Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Insanity Parade: Easy Bake Oven Edition

I know it's been quite a while since our last edition of The Insanity Parade, our semi-regular feature to explore the nutballs that populate the internet, but the staff here at Total Drek ("Staff," in this case meaning myself and my three-legged dog) has been hard at work preparing for another episode.

Today's edition of The Insanity Parade comes courtesy of the late William Cooper of the website Hour of the Time, or HOTT. Specifically I will be taking issue with a section of his article entitled MAJESTYTWELVE.

Now, some of you may be thinking that it is in poor taste to go after a man who is presently deceased. (As indicated on the HOTT website, "Bill was killed by the Apache County Sherrifs Department during a raid on his home in November of 2001. He is now buried on a hill in Eagar, Arizona. We will be updating this page with more current information shortly (Spring 2003).") This would, largely, be true, but I am not, in fact, attacking Mr. Cooper. I am attacking his stated beliefs, which are still posted on the internet and, thus, available for public debate and criticism. I mean no disrespect to the man himself, even if I think his claims are laughably absurd. Thank you.

So, to return to the article in question, we are confonted with a conspiracy theory of truly epic proportions. It seems to claim that everything that has happened in the past century or more has been the result of covert action by the Freemasons. Oh, those pesky Freemasons! Always getting into trouble. My grandfather was a Mason, as it happens. As I recall, the most devious thing he ever did was to accuse the Shriners of being the "Playboys of the Masons." I'm not exactly sure what that means, especially since in my childhood, given the demographics of the group, I thought "shriner" meant "old, wrinkled man," but I digress.

I also suppose that by admitting that my grandpappy was a mason I've just invalidated my own arguments here in the eyes of everyone who thinks the masons are running a secret world-straddling conspiracy. Fortunately, given my readership, I don't think that should be a huge issue. As a side note: Masons, if you are running a huge conspiracy, and would like to reward me for protecting your secrets with this post, I accept cash, check, or major credit cards. No Discover. Christ, does ANYONE take Discover?

*Ahem* Anyway, there is far too much to this MAJESTYTWELVE article, henceforth to be referred to as M12 since it's a pain to keep looking for the capslock, for me to cover it all so I will concentrate on a small portion of it. Specifically, I'm going to concentrate on the sections where it is argued that the Apollo moon landings were faked, and even more specifically on the author's assertions about heat.

For those who are amazingly uninformed, the Apollo missions were the manned lunar landings conducted by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the late 1960's and the early 1970's. They represented the culmination of a lengthy period of escalating competition between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. in space and have never been repeated. While most people seem to believe that the Apollo missions happened, there is a small but vocal minority who believes that these flights were faked. Usually it is assumed that the results were created using a hollywood soundstage and desert areas in the American southwest. These claims have been so persistent that a television special on the subject was aired by the Fox network in 2001 (Apparently the network decided to take a break from its lengthy string of "When Animals Attack!" and "We Like Breasts!" specials) and a whole host of websites devoted to either supporting or debunking the fake landing hypothesis have popped up. A number of these sites can be accessed here.

So, it comes as no particular surprise when M12 claims that, "No man has ever ascended much higher than 300 miles, if that high, above the Earth's surface." Indeed, what follows is a lengthy argument for why such a trip is now, and always has been, impossible given our level of technology. In fact, a further claim is made that, "Any intelligent high school student with a basic physics book can prove NASA faked the Apollo moon landings." Hey! I'm of at least average intelligence! I went to high school! Hell, in college, I TAed an astronomy course! I bet that means I can debunk the Apollo hoax. Let's find out, shall we?

Cooper rests the majority of his argument on the issue of heat. Now, most of us have a sort of operational understanding of heat, but space is a fairly exotic place, so we'll need a technical understanding as well. Cooper provides a good technical definition, so we'll use that:

Heat is defined as the vibration or movement of molecules within matter. The faster the molecular motion the higher the temperature. The slower the molecular motion the colder the temperature. Absolute zero is that point where all molecular motion ceases. In order to have hot or cold, molecules must be present.

A couple of quick corrections/additions to the above. First, heat isn't the vibration of molecules within matter, but the vibration of molecules OF matter. This is likewise the case for atoms, which are sub-molecular, and sub-atomic particles. Heat more or less equals motion. So, a hot object is one in which the constituent particles are moving more rapidly. He is also more or less correct when he says, "In order to have hot or cold, molecules must be present," however, it would be more accurate to say that hot and cold are meaningless concepts without particles.

The second preparatory section for his argument deals with the interaction of vacuum and heat:

A vacuum is a condition of nothingness where there are no molecules. Vacuums exist in degrees. Some scientists tell us that there is no such thing as an absolute vacuum. Space is the closest thing to an absolute vacuum that is known to us. There are so few molecules present in most areas of what we know as "space" that any concept of "hot" or "cold" is impossible to measure. A vacuum is a perfect insulator. That is why a "Thermos" or vacuum bottle is used to store hot or cold liquids in order to maintain the temperature for the longest time possible without re-heating or re-cooling.

So, an object in a vacuum is insulated by the vacuum from either gaining new heat from outside the system or releasing heat. It is correct that vacuum makes a pretty decent insulator because there is no material with which heated particles can collide, and thus transfer a portion of their kinetic energy. He is, further, correct that vacuum is the insulator used in thermos bottles to allow them to keep liquids either hot or cold for as long as possible. Of course, a thermos can't be perfectly insulated (partly) because the inner vessel and the outer vessel have to actually be connected somehow, but the concept works all the same.

Next Cooper introduces us to the concept of radiation in space:

Radiation of all types will travel through a vacuum but will not affect the vacuum. Radiant heat from the sun travels through the vacuum of space but does not "warm" space. In fact the radiant heat of the sun has no affect whatsoever until it strikes matter. Molecular movement will increase in direct proportion to the radiant energy which is absorbed by matter. The time it takes to heat matter exposed to direct sunlight in space is determined by its color, its elemental properties, its distance from the sun, and its rate of absorption of radiant heat energy. Space is NOT hot. Space is NOT cold.

This is largely right, but we have a little issue to go over. "Color" is not really the relevant detail here. What is important is the object's albedo or tendency to reflect incoming radiation, rather than absorb it. This is related to color, in that light-colored objects typically have higher albedo's than dark-colored objects, but color is too restrictive a concept since only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum is actually visible to humans. An object that might look quite dark to us can actually have a very high albedo. It's also important to remember that "radiation" means in this case "photons" which are particles of light with a particular frequency, or packages of energy. Matter is heated by radiation because the incoming photon strikes an atom or molecule and adds its energy to that system, usually exciting the electrons which pushes them into an orbital at a higher energy level.

Now we come to the crux of the argument:

Objects which are heated cannot be cooled by space. In order for an object to cool it must first be removed from direct sunlight. Objects which are in the shadow of another object will eventually cool but not because space is "cold". Space is not cold. Hot and cold do not exist in the vacuum of space. Objects cool because the laws of motion dictate that the molecules of the object will slow down due to the resistance resulting from striking other molecules until eventually all motion will stop provided the object is sheltered from the direct and/or indirect radiation of the sun and that there is no other source of heat. Since the vacuum of space is the perfect insulator objects take a very long time to cool even when removed from all sources of heat, radiated or otherwise.

So, in other words, because the Apollo capsules were suspended in a vacuum, and were constantly exposed to the heating effect of sunlight, and because that vacuum would prevent the capsule from cooling itself, the astronauts would have been boiled alive inside their spacecraft. Ick! Sounds pretty bad, doesn't it?

Well, it would, if it weren't total bullshit. First, before we think about the Apollo example, let's think about another example: Earth. The Earth is a large object suspected in a vacuum constantly exposed to the radiant energy of the sun. If, as Cooper claims, an object in space cannot cool itself unless it is removed from sunlight, then the temperature of the Earth itself should always be rising.

Hey, you, way in the back who just muttered about "global warming." Yeah, YOU! Shut the hell up. You're an idiot. Considering the age of the Earth (Calculated at four-plus billion years by most reputable sources) if Cooper was right about all this our planet would be molten by now. It ain't global warming.

So, we already have some solid observational evidence arguing that Cooper is wrong about something here. But what? What can he be wrong about? Well... the first thing is something called "black body radiation." Put simply, although you can go find a more complicated version if you like, when materials are heated they release the heat not just through friction as Cooper argues, but by emitting electromagnetic radiation. This is why a metal rod placed in a fire will eventually turn red- as its temperature rises it begins to radiate more and more heat away on a wider and wider array of wavelengths. A red-hot object is just one that is hot enough that it radiates in a spectrum we can detect with our eyes. Putting it more technically, those electrons that were knocked into higher energy states by the incoming photons are unstable and tend to emit a new photon to get rid of the extra energy, allowing them to drop back into their "normal" orbitals. The amount of energy that is released determines both the number of photons and the color of those photons. This principle actually underlies a process called "emission spectroscopy" which allows us to use the specific combinations of colors in this photon emission to determine what elements are present in the heated material. For more on this, check out the really neat online spectoscopy lab located here. You'll need Macromedia Shockwave, though.

