Refuting an Expert

Bacon Skepticism On The Rise
Bacon Skepticism On The Rise

I’m going to guess that Simon’s reference to Serbian pig-farming in his last post means that one of the books he read in 2014 was From Voting to Violence by Jack Snyder (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000). For several years I used this book for an assignment in comparative politics that I called Refuting an Expert.

The student’s job in this assignment was to select one of the forty-two different claims Snyder makes in the book and analyze why the claim was incorrect. I’ve put the complete list of claims here. A few highlights:

  • Serbia gained its independence in the early 1800s because of the interests of Serbian pig merchants.
  • Russian president Boris Yeltsin launched the war in Chechnya to save his administration.
  • Israeli Arabs tolerate discrimination because of the economic opportunities that Israel affords them.

To help students do a credible job of challenging Snyder, a supposed expert on the subject of the book, I gave students these instructions:

Cats Fear Cow Chauvinism
Cats Fear Cow Chauvinism

All quality scholarship is based upon the creation and analysis of arguments. A person asks a question, gathers information, and proposes an answer to the question that is based on that information. The quality of the answer depends on both the accuracy of the information gathered and how well that information has been organized into an argument. In more technical terms, the validity of any truth claim rests upon empirical evidence and logical consistency.

When analyzing the quality of your and others’ research:

  • The first step is to identify what question is being investigated. What is the puzzle that the author is trying to explain?
  • The second step is to identify what the author claims is the cause and effect of this puzzle.
  • The third step is to identify how the author links cause to effect. What does the author claim is the relationship between the two?
  • The fourth step is to identify how the author measures changes in whatever is being used to indicate cause and effect. Are numerical data being used? Do the data actually signify what the author says they signify? Should the author be using some other kind of data?

Authors often use certain words that provide clues that will help you find all of this information. These words are:

  • Main, primary, only
  • Not, cannot, no, never, seldom, rarely
  • None, neither, nor
  • All, any, entire, most, each
  • Must, always, generally, often, will
  • But (especially if combined with “only” or “must”)
  • However, although, in contrast, contrary, instead, unless, despite
  • False, incorrect, contradict, fail
  • True, correct
  • Should, ought, shall
  • Cause, effect, reason, depends, because, imply
  • Assumes, assumption
  • Claim, argument, argue, contend
  • Proof, prove, evidence, empirical
  • In fact, thus, therefore, of course, thereby, similarly
  • Tend, tendency
  • Conclude, conclusion, result

We Are All Charlie Hebdo

Pencil Hand

I had one of my usual posts about teaching ready for publication today, but I felt the need to write briefly about yesterday’s attack on the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, in which twelve people were murdered and eleven were wounded. My work, if not my existence as a person, is premised on the exchange of ideas. This blog is but one minor example. Many of the ideas I give and receive are inconsequential, impolite, or downright disturbing. Once in a while, though, I am surprised by information that makes me think differently than I did before — I learn something new. The people who killed many of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and those who encouraged the killers, have no interest in learning about ideas that are different from those they already hold. They do not want to learn, and they don’t want anyone else to learn either, because they fear the knowledge of just how stupid they really are.

The surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo say that its next edition will be published on Wednesday.

Critical thinking and reading of contemporary events

220px-Socrates_Louvre
“ask me a question…”

For any Politics student, critical thinking is a central skill that they need to acquire and develop. Without it, it is impossible to engage in a meaningful way with the world around them or to have a sense of how their own ideas work and cohere.

I’m always a bit hesitant about taking relativistic views to an extreme, but certainly contemporary politics requires us to have an appreciation of the way in which we are manipulated – consciously or unconsciously – by political actors and by the media.

With this in mind, recent weeks have been very instructive for me, as I follow events in two conflicts – Ukraine and Gaza.

I’m not a specialist in either region, and their impacts on my own field of research is relatively small, but I am interested in what’s happening.

In both cases, we have multiple actors, each of whom uses a wide range of strategies to communicate their position and interests to a wider public, including me. As such, I find particular interest in the way that news is framed and the way in we encounter Lukes’ three faces of power.

