Saturday, July 26, 2008

the process of science

A few years back, Michael Crichton published State of Fear, which was far less a novel than an inept position paper. Possessed of a tortured and unbelievable plot, wooden characters, and many pages of highly selective scientific data (replete with charts and footnotes) and pseudo-scientific exposition, the book was only worth reading for insight into the minds of climate contrarians (or deniers depending on your preferred terminology). The book had two essential premises: 1) those who support the idea of anthropogenic global warming do so for reasons of personal, professional and organizational economic gain and aggrandizement, and that these people are therefore willing to go to any lengths, including the wholesale murder of entire populations through manufactured environmental catastrophes, to protect their interests and promote acceptance of anthropogenic global warming by the public and politicians; and 2) governments (that is the "state" in the title) require the maintenance of fear in order to exert control in the population, and in the absence of old enemies (communism), government has turned to an environmental bogeyman to exert control.

Let's deal with premise number two first. Governments have used fear as a mechanism of control, especially when bent on limiting civil liberties and political opposition, and expanding the power of office holders. This describes the Bush administration. However, the Bush administration spent seven of its eight years denying global warming, and doing its best to silence scientists in NASA, NOAA, the EPA and CDC and stifle data supportive of the anthropogenic global warming. The Bush administration favorite bogeyman is "Islamic terrorism" not global warming. Which leads us to premise number one. Certainly millions of dollars of research money, from both government and industry is at stake for scientists, their departments and their institutions. But under the Bush administration, large-scale government monies were not flowing to scientists studying climate change, and the industries (coal, electricity generation, oil, etc.) with the most money to spend on climate research are largely those whose stake is in undermining the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

Why spend so much time talking about a bad novel? Because those two key premises are widely believed by many people. Over and over, in blogs, in on-line discussions, on talk shows, on Fox News, and many other media outlets, the belief is expressed that those who support the idea of anthropogenic global warming are motivated by the exact same things -- greed and power -- that motivate those who oppose the idea.

Americans have become disenchanted with politics (many sociologists would call it alienation). Quite accurately, Americans are aware of the role of money in politics. They know that the pharmaceutical corporations spend millions in lobbying money and campaign contributions and public relations ads to insure that they will continue to make billions and billions in profits on drugs. They know that corporations like Halliburton and its subsidiaries have made millions in profits on no-bid contracts in Iraq while American soldiers and Iraqi civilians die -- sometimes as a direct result of the shoddy work done on those contracts, like the soldiers electrocuted by poor wiring jobs done by a Halliburton subsidiary. Americans also know that things that their government identifies as threats often turn out not to be supported by fact. Many Americans believe that Bush and Cheney knowingly lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, whipping-up fear to support a war that had far more to do with shoring up the dollar and protecting access to oil supplies, than it ever had to do with terrorism and military threat. So it is not surprising that many Americans also look at claims about the dangers of global warming with distrust.

They have come to expect people to act politically only out of self-interest in amassing wealth and power, and to expect that fear-mongering will play a major role in promoting that self-interest. The idea that scientists might operate on different, more disinterested principles, requiring rigorous testing, verification and review is beyond the comprehension of most people. This is not to say that scientists are not human and that they care nothing at all for career advancement, salaries, or grants; of course they are and they do.

Individual scientists fake data and lie about their results. However, they are usually caught at it and disgraced, because the scientific endeavor as a whole has built into it many mechanisms for feedback, review, oversight, and correction based on empirical evidence.

Most Americans do not understand that science is a process and a social process at that. Our educational system is at fault in this. The only exposure of most people to science is reading a few dry textbooks that present a list of terms, facts and numbers to be memorized and accepted by fiat. The social process of science in which the results of each individual scientists study are reviewed by many others, and tested repeatedly by others in other settings, has built into it corrections that tend to weed out that which is cannot be replicated and supported.

Science is not infallible. Scientists do sometimes go down the wrong alley, but this is always corrected by other scientists. Climate change science has been around a lot longer than the general public has been aware of it - and contrary to some media claims has been focused on global warming not cooling. Long before it became climate change became a political issue, the scientific process of review pruned away most of the false leads and blind alleys. There is still a great deal of uncertainty on specific mechanisms, specific consequences, and the specific patterns and timetables through which the general trend of anthropogenic global warming will play out.