Thus, it becomes apparent that even in a vacuum the Apollo capsule could still radiate away heat. This is even more pronounced when we consider that only half of the capsule was exposed to the sun at any given time. This isn't some neat engineering trick, it works for the same reason that only half of the Earth is exposed to the sun at any time. One side blocks the sun from the other side. This allows one side to radiate away heat more rapidly because it is not simultaneously being heated by an outside energy source. As it happens, NASA deliberately rotated the Apollo capsule in flight to facilitate this process. Cooper admits his awareness that this was done:

The same laws of physics apply to any vehicle traveling through space. NASA claims that the spacecraft was slowly rotated causing the shadowed side to be cooled by the intense cold of space... an intense cold that DOES NOT EXIST. In fact the only thing that could have been accomplished by a rotation of the spacecraft is a more even and constant heating such as that obtained by rotating a hot dog on a spit. In reality a dish called Astronaut a la Apollo would have been served. At the very least you would not want to open the hatch upon the crafts return.

But Cooper seems entirely unaware of the implications of black body radiation. NASA wasn't relying on the temperature of space to cool the ship, but rather the ability of the ship to radiate away its heat like every other object in the universe does.

Next, let's consider that the capsule itself was finished like a mirror, rather than being painted a dark color. The smart kids have already mouthed the word "albedo," here, as in, "So it had a high albedo and didn't absorb nearly as much of that radiant solar energy as it might have otherwise." Right. For the curious, NASA fashioned the modules to be highly reflective in part to make the process of rendezvous and docking easier for the astronauts who actually landed on the moon's surface. Finally, let's consider that astronauts were breathing atmosphere from a tank they brought along with them. Now, for obvious reasons, this tank of air would be under pressure, however this has an effect on its temperature.

We all remember from high school physics that as a gas increases in temperature it increases in volume. This is the principle underlying hot air balloons and should come as no surprise. However, what happens when the volume increases without the gas first being heated? As a matter of fact, the temperature of the gas goes down. See, as the pressure on the gas goes down, the molecules slow, thus reducing the temperature of the material. If you don't believe me (And I don't know why you should believe me) think about it the next time you're blowing on your coffee or hot soup. Do you do it with your mouth wide open, or with your lips pursed? Why, with them pursed. So why do you do that?

Because, silly, when your breath, which is a gas composed largely of carbon-dioxide and oxygen, escapes from that narrow opening in your lips it EXPANDS and therefore cools. If you didn't purse your lips your breath might be similar enough to the temperature of the material you're blowing on that the cooling effect would be negligible.

I just love kitchen science.

So, given that the astronauts were breathing oxygen that was stored under pressure, the effect of releasing that gas from pressure to breathe it would COOL the atmosphere. This is particularly true since the atmospheric pressure in the Apollo spacecraft was kept lower than atmospheric pressure at Earth sea level; since the amount of cooling is determined by the size of the change in volume, this would make the chilling effect of the air relatively greater. In short, because of all of the reasons listed above, the Apollo module could, indeed, have been a very cold place to be.

Cooper also makes an argument that the astronauts' moon suits would have been equally deadly to their occupants, saying that:

NASA claims the spacesuits were cooled by a water system which was piped around the body, then through a system of coils sheltered from the sun in the backpack. NASA claims that water was sprayed on the coils causing a coating of ice to form. The ice then supposedly absorbed the tremendous heat collected in the water and evaporated into space. There are two problems with this that cannot be explained away. 1) The amount of water needed to be carried by the astronauts in order to make this work for even a very small length of time in the direct 55 degrees over the boiling point of water (210 degrees F at sea level on Earth) heat of the sun could not have possibly been carried by the astronauts. 2) NASA has since claimed that they found ice in moon craters. NASA claims that ice sheltered from the direct rays of the sun will NOT evaporate destroying their own bogus "air conditioning" explanation.

But there are problems here as well. First off, the suits, like the capsule, were constructed to have a high albedo. This means that a considerable amount of the energy striking them from the sun would not be absorbed. Secondly, as with the capsule, the gas the astronauts used to breathe was under pressure, thus providing a cooling effect. In combination, these factors might easily reduce the amount of cooling necessary to within attainable limits, especially given that water has quite a high specific heat allowing each drop of water to absorb, and carry off during evaporation, a substantial amount of energy. Finally, contrary to Cooper's assertions, there is nothing inconsistent about the cooling system described by NASA and the presence of ice in shaded craters. The relevant issue isn't the sun, but rather heat. In the case of the craters, the only source of heat is the sun since the moon is geologically dead. Therefore, the ice will not evaporate if it is not exposed to the heat of the sun. In the case of the cooling system, heat is provided by the coils themselves whether the coils are in sun or not. Therefore, the ice will evaporate even in shade if the coils themselves are hot.

After examining Cooper's claims with the mind of an intelligent high schooler we find those claims to be flawed. Cooper's arguments show a pronounced lack of understanding about physics, and call the remainder of his essay into serious question.

So what's the moral here? Is there one? Well, longtime readers know that I am decidedly amoral, so you shouldn't be too confident that there's an ultimate point here. Nonetheless, I can be troubled to offer a sort of summary thought. Mr. Cooper states that, "Any intelligent high school student with a basic physics book can prove NASA faked the Apollo moon landings." This is, of course, another way of stating that it is obvious that NASA faked the Apollo moon landings. I would argue, however, that a background in high school physics should make it "obvious" that Cooper's arguments are nonsensical. And this brings us to the real issue: that none of this is "obvious" at all.

If I was asked what the single most over-used term in argumentation is, or even the most over-used concept, I would have to say "obvious." So why is that? Well, obvious more or less means that something is readily apparent, so apparent that it does not need to be discussed. The problem is, what is truly "obvious" will rarely be the subject of debate or discussion.

For example, it is "obvious" that the Human race has at least two sexes: male and female. There may be MORE than two, given that individuals with indeterminate or intermediate genitalia do exist, but that there are at least two sexes is something so obvious that it is beyond argumentation. (Note that I am referring to biological sex here. I am uninterested in discussing gender at the moment, which is socially constructed and therefore considerably more flexible) Similarly we have other obvious bits of knowledge like "the sun is bright" or "water is wet." Something that is obvious is so clearly true that the very idea of questioning it never comes up.

Certainly right now a number of you assholes are preparing to write comments contesting the inherent truth of "the sun is bright," but you're just hoping to show off what smarty-heads you are, so sit the fuck back down.

So, when we come to the current article, it is "obvious" to Cooper that the Apollo missions were faked, just as it is "obvious" to me that his arguments are feeble at best. That we are both convinced of our own points is indisputable, that we are convinced of these points by our experience and understanding of physics (I would argue mine is better, but that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. No doubt were he alive Cooper would have some way of arguing with me, possibly by denying that black body radiation is accurate. Man, would I love to see THAT argument...) is clear, but that either one of our perspectives is "obviously" true is bullshit. It's a simple principle: if you're arguing about it, it isn't really obvious. Truly obvious things nobody argues about because... wait for it... they're obvious.

Is it a problem that we use the rhetoric of obviousness? Well, yes and no. On the one hand it's just that- rhetoric. Calling something obvious is just a way of reinforcing your point. On the other hand, saying that your point is "obviously" correct has the effect of backing your opponent into a corner. Once they're there the only way out is to fight, or to admit to being an idiot. As we've discussed before this is not a useful position to force someone into. By playing the obvious card, not only are you ignoring the fact that the issue isn't obvious, but you're ultimately prolonging the conflict.

Science is rarely obvious, politics is rarely obvious, morality is rarely obvious. To treat any of them as such is to minimize the issue and to cheat us all of the serious consideration issues deserve. We all make light of things from time to time, I do as much as anyone else, but to make light of the debate itself is a mistake. It may appear obvious to you that abortion is wrong, or that Bush is a lousy president, but if others disagree then it probably isn't really that obvious, and you need to understand why if you want to make a difference. It will be difficult to rein in the use of the term "obvious" in debates, but ultimately the effort will be worthwhile.

And, in the meantime, The Insanity Parade will march on with the drunken joy that has characterized it thus far.

So, that's all for today. Tune in for the next episode of The Insanity Parade when we ask the question: "Holy shit, have you even HEARD of friction before?!"

Monday, August 30, 2004

The white zone is for loading, unloading, and sleeping only...

If I hadn't read about this several different places, I wouldn't have believed it myself. Apparently the Charles de Gaulle airport in France has been playing host to a permanent resident for some time now. Think about this the next time you feel like bitching about your layover.

This is just one more bit of evidence to prove that truth really is stranger than fiction.

It's also a beautiful example of bureaucracy and means/ends rationality for anyone who is currently teaching undergrad classes.

Sunday, August 29, 2004


Now this individual really knows how to put together a bumpersticker for the liberal-leaning moderate in all of us. You know... like me.

My thanks to Wonkette for bringing this up.

And, as an additional note, I'm flattered that so many of you bother to look at my blog on weekends. I mean, I hardly ever post on Saturday or Sunday so either you're really bored, really lost, or you really miss my posting.