This week has seen a couple of pieces that have made me think some more about these issues and which might be of interest to students when discussing either media effects or the cases themselves.

On Ukraine, The Guardian has a good debate on western media coverage, which opens up some useful questions.

On Gaza, a friend pointed me towards a piece by Ottomansandzionists that made me consider several aspects of what’s happening.

In both cases, it has been the process of reflection that I’ve appreciated, getting me to question what I hear, read or watch. And without questions, we don’t get to answers.

PS – as I finish writing this, I also notice a piece by Simon Jenkins (a man with whom I usually disagree vehemently), which also makes me reflect some more about how we commemorate the First World War.  As with the other articles, it’s somewhat provocative and might stimulate some discussion and debate.

Identity Politics Activity

Due to some late summer travel and other obligations, I’m working this week to put together my fall syllabus for Intro to Comparative Politics. One of my favorite class activities comes about mid-way through the semester when we talk about identity politics. One of the main ideas I hope the students take away is that identities can be manipulated for political reasons. More specifically, the following activity has these learning objectives:

  • Explain the difference between symmetric and asymmetric cleavages.
  • Identify the conditions under which particular identity categories will be politically salient.
  • Predict the consequences of a permanently excluded minority.
  • Compare and contrast the political implications of fluid and fixed identities; symmetric and asymmetric cleavages.

Students are given colored index cards to represent one identity category (Green or Pink) with a language written on it (I use Esperanto or Ido). The “Round 1” table is projected with the number of students in each group (see Table at end of post) and students are asked to form a governing coalition that represents at least 51% of the population.

Once a coalition is formed, we discuss (1) what coalition was formed, (2) why, and (3) what happens to those that are excluded? I then project the map of the hypothetical country, showing a significant natural resource in the area controlled by the permanent majority. The students predict the likely consequences of the permanent majority’s control over a natural resource (I use a bag of leftover Halloween candy to illustrate the “natural resource” that the permanent majority can choose to distribute as it wishes). Next, they discuss the likely responses of the permanently excluded minority (e.g. civil war, terrorism).

I collect and redistribute cards and project the “Round 2” table. Students again form coalitions and we continue the discussion. In “Round 2” there are different possible coalitions and identity categories are fluid. The students then compare the political implications (likely democratic stability, probability of conflict between ethnic groups) in the different rounds.

The tables below give a rough approximation of how I allocate the identities, but the table I project in class has the number of students rather than percentages. What’s important is that the “green” coalition is “obvious” in round 1, while the second round has multiple possible coalitions.

Round 1

Esperanto Ido
Green 40% 30%
Pink 10% 20%

Round 2

Esperanto Ido
Green 40% 20%
Pink 20% 20%

 

Let me know if you have any questions or how it works if you give it a try.

Michelle Allendoerfer: Rational Theory of War II

I used the Fearon bargaining activity outlined in my last post for the first time very recently. Here are my anecdotal observations on its effectiveness.

NapoleonFirst, only one of the four dyads in class fought a war in the initial complete information round.  The other dyads immediately understood why war shouldn’t occur and after some discussion, the warring group got it.  I would have been happy with the success of the game just after that round; in my experience, getting students to accept Fearon’s main premise that a bargaining range always exists is challenging.

Second, students quickly realized that giving me two of their candies (as the cost of war) was undesirable and they’d prefer to reach a deal than lose candy.  I used this to demonstrate that war is rare—most of the time, the sides will reach a deal to avoid paying the high costs of war.  Students have also struggled with this idea in the past and having physical objects taken away as a cost of war really conveyed the message.

During debriefing, I found it useful to walk through at least one “war” and demonstrate how a bargaining range existed.  A lopsided victory is helpful in showing how both sides still would have preferred a deal to avoid war.  Finally, I allowed the students to “negotiate” before the defender had to accept or reject the deal.  This opened up discussion of signaling and the absence of costly signals in the activity.

