og dermed konsekvenserne for økonomisk, social og politisk ulighed. Dette skal ingenlunde forstås som en kritik. Der er trods alt ikke brug for at politisere myndighedernes anbefalinger og på andre måder bidrage til, at folk ikke tager krisen alvorligt. Jeg har med andre ord fuld forståelse for, at de fleste politologer (og andre forskere) bidrager til at gøre hvad man kan for, at danskerne følger magthavernes anbefalinger til punkt og prikke. Derfor er det helt fint, at vi ser et hav af politologisk forskning i, hvordan man kan sørge for, at folk vasker hænder og generelt følger myndighedernes anbefalinger om social distance m.v.

Hvad der er mindst lige så interessant er, hvilke politiske effekter krisen vil have. Vi har i løbet af de seneste uger set offentlige politikker og bureaukratiske procedurer blive sat på pause (eller flytte online). Institutioner, der tjener et bestemt formål, fungerer ikke længere optimalt – og dette vil i de fleste tilfælde øge uligheden i samfundet. Hvad vi har set rundt om i verden er talrige økonomiske tiltag og hjælpepakker, der alle skal forsøge at opretholde status quo og dermed sørge for, at alle kommer godt ud af krisen.

Dette er heldigvis noget, andre har udtalt sig om. Theda Skocpol har formuleret det bedst i relation til økonomisk ulighed: “The wealthiest fifth of Americans have made greater income gains than those below them in the income hierarchy in recent decades. They are more often members of married, highly educated couples. As high-salary professionals or managers, they live in Internet-ready homes that will accommodate telecommuting—and where children have their own bedrooms and aren’t as disruptive to a work-from-home schedule. In this crisis, most will earn steady incomes while having necessities delivered to their front doors. The other 80 percent of Americans lack that financial cushion.”

Når vi ser de høje arbejdsløshedstal i disse uger, er det bestemte grupper, der rammes hårdest, herunder især lavindkomstgrupper. Dem der har sværest ved at arbejde hjemmefra, for eksempel, er ikke overraskende også dem med de laveste lønninger. Det er for dem der arbejder hjemme nemt at få leveret mad – mens dem der leverer maden skal frygte for deres helbred. Dertil skal det også tilføjes, at især sektorer hvor kvinder er overrepræsenteret, er hårdt ramt – og lukkede skoler og pasningsmuligheder rammer også kvinder hårdere end mænd (se dette studie for mere info).

Det handler i høj grad om økonomisk ulighed, men ikke udelukkende. Det må forventes, at de børn der går i skole hjemme i disse dage får en betydeligt bedre oplevelse, hvis de har højtuddannede forældre. Forleden læste jeg eksempelvis, at højt uddannede forældre lånte omkring 2,5 gange flere børnebøger end lavtuddannede forældre, og dette er en stigning i uligheden sammenlignet med før krisens udbrud. Uligheden vil således stige — ikke alene økonomisk, men også socialt og kulturelt.

Det interessante er, at i krisesituationer som den vi befinder os midt i nu, vil dem der allerede har magt have langt flere muligheder end de normalt har. Mit yndlingseksempel på dette er virksomheder, der nægter at betale husleje (se eksempelvis her og her). Forestil dig en ganske almindelig borger kontakte sin udlejer og informere om, at vedkommende har besluttet at springe næste måneds husleje over.

Hvad vi også ser i disse dage er, at magthaverne indfører en række tiltag, der går ind og reducerer grundlæggende frihedsrettigheder. Igen skal jeg ikke gøre mig til dommer over, hvorvidt dette er fornuftigt eller ej. Hvad der blot er vigtigt at huske på er, at sådanne tiltag ikke påvirker alle borgere ens, men på kort og på længere sigt kan øge uligheden i de økonomiske, sociale og politiske ressourcer, folk har til rådighed. Det er med andre ord vigtigt at forhodle sig kritisk til sådanne tiltag (og dette burde være muligt samtidigt med, at man følger myndighedernes anbefalinger).

Kigger vi på magthaverne kan vi da også se, at deres popularitet er steget i krisens første stadie. Ledere som Mette Frederiksen i Danmark, Stefan Löfven i Sverige, Boris Johnson i England, Viktor Orbán i Ungarn og Erdoğan i Tyrkiet, har alle nydt en øget opbakning i befolkningen. Jeg ser primært dette som en øget politisk ulighed, der ikke nødvendigvis skal gøre én bekymret, men i hvert fald om muligt endnu mere kritisk i forhold til, hvordan den politiske magt forvaltes i den kommende tid.

Der er intet overraskende i noget af dette. Når krisen melder sig og gængse procedurer og institutioner bliver problematiske, ineffektive eller overflødige, vil dem med magt stå bedre stillet. Et sidste godt eksempel på dette finder vi i forskningsverdenen. Mange universiteter introducerer midler til deres bedste forskere (ofte på institut- eller fakultetsniveau), og disse midler gives primært til de forskere, der allerede er inde i varmen (med andre ord har magt). Man skal heller ikke være kønsforsker for at bemærke, at der bliver udgivet meget få forskningsartikler i disse dage omkring COVID-19 (i hvert fald samfundsfaglig forskning), hvor der er en kvinde som førsteforfatter. Carlsbergfondet har også sat penge af til forskning i COVID-19, og her gives midlerne selvfølgelig også til dem, der allerede er venner af huset.

Krisen vil højst sandsynligt ikke føre til et opgør med eksisterende uligheder i samfundet, men en konsolidering af magten (og dermed mere ulighed).

New article in Journal of Research in Personality: Just as WEIRD?

In the April issue of Journal of Research in Personality, we (Joseph A. Vitriol, Steven G. Ludeke and I) have an article titled Just as WEIRD? Personality traits and political attitudes among immigrant minorities. Here is the abstract:

A large body of literature has examined how personality traits relate to political attitudes and behavior. However, like many studies in personality psychology, these investigations rely on Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) samples. Whether these findings generalize to minority populations remains underexplored. We address this oversight by studying if the observed correlations between personality traits and political variables using WEIRD respondents are consistent with that observed using immigrant minorities. We use the Immigrant panel (LISS-I panel) in the Netherlands with data on first- and second-generation immigrants from Western and non-Western countries. The results indicate that the association between personality and political outcomes are, with few exceptions, highly similar for immigrant minorities compared to the general population.

Here is the key figure from the article:

You can find the article online here. The replication material is available at GitHub, the Harvard Dataverse and the Open Science Framework.