Politicians and the political process may "squelch dissent," but science uses a process of peer review to sort between that which has the greatest empirical support and that which fails the tests of reviews and replication. This means that some people don't get their papers and their research published. This is not sinister, its how the scientific process works. Sometimes this means that good ideas and groundbreaking research doesn't get published. But if there's validity in it, other people will pick it up and work on it, providing more data, more corraboration, until ultimately it will get recognized.

Monday, July 07, 2008

childhood socialization and values

Almost every introductory sociology textbook carries in it the obligatory discussion of "nature versus nurture," and while sociology acknowledges some role for genetic inheritance in human behavior, the essence of sociology is to focus on the nurture side or what we call socialization. [Anthropologists refer to the same process as enculturation -- a term that results in less student confusion.]

Sociologists explore the role of learning from others (socialization) on everything from eating and controlling bodily functions, to language, to following the rules of daily life (norms), to developing beliefs and values.

If you doubt the role of socialization (learning from others) in eating behavior, then you've never spent any time with a baby or small child. They will put anything in their mouths to taste, and I mean anything, so the only thing standing between a human child and eminent death by poisoning is socializing agents such as parents, grandparents, older siblings and other caretakers, who teach (socialize) the child to distinguish between proper "food" and other consumables. This of course also includes teaching the child that many things that non-poisonous and are acceptable as food in other cultures are off limits and "nasty" in our own -- such as insects, worms, and dirt.

Of greater interest to most sociologists are the learning processes (socialization) for acquiring cultural norms, beliefs and values -- the non-material aspects of human culture. Sociologists and anthropologists vary in their views of how much of our adult attitudes, believes and values are socialized (enculturated) in childhood, and how much continues to evolve throughout our life time. Like many sociologists I am most influenced by thinkers like George Herbert Mead who view socialization and the development of the self as life long processes. While key developments happen in early childhood, the self and the attitudes, beliefs and values of the self are an on-going process shaped by the continuing interaction with others.

Another part of the sociological debate over socialization concerns the relative importance of various agents of socialization: parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, peers (friends, schoolmates), ministers and Sunday school teachers, and in the modern world media (books, magazines, television, music, movies, video games, etc.). Few sociologists question the primacy of parents or other primary caregivers in infancy; and much research has been done that establishes that television (especially televised violence) has an impact on childhood socialization. During the 1970's a great deal of research explored the role of children's books in shaping children's perceptions and attitudes about gender and gender roles.

In that spirit a new book, Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture (University of Missouri Press) by Anita Clair Fellman, now chair of the women's-studies department at Old Dominion University, investigates the impact of this popular series of books on the political values and attitudes of recent generations of Americans. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education "Note Bene" July 11, 2008 [sorry, this is a subscription only article]:

She [Fellman] found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Wilder's own staunch individualism had informed the tenor of the novels. "Distraught by New Deal policies that created an expanded role for government," Wilder had, in her books, expressly depicted government as "nothing but rules and bureaucracies destructive to the enterprising individual," sometimes manipulating the facts of her youth — on which the books are based — to achieve this effect. The Little House books instead champion the self-reliance, isolationism, and "buoyancy of spirit" Wilder felt had made America great.

Fellman carefully notes, "Looking at the Little House books in this way would be only a case study for my starting proposition that sources other than overtly political thinking and rhetoric might have contributed to a continued appreciation for individualist ideas." Yet, she continues, "there are not many people who are aware of the formative influence of what they read in childhood on their core political views."

As a sociologist, I am suspicious of this sort of purely textual analysis. Until research actually links the reading of these books in childhood, to the development of conservative, individualistic values in adulthood in specific individuals, Fellman's work remains highly speculative. Moreover, one would have to explore the interaction of exposure to books like this with the political values expressed within the family.

My own experience causes me to question the value of Fellman's conclusions. No one I knew growing up spent more time reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books than I did. I read the entire series several times before the age of 18, and the last four books (dealing with Laura's adolescence and early adulthood) in the series more than a dozen times during the same period, and have probably read it another 5 or 6 time since that. Many of the girls I knew never read it at all, and none of the boys -- including my two brothers -- I knew read it or had it read to them. Despite my fondness for the series, and my admiration for the pioneer spirit expressed within it, my own political values were far more influenced by my parents, who were (and still are) staunch liberals. The fact that my father gave me The Communist Manifesto to read at age 11, and encouraged me to read his union paper every week, were far more influential on my political values than the Wilder series, no matter how beloved.

