Tuesday, July 11, 2017

I Got My First Academic Paper Rejected Today

Technically the title’s a lie. It wasn’t rejected today. It was rejected Saturday.

I received an e-mail from my co-author on a paper that we’re writing on the voting proclivities of Immigrants. The subject of the e-mail read “Editorial Decision on AJPS.” The preview line read, in part, “we were rejected at AJPS.” I could tell that this was going to go swimmingly.

I didn’t touch the e-mail. When I free-lanced in undergrad, I didn’t take rejection for my fiction too well. So I picked up a common-enough trick: Take 48 hours from learning about the rejection before reading why. Allow yourself to be less invested and protective so that you’re open for constructive criticism. So I waited. And while much of the criticism was constructive, boy was it criticism.
There’s a trope in academic writing that Reviewer 2 is the big jerk. But the most impactful words actually came from Reviewer 1:
“Does the empirical work produce some notable new findings, on whatever the puzzle is?”
“Does the author really know what his or her empirical findings are?”

I don’t mean to sound melancholy, but I’m not a stranger to failure. Let me just give a quick hit parade of my favorites:
  • I’m a distance runner and was NCAA DII Academic All American. I’ve ran probably over 100 races in my life. I’ve won maybe 10% of them and the last one was months ago. Even that fancy title to introduce my running prowess is really just something that they give to the fastest 50 student athletes in the region who held above a 3.5 GPA. I use it to ameliorate the knowing that I should have placed much higher, should have ran much faster — but I let the pressure get to my head.
  • The book I self-published on Amazon when I was 18 has two reviews that average out to 3 stars. One was excoriating. The other was my best friend. It didn’t sell well.
  • The majority of my creative ventures have no following or recognition outside of my friends.
  • The vast majority of my romantic relationships ended in failure that felt abrupt, sharp, and bitter at the time but with the glory of hindsight seem all too inevitable and predicated by my own failings as much as my partners’. Shoot, honestly, probably more predicated by my own failings.
  • I was rejected by 4/5 graduate programs that I applied for.
Yep. No question, I have failed a lot. I have written numerous short stories that have never seen the light of day. I have received papers back from teachers starting with the invariably gut-wrenching “I understand the point you’re trying to make, but…[insert kind way of phrasing that the essay is effectively garbage].” I have literally come in dead. Last. At national-level races. I have thoroughly embarrassed and humiliated myself through acts both concerted and accidental. And here was another thing to tack on to the list.

So when I read this failure, when I finally opened the e-mail and read the comments, I expected to feel shredded. I expected to feel awful. But I didn’t. In point of fact, I didn’t feel that negative at all. A lot of the comments were either expected or entirely understandable. I found myself literally nodding along saying “nope. You’re right. Totally should have considered that. I think we can easily address this in the next draft.” Even on the points that I feel weren’t totally earned, I recognized that there was still some component where I could have done better. Maybe we could have used different words, come up with a more deft explanation, conveyed our point better. We didn’t. But their comments give us the opportunity to do so now.

I found that the failures I have experienced before, in all their many shapes and sizes, have inoculated me from the visceral pain of rejection today. I know, I’m just as surprised as you are.

If I had to take stock and figure out why, my guess would be that I’ve learned a lot from these failures. Repeated failure has taught me how to appropriately orient my expectations. It’s taught me to value the things I achieved on my way to failing that I get to apply next time. It’s taught me to enjoy, value, and cherish the things that has gone very right as a result of past things going very wrong. (Hi, Steph! I love you!). In fact, here’s that hit parade reexamined:
  • I don’t win races often. It’s true. But I’ve ran my fastest times in the races that I’ve lost in the presence of incredible competition. Before every race, I pray in gratitude for my competition. I thank God for the fact that we all get to push each other to our best. I’ve ran enough to know that your goals really need to be set by the things you can control. Namely, yourself and your own expectations. I didn’t win the last race that I ran. But I did run the fastest time I ever did on that course. And that counts for something.
  • I self-published a freaking book. At 18. And it was one of 4 manuscripts I opted to go through with. That effort tells me that I am more than capable of writing a dissertation-length project to completion. And the reviews (even my friend’s) helped hammer in the supreme importance of making your writing accessible. The book is still garbage from a technical perspective, but it’s my garbage. I’m proud of it.
  • The quality of my creative endeavors (blogs, comics, videos, what have you) have objectively gotten better since I started. If everyone loved the first thing I crapped out I never would have grown as an artist. And growth is imperative. After all, there’s only one person guaranteed to be watching if the audience is 10 people or 10 million. Yourself.
  • The majority of everyone’s romantic relationships end in failure. It’s a mathematical necessity. Relationships either end or they don’t. And those that ended for me and my exes helped us all learn about what we wanted in a partner. I’m still friends with a few on Facebook — they’re awesome people and I’m buoyed by their happiness. Plus, everything I learned has helped me be a good man to the woman who said “yes.”
  • I was rejected by 4/5 graduate programs. But I was accepted by the one I wanted to get into most. And I couldn’t be more thankful for all of the guidance I’ve received. I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for the high-quality, pluralistic, and rigorous education I’ve received. I wouldn’t be so invested in the idea of writing papers if they didn’t inspire me to contribute to our field.
Look, let’s cut the crap: This is not a redemption story. There’s no fairy tale ending where I’ll someday announce “and that was the last time I ever failed.” That sort of stuff isn’t even phony. It’s bullshit. Life isn’t about surmounting a few obstacles early on and then coming across the clear and easy path. It’s about tripping up over the early obstacles, learning how to overcome them, doing just that again and again as they crop up down the road, and applying that knowledge to help overcome the next unique obstacle. I’m going to keep failing. I get to keep failing. I’m fortunate enough that I’m failing in ways that allow me to get back up and continue failing in new and constructive ways.