I'm guessing it's one of the first two.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Valley of the Uncanny

I've recently learned about a rather fascinating theory advanced by Dr. Masahiro Mori called "the uncanny valley." Mori, a roboticist, was interested in the characteristics of a robot that make it more, or less, appealing to humans. What he found is that as a machine takes on more and more human-like characteristics it becomes increasingly attractive to humans up to a point. Then, as the device enters a region where it appears and acts almost human, but not quite, assessments begin to decline precipitously, eventually becoming quite negative. If its human-like qualities continue to improve from this point, Mori hypothesizes that acceptance will recover and even, eventually, match that of an actual human as the device becomes essentially indistinguishable from its flesh-and-blood counterparts. Mori refers to this sudden decline and recovery just short of perfect human mimicry as the, "uncanny valley."

alternative text

The reasoning is as follows:

...if an entity is sufficiently non-humanlike, then the humanlike characters will tend to stand out and be noticed easily, generating empathy. On the other hand, if the entity is "almost human", then the non-human characteristics will be the ones that stand out, leading to a feeling of "strangeness" in the human viewer.

Now, you know about my interest in science fiction and robotics/aritifical intelligence (largely because I've posted on it before) but that isn't why I'm interested in this uncanny valley right now. Before we get to that, however, let's consider another website that discusses the use of the uncanny valley for generating mood and empathy in storytelling, be it in visual media (movies, plays, animation) or written media.

Written? Now that's interesting, because it suggests that perhaps this isn't just a visual impression of alieness but a cognitive or intellectual impression, as well. What this makes me wonder about is ideology and systems of thought. We have all been exposed to systems of thought that seem radically different from our own. I, for instance, spent a fair amount of time researching Scientology at one point (And came to the conclusion, based entirely in my own first-amendment-protected right to free speech, that it's utterly crazy, but no more so than most religious or quasi-religious ideologies) and can say that it is substantially different from my perspective. It didn't really disturb me, though. I thought it was odd, yes, but not really thretening. The interesting question, however, is: "Would it be more disturbing if it were more similar to my own views?" Perhaps like the appearance of a human-like simulacra, ideologies become most disturbing when they differ only sightly from our own, thus making those differences more apparent.

It's an interesting idea when you consider the degree of factionalism between relatively similar religious faiths. The different denominations of Christianity have been at each other's throats for centuries. Whether or not their current truce can last (And I have my doubts given the treatment of the Mormons back in the 19th century), strife still exists. Hell, from watching Jack van Impe (The best comedy on t.v. Also: I'm fairly sure Rexella is animatronic) I'm surprised we aren't still in the middle of the Thirty Years War. Similarly, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have had lengthy periods of conflict, despite their relative similarity (in that they draw on the same tradition). Obviously, the historical realities of the groups promoting each faith are highly relevant, but I find the parallel interesting.

Even more interesting, consider the recent arguments in sociology between the public and non-public folk, or the pro and anti-politicization camps. Then there's the skirmish Brayden and I have been having over on Pub Sociology about the virtues and vices of institutionalism and structuralism. The funny part is, Brayden and I overlap so much in our views, that really we're just disagreeing about details. This doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of that sociological grudge match between the micro and macro camps. As I've said before, we all have more in common than not, yet our arguments are possibly the most heated.

So, I find myself wondering if perhaps this uncanny valley is more widespread than Dr. Mori thought, and if maybe what we fear most are not those who disagree with us a lot, but those who disagree a little.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Red Rover, Red Rover, send tax dollars on over!

Head on over to Pub Sociology (Mind the sticky floors and bar stools) and check out the eloquent post by Brian G. Definite food for thought... and for e-mailing to your frustrating Republican family.

Politics and the Professional Sociologist...

Wow, now THAT is a pretentious title. I feel a warm little glow inside at managing to cram so much self-importance into this blog.

As I promised to do last week, I am going to talk today about the political aspects of public sociology. As I said then, I have come to regard public sociology, if not as a genuine benefit to the discipline, then not as a threat. In truth, particularly given the way economics has been "borrowing" from our work of late, I suspect that we will benefit substantially from the presence of sociologists who work to make our findings more widely known. Perhaps what we need really IS some sort of sociological Carl Sagan.

Yet, I remain highly suspicious of the political content that seems to infuse the public sociology movement. I know I am not the only one in this regard; while in San Francisco, Brayden expressed a certain amount of trepidation on that point. Similarly, Nick over at Public Sociology has commented on his own hesitancy to endorse the politicization of Sociology (Specifically, "...I am hesitant to endorse the ASAs politicization through membership resolutions; it is difficult for the ASA to be the forum for perpetual dissent and debate when it takes political stands. I feel it should remain a nonpolitical body, even though I more or less agree politically with the content of the resolutions passed.") even though he clearly finds some of the ideological underpinnings of such a politicization to be somewhat reasonable. It goes virtually without saying that Mathieu Deflem objects to the fusing of social science and politics. There are, of course, others who I have met who are considerably more enthusiastic about injecting political content into sociology. Given the events of the past four years, I certainly can't blame such proponents for their stance, and respect them for what they see as moral courage in taking it, yet I also cannot share it with them. This is the case for a variety of reasons.

It's worth noting, of course, if you are a proponent of politicizing the ASA that, as of yet, there does not appear to be a solid consensus on the matter. If we refer to the ASA's news brief on recent votes, two-thirds of those who voted on the Iraq membership resolution voted in favor. However, only 31% of the eligible membership voted, meaning that we only have data on about 20% of the total ASA members. Interestingly, 75% of those who responded indicated that they opposed the war. This suggests that some number of those who opposed the membership resolution also oppose the war itself. The issues are clearly more complicated than just whether or not you support the intervention in Iraq. There does appear to be genuine disagreement over the role of the ASA in politcs, and that disagreement is bound to come out more clearly as the political wing of public sociology moves forward. You all know I'm a big fan of disagreement and conflict, since I do believe it makes for superior thinking, so I'm not afraid of a little discord here. I point it out only as a cautionary note that the battle over politics in the ASAs is only beginning. It is far too premature for either side to start claiming some sort of broad-based support.

For myself, however, I very clearly belong to the anti-politicization camp, whether it's popular or not. I believe that injecting political content into our sociology is bad for the discipline. While his fiery rhetoric is certainly over-the-top (And that isn't really a criticism. Hell, I should be taking notes!), Mathieu Deflem does have a very good point that establishing a sort of Sociology "party line" on political issues can only stifle our scientific activities. As Jeremy Freese so eloquently points out, our discipline is already dominated by members with a particular political perspective. Jeremy says that, "It bothers me that 90% of sociologists hold political beliefs representative of 10% or less of the available political spectrum." The thing is, that should bother all of us. Such an intense sameness in our ideology must affect our work. Just as trying to exclude female or minority voices from science has, it has been claimed, hurt the ability of science to speak about the world, so too must the exclusion of conservative voices injure social science. The fact is there are some damned smart conservatives and, odds are, every now and then they're probably right about a few things. As it stands now, it would be difficult for these correct-conservatives to make their voices heard in a sea of liberalism, but at the same time at least we aren't making public declarations against them. Will it really benefit us if we do start making such declarations?

Taking it a step further, there is a practical matter to consider. So long as we are seen as a left-leaning but officially neutral group our funding is considerably more secure. Once we begin taking political stances, however, we become intensely political targets, and anyone who thinks the spoils system is entirely a thing of the past hasn't been paying attention. I'll be the first one to say that there is a time and a place for self-sacrifice, and that sometimes you have to support a lost cause just for your own sanity, but there's also such a thing as pointless suicide. Telling the difference between all three is often the mark of real wisdom.

There are, further, issues of arrogance involved. Do we really think, as sociologists, that we definitely know what's best for all society? Certainly the structural functionalists of old thought that, but they were disproven when the civil rights movement began struggling to prominence. This movement had to contend with a total lack of black dialogue in American civil and political life. Issues of black rights weren't even on the political agenda, and their addition was itself a difficult and painful process. Similarly, the women's movement had to do the same, even though they had been preceded by black social movements. As homosexuals have struggled for freedom, can we doubt that their struggles have been any less difficult or pointed? So why are we now so arrogant as to believe we can instruct the rest of society on how they should live? If history shows us anything, it's that we're excluding perspectives that we haven't even realized the existence of yet. It is one of the strengths of science that it can change its mind when confronted with new evidence. Such changes of mind may not be frequent, but they have happened and continue to happen. The inclusion of black, female, and homosexual voices, which are often highly critical of traditional work, in the modern academy is indicative of this strength. Yet, when one enters the realm of politics, changing one's mind suddenly transforms from an asset into a liability. Can we doubt that a politicized sociology, in the interest of pressing its agenda, will suppress those who disagree with it, potentially contributing to the oppression of other marginalized groups?

Ultimately, however, what really annoys me about the attempt to politicize the ASA doesn't have anything to do with professional issues. Like those who seek to use the ASA as a vehicle for political activity, I would like to have an impact on the world. I deplore what the U.S. government has done and would very much like to oppose it in some meaningful way. This is, however, WHY I hate the politicization of the ASA. Ask yourself this: Do you trust the scientific studies on nicotine or smoking that emerge from the R.J. Reynolds corporation? What about crash safety studies done by a car company? So why on earth would we think that the opinion of a politicized ASA would carry any weight? Refusing to take a political stand is NOT a sign of moral cowardice or conservatism, but rather it is an action designed to preserve the efficacy of our research in public debates. Perhaps people won't LIKE what we have to say, but if we take pains to preserve our objectivity, and to restrain our natural desire to take part in politics as a group, they can't attack it on charges of prejudice. Perhaps nobody is listening right now, but that is a job for the so-called public sociologists.

