Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

The Tipping Point

Saturday, November 1st, 2014 | Books

Malcolm Gladwell is a man who lies for money. Actually, I do not know that. In fact, if I was to guess, I would guess that he geniunely believes what he writes. I however, am far more skeptical about the claims he makes.

Take for example the 10,000 hours rule. This is based on a study done by Anders Ericsson. Ericsson however, does not agree with Gladwell. In fact in 2012 he wrote an entire paper on it entitled “The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists”. Gladwell’s response? To claim that Ericsson has wrongly interpreted his own study.

Approaching with a sensible amount of skepticism then, I took on Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

The first section talks about the law of the few. This explains how a few key individuals (such as connectors who are people that know everybody, and mavens who know lots of information on say supermarket prices) are the key to many things in our society. He cites the popular idea of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon where you can connect almost all actors to each other through Kevin Bacon.

He then talks about stickiness. How sticky in the message? He cites an example of a leaflet telling students to get a tetanus shot. It turned out that it did not matter how many horrible photos and descriptive language they used in the leaflets – the percentage of students actually going and getting the shots remained at 3%. Yet when they included a map and opening times of the on-campus health centre, this rose to 28%, even though all the students must have known where the health centre was.

In the third section, he goes on to talk about the power of context. Quoting the example of the drastic crime drop in New York City, he espouses the broken window theory. This is the idea that if you leave a broken window people will think nobody cares about the area and crime will increase, whereas if you fix it right away people will see people care and stop committing crime.

There are some strong rebuttals to what Gladwell writes however.

In the case of the law of the few, Gladwell cites a Milgram experiment where he had people send on packages to try and get to someone in a different city. He found that most packages made it, and most of them went through a few key individuals. Gladwell calls these people connectors. However, when Duncan Watts, author of Everything is Obvious, replicated the study, he found that connectors were not important.

In the case of the broken windows theory, this was one of the case studies in Freakonomics, in which the books shows that while everyone in New York was patting themselves on the back for their brilliant new policing strategy that was cutting crime, what had actually happened was that two decades ago they had legalised abortion, and now all the would-be criminals were simply never being born.


In defence of social science

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 | Science, Thoughts

Like everyone with a degree in real science (that is I have a Bachelor of Science in a subject that does not contain the word “science” in the title), I have often mocked social sciences. The “soft” sciences. You know, the ones that are not real science.

I think that perhaps it is time for us to stop such mocking though.

I am not sure whether we actually believe our own jokes or not. I imagine that we do; that a lot of scientists actually think social science is a load of nonsense.

There are some understandable reasons for this. Physics gives us very definite answers. Even in the days of quantum physics, which you could argue have introduced greater uncertainty, our body of knowledge and accuracy of predictions has only increased. In comparison, psychology and sociology are not able to give us the definite answers or universal rules that the natural sciences bring to the table.

However, there are a number of good reasons for this. First of all, they are new. While you can trace anything back far enough if you loosen the definition, psychology as we know today really only began 130 years ago. In comparison to the thousands of years physics has had, it is a baby. It has not had time to develop the body of knowledge that the natural sciences have.

Consider that it took Newton building on hundreds of years of research to bring together a unified theory of physics into a working body of knowledge. In his own words:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Similarly another few centuries for Einstein to bring together relatively, with quantum being even newer – and these are summations were are only just building. In may be that there simply has not been time yet for psychology to to have their scientist who brings it all together.

Or perhaps there may be no universally applicable laws, which brings me on to my second reason – social science might just be a lot more complicated than natural science! That is perhaps heretical to suggest, but I think I can make a case for it.

Natural science is very difficult. There are huge equations, our brains are not designed to deal with imaging the sub-atomic level, it is incredibly difficult to measure, etc. Yet we have managed to work out the composition of stars millions of light years away. It is doable.

Social science on the other hand, is not rocket science. It is arguably a lot harder! It might be difficult to work out the composition of fuel you need in a rocket, especially without blowing yourself up, but once you have done it, it is done. The laws of chemistry hold and you can almost guarantee the same result every time.