Although I did not do a formal assessment, student performance on the related questions on the subsequent midterm exam was quite good. The applications in the essay by and large demonstrated a deep understanding of the existence of a bargaining range, issue indivisibility, and how costly signals affect the probability of war.  I’m considering a formal assessment of the activity in the future, but my gut is that it gave the students a better understanding of an abstract theory by helping them internalize its main ideas.

Michelle Allendoerfer: Fearon’s Rational Theory of War

Today we have the first of two posts by Dr. Michelle Allendoerfer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Women’s Leadership Program (wlp.gwu.edu), George Washington University:

Rationality of WarOf the concepts typically taught in an Introduction to International Relations class, Fearon’s rationalist theories of war is one of the most challenging for students.  Getting students to actively engage with these concepts makes them more concrete and less abstract.  There are bargaining activities out there to illustrate the bargaining theory of war, but many treat wars as “all or nothing” — the winner gets the spoils while the loser gets nothing (minus the costs of war to both parties).  I wanted an activity that reflected a wider range of war outcomes in which the loser may end up with some division of the spoils.

I divided my class into dyads made up of two groups.  I made eight groups of 3-4 students (four dyads).  Each dyad gets a modified deck of cards (I used only 2-9 with more cards in the middle of the range), tokens (10 per round), a coin, and a handout.

To play, each group takes a card from the deck. In all rounds but the first, this information is kept private.  The challenger, selected by a coin toss, makes an offer to divide 10 tokens. I used Hershey kisses because my class is small and motivated by chocolate; anything that incentivizes the students will work, such as poker chips tied to extra credit.  If the defender accepts, the tokens are divided according to the offer and the round ends.

If the defender rejects, the groups go to war by showing their cards. I linked the division of tokens to the margin of victory. For example, if side A plays a 6 and side B plays a 3, the margin of victory is 3 in favor of side A and this corresponds to a 8/2 split of the tokens – this information is on the handout provided to the students. If a war occurs both sides pay the cost of 2 tokens.

A practice round helps get the students going.  An initial practice round where cards are not hidden also illustrates to students the crucial point of Fearon that war is ex post inefficient and should not happen in conditions of complete information.

In my next post, I’ll share some of my reflections on the activity and some notes on debriefing.  Feel free to email me (mallendo-at-gwu-dot-edu) with questions or for a copy of the handout I use to facilitate the game.  I’m happy to share those materials.

The Attack of Dr. X: Collective Security Role Play

Here’s a quick role play exercise that takes about 5 minutes and zero preparation.  Announce to the class that Dr. X down the hall (pick any faculty member, preferably someone they might know or who seems completely non-threatening) has just run into the classroom and randomly tried to tackle a member of the class.  Then ask them what they plan to do about it.  If they hesitate, you can start giving a play by play of what’s going on, and then prompt them again to see if someone is going to intervene.  Usually at this point if not sooner, a student or two announce that they will tackle Dr. X; others might offer to hold him/her down or kick them.  You can continue storytelling–maybe the first tackler gets roughed up a bit. Once five or six students have announced their actions, however, offers dry up as the threat seems to be handled.  Then start quizzing the students who were not quick to act on why–you will get a range of reasons, but at least one student will note that their efforts weren’t necessary.

That is, of course, your in to start a discussion about collective security and the problem of free-riding.  Their willingness to allow other students to handle the threat is exactly the kind of behavior we predict amongst sovereign states in a collective security arrangement, where as long as the threat is handled it is in no single state’s interest to expend the resources for that purpose.

I use this exercise whenever I discuss collective security; usually this is in the context of discussing the League of Nations and why it failed.  Its useful because it is very quick, requires no preparation for faculty or students, and is very effective in making the point.  As an ‘organic’ simulation (see Kollars and Rosen 2013), it allows students to show the truth and practice of the theory through their own actions before studying it formally–thus making them more likely to understand and accept the theory.  Plus, Dr. X can become a villain for the rest of the course, and you can constantly reference him/her whenever you need to discuss ‘threats’ to state systems.