Archive for the 'social sciences' Category

Marzipan in memory

January 13, 2014

I seem to have decided to eat some chocolate-covered marzipan in memory of my dad’s death and in honor of his birthday, both anniversaries of which occur later this month in quick succession.

I tend to feel the urge to memorialize a few weeks earlier than the anniversary occurs on the calendar we use in the secular U.S. of A., I’m not altogether sure why, but my internal clock seems to be set somewhat differently — I’ve noticed this for decades with other yahrzeits.

So there will be marzipan, I’m on the fence about a lighting a candle or playing Wagner or Mahler.  It feels to me a lot like picking out a present for somebody — trying to figure out what suits.

Of course, once the marzipan comes (I think that will be tomorrow), the question will become when to eat it.  Shades of the famous marshmallow experiment.

My dad was always early with things.  In fact, once we arrived so early at my cousins’ house for a visit that his sister made him drive around the neighborhood for a bit first, before we could come in.  (She was the only one who could get away with teasing him like that, I think.)  When they were kids, she used to give him her candy in exchange for his doing her homework.  All of which suggests to me that if I eat some marzipan early, I can make an argument that it is somehow appropriate for me to do so.

He must know better

January 10, 2014

I wrote a comment to David Brooks’s column today about developments in conservative thinking that got me thinking.

I pointed out what looks to me like a contradiction in a conservative view that worries about the breakdown of the family and then advocates relocation of the unemployed;  isn’t that going to fracture families, and family structure (especially with regard to extended families), further?  There are even studies that show the negative and unintended consequences of rehousing poor people and disrupting their familial and economic networks in the process.

David Brooks spends time prowling the literature and halls of social science.  If he’s spent that much time in the company of social science thinking, why doesn’t he see the contradiction in this conservative relocation idea?

I’m not going to argue “cornpone ‘pinions,” the idea I am familiar with from Mark Twain that one picks up the perspective of the people one spends time with.  I’m going to go with the sententia that it’s all just words, what my friend Elinor would say is someone “just talking.”

I think people who don’t anchor their thinking in enough experience can miss the import of what they are talking about.  Scientists test their hypotheses, and in so doing, they develop their sense of what actually goes on in the petri dish.  The viruses may not have gotten the memo that they are supposed to behave in a certain way humans have thought they might.

I think I’ve read that David Brooks styles himself a man of ideas.  Therein, in my most humble opinion, lies the problem.  Ideas need not just reality checks, but commitment to their consequences.  I think good teachers may take a piece of education theory — an idea — and then notice the reality of how it works out when it is implemented in practice.  I don’t see how a person does this kind of thing as a person of purely of ideas.  Perhaps some people of ideas maybe draw on experiences they had before they took to becoming an observer.

David Brooks is a keen observer of the life that he knows.  He’s also often really funny when he describes it and interprets it — and insightful.  (“Trenchant” is a word that comes to mind.)  He’s got good skills and tools, not to mention talent — including, of course, in communication — he just seems to reserve them for the contexts he is willing to inhabit.  I wonder what he would write if he actually experienced contexts that have no such voice.  I’m not talking about reporting or tourism or slumming, I’m talking about really taking in a situation in the first person, not because that is somehow a morally admirable thing to do, but because a person who does, actually is privy to something different from a person who doesn’t, and will experience cognitive dissonance if they try to play fast and loose with how things actually work in reality if they themselves have something at stake (including at emotional stake) in the situation, if their money and their mouth are in the same place.  I think Margaret Mead said something about how a very young child knows more about their culture than an anthropologist ever will.

Something like that.

I don’t know what exactly David Brooks has experienced and not experienced.  Some of us never write directly about things we know from experience, for example out of concern for compromising someone else’s privacy.  So I don’t want to be misunderstanding him.  I certainly don’t like it when people do that to me.  But what I’ve written is what I see from this remove.  And, in case it isn’t clear from the way I’ve written it, my intentions are kind (it’s hard for me to get that across the great cyber divide sometimes, sometimes it’s even hard for me to get that across face to face, if I forget to smile, for instance — I get so caught up in trying to communicate the content, I give the packaging short shrift).