Not so with social science. The brain is such a complex machine that everyone is slightly, or significantly, different. You cannot predict what a person will do. And that is on the micro level! Scale that up the macro level, trying to make forecasts for global politics or economics, and you have to try and model the behaviour of 7,000,000,000 individuals that make almost entirely unpredictable decisions. That is difficult.

But why do we need to take social sciences more seriously?

I would argue that they are perhaps more important. Few people would deny that being able to bring back rocks from Mars is awesome. I am sure it is also valuable for scientists. However, consider the benefits of focusing on psychological research.

We, humans, are rubbish at making decisions. We use common sense, which is a collection of biases that we think is real knowledge. We build a world model that only somewhat reflects reality. When something does not fit our worldview, we ignore it. We form beliefs and then justify them. We are subconsciously prejudice and we do not even know it.

Now imagine how much better hard science we could do if we learned to spot, mediate and perhaps even remove these issues. Imagine the happier, more peaceful, progressive societies we could live in once we properly understand why people make all the stupid decisions that cause problems in the world. My guess, is that it would be a massive improvement.

Everything is Obvious: Why Common Sense is Nonsense

Saturday, April 26th, 2014 | Books

Everything is obvious – once you know the answer. That is the suggestion put forward by Duncan J Watts in his book. Is is not available as an ebook, which is very annoying, so I had to read this one using paper. Like I am living in the nineties…

It was a phenomenal read. Watts first puts forward the case against common sense. Within the first twenty pages I felt like I could never trust myself to make a decision again. Luckily common sense is not the kind of thing that lets logic get in the way, as Watts explains.

He points out that common sense is not that common. If it was, we could all just think about a problem, and come to the same conclusion. But we do not. Common sense is built up from our experiences to explain how to deal with every day situations. That means that each of us has different common sense. Not to mention that many of our common sense rules are contradictory to each other.

This is a problem because when we try and solve a problem, we often use common sense. These are built on our experiences, which are different from other people’s experiences, hence are not directly translatable. One of the most extreme cases of this is that what is the obvious solution to a politician from a rich Western country is not the actual solution that impoverished third world countries actually need.

He then goes on to point out that when you realise you cannot trust your own common sense and go looking at lessons from history, these are useless too. History only plays out once, which as any statistician will tell you, is a pretty poor sample size. The iPod may have been a huge success while MiniDisc floundered, but was it due to Apple having a better strategy than Sony, or where they simply the victims of circumstances? The honest answer is, we will probably never know.

Finally he presents some solutions to the problems put forward. We need to be aware of our biases. We need to do things that we can test and measure scientifically. Sometimes however, this simply is not possible. In those situations, we are basically screwed…

Still, at least we know that now.


Surviving Identity

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012 | Events, Religion & Politics

Recently, Leeds Salon hosted Ken McLaughlin, author of Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the Psychology of Recognition.

The book itself is a good read. I found the first chapter or so, which discusses the transition from the old social movements (such as traditional labour and trade union movements) so the new social movements that we say today, went over my head somewhat. Not that it wasn’t well written or easy to follow, but I won’t claim to understand the nuances of the historical development of sociology. But beyond that, I settled into an enjoyable read.

Ken’s thesis looks at the increasing prevalence of the “survivor mentality” – once a term used for people who survived the Holocaust, now an increasing number of groups describe themselves as survivor groups, even though the category of things you can die from had been left long behind.

He also commented on the increase of people classified as “vulnerable adults”, which only 40 years ago was restricted to those with mental health issues that explicitly put them at risk of serious abuse, to today’s standard where simply being old can qualify you as a vulnerable adult, in which everyone who comes near you must be rigorously CRB checked, of which the extended CRB checks can include information like accusations – even if you are found innocent. Such restrictions don’t help the field of social care, but more importantly, they don’t help the people they are designed to protect.

If interested, you can find the book on Amazon.