Whether you believe that we can ever be truly objective or not, our scientific legitimacy lends weight to our findings. Do we really want to squander that? If the time comes when we are seen as a politically-motivated body, our research will be accepted by those who agree with us, and rejected out of hand by those who don't. When that time comes we won't be helping anyone, we will merely be ranting self-indulgently to like-minded others or, as they say where I'm from, "Preaching to the converted." I don't know that I can imagine a more degrading and meaningless fate for our discipline.

That is the great irony of our present dilemma. Most of us agree with each other politically, most of us even want to see our research further our political ends, we simply differ on the proper use of the ASA. Our ends are the same, but our beliefs about means differ radically. For myself, I encourage every sociologist to individually become active in politics and make your voice heard, but I must oppose any attempt to take a stance as a discipline.

Certainly I do not object to the ASA taking a definite stand on issues of particular relevance to us as a discipline, but such issues are so clearly within our self-interest that no observer would believe our neutrality anyway. I wonder why we are being told that we must use the ASA to take a political stand, rather than use it to bring our findings to the attention of policy makers. Is it truly impossible to have an impact by presenting honest facts backed up by good data?

What good does it do to advance our findings if they come already tainted with the stench of bias?

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Baby steps...

I caught sight of this while checking my e-mail and had to blog about it. It appears that some European astronomers have identified an extra-solar (i.e. beyond the limit of our solar system. As I've indicated before this limit is usually considered to be the heliopause) planet that is rocky, or terrestrial, in composition. This differs from the extra-solar planets detected previously, which tended to be gas giants like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. This is being touted as evidence that solar systems similar to our own may be quite common.

Don't get your hopes up too much, though. The planet in quesiton is 14 times the mass of the Earth, which puts it roughly into the same ballpark as Uranus. Moreover, it orbits its system primary (i.e. host star) every 10 days. That's pretty damned quick. Since the time required to orbit is proportional to the distance of the orbit from the star, we're basically faced with a huge rocky planet that's almost on top of its parent star. Why is this relevant?

Well, one of the dominant theories for why gas giants formed way the hell out yonder in the solar system, and terrestrial worlds formed in here, has to do with the radiant energy of the sun. Basically the inverse square law states that the amount of energy falling in any area decreases with the square of the distance. So, the amount of energy from the sun that falls on a huge planet farther out may be substantially less than that falling on a much smaller planet closer in. Since gas giants are largely composed of volatile, low-mass materials (hydrogen, helium, etc.) it doesn't take much energy to excite them to the point that they can escape from a host body. So, gas giants shouldn't last long close to a star because they simply can't hold onto their huge envelopes of gas.

So, this newly discovered planet isn't so much terrestrial, as it is the core of a gas giant that either went bald, or never developed a gas-envelope in the first place. Not quite so revolutionary, and not quite such strong evidence that our own solar system is typical.

On the other hand, the techniques we've used so far to detect such planets largely only work with very big planets. That being the case, as soon as we started using these techniques to try to find planets we started turning them up (We've found in excess of 120 so far) so there's good reason to think that as our technology improves, we'll find that there really are some genuinely terrestrial planets out there.

Baby steps, people. Baby steps.

Wow that's, um, good?

And the deluge of spam continues. This time we have probably the least reassuring ad for a pharmacy that I've ever seen.

Hi and welcome to our phaarmecy!

One of the things we offer to you, as a selected costomer, is a big variety,
combined with good prjces.
All the medjcatjons you need with cheep prjcees !

We got all original brands and geneeric:
vjagra, cjaljs, lavjtra, xanaax, valioom and a lot more!

What makes it for me is the spelling of the actual drugs. You know, if they were as-advertised, I'm guessing someone would have a book with the actual drug name available to copy from. Failing that, you'd think they could use Google.

Yes, I know they're probably foreign, but still- if you want to sell me a potent chemical to stick in my body, taking the time to buy a crazy-spammer/English dictionary is probably worthwhile.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Your voice says "no, no," but that sideways glance said, "Yes, yes."

As a sociologist I'm fascinated by channels for information transmission. I don't want to sound like a computer scientist here, but frankly there is an enormous amount of data that passes back and forth between people during interaction. Some of it is conveyed by the words we use in terms of their literal meanings, some is conveyed by the connotations of the words we use, some is conveyed by inflection and tone of voice. Then we have things like facial expressions, hand-gestures, body posture, and eye contact. Once we start getting into things like "actions" which, as we all know, speak louder than words, we've really hit a point of information overload. That humans can manage this multiplex flood of information so well is a testament to the power of our brains. Elaborately structured to process in parallel, our grey matter is truly a spectacular example of evolution in action.

Given this vast wash of information, however, it's also not that surprising that we get things wrong from time to time. When we go to apologize to someone and patch things over, what do we say? "I think there's been a misunderstanding." What are we all told to work on to make relationships function? Why, our "communication." What are we often taught to do in therapy? We're taught to "listen," to other people. (Some of you are no doubt forming opinions about my own past experiences here). The issue here is that with so many modes of information transmission, and our own impressive but still limited ability to process it, glitches in communication are inevitable.

It really becomes quite fascinating once you start thinking about it. Our society has had to develop a whole host of mechanisms to deal with the reality of muddled communications. One of the most important ways that we do this is through interpretation and inference. Since errors in communication are unavoidable, we rely to an extent on our understanding of a situation to "fill in the blanks." Quite possibly this ability is also implicated in Thomas Schelling's concept of tacit coordination. The ability to fill in blank spots during interaction may derive in part from the ability to coordinate with another person without interaction. In either case, part of our success relies on making intellient guesses about what's happening now, and what will happen in the future.

Of course, this gossamer web of interpretation and guesswork is always vulnerable to failure, particularly given that frequently the listener will want to believe one signal, or put one interpretation on a situation, instead of another. This reality at least partly underlies the feminist statement that "No means no." Part of this admonition is against relying on any form of communication OTHER than the literal content of a woman's statements. This is not, of course, to imply that all rape, or even most rape, is a result of miscommunication. Men don't rape in many cases because women have "led them on," or any such claptrap. It is also to our collective shame that men who rape, frequently do so quite deliberately, perhaps even with substantial premeditation on a particular target. This is more to say that in some cases, particularly when one or both parties are inebriated, a male may choose to interpret one of those many channels of communication as giving consent because HE wants consent to be given. At least part of the above feminist statement is intened to indicate to men, "There is only one mode of communication through which consent may be given, and it ISN'T a coy look." The act remains rape, and disgusting as a consequence, but one can at least see the interference of multiple types of communication and interpretation at work.

For anyone who can't tell from my above paragraph, I'm currently reading Susan Brownmiller's seminal classic Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. A review will no doubt eventually show up here. For now, let me just say that it is a well-researched, interesting, if occasionally questionable, book that more people should read. If you haven't read it, particularly if you are male, you should go out, find a copy, and read it. I mention this to explain why the above example sprang so quickly to mind.

In any case, our society is riddled with many, many approaches to dealing with some of these failures of communication. Men have been learning, with greater or lesser success in specific cases, that women both have a right to consent to or refuse sexual activity, and that they will do so verbally, for some decades now. It seems, however, that women are now being given a similar lesson, though on a slightly different topic. "Drek, what the hell are you talking about," you ask?

I'm talking about this article in Monday's edition of the Washington Post. This article discusses the recent book by author Greg Behrendt, a consultant for the popular television series Sex and the City, titled He's Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys.

I know, I know, it seems like a fairly ridiculous book on the face. Hell, it's a fairly ridiculous title. The intent, however, reaches into the same difficulties in communication that we (And by "we" I mean "I,") have been discussing so far. Communication is hard, even when both sides are trying to speak clearly and listen carefully. Yet, when one side wants to hear something particular, it makes the whole process more difficult. And, just as men have previously been (and often still are) taught that women say "no" when they mean "yes," women have been taught some things about men too. Or, as the article says:

There's plenty of dating advice, God knows, and most of it is for women trying to deconstruct the hearts of men. The premise, of course, is that men are complicated, emotionally stunted creatures incapable of direct action. And so women spend years obsessing with understanding girlfriends, wildly hoping that deep down he's really in love and wants to be with them.

The very idea is fairly ludicrous. Men are supposed to be the angry, violent, blunt sex that says what it means and doesn't mince words, right? Yet, when it comes to relationships, they are apparently given to almost Machiavellian subtlety. All of this is, of course, based on sexual stereotypes, but that's the whole point. Stereotypes can provide certain cognitive and interactional shortcuts, allowing us to complete encounters with people we barely know with minimal difficulty, but they can also lead us into wildly incorrect assumptions, particularly if those stereotypes are out of date or just plain wrong.

