Nicholas Christakis - The Sociological Science Behind Social Networks and Social Influence

Many attempts to explain human behavior tend to adopt some version or other of methodological individualism: the idea, roughly speaking, that social phenomena are to be explained with reference to the desires, interests, preferences, goals and actions of the constituent agents that make up a group. Ontologically, on this view, groups are nothing more than the sum of their parts. Notable advocates of this approach include Max Weber, Friedrich von Hayek and Karl Popper.

On the other hand, there are also various versions of methodological holism. The general common denominator for these views is that social phenomena are not reducible to mere explanations of their constituent members. For sociologist Émile Durkheim, for instance, there exist 'social facts' that go beyond merely individualistic explanations: some phenomena can only be described at the level of structures and systems (social, legal, ecological, demographic, architectural, historic, genealogical, religious, economic, geographic, etc.). This implies the possibility of introducing sociological interventions to try to remedy large-scale social problems that may seem otherwise intractable. These interventions may appear downright insane and counterintuitive sometimes (like installing blue lights to reduce crime and suicide rates, or painting prison walls pink to reduce violence and rapes), but that's not to say they don't work. I hate to link to, but since we're not doing scholarly research right now... fuck it.

Unless you have some training in this type of thing, methodological holism may seem at first glance like some vague notion referring to equally nebulous concepts unsuitable for rigorous scientific research and investigation, but once you see it in action in the fascinating introduction to sociology by Nicholas Christakis below, you'll probably end up wanting to major in sociology. :)

Magical balls? Nope. It's the Magnus Effect.

When you think of gravity, your first thought is probably just 'down,' but then you might remember Bill O'Reilly's "tides-go-in, tides-go-out" fiasco, and start thinking 'possibly horizontal.'

Then, you might start to think about flying planes and the interaction between lift, drag, pitch and yaw, and you might start to see how the interaction of gravity with other forces could imply 'up' under some specified conditions.

Finally, if you've ever 'bent-it-like-Beckham' playing soccer, or if you've ever spiraled a football or tossed a frisbee (or even a boomerang), then you probably already have some intuitive and pre-theoretical understanding of how spin can influence the path of a moving object sideways (assuming there's air resistance). And by the time you think about that, you realize that you kind of already understand what you're seeing in the gif above, even before you click on the video below, which is not to say the video won't have a few surprises of its own up its awesome sleeve. :)

Click on the physics tag for more awesomeness.

Agnes Török - Worthless

If you've ever watched "The Usual Suspects," you probably remember the line that "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." The same basic idea applies to our obsession with individualism and its concomitant concept of 'personal responsibility': you are free to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, to overcome any obstacles that are in your way, and to become whoever or whatever you want. Thus stated, it's a narrative of redemption and transcendence, bound to inspire anyone it touches.

But while this  attitude reveals the possibility of individual liberation and success, it also conceals the fact that the political, legal, cultural and economic system's logic and structure are rigged to perpetuate the inequalities upon which it necessarily depends. Instead, and because it's much easier to point to a particular individual instead of seeing the invisible structural connections and abstract philosophical presuppositions on which the entire system depends, it will be the individual who will be blamed for her failure to overcome the virtually impossible odds that were stacked against her from the outset.

If you've ever read C. Wright Mills' classic work "The Sociological Imagination," and understood the inescapable interaction between 'the personal troubles of milieu' and 'the public issues of social structure,' the following poem by performance artist Agnes Török, which powerfully exposes the insidious presuppositions embedded in the concepts of personal responsibility and austerity measures, should make you want to go back and re-awaken your own sociological understanding of the relationship between individual biography and collective history.

But maybe what we need is to go from this:

To this:

Key & Peele - Feminist Pirate Chantey

They may have a reputation for looting and pillaging, for murder and mutiny, and countless other crimes, but this band of progressive pirates can also sing a wickedly awesome tribute to the women they have loved...

