How harshly should you judge when a scientific work gives a bad example of its point?
For example, I am reading Interaction Ritual Chains (Randall Collins), which focuses on emotional energy during stereotyped interactions between people (this is the scientific sense of stereotyped, meaning rigid or strongly patterned, not racist). IRC believes that interaction is important and irreplaceable, such that people will shun much more “efficient” solutions to their official goal in order to get interpersonal interactions. Unfortunately it uses terrible examples to illustrate this.
For example, on page 63 he claims that online shopping will never replace brick and mortar stores, because going to the store amidst other people is an energizing ritual. At the time the book was published (2004) this was obviously untrue to me, but I can see how it wasn’t in every segment of society. So while this is a bad prediction, it’s not a factual error.
He also claims that television has had no impact on sports attendance because people want the in person experience so much (p57). To the extent that is true, it’s because leagues has gone to a great deal of trouble to make it not true, by imposing blackout rules such that you can’t broadcast a local game unless it has sold out. It’s only since 1973 that the NFL had an exception for sold out games- previous to that, the only way to see a game played in your market was to be there.
How much should I reduce my confidence in Interaction Ritual Chains, given that it made this error? Or two false predictions? Is it even fair to score them as false? In person stores still exist, although malls are having a hard time of it. Maybe blackout rules were preemptive strikes and attendance would have stayed high without them. But this gives me qualms about learning examples I know less about- even if the author is being accurate, if I’m drawing incorrect conclusions.
One thought on “How to Handle Bad Examples in Texts?”
Just going by this post, it sounds like Collins’s argument can be broken down into two claims:
1) Many in-person interactions have a ritual structure that people get value from.
2) It is inaccurate to model this value in the ordinary way that economists do, where (e.g.) getting a shirt at the store costs money and time in exchange for the benefits of acquiring a shirt and experiencing the shirt-buying ritual, and people make tradeoffs between these costs and benefits. Instead, the value of the ritual makes the efficiency considerations irrelevant.
Claim 2 was on shaky grounds to begin with, and both of the bad examples count against it. But the book might still have interesting things to say about claim 1.
(The sports attendance example is kind of weird even before checking on its accuracy. Way more people watch sports on television than in-person, and for major sports I suspect that this is true even for locals when tickets are available for cheap. So revealed preferences do not show ‘in-person attendance’ beating ‘watching on tv’ in a straightforward, decisive way. Also, a quick google search suggests that research (mostly on European soccer leagues) generally does find a reduction in attendance when a game is broadcast on tv.)
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