Shoot, this isn’t even a fairy tale where I say “and I never felt bad about failure again.” Of course I’m going to feel bad about failure. Everyone does! That wrenching singularity of a pit in your stomach is a totally appropriate response to watching something you endeavored to make, something that you invested some of the precious finite time you have in this world, flop like a dead fish fused with a video game movie.


The more we fail in the long run, the less that pit pains us. And the pain is less for the dual reasons that we improve and that we learn to adjust to it. It’s a general trend, not a perfect 1:1 relationship; some things are going to hurt more than others. And sometimes it’s not going to be for an obvious reason. The brain is weird. Science hasn’t quite figured out how to resolve that quirk. But, the general trend is down. The pain of rejection tends to diminish with each one.

I guess my point in writing this is to remind the people who fail (i.e., everyone) that you are not alone. To the person who gets rejected after pouring their heart into their first academic paper: It’s just happened to me too. You’re in good company (or at least I like to think so). Hang in tight. Regroup, rewrite, resubmit. We can do this.

Maybe the next rejection will hurt more profoundly. Maybe it won’t. Who knows. All I know is that this time didn’t. I’ll try to keep that with me and keep the positivity going.

And I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

This post was originally published on Medium.

Monday, May 22, 2017

No, 2018 is Not a Sure Thing

Source: CNN

So, OK. Um. Wow. What a week.

It’s not very often that my ability to write out some sarcastic observation about current events is reduced to a trite, monosyllabic approximation of vocalized shock, but here we are. Unless you count meta-sarcasm — in which case the streak remains strong, but I feel like that’s the equivalent of awarding myself a participation trophy. I don’t always agree with Mitch McConnel, but my blood pressure and sanity, too, could use a reprieve from White House scandals.

The whirlwind of the last 168 hours has left a number of Americans in a daze. We had the firing of an FBI director, the professional denial that it had anything to do with the investigations over Russia, the impromptu confirmation that it did have to do with the investigations over Russia, a President appearing to threaten said now-former FBI director to keep quiet, reports of leaked code-word classified information to Russian officials, cautiously worded denials of the conversation, spontaneous confirmation of the conversation, and revelations of attempted interference by the President in a Federal investigation. And the week prior to that was filled with the drama of the AHCA. Despite the fact that the list was exhausting to read it’s far from exhaustive. I’m still skimming over some of the bloody details.

My father, from whom I inherited my love of politics, told me recently that these last few weeks have been stressful enough as an observer; he couldn’t imagine how stressful it must be for people who make their living off of keeping up with the tumult. (And, for context, he’s a proud Republican). God bless him. I needed that empathy and I needed to hear that. Because I can’t imagine it either. I don’t have time to. If I focus my energies on anything other than desperately clutching to the back of this bucking leviathan I’d find myself flung off and enveloped in a dark sea of uncertainty, unsure of where it now lurked. I cling to its back because, as someone dedicating their life to understanding and making accessible the machinations of the American political system, I can’t afford to be caught in its mouth.

Now that I’ve satisfied the repressed novelist in me, we’ll return to our original program.