It doesn't help any that men may NOT be completely up-front about wanting to avoid seeing a woman a second time. As the article author writes, "Behrendt [writer of the book in question] believes men would rather chew off their arms than admit the truth." Leaving aside Behrendt's reasons for this, can we easily think of a time in polite society when it's easy and ok to tell someone that you just don't like them very much? It isn't just a romantic thing- we've all had those friends or associates we see too much of and can't get rid of. Yet, do we just tell them that? Maybe, but probably not very often. It's possible men are just cowards, but I think it more likely that our cultural programming is the real culprit, not some failing in men or women.

So, we're left with a most unusual situation where the best advice, at least for the time being, may not be to listen to what someone says, but to attend to what they do. Is this the best way to do it? Hell no, I'm a big fan of blunt speech and plain meaning (as should already be apparent), but change doesn't occur overnight. Creating a polite exception to the "Don't tell people that you don't like them," rule is not going to be an easy affair. Still, as a man I have to encourage my fellow men to try to be more upfront about such things. I've been working on that in my own life and, while I can't claim total success, I'm getting there. Similarly, however, I'd like to urge women to maybe take us seriously if we DO come right out and say it, to understand that we're trying to be truthful rather than mean, and to take seriously what our actions are really saying. You know, for those times when we do wimp out. (And yes, I know I'm including a number of crass generalizations about men and women here. So what? I'm critiquing stereotypical gender behavior here, which we are all guilty of to a greater or lesser degree. Doing so without referring in some way to those stereotypes is quite beyond my skills as a writer. Perhaps if this medium were more accomodating I could use some form of interpretive dance to make my point but, alas, that is not to be) Until such time as we manage all that, however, Behrendt offers us this handy advice for telling when a man is NOT interested in a woman:

He's not into you if he's breaking up with you, or disappearing with no explanation, or married to someone else, or abusive.

Is there anyone out there who really thinks they can disagree with that?

Monday, August 23, 2004

Are we talking to ourselves here, or what?

This was recently brought to my attention:

August 22, 2004


It's Who You Know. Really.


In many economics faculty lounges, the mere suggestion that markets are something less than efficient is likely to elicit cool stares. But Kenneth J. Arrow, a 1972 Nobel laureate and professor emeritus at Stanford, recently turned a skeptical eye on the efficiency of one vast market - the labor market - and reached some intriguing conclusions about what distinguishes better-paid workers from their lower-paid peers. It's not what you know, Professor Arrow, a prolific theorist, suggests; it's who you know.

If labor markets were truly efficient, pay among workers with similar credentials would not vary much. But within groups of similarly situated workers, income inequality has risen in recent decades. What's more, Professor Arrow said, "Observable characteristics like intelligence, education, experience and age explain only half of the difference."

To get at the other 50 percent, he and a Stanford colleague, Ron Borzekowski, now at the Federal Reserve in Washington, reimagined the place of workers in the equation. Instead of regarding employees' wages as responses to the laws of supply and demand, they constructed a model that views wages as functions of competitive bidding among companies.

A computer connected to 100 computers is economically more powerful than a PC linked to only 10 - that's the network effect. It turns out that the same holds for workers and their personal connections to companies. While the Internet's breadth may offer individuals the chance to post their qualifications for millions of employers to see, about half of all jobs are still found through personal contacts of some sort.

And the more connections you have, the more you end up being paid. Why? Companies that make judgments based solely on a résumé are flying blind, to a degree. By contrast, if a job applicant once worked with a current company employee, or attends the same church as a company worker, the company can glean hints about how that applicant will perform. Such personal information - about reliability, or a sense of humor - can lead companies to bid more aggressively for someone's services. But such data is conveyed almost exclusively through personal network connections. And if the information is available to 10 potential employers instead of 2, wages are more likely to be bid higher.

The network effect is weaker, though, for people seeking the most highly skilled positions.

"For jobs that require higher education and technical skills, network connections don't matter as much," said Harry J. Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University. Honors graduates of Harvard Law School will probably receive a host of job interviews, regardless of how many partners they know at how many law firms. But, Professor Holzer said, when it comes to relatively unskilled jobs, such links are crucial. When hiring a baby-sitter, the fact that an applicant may have worked for a neighbor or relative carries far more weight than a résumé.

In fact, in a recent working paper, Professor Arrow and Mr. Borzekowski conclude that a worker's net worth can have a lot to do with the worker's network. In their model - and it is just a model, not based on empirical data - a person with one corporate connection would be expected to earn $19,570. By contrast, a person with links to five companies would be expected to earn $30,410. Ultimately, they conclude, "the difference in the number of ties can induce substantial inequality and can explain 15-20 percent of the unexplained variation in wages."

The economists also suggest that network effects may help account for income inequality among races. In 1998, for men 24 to 40 years of age who had finished high school but had no further education, the average income for African-Americans was $26,223 and for whites was $33,123. If one hypothesized that the average African-American worker had links to 3.2 companies and the average white worker had links to 5.7, that would go a long way toward explaining the large wage gap, Professor Arrow said.

THE hypothesis makes sense, said Jeffrey A. Robinson, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at New York University's Stern School of Business. "Minorities are often disconnected from the web of social relationships that lead to hiring decisions."

Professor Arrow has not pursued the policy implications of his findings, but others have. To improve the lot and prospects of middle-income workers and the working poor, it may not be enough merely to focus on the traditional twin pillars of job training and education. Policy makers may also need to focus on upgrading the number and quality of workers' links to companies.

"The challenge is to expand the role of social brokers - individuals, nonprofit and government agencies - that can facilitate connections to companies once people have the skills," Professor Robinson said.

Daniel Gross writes the "Moneybox" column for

To steal a concept from the guys over at Penny Arcade, my brain is about to explode out of my head. I'm pleased to see that the economists have finally caught up to sociology. Did they find back issues of our journals at a yardsale or something? I mean, I'm glad to have the confirmation, but we've been doing this exact sort of research for decades now. Think I'm being too harsh? Well, keeping in mind that this won't be an exhaustive list by a longshot, let's go ahead and see:

We start with Mark Granovetter's seminal piece "The Strength of Weak Ties," which was published in 1973. That one argues that who you know can play a big part in how you find work, particularly good paying work. Specifically, it argues that it isn't your strong ties (Emotionally close associates, or those you speak to regularly) that bring you useful new information, but rather it's your weak ties.

Mark Granovetter decided to elaborate on the concept of ties in economics even more in 1985, when he published "Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness," which makes the useful point that while ties can allow a hiring body to gain more information on a prospective employee, they may also enable that employee to take advantage of the company to some degree. Thus, social ties are not entirely beneficial, but represent a double-edged sword.

James Montgomery got into the act with his paper, "Job Search and Network Composition: Implications of the Strength-of-Weak-Ties Hypothesis" in 1992. This piece looks at the effects of ties on the pay acquired by a job candidate. Needless to say, he finds an effect.

Also in 1992 we find Ron Burt's "Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition," which is a lot like Granovetter's 1973 article, except written in book form, with more math, and directed at management consultants as much as academics. It also provides empirical validation of the idea that networks matter for individual and collective success, and he even offers suggestions to the ambitious executive.

Montgomery followed that one up in 1994 with "Weak Ties, Employment, and Inequality: An Equilibrium Analysis" which looks at whether or not distributions of social ties can have a significant effect on the overall inequality in the system.

Brian Uzzi took a look at networks in the New York apparel sector in 1997 with his article "Social Structures and Competition in Interfirm Networks: The Paradox of Embeddedness" in which he essentially confirmed Granovetter's predictions from 1985, and in the process added considerable detail to our concepts of how networks are important.

Of course there's Paul DiMaggio and Hugh Louch's 1998 study "Socially Embedded Consumer Transactions: For What Kinds of Purchases do People Most Often Use Networks?" which finds that people on the consuming end of the economic transaction also make use of different types of networks to reduce uncertainty and improve outcomes.

Brian Uzzi once more made a useful contribution with his 1999 "Embeddedness in the Making of Financial Capital: How Social Relations and Networks Benefit Firms Seeking Financing" in which he looked at how social ties can be beneficial for entire companies that are seeking to either gain access to financial capital, or are seeking to secure their investment in another corporation.

Most beautifully we have the book "Networks and Markets," edited by James Rauch and Alessandra Casella (2001) which is actually composed of alternating chapters written by either a sociologist or an economist. This book, as the title suggests, explores the interaction of social networks and markets, using approaches ranging from theoretical analyses of networks (Ron Burt), to case studies of Taiwan and South Korea (Robert C. Feenstra, Gary G. Hamilton & Deng-Shing Huang), to historical analysis in renaissance Florence (John F. Padgett), to the organization of fish markets (Alan Kirman).

And, of course, here in 2004 we have W.E. Baker and R.R. Faulkner's article "Social networks and loss of capital," which takes a look into the positive and negative effects of social ties for those investing in companies engaging in fraud. Put another way, they could have titled their article "How not to get screwed by Enron."

So, in short, I'm thrilled that Kenneth Arrow has discovered networks and I'm thrilled that he agrees with us. I just wonder how all this happened. Is this an example of convergent evolution? Did he recently pick up an old issue of the American Sociological Review, where many of the articles I just listed were published? Did the author of the article, Daniel Gross, neglect to mention that a Nobel Laureate economist was simply confirming the findings of some plain, old, regular sociologists? Will Kirby escape from the dastardly clutches of the evil Dr. Venomtongue? I'm just curious here.

As for all you kids over in the Public Sociology camp, I'll tell you this: you've got your work cut out for you.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Wow, what are the odds?

Coming in hot on the heels of Kieran's post on D&D and sex comes an update over on Somethingawful that pretty much covers the same subject. It's worth reading if only for the descriptions of some of the spells in the D&D "Erotic Fantasy" sourcebook:

"Cursed Orgasm - The next time that the subject achieves orgasm, he is wracked with incredible pain that causes 1d6 points of damage per caster level. Let's hope this monster we're fighting decides to stop and jack off."

And the fine selection of adventure "ideas:"

"61 - An ogre falls in love with the local lord's daughter. The players must stop the evil ogre and his wise-cracking donkey minion."

Good fun all around.

I mean the post, the sourcebook sounds utterly terrifying.

No, no, there's an "L" in the first word of this year's ASA theme...

Otherwise it's just... scary.

So, it was more or less inevitable that I would get around to writing a post about this year's ASA theme "Public Sociology." The particular timing of this post, however, is a consequence of my finally banging out a new version of that paper that's been the bane of my existence for the past two months, the speech delivered by Mathieu Deflem at the ASAs, Michael Burrawoy's presidential speech and the recent post by Nick over on the newly born blog Public Sociology.

As a side note to the Public Sociology folks: With all the hubbub about the coming of the Public Sociology blog, I was expecting it to cure syphilis or something when it finally appeared. So far I have detected no healing powers whatsoever, (Not that I, you know, have syphilis) although I guess that annoying whistling when I breathe finally vanished. Should I expect something more when the next iteration (Public Sociology 2.0?) appears? Just busting your chops for the hell of it, folks, welcome to the blogosphere.

As I was saying, for a variety of reasons I decided to go ahead and comment on the whole public sociology issue. Now, as many of you might have guessed, I did not go to this ASA with a sense of joy and fellowship in my heart for the public sociology camp. No, fair readers, I went with malice in my heart. Malice! I was not someone who particularly approved of public sociology, and wanted nothing to do with the "movement."

As another side note: I feel a little weird calling it a movement. My understanding of the demographics of this thing make it resemble a coup d'etat much more than a movement, but that really isn't the point. Seeing how many times I can cram these "side notes" into a single post IS.

Since the ASAs, however, I have mellowed somewhat on this position. I still want little to do with public sociology, aside from the incoherent rambling of this blog, but I am at least more accepting of the presence of public sociology as a goal, or segment, or whatever the fuck it is, within the discipline. The reason for my rather slight change of heart can really be attributed to Burrawoy's presidential speech.

For those who weren't there, the big B managed to deliver what was simultaneously an interesting, and amusing, oratory. I won't go into the full details (and not just because my memory is slightly less than eidetic) except to sum up the nifty little two-by-two table President B used to illustrate his point.

This table included four groups that were supposed to represent the important sectors of sociology. The first of these sectors was identified as the "professional" section, and includes those sociologists who focus on research, often simply for the sake of knowledge, and largely restrict their attention to the academy. It seems that this group is the primary resistance to the proponents of public sociology, and is the most significant target in public sociology's campaign of world domination.

The second sector on President B's table was for the "policy" sociologists. This sector was rather hazily defined, but I think my interpretation is that policy sociologists are also research oriented, but they construct their research to more directly answer specific social and political problems. Thus, research on global inequality might fall into the professional sector, but research on how to alleviate the affects of this inequality in newly industrializing nations might be policy sociology. We might also think of this as "applied" sociology, as opposed to "theoretical" or "research" sociology.

As a side note: (Ha! Another one!) How many times do you think I can put completely normal terms in quotation marks before it gets "annoying?"

The third sector was for the now-infamous "public" sociology. In the context of Burrawoy's speech, this would seem to be a sector that is engaged in an active process of discussion with society at large. It's tempting to label this as the public relations or educational cadre of sociology, but I don't think that would fully encompass Burrawoy's intent.

Finally, the fourth sector is accounted for by "critical" sociology. Now, I think in this case Burrawoy might have been struggling to find a fourth sector so as to satisfy his obsessive love of two-by-two tables. I say this because my understanding is that this sector is not "critical" in the sense of being full of critical, or Marxist, theory. No, I think in this case "critical" refers to the post-modern or deconstructionist factions within sociology. I have difficulty accepting such a sector, since I have a passionate distaste for post-modernism, but such is a topic for another day. For now, I will labor to avert my gaze from the critical sector and just assume there's something in it worth having around.

Now, Burrawoy made two good points about this little four-way configuration of sectors. The first point is that there is a useful and even necessary role for each of them within the greater enterprise of sociology. To start with, the professional sociologists provide the necessary basic research that any science requires to thrive. As such their separation from practical concerns may actually be somewhat desirable, in that it allows a focus on abstract issues the utility of which may not be immediately apparent.

The policy sociologists can take elements of that abstract material and combine it with their own work to produce solutions for real problems and make a real difference in the world. At the same time, professional sociologists can absorb concepts from the policy sector, both because it will inevitably contain ideas that the "professionals" don't have, and because the "policys" are engaged in real attempts to validate the more abstract material.

The public sociologists act both to bring the findings of the professionals and policys to a wider audience, and try to inject the reactions and insights of that audience back into the research-intensive sectors of sociology. In a sense, then, public sociologists act as mediators between various levels of pure scientist, or social engineers, and the actual social bodies we're all supposedly concerned with.

Finally, the "critical" sociologists are responsible for annoying the beejezus out of the rest of us by constantly picking at our assumptions and intellectual foundations. This is not to say that our assumptions and foundations are necessarily flawed (though sometimes they are) but rather that we can usually benefit from a somewhat hostile force that keeps us honest.

In concert, these four sectors of sociology comprise the totality of a scientific discipline. Both abstract theoretical and concrete practical aspects of inquiry are covered, and sympathetic and antagonistic sectors that mediate between the public and the ivory tower are provided. Further, Burrawoy would seem to argue that each sector shares primacy in the discipline, rather than any one of them being a hegemonic power. Personally, I have a difficult time imagining the critical sector achieving anything like equality with the other three, but I have deep prejudices towards that area. So, much like the Science brothers from yesterday, we can achieve more because the other sectors of sociology exist.

Burrawoy made a second point, though, even if I'm not sure he meant to make it. After discussing these sectors and the need for all of them, he observed that there would inevitably be tension and conflict among them. That's definitely the case. Despite the very clear sense in which they DO all fit together, there's also a very real sense in which we are all incredibly arrogant little snots. Folks in professional sociology will get annoyed with the policy types, who will no doubt seem vulgar. Similarly, the policy people can be forgiven for the exasperation they feel at the professionals and their absurd, abstract concerns. The publics will almost definitely grow weary of constantly arguing that the public has something useful to offer to research, not to mention the hardship of trying to sing the gospel of sociology beyond the academy. Finally, the criticals are just that... critical. They're like Marine Corps drill sergeants: they may motivate others to become more than they thought possible, but they aren't going to make any friends doing it.

The funny thing is, the tension is probably what will made the entire system work. I've said this before but conflict and tension are often far more valuable than are consensus and harmony.

As a side note: (Heh, heh, heh) That's the second time I've referred to my own blog in this one entry. If this post gets any more self-involved, it's going to collapse under the weight of its own navel-gazing and acquire an event horizon.

Despite the fact that each sector has a very impotant job to do (and we would benefit from recognizing that) we also benefit from the fact that we don't always get along. This constant process of trying to escape each other, at the same time that we rely on each other, provides a sort of friction that can wear off our rough edges and form us into a smoother, more coherent whole. (Must... resist... sexual metaphor!) If we all agreed all the time there'd be no reason to grow. If the professionals weren't hauled back to Earth, they definitely would wander off into useless abstraction like some other disciplines have. If the policys didn't have the professionals, they would get so mired in specifics, they'd forget the bigger picture. Without the publics, we'd all lose touch with reality and without the criticals (god, this is hard for me to say) we'd become a wee bit too sure of ourselves. This system can work precisely because there will be conflict and tension and we should be pleased that such elements are present. This also implies that, even if we are going to fight, it's in none of our best interests to eject any of the others from the discipline. That goes for the professional old guard and the young turk publics as much as anyone else. We will not all be professional sociologists, no matter what some people may want, but likewise we will not all be public sociologists, no matter how often we're told how neat-o it is.

As a side note: (Yippee!) In the interests of that necessary and productive conflict within sociology, I'd like to very professionally tell the critical sociology sector to bite me.

So, with all this in mind, I have come to think that Public Sociology is probably not a bad thing after all. Really. It's not my thing, and I have little interest in doing it, but I don't have a problem with its presence, so long as it doesn't try to overpower the rest of us in the discipline. Ultimately, every science needs to publicize its findings, and we're no different in that. It is, perhaps, unusual that we're thinking about constructing a dialogue where the public can add to our work, but perhaps that's just one of the unique things about sociology. When a physicist studies an electron, there isn't a great deal that the general public can really add. On the other hand, we don't study electrons. We study social systems, and with a subject matter like that, perhaps there is some benefit in inviting the public to talk back. I don't know how much benefit, since the public frequently has an even worse idea of what's going on than we do, but still there is some benefit to be had. There's no need for this process to be threatening to any of us, and it can definitely do some good.