Moreover, my family experience suggests that adult experience is also influential on political values. One of my brothers, who read neither the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, nor The Communist Manifesto as a child, but was exposed to the same liberal political rants at the dinner table, grew up to be a Reagan (and Bush) conservative. I strongly suspect that his adult political values have a lot more to do with his economic self interest (he's been much more affluent than myself by 400 to 600 percent for the past 3 decades) in low taxes and policies that benefit investors than with any childhood influences. My own adult experiences both as a knowledge worker at the lowest end of the scale for my occupation, and as a faculty advisor and friend to many women struggling with the welfare system also continued to mold me into a liberal.

A current candidate for president also made an excellent argument, though much maligned, for the role of adult experiences on shaping political values. Although, as a sociologist I would suggest that the words "disaffected" or "alienated" would be more accurate than "bitter," his assessement of the impact of frustration on political attitudes reflects what I have observed in the working class and lower middle class communities where I have lived and taught.

My general sense, contrary to Fellman's argument, is that the swell of conservatism that brought Reagan to office had more to do with those who read little or nothing in childhood and whose only contact with the Wilder story was through the Michael Landon TV series, than it had to do with the influence of a series of children's books. But the only way the question could be answered would be to actually measure the political attitudes of individuals and compare that to their childhood reading experiences.

Friday, July 04, 2008

social construction of the nomos and antinomos

Language is what separates humans for the other animals. Language isn't just communication. Lots of animals communicate. My dog sends greetings to other dogs in the neighborhood. She loudly announces that there is a suspicious vehicle in the neighborhood that requires our attention. She voices her approval and encouragement to the neighbors' dog Mr. Tuggles as he harasses one of the neighborhood cats. But my dog can't communicate about things that happened yesterday, things that happen outside the range of her sight, smell or hearing, or things that might possibly happen tomorrow. Only humans with our symbolic language can do those things.

One of many the ways that humans use language is to define what is part of the acceptable order (nomos) and what is outside the acceptable order (antinomian). In this day and age, we have the technological capacity to disseminate our attempts at defining the nomos and antinomos to thousands of people in a short period of time through the Internet. Many e-mails are sent everyday designed to convince readers to view the world in particular ways, to define somethings as within the order of the nomos, and other things as antinomian.

This week I received such an e-mail, from one of those acquaintances who rarely sends personal messages, but has decided, without a by-your-leave, to include their entire address book in mass mailings; a behavior which, by the way I consider rude in the extreme (why I make an issue of this will become apparent below). This particular e-mail, like many was designed to call attention to antinomian action, and thus galvanize its readers into action to support and protect the nomos. What that action might be, other than forwarding the message on to everyone in one's own address book, is left suitably vague. The subject of the e-mail? A woman, an ordinary citizen with a good singing voice, was invited to perform The Star Spangled Banner at her local (Denver) city council meeting. In a move that was ill-advised but hardly sinister, the woman substituted the song Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson. Both songs speak of liberty, freedom, God and love of country. [Click here if you are unfamiliar with Johnson's song,and click here if you can't remember The Star Spangled Banner -- as many Americans cannot.]

The incident was discussed on local radio, where the Governor of Colorado defined the woman's actions as "actions were 'wrong' and 'outside the bounds.'" In other words the governor labeled the actions antinomian -- against the nomos. Local papers picked up the story, pointing out that the song Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing "is also known as the 'black national anthem.'" This is technically incorrect; the NAACP adopted the song as "The Negro National Anthem" in 1919, and it was entered into the Congressional Record in 1990 as "African American National Hymn." Unlike the phrases "Negro National Anthem" and "African American National Hymn" the phrase "Black National Anthem" conjures in some people's minds the wraith of "Black nationalism," a separatist movement that arose in the late 19th century, and which has been associated with militant movements in the twentieth century. There is, of course, no connection what so ever between this song and that movement.

The e-mail I received strongly suggested that the actions of the singer were seditious (although the vocabulary of the e-mail was far cruder), an attempt to subvert the legitimate government, through a plot to replace one national allegiance with a foreign - non-American - allegiance. Curious, I did some Googling, found the original story (which included the lyrics). I wondered if the people who sent the e-mail, who seemed so incensed about this anti-American action, were at all familiar with the words. So I hit "reply all" and mailed the lyrics back to them (and everyone on the list of course).