Frederick Douglass - The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro

In 1852 Frederick Douglass delivered one of his most moving speeches, reflecting on the meaning that the celebration of the Declaration of Independence would have for people whose liberty was systematically denied them by their own government.

Thanks to modern time-travel technology, Frederick Douglass and Darth Vader... eerrr... James Earl Jones,  have joined forces to raise awareness and important questions about the discrepancy between the sublimity of our founding principles and the paltriness of our behavior.

The arc of justice may bend toward justice, but it could always use our help...

David Eagleman - Can We Create New Senses for Humans?

It's been a source of questions, awe and insight among philosophers for a long time to consider the fact that all mental representations are ultimately interpretations of electrical signals traveling through the brain. Yes, we may ordinarily think the original input is based on sounds and colors, though this itself is already an interpretation of the nature of such signals, but even if we ignore that question, the information relayed from the sense organs to the brain is ultimately digital electrical signals, the equivalent of 1's and 0's, switching on and off.

If all the information the brain ever receives is in the form of such digital discrete characters, how does the brain 'know' to interpret some as colors, others as sounds and others as scents? Sometimes when asking my students to define reality, I invite them to imagine what it might be like to cross-wire these sense modalities, such that you might take the optic nerves, say, and plug them into the auditory cortex, and so on. What would our picture of 'reality' 'look' (sound?) like then? And what might that suggest about the nature of perception and its relationship to reality?

Well, as it turns out, neuroscientist David Eagleman (who has been featured in this blog before discussing questions of law and responsibility in view of our growing understanding of consciousness and free will) has decided to take this sort of exercise from the merely hypothetical to the applied, showing that taking advantage of the software already running in our brains, it might be possible to produce new modalities of sense experience, and come to radically enhance our understanding of the natural, social and technological worlds. In fact, as he shows in this fascinating TEDTalk presentation, we already have a proof of principle. The only question left is how far we can go...

Understanding Art - The Death of Socrates

When I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, I make it a point to stop by Jacques Louis David's famous neoclassical masterpiece "The Death of Socrates." This habit is motivated partly from a humble desire to pay homage to the inventor of the Socratic method (a tool the use of which has become an essential aspect of my own sense of personal identity), and from a desire to reflect on the meaning of his life and moral fortitude.

But there's also the art, the aesthetic and philosophical contemplation of which almost invariably forces on me the understanding of the necessity and the struggle of balancing realities that are often in conflict with one another: the abstract and the concrete, alienation and connection, distance and understanding, mind and body, authenticity and comfort, feeling and rationality, change and timelessness, meaning and purposelessness, identity and freedom, freedom and equality, individuality and belonging, etc.

Great art often manages to convey its message at various levels of discourse, from the simple and humble to the technical and esoteric. If you've simply seen "The Death of Socrates" before, even in passing, you have probably already experienced some of its emotional, moral and intellectual power. But if you want to get a better sense of how much more there is to this painting than meets the eye, how much thought went into developing every inch, how much history, philosophy, politics, geometry, religion and symbolism is hiding in plain sight, how a centuries-long dialogue is expressed in the negative space between the characters, you will probably find the short introductory video below quite helpful, and your own appreciation of the aesthetic experience enhanced and improved.

Jim Jefferies on U.S. Gun Control

Whenever a shooting massacre takes place in the US, and we raise the question of whether there ought to be some kind of regulation on fully automatic assault rifles and machine guns, conservatives lose their shit (about the regulation, of course, not about the abuse of gun rights and the innocents killed). Led by the NRA's bipolar and simplistic rhetoric based on catchy bullshit soundbites rather than reasoned and principled arguments or on well-formulated statistical analyses of crime rates patterns, gun enthusiasts and advocates predictably defer to the constitutional right to bear arms (well, as long as it's for whites and not for black people, and as long as we ignore the fact the 2nd Amendment starts with a clause referring to the right to bear arms conditional on our need for a national militia, which is utterly unnecessary when we happen to have the most powerful army in the history of the world). Unfortunately, moderate and reasonable people who don't think in such simplistic black-and-white terms, can't get through to the other side.