Now, that being said, I don't think the majority of the opposition to public sociology came out of a fear of the public. Rather, I think the opposition stemmed more from the recent use of the ASA as a political platform. These are, however, separable issues, and we can discuss the concept of politicizing the ASA some other time. Like... next week, maybe? Sounds like fun to me. In the meantime, I give the Drek seal of indifference-shading-to-approval to public sociology in its non-political form, and look forward to seeing what this revolutionary cabal can do.

As for Mathieu Deflem, who I saw speak at the ASAs, I agree with some of his points, and agree with some of his conclusions, but have largely come to disagree with most of what he said. I would, however, suggest to him (should he somehow come across this blog) that he will be much more convincing if he can get his temper under control. Nobody enjoys being yelled at but, more importantly, nobody listens to someone who is yelling at them. How do I suggest Deflem accomplish this task? I have only one suggestion: decaf.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Wait... what?

I'm just a little too amused by this ad from Officemax not to share it. It appears that they are offering a free shredder with every purchase of the Quicken 2005 financial software.

Is it just me, or does this more or less scream that some of us really learned the wrong lesson from the whole Arthur Anderson/Enron debacle?

The Total Drek Players Present…

We begin our tale in the home of Mr. Empiricist Science and his partner Ms. Positivist Philosophy-Science. Ms. Philosophy-Science has just returned from work to find that the house is a mess. Her twin sons, Qualitative Science and Quantitative Science, have been fighting again. She finds them exchanging blows in the back yard.

“Okay, okay, stop it you two, stop it right now!” mama Pos bellowed, stalking across the grass with an unshakeable confidence.

“He started it!” Quant said angrily.

“I did not!” Qual replied, adding a kick for emphasis.

Quant stumbled back out of the way, pawing at a bloody lip, “Did too!

Mama Pos grabbed one in each hand and hauled them apart by their shirt collars. The two boys glared at each other, but neither was fooling enough to struggle.

“I don’t care who started this, you’re both in trouble! What on earth is all this about, anyway?”

The two boys started talking at the same time, one trying to drown out the other. After scant moments, Mama Pos shook her head and interrupted.

“Stop! Stop! Enough! I’ve changed my mind, I don’t care what this is about. It doesn’t matter.”

The harried woman released the boys and stepped back. After taking a deep breath, she lowered her voice and tried again.

“Okay, let me guess, you were trying to build a theory again and things got out of hand. Am I right?”

The boys exchanged a glance, but said nothing.

“Right. That’s what I thought. Fine, we’ll take this one at a time.”

Mama Pos turned to Quant and nodded, “You first, what’s your side?”

Quant answered his mother in his normal fashion:

“Number of iterations = 82
Converge criterion = 0.0000009676

X-squared = 27.3506 (0.0001)
L-squared = 27.4479 (0.0001)
Cressie-Read = 27.3799 (0.0001)
Dissimilarity index = 0.0113
Degrees of freedom = 6
Log-likelihood = -57541.90776
Number of parameters = 18 (+1)
Sample size = 19912.0
BIC(L-squared) = -31.9465
AIC(L-squared) = 15.4479
BIC(log-likelihood) = 115261.9989
AIC(log-likelihood) = 115119.8155

Eigenvalues information matrix
23383.4550 6769.6308 4586.7966 3230.9675 2020.4083 1652.4329
1430.8572 1323.9839 1074.3686 970.0965 838.2310 558.1981
526.1280 430.5837 370.0170 297.4412 284.4832 28.1028”

Silence fell over the yard.

“Is that it?” Pos asked.

Quant opened his mouth to continue, but his mother waved her hands before he could speak.

“Never mind, I know, I know, you’re going to give me the conditional probabilities.”

Though he obviously wanted to continue, Quant allowed himself to be shushed.

“Answer me this, Quant: what does all that mean?”

After thinking a moment, the boy answered, “P<0.0001?”

“So?” his mother asked.

Quant remained silent. Finally, he shrugged.

With a sigh, mama Pos turned to her other son, Qual, who had been watching the proceedings with an increasingly smug look.

“Okay, let’s have it, Qual.”

Qual, like his brother, answered in his characteristic manner, “A deep examination of the interview diaries provided by a series of individuals at all levels of occupational status within the United States were compiled and evaluated. This evaluation provided substantial detail on the patterns of mobility from generation to generation or, more specifically, between the social position of the father and the social position of the son. These diaries, in conjunction with the account of my seven month employment at a telemarketing call center, will provide the foundation of the deep-ethnography that I will now report. Chapter 1: Selecting the Site and Inserting the Researcher…”

Young Qual continued like that for several minutes before his mother became impatient.

“Okay, fine Qual, that’s very good. Where’s your proof?”

“Proof? What do you call my interviews!?” Qual responded, indignant.

Pos sighed, “Qual, you have a tremendous amount of information, and it’s good information, but you only have about ten diaries and, yes, you spent seven months in one job gathering information, but it was just one job…. And we’re going to talk about that later, young man, as you had better not have blown all your money on NUD*IST licenses and micro-cassette recorders,”

Qual suddenly looked very guilty.

“The problem, Qual, is that despite the depth of your research, you only have information on ten families, and your own experiences. That doesn’t mean you actually know anything about the world. Are those results generalizable? Are they just an artifact of the way you did your interviews? Who knows? Not you.”

“Okay, mom, fine, so who is right? Me or Quant?” Qual asked with annoyance in his voice.

“Bacon help me,” Pos murmured to herself, “Empiri is so much better at tackling these issues than I am.”

After a moment of silence, Pos continued at a normal volume, “Look, neither one of you is right.”

For once both boys were united, if only in their indignance.

“What? We can’t BOTH be right!” Qual exclaimed.

“Yeah,” Quant agreed, “talk about misspecification!”

“No, boys, listen: you, Quant, can tell me chapter and verse about something, you can even tell me exactly how accurate your inferences are, but you cannot tell me what any of it means.”

Quant looked defiant, but said nothing.

“And you, Qual… you can give me more depth on something than I ever needed, more depth than I can even believe possible, but you still can’t demonstrate that something holds true for an entire group. You have so much data, Qual, but so much of it is just totally irrelevant. It's all depth with no breadth.”

Qual sighed heavily, looking with deep sadness at the stacks and stacks of interviews he had accumulated.

“Great. We can’t do anything right,” Qual sighed.

Mama Pos tousled her son’s hair fondly, “I didn’t say that, Qual. You’re both very, very good at certain things, but you can’t get the job done alone. So, have you ever thought of working together?”

“Together?!” the boys asked, looking back and forth from their mother to each other.

Mama Pos chuckled, “Yes, sillies, together! You, Quant, can tell me precisely what’s happening, but you can’t tell me what it means. You, Qual, can’t tell for sure what’s happening, but you can produce wonderful stories about what Quant is finding out.”

“So, what, I’m supposed to do what he tells me?” Qual asked sullenly.

“Sometimes,” Pos said calmly, “But sometimes you’ll take all your material and tell him what you think is going on. Then it’ll be his job to see if you’re right.”

“So… it’s like we’re positively correlated?” Quant asked slowly.

“Something like that, Quant,” Pos replied with approval, “When one of you is going up, the other is too, and when one of you is failing-“

“We’re both failing,” Qual finished.

There was a moment of silence as Quant stared at his brother in disbelief.

“What? Just because I don’t talk that way doesn’t mean I don’t understand it when you do!” Qual said in exasperation.

After a few more moments of staring Qual sighed and kept talking, “Fine, fine. Most of the time I don’t get it. I still understand correlation, though.”

Quant nodded, and then smiled, “Maybe mama is right. Maybe we’d do better if we worked together instead of fighting all the time.”

“Well,” Qual answered, “we can’t do any worse. We aren’t getting anywhere by ourselves.”

The crisis ended, mama Pos clapped her hands, “All right you two, go on in and wash up for supper.”

“Oh boy!” Qual said, “What are we having?”

Quant and Qual raced off, but Pos overheard her other son answer, “Who cares what we’ve having? How much is there?”

Mama Pos smiled. It was a normal day in the Science household.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

A little too true.

This, I have no doubt, is what would happen if I ever got a co-blogger. Whether or not that makes a co-blogger desirable I leave to your judgement.

Blog overload! Blog overload!

After a conference like that one, I feel like I have way too many things to talk about to possibly get to them all. This is doubly sad since I'm sure I'll get sidetracked onto actual work long before I clear out the list. Ah, well, what can you do?

I have returned from San Francisco and somehow managed not to leave my heart there. And yes, contrary to popular opinion, I do, in fact, have a heart. The conference was great. The panels were, with one regrettable exception, quite good. The seminars were well organized and led, the plenary sessions were... largely lacking my presence, but the ones I attended were interesting. Michael Burrawoy's speech was excellent. I didn't agree with everything he said, which should come as no surprise, but did find myself generally quite pleased. I even got to participate in my favorite conference sport while I was there. I don't think I racked up quite the score at it that Brayden is claiming, but I still feel pretty good.