Confirmation bias

September 12, 2013

I’ve written about synchronicity and coincidence in previous blog posts, including, I think, about the issue of whether a particular confluence of events seems to be more than something random.

The issue of whether I notice something because I am predisposed to or because something else brings it to my attention seems to me to be a somewhat similar question.  Of course, it’s possible that it’s really not an either/or kind of thing, that we notice something when we are open to it —  if it doesn’t come up until we are open to it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that our discernment of it is purely an insignificant echo of something without importance or that we have created willfully.

When some people see patterns and significance in events in their lives, I think it feels as if the events are being highlighted.  This highlighting doesn’t seem to come from the same place as our mechanism for searching for something.  Song writers talk about feeling as if, with some songs, they are taking down a song that exists elsewhere, rather than that they are creating the song themselves.  I think this highlighting sense is similar — it seems to come from somewhere else.

I had a speech impediment as a child, and I had no idea that one could make a hard C or G sound in the back of one’s throat — I was trying to make the sound in the front of my mouth and was coming out with T and D sounds.  I think that perceiving highlighting is like being able to pronounce a hard C.   A person may not realize others are doing that if they are not.

Some communities talk about when an old wound comes up for healing.  One could argue that this creates “confirmation bias,” but what if when something comes up “for healing,” it’s more like one half of a magnet emerging and attracting in further information originating elsewhere?  What if it is a process in which we participate and is not purely something we are doing?

The “highlighting” I mentioned feels like reading something written on a wall.  If it, or our focus on it, is projected there from within us, that also doesn’t mean it originated with our thinking minds.

People can insist that there are only the dimensions they can perceive with their senses, they can insist that certain kinds of numbers that can’t be represented with manipulables don’t exist, they can insist that everything is reducible to something ordinary and usual and mundane.  There are only sparrows, never cardinals.  There are no imaginary numbers.

If one finds oneself reading highlights and one allows oneself to start finding patterns, one sees the world in a new way.  We can label that new way error or pathology, but it does allow a person to perceive things beyond what the initial patterns are about — one’s apparatus gets loosened up and like the heron swallowing a big fish, we can take in more of the world as it actually exists.

We could also label higher math nonsense.

Engaging in mental processes beyond the usual can lead to positive results not achievable other ways.  Not reducing highlighting to confirmation bias can train a person to see more deeply and to actually come up with ways of analyzing real world issues that produce more helpful ideas for dealing with them.

At least, that’s how it seems to me.

The researcher who ate the marshmallow

December 1, 2012

This is a sequel to the previous post, in way.  It’s about how, to put it not in terms of a spiritual story but in terms of social science, what happens when the subject in a run of that famous marshmallow experiment doesn’t trust the experimenter.  It’s about what happens when the little girl in the story of the previous post doesn’t believe that the man will return.

The experimenter presents the subject with a marshmallow and a choice: eat one now, or wait til I come back and you get two.

The result in the data that is emphasized is how those who wait also do well in other situations in which we might imagine self-discipline is key.  But maybe self-discipline requires trust — trust that Lucy won’t pull away the football when Charlie Brown runs to kick it.  Maybe kids who eat, who also lack self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification, lack trust — whether on the basis of current experience or something else, I don’t know.

To put it in the extreme, what would we think of the child who sat and waited for the return of the experimenter and didn’t eat the marshmallow, while we could see the experimenter eating the second marshmallow and then slipping out the backdoor?

If someone were to ask me to try the experiment again with the same experimenter, I would probably decline.  Especially if I had observed in other instances involving the experimenter the same pattern of telling the self a story that the experimenter’s behavior is acceptable when it looks ethically sketchy the point of view of an outsider using conventional norms of ethical behavior.  And especially if I had reason to believe that the experimenter actually in this instance thought the second marshmallow was for him.

History is told by the victors, the story of the marshmallow experiment is told by the experimenter.


July 31, 2012

I stumbled onto the news about Jonah Lehrer’s resignation from The New Yorker magazine and that got me looking into what he has written.  I came across an online post of his about Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow in which Lehrer claims to undermine the notion that self-knowledge is so helpful.