Fortunately, there's Jim Jefferies. Well, he might not be able to get through to the other side either, but he can at least call the bullshit arguments for what they are. :)

Hey, any reference to Descartes can be an excuse to post on this blog. :p

Lucretius - De Rerum Natura - On the Nature of Love

Epicurean philosophy is hedonistic, and as such it exalts the importance of pleasure and makes it the standard of the good. Although the term has of late gained a connotation for decadence, since in modernity we tend to equate pleasure with physical excess, it was originally meant to refer to simple pleasures, particularly those of the mind. Epicurus thought that if we learned to take pleasure in such simple things as enjoying a piece of bread and a glass of water, good conversation, intellectual contemplation and friendship, we would need little else.

The greatest obstacle to pleasure, Epicurus thought, even more so than pain and fear, is delusion, especially fantasies that delude us into thinking that we can attain something that exceeds the limits of our finite nature. It is this fantasy of infinite pleasure that helps explain our tragic proneness to romantic love. As Stephen Greenblatt describes in The Swerve, "in the misguided belief that [our] happiness depends upon the absolute possession of some single object of limitless desire, humans are seized by a feverish, unappeasable hunger and thirst that can only bring anguish instead of happiness."

When Lucretius set himself the task of conveying these ideas in his masterpiece De Rerum Natura, his prodigious verse would be unparalleled, as this short excerpt describing the way these romantic tidal forces pull, toss and break us shows:
When the youthful pair more closely join,
When hands in hands they lock, and thighs in thighs they twine,
Just in the raging foam of full desire,
When both press on, both murmur, both expire,
They grip, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart,
As each would force their way to t’other’s heart:
In vain; they only cruise about the coast;
For bodies cannot pierce, nor be in bodies lost;
As sure they strive to be, when both engage
In that tumultuous momentary rage;
So ’tangled in the nets of love they lie,
Till man dissolves in that excess of joy.
Then, when the gathered bag has burst its way,
And ebbing tides the slackened nerves betray,
A pause ensues; and nature nods awhile,
Till with recruited rage new spirits boil;
And then the same vain violence returns;
With flames renewed the erected furnace burns.
Again they in each other would be lost,
But still by adamantine bars are crossed.
All ways they try, successless all they prove,
To cure the secret sore of ling’ring love.
Based on the 1685 classic translation by John Dryden, the following audio excerpt, produced and narrated by the inimitable Charlton Griffin as a personal favor for which I'm eternally grateful, captures the essence of Lucretius' poetry as it concerns the question of romantic love and its relationship to human happiness and misery. If you want to read along, you can follow the link above. If not, just sit back, close your eyes and let the beauty of the poetry fill your imagination, the power of the ideas stir your mind, and the cruelty of this human reality fill your belly with laughter and your eyes with tears...

Or, if you prefer the Rolfe Humphries more prosaic translation, we have that too:

Monica Lewinski - The Price of Shame

Almost overnight, and without almost anyone knowing the person behind the name, her name became an infamous global phenomenon, and her reputation became permanently tarnished as political, ideological and commercial forces used her circumstances to suit their own purposes.

In an increasingly global and more technologically advanced world dominated by social media and anonymous online comments, an ugly aspect of human nature has been festering for the past decade or more: a culture of humiliation, our proclivity, ironically exercised behind the safety of our own anonymity, to publicly prey on the weak and shame them.

In a brave re-appearance into the international spotlight, Monica Lewinski is back, urging a message of empathy, and appealing to our better selves to create the conditions that make this a better and more compassionate world, one where we empower the powerless and disenfranchised instead of furthering the abuse. The standing ovation she receives at the end of this TEDTalk presentation is well-earned.

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