By the way, Brayden, before you claim your points you really do need to verify certain of those spots with me via e-mail. Not to doubt you, but some of the clues are a tad... um... vague. I am aware, however, that you did identify Lothar the Destroyer.

Brayden is correct, I DO make a lousy undercover agent, but I did enjoy the blogger's get-together that Tina from Kickass Sociology organized. I had an interesting conversation with Brayden, Nick from Public Sociology, and Erin from Prairie Sociology that dealt with the role of the ASA in public life. I imagine we'll see more of that discussion in our blogs as time goes by. I also had another fun conversation with someone else from Prairie Sociology who apparently is still trying to figure out how to post and, hence, isn't really from Prairie Sociology. Hopefully that caveat will be cleared up before much longer, hmmm? And, of course, I got to meet Jeremy and the enigmatic Lago. Good times all around, and I hope y'all enjoyed meeting me half as much as I enjoyed meeting y'all.

And that would be a new personal best for me if you did.

Much as I would enjoy hanging around and blabbing further, I do need to take care of a few things. I start teaching the undergrads soon, need to change offices, am doing laundry, and generally need to take care of a million things. Besides, I'm way behind on my blog-reading and internet cartoons. I'm sure you understand.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Good luck.

Our hopes and thoughts go out to those who are preparing to weather a hurricane in Florida. As you can see the squall lines are starting up. It'll only get worse once the preliminaries end and the main show gets going.

Take care, guys.

Bring on the Insanity!

So, ladies and gentlemen, today is the day I depart for San Francisco and the magic of the American Sociological Association annual meetings. Like Brayden I am afraid my posting may become a tad erratic for a while. Don't hate me because I'm staying in a cheap motel. I'll count myself lucky if the human occupants outnumber the insect occupants. On the plus side, I may still manage to post if the fates are with me and I really have nothing better to do. Since I'm not presenting anything (save myself I suppose) there's a fairly decent chance of that.

I must say I love the annual meetings. I usually arrive feeling down and depressed about the amount of work the oncoming year will require. Yet, I leave feeling energized. I do love my job, and conferences always seem to remind me why. I certainly hope some of you have the same experience. Failing that, I hope some of you manage to link into the casual hookup network that seems to operate in the seedy underside of conventions. I have somehow never fallen into it myself, but I don't think I'm complaining.

While you're in San Francisco, it's worth getting out to see the sights. Chinatown is fascinating, and has so much worthless crap available for very reasonable prices you'd think you were at one of my relatives' yard sales. Little Italy has a fine, fine selection of pornographic theaters and also a supply of gelato. I have no idea if those are related somehow, and don't really want to explore the matter. For those who don't know, Gelato is basically ice cream, but better. Fisherman's Wharf is... well... just a wharf. Admittedly it's really touristy, but it ain't anything too special. It does, however, play host to some kickass clam chowder and is mighty near the Ghirardelli chocolate store. They give free samples.

For the fitness-inclined, please keep in mind that San Francisco is "hilly" in the same sense that the Iraq war is "controversial." It's a pretty small town, but with the hills a short trip can involve a lot of sweat. There are, however, relatively convenient streetcars that can give you a lift if you're not willing to hoof it. I recommend clinging swashbuckler-like to the railings on the outside of the streetcars, rather than actually sitting within them. Also, if you're walking along a street and hear a strange gringing/humming noise, don't be alarmed. The cable cars are not self-powered, but rather connect to a system beneath the streets. It's pretty cool, actually.

For anyone who wants to go see the Golden Gate bridge... good luck. It's a fair distance from the conference, so plan accordingly and bring a lunch.

And, of course, if you're reading this you should consider coming to the Blogger's get-together scheduled by Tina over at Kickass Sociology. If nothing else it should be an interesting experience.

So, with that, good luck, good travels, and I'll see you in San Francisco!

Even if you won't know it at the time.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Only you understand, Georg.

We all have our reasons for getting into sociology. Well, those of us who are actually sociologists, anyway. In my case a lot of it can be attributed to my exposure to the writings of Georg Simmel when I was an undergraduate. Sure, he isn't usually considered to be quite on the same level as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim or Max Weber, but Simmel's unique approach to social phenomena has always resonated with me. As a case in point, check this out from his essay on conflict (the Kurt H. Wolff translation):

For instance, the opposition of a [group] member to an associate is no purely negative social factor, if only because such opposition is often the only means for making life with actually unbearable people at least possible. If we did not even have the power and the right to rebel against tyranny, arbitrariness, moodiness, tactlessness, we could not bear to have any relation to people from whose characters we thus suffer. We would feel pushed to take desperate steps- and these, indeed, would end the relation but do not, perhaps, constitute "conflict." Not only because of the fact (though it is not essential here) that oppression usually increases if it is suffered calmly and without protest, but also because opposition gives us inner satisfaction, distraction, relief, just as do humility and patience under different psychological conditions. Our opposition makes us feel that we are not completely victims of the circumstances. It allows us to prove our strength consciously and only thus gives vitality and reciprocity to conditions from which, without such corrective, we would withdraw at any cost. [Emphasis original]

In short, our ability to feel and express an amount of conflict is a unifying, rather than divisive, force because it allows different and largely incompatible people to exist within the same social structure. Further, on a more fundamental level, conflict is itself a type of social relation thus implying engagement. Such engagement is necessary for any social structure to endure. Conflict, in a sociological sense, is then likely preferrable to indifference, which signals a lack of engagement. A very similar argument is made in Simmel's essay on money, in which he observes that money both unifies a society (by allowing wider and more intricate commerce) and divides it (by making exchange relations impersonal). Such a dual view of something that is often considered intrinsically bad seems to me to be more scientific than perspectives that prejudge an outcome in moral terms. The relevant issue is to figure out what functions a given thing has, and what consequences are generated by its normal functioning. Decisions as to the desirability of those elements can come later.

Perhaps my affinity for this perspective stems from the same place as my political moderation. If you recognize that all actions have both positive and negative effects, which are both intended and unintended, it's difficult to see political issues in truly black and white terms. This is not to say that I'm a paragon of reasonableness (Honestly, don't make me laugh) or that those with strong opinion haven't considered the issues (although it is amazing how often people with strong opinions haven't considered them). It just means that a recognition that everything comes with good and bad elements tends to take the wind from the sails of self-righteousness.

Maybe my affection for Simmel has to do with my vehement, even rabid, support for free speech. If we are not free to express ourselves with words and art, then surely we will express ourselves with bullets and bombs. Free speech is but one way that conflict can be integrated into a social structure in a constructive, rather than destructive, manner. This probably also accounts for my outright hatred of political correctness. Restricting the use of a term does not eliminate the feeling that provokes that term's use, and I have yet to be convinced that we can legislate away negativity. Besides, even if we can, I am reluctant to follow any course of action that restricts the ability of people to express themselves.

Perhaps this love of duality has something to do with my distaste for those organized religions who criticize their members for feeling angry, jealous, or bitter. Being human is an adventure in many emotions and, while we can control our actions, we cannot control our feelings. Encouraging us to feel guilty because we're human is not just pointless, it's revolting. Granted, I'm not quite as vehement in my dislike of many religions as that lovable scamp the Raving Atheist, but I'm still pretty hardcore about it.

Conflict is rarely fun to experience but, as Simmel argues, it is necessary and even, in some cases, desirable. Without conflict, no growth or change occurs. This is reflected in the work of Hegel, who argued that an idea, or thesis, will inevitably clash with an opposed idea, or antithesis. Out of the conflict, both ideas will be destroyed and in their place will emerge a third idea, or synthesis, that incorporates elements of both. This synthesis then becomes a thesis during the next round of this ideological deathmatch. For Hegel, intellectual progress is bound up in conflict. For scientists, too, intellectual progress is linked to conflict. Why else do we maintain a system of peer-review for our journals? Why else do we have discussants and debates? Only by clashing ideas in a public forum can we separate the wheat from the chaff, sand off the rough edges, (use a lot of tired metaphors) and produce ever-improving work.

The trouble is, most of us are so damned scared of conflict that when it erupts it's ultimately more destructive than it has to be. It's a little like watching a Hitchcock movie: we've built up so much tension anticipating the terrifying act, that when it finally occurs we're a thousand times more frightened than we would be otherwise. The more we fear and dread conflict, the more terrible that conflict will be. On the other hand, if we embrace conflict as a necessary and inevitable part of life, it loses its terrifying power. People WILL disagree, and sometimes vehemently. This is natural. We may as well adjust to that, accept it, even enjoy it. To do anything else is to deny our nature as human and to leave our society without the safety mechanism that open conflict provides. After all, is the health of a marriage determined by the perfection of its compulsory harmony, or by the non-destructive expression and resolution of its disagreements? Since all husbands and wives disagree from time to time, the latter seems more true. So, why should it be any different for an entire society? We are all engaged in a collective enterprise- to build and maintain a social world that we all benefit from. Doing so, however, doesn't mean that conflict can't happen, or that it can't be beneficial when it does. So, go out there and tell someone they suck. Do it for yourself. Do it for sheer enjoyment. Do it for me.

Do it for social solidarity.

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