I know I’ve had this thought, or series of thoughts, before: social scientists and journalists are trying replicate within their own disciplines ideas that can be more fully understood in the spiritual realm and through using different parts of our mental apparatus to do so.  If a designer handbag is a material imitation of its Platonic form, these social science incarnations of the forms look to me kind of like knock-offs of designer bags.

Earlier today I wrote a comment to a post by John McQuaid on the Forbes website about what I think happens when the messenger starts to focus too much on the messenger and not on the message, so to speak —  which is that their connection to their source becomes corrupted and they fall in some way.

I try to view attempts by social scientists and journalists to explain the world and our place in it and how to fulfill our potential as neutrally as possible, and sometimes, as I’ve written here before, I can see them as merely speaking the same ideas in a different language, a language that will reach people who are not reached by the language of people who think of these ideas in spiritual terms.

In the end, though, I don’t need to figure out this sort of situation (what happened to Jonah Lehrer and why) myself — to evaluate them or their work or their brands or their personal gain or how helpful any of it actually is.  (I suspect it’s one of those “three steps forward, one step back” sort of thing — what they do helps get across some information but also contains aspects that later must be unlearned or corrected.)  Things will play out according to the dynamics of the universe.  All I need to do is what I am called upon to do, to do my part as well as I can.  Although a part of me is watching what happens, kind of like the way as a child I used to watch out the bedroom window the older kids playing kickball in the street in front of my house after I had already gone to bed.


July 15, 2012

I was reading about how some social scientists have thought up an “easy” way to generate a feeling of compassion (through thinking about what we have in common with another person).  Part of me is thinking, “Oh, this is helpful, here’s a concept being translated from one language (spiritual) to another (social science) — even if it just primes the pump and gets things going, that could be a big help.”

Maybe it is, maybe it will be.  But I’m uneasy.

If we learn to cook from scratch, we learn some basic concepts and skills along the way and develop a sense for what may work in a new situation: the base for a white sauce, how to start bread, which ingredients to blend first, where a recipe lends itself to variation and where a change will up-end it.  If we just cook using prepared mixes and convenience foods, we may produce cooked food but not develop a feel for cooking.

I wonder whether this easy way to “increase compassion” has too much in common with learning to cook using convenience foods and prepared mixes.  Here I see the pitfall as being that using this shortcut, we learn to feel for others only insofar as they are like us (we already do something analogous, I think, with our categories of family, extended family, ethnic group, alumni group, friends, etc.).  Yes, we are all like each other in the important ways, but we still have to respect and love the otherness of the other, too, in order to develop robust compassion.  After all, a narcissist will like you to the extent they don’t distinguish you from them, that you two have commonality, and yet their feelings in this way have no carry-over when your and their interests and commonality diverge.

I am therefore a little dubious of this shortcut to compassion.

My doubt about shortcuts generally has deep roots, since I think I can see where some well-intentioned shortcuts in some religions have led to generations of confusion, if not to a holding back of spiritual progress.  But at least the fact of this shortcut idea reflects that social scientists have compassion on their radar, and that I can celebrate.  And maybe this shortcut will be useful as a stepping stone to a more thorough-going method of developing compassion.

The prayer and meditation part of spiritual development is one thing, but I also agree with the observation (which I think is Richard Rohr’s) that the experience of love and suffering are somehow necessary components for developing robust compassion.  I’m not sure what shortcut there is for those, in any language.

The function of a behavior

March 12, 2012

I read the following the other day in the winter edition of the newsletter from the Federation for Children with Special Needs in Boston, and I thought it provided a good example of what has influenced my thinking about some of what goes wrong in our educational process, and even what can go wrong when even such a helpful approach is misused.

