(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘sociology

“The real novelty of our own time is not the prominence of the religious Right but the silence of the religious Left”*…

idea_sized-touchdown_jesus_at_notre_dame

“The Word of Life” mural, otherwise known as the “Touchdown Jesus,” at the Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame University

 

Catholics make up a disproportionate share of the intelligentsia of the religious Right in the United States. Although they constitute only a fifth of the US population (and white Catholics make up less than 12 per cent of the US population), they maintain a high profile among conservative think tanks, universities and professional organisations. On the US Supreme Court, four out of five Republican-appointed justices are Catholic, despite evangelicals making up a substantial portion of Republican Party support.

To understand Catholic overrepresentation on the US Supreme Court, and how Catholics in some sense became the brains of American conservatism, we must look to the history of Catholic education in the US…

When evangelicals mobilised politically in the 1970s and declared a ‘culture war’ against the menace of secularism, they put aside their longstanding anti-Catholicism and reached out to Catholic conservatives. Catholics proved to be perfect partners. Unlike evangelicals, conservative Catholics could draw on research universities, law schools, medical schools, business schools and other intellectual-producing institutions in the fight against secularism. Evangelicals’ suspicion of higher education since at least the days of the 1925 Scopes trial over teaching evolution meant that they had built few institutions of higher learning. Their bible colleges and seminaries were meant to create believers and converts, not intellectuals.  Evangelical law schools and PhD programmes remain extremely rare in the US. Ironically, a tradition so devoted to spreading literacy saw too much learning as a potential danger…

Catholic intellectual life in the US is not solely conservative, and Catholic conservatism sometimes cuts across the Left-Right divide in the US (on immigration and the death penalty, for example). But it remains the case that Catholic intellectuals are overrepresented in the US conservative movement. By virtue of their 19th-century separationist anxieties and their investment in institutions of higher learning, Catholics have become the brains of the religious Right in the US…

How the Catholic Church became the intellectual engine of the religious Right: “Evangelicals bring the votes, Catholics bring the brains.”

* Alec Ryrie, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World

###

As we ruminate on religion, we might recall that it was on this date 1512 that Martin Luther joined the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg… where, five years later, he wrote his famous Ninety-five Thesesand launched the Protestant Reformation.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_Monk source

 

“Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men”*…

 

NIST_Precision_engineering_research

 

Scientists and engineers recognize an elusive but profound difference between precision and accuracy. The two qualities often go hand in hand, of course, but precision involves an ideal of meticulousness and consistency, while accuracy implies real-world truth. When a sharpshooter fires at a target, if the bullets strike close together—clustered, rather than spread out—that is precise shooting. But the shots are only accurate if they hit the bull’s eye. A clock is precise when it marks the seconds exactly and unvaryingly but may still be inaccurate if it shows the wrong time. Perversely, we sometimes value precision at the expense of accuracy…

What makes precision a feature of the modern world is the transition from craftsmanship to mass production. The genius of machine tools—as opposed to mere machines—lies in their repeatability. Artisans of shoes or tables or even clocks can make things exquisite and precise, “but their precision was very much for the few… It was only when precision was created for the many that precision as a concept began to have the profound impact on society as a whole that it does today.” That was John Wilkinson’s achievement in 1776: “the first construction possessed of a degree of real and reproducible mechanical precision—precision that was measurable, recordable, repeatable.”…

Replication and standardization are so hard-wired into our world that we forget how the unstandardized world functioned. A Massachusetts inventor named Thomas Blanchard in 1817 created a lathe that made wooden lasts for shoes. Cobblers still made the shoes, but now the sizes could be systematized. “Prior to that,… shoes were offered up in barrels, at random. A customer shuffled through the barrel until finding a shoe that fit, more or less comfortably.”…

James Gleick reviews– and responds to– Simon Winchester‘s The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World:  “Masters of Tolerance.”