I’m on social media a lot — probably more than I probably should be — and I’m seeing a number of progressive and liberal commenters across platforms demanding and/or insisting that these are the things that get Trump impeached and sink the Republican party. For the former claim they offer their hopes and prayers, which will probably go unanswered. A recent FiveThirtyEight analysis demonstrates that Congressional co-partisans have not historically abandoned a president en masse regardless of the severity of the controversy embroiling them. The latter claim is slightly more probable since wave-elections have happened before (1992, 2006, and 2010 being the most recent examples) and is ostensibly bolstered by a number of polls indicating that Congressional Republicans would fare poorly compared to Congressional Democrats if the election were held today. Indeed, a recent Public Policy Polling release indicated that the Republicans would only receive about 38% of the vote while Democrats would get just under 50% (the remainder of the sample is undecided). Other polls have made similar conclusions in recent weeks as well. 2018 is just around the corner. Clearly they’re in dire straights.

Except, no. Not really. Or, rather, we actually have no clue based off of those numbers alone. I have all the respect in the world for PPP and other such organizations doing this needed survey work, but their results are decidedly not making that claim — A fact that I’m sure their analysts would corroborate if asked. These numbers are being ingested as placebo data: Its professional appearance engenders a palliative effect but it’s ultimately a sugar pill. But unlike a true placebo, which at least has a chance at somehow remedying the underling condition, these data carry no guarantee that Congress would flip today let alone next November.

Congress is undoubtedly most representative part of our republican form of government but it is far from equal. Unlike in some other countries, representatives are not apportioned by the percentage of the national electorate clinched by their party at the voting booth. They are elected by securing the largest plurality of votes within the districts that they compete in. This makes these poll numbers doubly problematic since they’re generated by a “generic congressional ballot” question, which basically asks the respondents what party they’d vote for in the congressional races. First problem: The polls only give us a national aggregate and don’t actually look at the geographic unit determining the results. In this instance it’s the congressional districts, but that issue should sound familiar. Even if they did parse out by congressional district, the small number of respondents from each would make inferred guesses about which party was leading impossible. Second problem: Even assuming that political preferences are uniform across the geography of the country…

…there is the simple fact that the districts are not made equally.

The need to keep districts contained by state borders effectively guarantees a substantial amount of variation across them. One would need 497,000 to win Montana’s at large district but to win Rhode Island’s 1st, in contrast, they would only need 263,00. Below is a map demonstrating the discrepancy in vote power across the nation’s congressional districts.

This leads to a similar possibility to what happened in 2016: a winning party with a minority of national votes. In fact, it’s exactly what happened in 2016. It’s actually fairly common because the system’s design lends itself well to disproportionate outcomes. Running the numbers, a party can secure a majority in the house with about 45% of the electorate. And that’s assuming full turnout. Which…

Add in the fact that said depressed turnout skews Republican in mid-term elections since youth and minority turnout falls off and that over-confidence in the outcome can depress turnout, it’s plain to see that 2018 is still any party’s game. It sucks that it is a game since, you know, it’s the primary mechanism for how we f****ing govern ourselves. But, hey. I’m not bitter.

It boils down to this: If your normative positions align with preferring a Democratic majority in Congress, the simple fact is that you have your work cut out for you. Believing that these scandals will change the majority of Americans’ minds and usher in a Democratic wave is predicated on the belief that national voter sentiment is sufficient to bring that outcome about. It’s not. I’m not saying that’s impossible and I’m not saying it to discourage action. I’m saying it as a warning. Waves are possible. They’ve happened before. They’ll happen again. The $65,000 question is “when?” So if you want Republicans to win in the mid-term: Vote. If you want Democrats to win, that advice applies double. Because allowing oneself to fall prey to the seductive belief that the next one is inevitable, that the country will just “course-correct” automatically, is the first step towards guaranteeing it won’t happen at all.

This post originally appeared on politicsmeanspolitics.com

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Trust the Polls: Marine Le Pen is Not Favored to Win (You Know. Probably).

Image Credit: CNN
You guys have all probably heard by now that Marine Le Pen has made it into the French presidential run-off election and is set to square off against Emmanuel Macron in a couple of weeks. The far right candidate has repeatedly made headlines for her controversial social stances, anti-EU rhetoric, and her party’s racially charged and antisemitic past. That’s a bit of an understatement considering that her father was in charge during that racially charged and antisemitic part, but c’est la vie. She received approximately 21 percent of the popular vote to Macron’s 24 percent meaning that neither would automatically win the election. The instant that it became evident that it would be a run-off between the centrist (or at least establishment) candidate and a right-wing populist there were comparisons being drawn between now, Brexit, and the 2016 US Presidential election. People have been comparing her to President Trump and asking if she has a serious chance at being France’s next president, drawing inferences from what is made to seem like an emerging trend in global politics.