This morning I received a reply from my acquaintance. She acknowledged that "It is a beautiful song but when someone is asked to sing a specific song and they agree, they should not change the song without asking those who extended the original invitation. All politics aside, it is just rude."

My response to her: Yes. I agree, it is rude and it is inappropriate when you are asked to provide a specific service to substitute another service (regardless of quality) without first asking. She should not have done it without asking first. [Just as people should ask the folks in their e-mail address book whether they wan to receive mass mailings.] But if my acquaintance (who lives no where near Denver), or the governor of Colorado, or Fox news, or anyone else who has promoted and forwarded this story, thought that the problem was "rudeness," then there would never have been a story. Because I guarantee that rude behavior happens at city council and town council meetings nation-wide on a regular and recurring basis, and never gets further than the local media -- if that. Rudeness is annoying but it doesn't warrant a nation-wide flurry of communications to warn folks of attacks upon the nomos.

Here's my bet -- if this woman had substituted Amazing Grace for The Star Spangled Banner how upset would these same people be? Would it have made a national news story? Or if a white woman had sung these exact same words, with no one mentioning the phrase "black national anthem" wouldn't these same people be defending her against the ACLU for bringing God (mentioned 4 times in Lift Ev'ry Voice and only 1 time in The Star Spangled Banner) into a political arena?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

understanding the nomos

Sociologist Peter Berger defined the "nomos" as "a meaningful order" which makes the "antinomian" the opposite of meaningful order. One who is antinomian deliberately stands against existing norms and laws.

It is a long established principle in anthropology and sociology that it is difficult for people to recognize and articulate what is normal or normative, because the nomos to truly work in providing meaningful order it must be taken-for-granted. The nomos must be accepted as natural, unquestioned, and therefore to some extent unconscious. It is only when confronting the antinomian, that individuals within a society are able to articulate the nomos, and then only in part, because the nature of the nomos is that it must be taken-for-granted to be effective.

Emile Durkheim demonstrated in his research and theory that the existence of deviance in a society is functional (beneficial) because the existence of deviance and the sanctioning of deviance serves by comparison to define and reinforce adherence to the norms of society (nomos).

Consequently, for more than one hundred and fifty years, anthropologists and sociologists (not to mention psychologists) have used the examination of antinomians and deviants as the best means through which to access the unquestioned, unexamined nomos of society.

Recently David Edmunds a Family Foundation policy analyst asked in a Louisville Courier Journal op-ed piece, how the research of Professor Kaila Story of the University of Louisville on "how the black male-bodied Drag Queen's presence within queer "subcultures' disrupts mainstream notions of what is considered natural and fixed signifiers of black femininity and/or womanhood" moves Kentucky forward. The answer, as any anthropologist, sociologist or psychologist could tell him, is that it is only by examining the deviant and antinomian, that we can understand "what is considered natural and fixed signifiers of black femininity and/or womanhood."

who/what defines a terrorist?

Tuesday July 1, President Bush signed into law H.R. 5690, which "authorizes the Departments of State and Homeland Security to determine that provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act that render aliens inadmissible due to terrorist or criminal activities would not apply with respect to activities undertaken in association with the African National Congress in opposition to apartheid rule in South Africa." In doing so, Bush removes Nelson Mandela, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize from the United States terror watch list.

Does this mean that Mandela and the ANC didn't engage in acts of violence in their fight against apartheid -- of course not. The U.S. government has finally decided to bow to public opinion that view these acts of violence as the acts of "freedom fighters." It doesn't hurt that the ANC is now the ruling party in a country in which many U.S. citizens and businesses have significant economic interests.

Many of us, myself included, never considered Mandela and the ANC terrorists, but our government did. Just as there are some Americans today who do not consider Hamas to be terrorists, but view them also as freedom fighters. The point here is that the label of "terrorist" is not based on some objective measure of the level of violence employed, or the number of deaths and injuries incurred. It is a political label based on prevailing attitudes and sentiments, and it can change when the circumstances and attitudes change.

As sociologists point out over and over again, political, economic and social reality is socially constructed. It is constructed through the process of attaching meaning to things. We humans construct those meanings, and determine how things, people, and events will be defined; because our world is socially constructed, it can be reconstructed and redefined. Power and powerlessness often determine whose sets of meanings will get the backing of governments and military might. When the lines of power shift, things are often redefined to reflect those changes in power.