[Image above: precision engineering research at the National Institute for Standards and Technology]

* Theodor Adorno

###

As we contemplate craft, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Lewis Mumford; he was born on this date in 1895.  A historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and cultural critic, Mumford is probably best remembered for his writings on cities, perhaps especially for his award-winning book The City in History.  (See also The City— the extraordinary film that Mumford made with Ralph Steiner and Wiilard Van Dyne, from an outline by the renowned documentarian Pare Lorentz, with a score by Aaron Copland.) 

Mumford’s approaches to technology, its history, and its roles in society were acknowledged influences on writers like Jacques Ellul, Witold Rybczynski, Amory Lovins, E. F. Schumacher, Herbert Marcuse, Thomas Merton, and Marshall McLuhan.  In a similar way, he was an inspiration for the organicist and environmentalist movements of today.

Unfortunately, once an economy is geared to expansion, the means rapidly turn into an end and “the going becomes the goal.” Even more unfortunately, the industries that are favored by such expansion must, to maintain their output, be devoted to goods that are readily consumable either by their nature, or because they are so shoddily fabricated that they must soon be replaced. By fashion and build-in obsolescence the economies of machine production, instead of producing leisure and durable wealth, are duly cancelled out by the mandatory consumption on an even larger scale.

– Lewis Mumford, The City in History

 source

 

Written by LW

October 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”*…

 

science

There is remarkably little reflection taking place about the state of science today, despite significant challenges, rooted in globalization, the digitization of knowledge, and the growing number of scientists.

At first glance, all of these seem to be positive trends. Globalization connects scientists worldwide, enabling them to avoid duplication and facilitating the development of universal standards and best practices. The creation of digital databases allows for systematic mining of scientific output and offers a broader foundation for new investigations. And the rising number of scientists means that more science is being conducted, accelerating progress.

But these trends are Janus-faced…

Jeremy Baumberg argues that we live in an age of hyper-competitive, trend-driven, and herd-like approach to scientific research: “What Is Threatening Science?

* Buckminster Fuller

###

As we rethink research, we might spare a thought for Paul Erdős; he died on this date in 1996.  One of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century (he published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed), he is remembered both for his “social practice” of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle (he spent his waking hours virtually entirely on math; he would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later).

Erdős’s prolific output with co-authors prompted the creation of the Erdős number, the number of steps in the shortest path between a mathematician and Erdős in terms of co-authorships.  Low numbers are a badge of pride– and a usual marker of accomplishment: as of 2016, all Fields Medalists have a finite Erdős number, with values that range between 2 and 6, and a median of 3.  Physics Nobelists Einstein and Sheldon Glashow have an Erdős number of 2.   Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron can be considered to have an Erdős number of 1 because they both autographed the same baseball (for number theorist Carl Pomerance).  Natalie Portman’s undergraduate collaboration with a Harvard professor earned her an Erdős number of 5; Danica McKellar (“Winnie Cooper” in The Wonder Years) has an Erdős number of 4, for a mathematics paper coauthored while an undergraduate at UCLA.

 source

 

Written by LW

September 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I see black light”*…

 

Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi
da Caravaggio used ivory black to convey asceticism, piety, and inspiration in his 1605-6 painting, St Jerome Writing.

Suddenly, black was everywhere. It caked the flesh of miners and ironworkers; it streaked the walls and windows of industrial towns; it thickened the smoky air above. Proprietors donned black clothing to indicate their status and respectability. New black dyes and pigments created in factories and chemical laboratories entered painters’ studios, enabling a new expression for the new themes of the industrial age: factory work and revolt, technology and warfare, urbanity and pollution, and a rejection of the old status quo. A new class of citizen, later to be dubbed the “proletariat,” began to appear in illustrations under darkened smokestacks. The industrial revolution had found its color…

Black is technically an absence: the visual experience of a lack of light. A perfect black dye absorbs all of the light that impinges on it, leaving nothing behind. This ideal is remarkably difficult to manufacture. The industrialization of the 18th and 19th centuries made it easier, providing chemists and paint-makers with a growing palette of black—and altering the subjects that the color would come to represent. “These things are intimately connected,” says science writer Philip Ball, author of Bright Earth: The Invention of Color. The reinvention of black, in other words, went far beyond the color.

