Crawl Across the Ocean

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Train of Thought

So Randy Moss was fined $10,000 for pretending to moon the crowd in Green Bay over the weekend. I can't be the only one wondering how much he would have been fined if he had actually done it.

Which makes me wonder about the proper proportion between punishment for doing something and punishment for pretending to do it. What if someone decided to do the (now banned, I believe) throat-slash celebration - what would the fine for that be?

Does the fine for pretending to do something depend on how likely it is that you would actually do it? Or on how disturbing a mental image it creates? Or just the current political climate? Or on the reputation of the person who committed the act in question?

Questions like this always bring me back to the same place - how absurdly complex even the simplest, most trivial things become when they involve human behavior and decision making. It makes me think we may never understand very much about why we act the way we do and we may never develop anything beyond the crudest analytical (as opposed to experience based) ability to predict how people will act in a given situation.

Every person is so unique and every situation so different, that any kind of repeatable experiment, or sample size large enough to analyze seems pretty hard to come by (especially with Terrell Owens injured).

Isaac Asimov postulated, (in his Foundation series) the development of 'psychologists' who, in his meaning of the term, were scientists who had developed an analytical framework for predicting what people would do and how society would evolve (their rules could only predict the actions of a sufficiently large group of people- they couldn't predict individual behavior).

On the other hand, Neil Postman argued in his essay 'Social Science as Moral Theology' (contained within his 'Conscientious Objections') that we are making a serious mistake by confusing science (along with ideas such as the scientific method and mathematical rules) with sociology, or any kind of human behavior. As he says in the intro,
"there is a measure of cultural self-delusion in the prevalent belief that psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and other moral theologians and doing something different from storytelling".

Postman's conclusion that all we can really do to try and figure out human behavior is to tell stories (his definition of storytelling includes 'studies' such as Milgram's experiment on obedience) makes sense because stories are really just a recounting of our experience and - in the absence of a rule-based analytical framework - a carefully distilled look at our experience is our only option for trying to understand who we are.

At any rate, I think I lean more towards the Neil Postman view of the world than the Isaac Asimov one. So what's my point, what's the moral of this meandering post? Nothing, it was just a train of thought, that's all.

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  • im with postman and randy moss. go vikings.

    By Blogger angela, at 1:53 AM  

  • Can you expand on Postman's definition of storytelling? I tend to think of well-designed psychology experiments as scientific. However, I think they lack much explanatory power because people are so complex and unique that it is difficult to get much more than a small glimpse into the human mind.

    Given that much psychological work is only useful in aggregate, it's easy to interpret it as a story. But I don't think that means it isn't also scientific.

    I'm having trouble phrasing my point, but I'm really wondering if his definition of storytelling isn't a tautology.

    By Blogger dejour, at 9:11 AM  

  • I don't think the Asimov vs Postman divide is so fundamental as to not be overcome; it's more or less two sides of a coin.

    There are largely two parts to sciences. The first part, the descriptive part, is essentially the storytelling. This is where data is taken and catalogued, and a body of knowledge is built up, but where there isn't a lot of understanding of how to interpret it or put it to use. The second part, prescriptive (or predictive), starts to use that data to build theories, to explain the data and to then start making testable predictions about things which haven't been measured yet.

    In a mature field, the two proceed at the same time, but a new field starts off being purely descriptive. Lots of sciences are like that today -- seismology, for instance, where right now scientists can only report on and describe seismic events which have occurred. Much of biology was this way until _very_ recently. In all fields, there are traces of this past -- there are some objects or phenomenon that have names that don't make any sense now but are there for `historical reasons' , because when data was being catalogued, names were given that now, with more understanding, seem totally wrong.

    Sociology right now is largely descriptive. When, say, divorce rates go up, sociologists can compare data from many countries and, empirically, point pretty convincingly to factors that caused it. That's very different from being able to predict that divorce rates *will* go up, and by how much, if such-and-such happens, but sociology is a pretty new field (early 19th century) compared to some other sciences.

    And more may be coming. Sociology, which is all about groups of people interacting, is finally starting to have some better tools available in terms of agent-based simulations ( ), and there is some great working being done on the boundaries of sociology and economics, where getting quantitative data is much easier than in messy areas like, say, marriage or mooning.

    As for psychology, a troublemaker could argue that applied psychology is one of the most successful sciences around, dollar-wise; $450 billion is spent per year world-wide on advertising, and you can bet that money wouldn't be spent unless it produced at least 450 billion + 1 dollars worth of modified behaviour.

    By Blogger Jon Dursi, at 11:39 AM  

  • Dejour: Here's a quote from Postman, "As I understand it, science is the quest to find the immutabble and universal laws that govern processes, and does so on the assumption that there are cause-and-effect realtionships among these processes"

    He then goes to say that, since people have free will and can make choices, no science can ever really discover these cause and effect relationships in realtion to human activity/behavior.

    Personally, I don't believe in free will, but I'd say that human behavior is so complex (mathematically) that it renders predicting it impossible, so it amounts to the same thing.

    His point is that just because you count things, or do a correlation analysis or something like that, it doesn't make something science just becaue there are numbers involved. Science (in his view) is about discovering immutable laws of cause and effect.

    Since social science work isn't science, he then asks what it is, and gives a bunch of comparisons of how novelists and 'social scientists' make their point, which leads up to him saying that they are both telling stories, just using a different methodology.

    Jonathan: Postman would argue (I think) that no matter how many studies are done, socioligists will never be able to create a law which *precisely* predicts a change in divorce rates based on a change in policy. And if they do make a prediction based on their studies and it turns out to be wrong, it won't mean that the studies were wrong, just that there is no *law* of cause and effect which can be determined - since divorce is a function of human behavior.

    Re: "$450 billion is spent per year world-wide on advertising, and you can bet that money wouldn't be spent unless it produced at least 450 billion + 1 dollars worth of modified behaviour."

    Actually, I would make that bet, for a number of reasons. The most interesting reason is that advertising is a bit of a collective action problem (see my post on the Rebel Sell). For any indivudal company it makes sense to advertise in order to steal clients from the competition. But once one person advertises, everyone has to retaliate and the industry ends up spending tons of money on advertising without making any difference in total demand for their product. That's one reason why a lot of professional associations (e.g. dentists) forbid their members from advertising.

    Of course your point is valid that if they have that much money to spend on advertising, they must be taking in a whole lot of cash total and by some measures this would be considered success (if not science).

    Angela: I like Moss, but I still say go Eagles!

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:05 PM  

  • Not being able to completely predict an individual's behaviour isn't necessarily a critical weakness; Quantum Mechanics can't tell you what happens to a particular particle except in a statistical sense, for instance, and yet is wildly successful.

    And there clearly are at least *some* areas in which social behaviour can be successfully and quantitatively predicted, or (for instance) economics couldn't possibly work. It might be much harder in some areas than others, of course.

    By Blogger Jon Dursi, at 9:44 AM  

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