An FBA [Functional Behavioral Assessment] assumes that all behaviors serve a purpose, and happen in a specific context.  The purpose, or function, of a given behavior can be to communicate something, to avoid something unwanted, or to get something the students wants.  It may be unclear, even to the student, what purpose a behavior serves, but the Team must never assume that a behavior is meaningless, or that its function is invalid.  Rather, the Team should come up with a best guess, or hypothesis, about what function a problem behavior serves.  The Team should also examine the context of the problem behavior for any clues to its causes and triggers.  Using this information, the Team can create a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) to positively support the student’s skillsand/or motivation to substitute a more appropriate behavior that serves the same function as the problem behavior.  If the behavior is the result of a skill that is lacking, the Team can work together to build the skill that can negate the inappropriate behavior.

This is a helpful approach, I think, and an application of social science (I presume) research that I like.  It seems compassionate, for example.

But, as even the article from which the paragraph comes acknowledges, FBAs and BIPs are not always used this way.  For example, “A well-done FBA and BIP can not only minimize or eliminate many problem behaviors, but contribute lasting gains to to a student’s academic and social success, not to mention emotional well-being.  Too often, however, FBAs are viewed as a last (or second to last) resort rather than as a proactive instructional tool.”  And subsequent discussion also tactfully covers how FBAs and BIPs are used primarily as a (negative) disciplinary tool.

So, I reiterate that social sciences are not a panacea to our problems.  They are an approach, a tool, a way of getting information, but how we use the approach, tool, and information is influenced by the “stuff” of the people using them.  For the social science approach, etc. to be used helpfully, its users need to, for example, get their own issues out of the way, like a need to control other people or to put them down.  How much attention educators pay to keeping their own stuff out of the way I don’t know, but “classroom management” (or “school management”) issues can be brought up as a justification to cover a lot of other, less legitimate concerns.

A part about the social science orientation that concerns me is that it seems to deny that the people implementing it are part of the equation, too, and that other concerns, like the desire and ability of these people to separate student behavior from personality, or an insistence on maintaining a social pecking order among students and families, influences whether the approach will be helpful or damaging.  Why we don’t focus more as a society on some of these other ingredients I’m not sure, but maybe it’s because it’s easier and more gratifying to focus on things that try to force other people to change than it is to focus on ourselves and how we might improve what we’re bringing to the table, and because it’s difficult for most people to see when what they’re doing is more self-serving than their explanation of it reflects.

I wonder if we could include as part of a health curriculum for students and part of training for teachers and administrators and staff some lessons in how to become more self-aware.

Misuse, or why I think social science is not the solution

March 10, 2012

It may be true that anything can be used as a weapon, and hence it isn’t a good basis on which to evaluate the things worth.  The role of religion in a war is an example, the slogan about how people and not guns kill people is another example, examples of how we wrestle with separating the thing from its use.  I’ve read that even love can be used as a weapon.

But social sciences and their spin-offs are what are on my mind today as things that may look benign but may not be.

I think we already know that point from history, for example, from the eugenics movement.  But my point, I think, is how a social science orientation can permeate the attitudes of individual people in their private interpersonal relationships in a way that allows them to not see what they’re actually doing and hence do harm with social impunity and without a prompt towards personal self-reflection.

For example, suppose you have a grandmother of children who were adopted by their parents.  The grandmother considers herself an upstanding member of her community.  She has a degree in social work, has published frequently in magazines, and published translations of poetry.  She knows many of the right people, including in politics, real estate, medicine, economics.  She asks her sister, who is trained as an educator, to surreptitiously test these grandchildren’s IQ while they are visiting.  She even shares this information with her son, the children’s father, and expects him to accept this as normal.  When the children become depressed in the months after their father’s death, their mother mentions this to her in-laws and asks if this grandmother (and her other son) could show some special attention and emotional support to these grieving children at this time, and she emails no and says what they need is a good therapist.

There is a time and place for IQ tests and for therapy, but for a grandmother to replace an affective relationship with these tools distorts their purpose and her relationships.  Clearly it reflects something about her, but my point is that mainstream society supports her in her belief that she is doing something socially acceptable, that it’s giving her cover for her basic rejection of these children.  And that’s important because it leaves her grandchildren with people ostensibly there for them who aren’t.  Professional services do not replace emotional relationships with family members who care, and children without multiple caring people in their lives tend not to do too well.  IQ and therapy are not the only components to a well-functioning person.