In the 20th century, a flood of new black paints would inspire a new set of artistic styles that took on modern subjects and themes. “Black was increasingly connected with industry, technology, and the urban environment,” says Erma Hermens, who leads the Technical Art History Group at the University of Glasgow. “Black becomes a statement.” Black also helped artists to delineate a new period in the history of art. “It was saying that the time of classical painting was past,” says Ball, “that we’re using modern materials in a modern way.”…

Black through the ages– as the means of creating the color black have changed, so have the subjects it represents: “The Reinvention of Black.”

(And looking forward, consider the implications of the newest technological revolution in creating black: vantablack.)

* Victor Hugo’s last words

###

As we paint it black, we might send a finely-limned birthday card to Jacques-Louis David; he was born on this date in 1748.  A master of cerebral “history painting, he is considered the preeminent artist of the French Neoclassical period.   David had a great many pupils and followers, making him the strongest influence in French art of the early 19th century, especially on academic Salon painting.

 

Written by LW

August 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked.”*…

 

ostrich denial

We are all in denial, some of the time at least. Part of being human, and living in a society with other humans, is finding clever ways to express – and conceal – our feelings. From the most sophisticated diplomatic language to the baldest lie, humans find ways to deceive. Deceptions are not necessarily malign; at some level they are vital if humans are to live together with civility. As Richard Sennett has argued: “In practising social civility, you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say.”

Just as we can suppress some aspects of ourselves in our self-presentation to others, so we can do the same to ourselves in acknowledging or not acknowledging what we desire. Most of the time, we spare ourselves from the torture of recognising our baser yearnings. But when does this necessary private self-deception become harmful? When it becomes public dogma. In other words: when it becomes denialism.

Denialism is an expansion, an intensification, of denial. At root, denial and denialism are simply a subset of the many ways humans have developed to use language to deceive others and themselves. Denial can be as simple as refusing to accept that someone else is speaking truthfully. Denial can be as unfathomable as the multiple ways we avoid acknowledging our weaknesses and secret desires.

Denialism is more than just another manifestation of the humdrum intricacies of our deceptions and self-deceptions. It represents the transformation of the everyday practice of denial into a whole new way of seeing the world and – most important – a collective accomplishment. Denial is furtive and routine; denialism is combative and extraordinary. Denial hides from the truth, denialism builds a new and better truth…

Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation; it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences. An end to denialism is therefore a disturbing prospect, as it would involve these moral differences revealing themselves directly. But we need to start preparing for that eventuality, because denialism is starting to break down – and not in a good way…

From vaccines to climate change to genocide, a new age of denialism is upon us. Why have we failed to understand it?  Keith Kahn-Harris on “Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth.”

* Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

###

As we fight to face up, we might send epistemologically-ambitious birthday greetings to William Isaac Thomas; he was born on this date in 1863.  A pioneering sociologist, he formulated a fundamental principle of sociology, now known as the Thomas theorem:  simply put, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Portrait_of_William_Isaac_Thomas source

 

Written by LW

August 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It is impossible to work in information technology without also engaging in social engineering”*…

 

ai religion

… Using a separate model, Future of Religion and Secular Transitions (forest), the team found that people tend to secularize when four factors are present: existential security (you have enough money and food), personal freedom (you’re free to choose whether to believe or not), pluralism (you have a welcoming attitude to diversity), and education (you’ve got some training in the sciences and humanities). If even one of these factors is absent, the whole secularization process slows down. This, they believe, is why the U.S. is secularizing at a slower rate than Western and Northern Europe.