First and foremost, the fact that she has even made it this far means that unequivocally, yes, she has a “serious” shot. She and Macron are the two candidates vying for the position and people should take them both seriously. If you dislike one or the other and you’re in a position to vote go out and do it. That said, there’s a difference between “serious” and likely. And the polls strongly suggest that her victory is not particularly likely provided things remain constant.

“But Peter,” You may be thinking, “Trump won the election despite what the polls said. You yourself said that it was a humbling experience — so how can you be so sure?”

Simple. It may come as a shocker to some, but the United States and France are actually two separate countries.
Coulda fooled me.

Comparing the two events is like apples and oranges.

First and foremost, France does not employ an electoral vote system; they rely on the popular vote. I can not say this emphatically enough but Trump lost the popular vote — which the polls accurately called. There’s the fact that most people tend to be politically moderate (which Macron is) and that Macron’s policy positions are closer to those held by the majority of candidates expelled from the race — evidenced by the fact that the two of the top three performing candidates ejected have already endorsed Macron. If you can’t get what you want, you tend to go with the closest available option or at least do everything to avoid your absolute least preferred option. Which is Le Pen for a number of French voters. But, and I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, there are also the polls explicitly showing that Macron is more generally favored in a head-to-head with Le Pen.

I discussed a few of the reasons why we should generally trust the polls in a recent YouTube video but I want to go a bit more in depth here. First and foremost, as Nate Silver has pointed out, overcoming a twenty point gap would be a helluva feat. People may be inclined to make allusions to Sanders’ upset over Clinton in the Michigan primary last year, but there’s a difference between infrequently polling a populace that is hard to pin down and is guaranteed to have low turnout versus frequently polling a populace with high turnout and stable aggregate preferences. There were more French polls in the last 7 days than in the entire month leading up to the Michigan primary. We have a lot more data to draw from.

But not only do we have more data but we have more high quality data. Every poll regarding the French election over the last four months boasts a higher sample size than the largest one ever done for the Michigan primary and largely come from reputable agencies. (You may imply what that intimates for the Michigan polls what you will). These polls are packed tightly together and, since most eligible French voters actually vote, it’s really easy to draw solid samples of likely voters. I’ve mentioned before that polls are a probabilistic endeavor rooted in a kind of statistics reliant on repeated trials for validation. Well, we are getting a crud-ton of them and they are independently arriving at largely the same figures: Macron at about 60 percent and Le Pen at 40 percent. Even more significantly, it’s been hovering at those values since January implying that these preferences are pretty stable. Stable opinions are harder to change; once people make up their mind they’re pretty much set for the election. So although Le Pen is drawing attention to Macron’s wife and trying to nab the “floating” voters of those who have been ejected from the race, there probably aren’t that many voters who are indecisive between the two given just how much attention has been paid to this race.

So why are people still skeptical of the polls given all of this evidence? I suspect it’s for two reasons. First: predictions of recent historical contests pitting the globalist status quo against populist right were portrayed with way too much certainty than what was appropriate considering how close the races were in the models. This was largely due to how these stories were reported on but also in the kind of confidence that surveyors were stating. Second: a Le Pen victory in the face of polls would perpetuate a really engaging narrative that is either explicitly endorsed or tacitly referenced in articles on the topic. You know, the story of haughty left-wing elites using their best methods to try and understand the machinations of the society only to be bested and proven wrong by a silent, neglected conservative majority who will no longer stand idly by as their society abandons them and what they believe.

The only problem with the story is that it isn’t true. We’re great at seeing patterns and weaving narratives; it’s how our species have passed down wisdom for literal eons. Our brains are probably wired for it and we’re subsequently apt to find patterns that aren’t actually there. Yes there is a significant plurality of people who are fed up, who are leery, and who are riled-up and ready to show it. It’s important that we don’t neglect them and their concerns in the policy arena and that we do everything we can to make the most valid measures possible to understand their positions and sample appropriately so that we don’t exclude them. But, by and large, they are not underrepresented in the samples. They are not unduly shy in expressing their preferences. The measures worked and the predictions were accurate even if the substantive outcomes were unexpected. So although polling can never be 100 percent certain, unless something huge happens in the next couple of weeks Macron is in a great position to be the next president of France.

You know, probably.

This post first appeared on Medium.