I know from other people that this is not uncommon — that it is not uncommon for extended family to reject adopted children ab initio, before the children have had a chance to fulfill the self-fulfilling prophecy of the rejectors.  Social science isn’t always used to mask it, I know that, too.  But this use of social science I think makes it seem respectable to some people to treat children as something less than full-blooded human beings like themselves.  That veneer of respectability for something they might otherwise have to deal with more honestly is what I object to.  Pretense keeps us from addressing the actual issues, and we all go round in circles nowhere.

The misuse of social science to which I am objecting I think has something in common with the misuse of religion that results in wars.  Which leads me to wonder what else trust in the social sciences has in common with religious belief, what other needs in its adherents it meets.  I personally think the social sciences misperceive the structure in which what they are focusing on is located, that they are trying to explain the sky while looking from one room to another through an interior window.



March 3, 2012

In addition to introducing me to the work of Robert Graves, my high school Latin teacher introduced me to the discipline and approach(es) of anthropology (I think he was getting a master’s degree in it at the time).

I used to try to apply anthropological analysis to classical and medieval law and history.  I liked it the way it allowed me to make sense of things that hadn’t looked sensible before — like finding that there were patterns in succession to the Visigothic throne, that “morbus gothorum” did not do justice to what was going on (it was part of, and the impetus for, my original dissertation topic, which I chickened out of, in favor of one that had originality built into it but for which I didn’t have much enthusiasm — that one had to do with 14th-century dower in England, and I wrote a paper on Livy’s telling of the story of Lucretia and the validity of coerced consent in Roman law, instead).

I was thinking this morning about the Republican race for president, about conservative thinking on moral decay and strengthening the family, and about the factor of religion in the primaries.  One of the things that passed through my mind was how Mormonism, I think, sees itself as trying to make good on Christianity’s promise, and how its sometime embrace of polygamy might fit into whatever project of reform it is engaged in.  From another angle, I was thinking about kinship groups other than the nuclear family and the roles they sometimes play in social and economic networks.

So, what came out of this mixture of thoughts was the idea that maybe our insistence in our current culture of relying on a nuclear family is a point at which we might intervene when we try to identify what’s not working in our society and how to address those ills.  I forget why we came to live as nuclear families either in fact or in terms of an ideal that then influences our expectations.

Maybe work is already done in this regard, about what might be a more natural living arrangement for groups of people of different generations, genders, abilities to contribute to the unit either through caretaking or through bringing in resources like income, in our current society.  If it is, maybe we could please hear more about it in those places in the media in which we hear what the psychologists, sociologists, biologists, neuroscientists, and other favorites are doing.

Alternative paths to self-awareness, or, could the Buddha have been a brain scientist?

February 1, 2012

I was thinking about how I sometimes see science and social science as being other languages through which to understand the universe and to get to the same understandings as people receive through art and spiritual explorations and other activities.  I see a subset of us trying to use technology and biology to understand our mental processes in some way, and my question this morning is whether such pursuits can lead to self-awareness.

My first inclination is that using external means and objective descriptions of what’s going on in our brains won’t let us arrive at internal development of ourselves, that it will remain unconnected from our tending of our own activities and attitudes, but it occurs to me that I don’t actually know that it can’t lead to the same understandings of the universe.  Maybe it’s a language some people can actually use to do that and can use more readily than languages that require, for example, direct faith that forces greater than ourselves exist in the universe.  Maybe it’s a language not just for skeptics but for people who are connected to their inner lives in a different way from people who come to their understandings through greater and greater self-awareness through a process supported by a low-tech discipline like prayer and meditation.

I guess my own skepticism about whether the high-tech approach to self-awareness is a helpful idea is rooted in concern about its costs, costs to other people and to the environment, before the people using it arrive at their enlightenment.  On the other hand, maybe once we are this far down this path, we need to finish the journey, and maybe it really is the only way some people can arrive at their understandings.

I know that whenever I feel myself being close-minded, I take a step back and examine whether the limitation resides with me and not with the person in whom I wish to see it.