“The U.S. has found ways to limit the effects of education by keeping it local, and in private schools, anything can happen,” said [LeRon] Shults’s collaborator, Wesley Wildman, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Boston University. “Lately, there’s been encouragement from the highest levels of government to take a less than welcoming cultural attitude to pluralism. These are forms of resistance to secularization.”

When you build a model, you can accidentally produce recommendations that you weren’t intending. Years ago, Wildman built a model to figure out what makes some extremist groups survive and thrive while others disintegrate. It turned out one of the most important factors is a highly charismatic leader who personally practices what he preaches. “This immediately implied an assassination criterion,” he said. “It’s basically, leave the groups alone when the leaders are less consistent, [but] kill the leaders of groups that have those specific qualities. It was a shock to discover this dropping out of the model. I feel deeply uncomfortable that one of my models accidentally produced a criterion for killing religious leaders.”

The results of that model have been published, so it may already have informed military action. “Is this type of thing being used to figure out criteria for drone killings? I don’t know, because there’s this giant wall between the secret research in the U.S. and the non-secret side,” Wildman said. “I’ve come to assume that on the secret side they’ve pretty much already thought of everything we’ve thought of, because they’ve got more money and are more focused on those issues. … But it could be that this model actually took them there. That’s a serious ethical conundrum.”

Shults told me, “I lose sleep at night on this. … It is social engineering. It just is—there’s no pretending like it’s not.” But he added that other groups, like Cambridge Analytica, are doing this kind of computational work, too. And various bad actors will do it without transparency or public accountability. “It’s going to be done. So not doing it is not the answer.” Instead, he and Wildman believe the answer is to do the work with transparency and simultaneously speak out about the ethical danger inherent in it.

“That’s why our work here is two-pronged: I’m operating as a modeler and as an ethicist,” Wildman said. “It’s the best I can do.”…

Artificial Intelligence Shows Why Atheism Is Unpopular“– and other tales from the trenches of social modeling– the learnings and the ethical questions they raise.

* Jaron Lanier

###

As we’re careful what we wish for, we might send elaborately-designed birthday greetings to a practitioner of another, older form of social engineering, Pierre Charles L’Enfant; he was born on this date in 1754.  A military and civil engineer, he became a city planner, most famously crafting the unique “radiant” layout for Washington, D.C.

210px-Pierre_Charles_L'Enfant source

 

“For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see”…

 

28071419927_6c1e976958_z

How many social activists does it take to change the world? No, this isn’t the setup for some lame joke. It’s a question no one really knew the answer to. Until now.

We’ve seen plenty of shifts in society’s views — in just the last hundred years in America, the majority’s opinion on everything from gay rights to gender equality changed dramatically. However, we’ve never really nailed down if there was a “tipping point” for this social change — a specific number of people needed to push a belief from the fringes into the mainstream.

Estimates ranged from as low at 10 percent of a population to as high as 51 percent, but now, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of London claim an online experiment let them hone in on the most likely number: 25 percent. They published their study [on June 8] in the journal Science

Have your opinion sharpened (if not changed) at “Want to Change Society’s Views? Here’s How Many People You’ll Need on Your Side.”

[Image above: source]

* “For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.”   ― Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

###

As we make our case, we might recall that this the date commonly given for the day that the Pied Piper (Rattenfänger) led the children of Hamelin, Germany, into a mountain cave, never to return.

A German version of the tale has survived in a 1602/1603 inscription found in Hamelin in the Rattenfängerhaus (Pied Piper’s, or Ratcatcher’s house):

Anno 1284 am dage Johannis et Pauli
war der 26. junii
Dorch einen piper mit allerlei farve bekledet
gewesen CXXX kinder verledet binnen Hamelen gebo[re]n
to calvarie bi den koppen verloren  

which has been translated into English as:

In the year of 1284, on John’s and Paul’s day
was the 26th of June
By a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours,
130 children born in Hamelin were seduced
and lost at the place of execution near the Koppen.

 source

 

Written by LW

June 26, 2018 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: