Tom Lehrer song ripping on quantitative social science

Tom Lehrer was is a cold war era lefty musical satirist, best known for Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, and his jingles about math, science, and nuclear holocaust. In addition to being a musician, he also taught math and stats at MIT and Santa Cruz. His courseload at MIT through the 1960’s included the Political Science department’s quantitative modeling course, an experience that seems to have made him very mocking about the sciences of society. The song below is addressed to sociology but, as he admits, it’s really about all quantitative approaches to social science.

Some choice bits:

They can take one small matrix,
and really do great tricks,
all in the name of socioloigy.

They can snow all their clients,
by calling it a science,
although it’s only sociology.

Elsewhere in the same clip are very nerdy mathematical songs, and a good satire about professors thinking we’re brilliant, and a School House Rock type kids song. Before stumbling on this, I discovered and rediscovered a bunch of other wonderful songs, such as the Vatican Rag, “I got it from Agnes”, and Oedipus Rex. I was especially into Selling Out.

Philip K. Dick's vanity was his best protection from his vanity

I went on a deep dive and learned several fascinating things about Philip K. Dick and his life. Foremost, he named his daughter “Isa Dick”. Talk about a Dick move.
Among his notes about A Scanner Darkly were a question and answer. Question: “How will the book sell?” Answer: “Such inducements have no appeal to the superior man.” I like that he both considered the question unselfconsciously and posed himself to deny interest in it. I like how, in the context of an answer to a question about himself, the funny construct of the “superior man” isn’t about superiority to everyone else, like it would come off in any other context, but superiority to oneself. The phrasing was so peculiar that I Googled it. Expecting to find more by him, I stumbled on the same phrasing in the divination manual The I Ching, or The Book of Changes, which he wrote a book about and got deeper into as he fought less hard against schizophrenia and started to imagine us all in the Matrix.
In his notes he had written under each question, and prior to each answer, numbers and dashes and codes that looked meaningless until I had made the I Ching connection. The questions were real questions he had, and the answers were divined. His roll for the question about how the book will sell was for hexagram 58, where I found the quote about the superior man. That means that he didn’t endogenously pose himself to deny his crass interests, but that his reading emboldened him. In that context, it’s very clear that The Superior Man is best imagined as a version of you that’s notable only for being superior to yourself.
No, I’m wrong. Dick’s question was crass because he was vain. His attraction to the I Ching’s was an attraction to the idea that the Universe is organized around the Superior Man, which is vain. His speechifying about being The One who saw into the computer simulation controlling us was an assertion that he was host to the superior. The only thing that pulled him from the vain thought of his book sales was the vain thought that he was too much better than everyone else to worry about them. Any of my tea leaf reading about this softer interpretation of the superior man says more about my hopes than about either Dick or the Book that inspired him.
I was also interested to learn that, after his divorce, he lived communally but maybe not inappropriately with 1970s street kids, that he was very much from the Bay and Berkeley, and that despite his reputation for a variety of drugs, his devotion was exclusive to prescription amphetamine, on which he wrote most of his books. The mathematician Paul Erdos had the same hangup. They were contemporaries in more ways than one.
I learned all this from the audio commentary track on a Scanner Darkly DVD, which had Linklater, Keanu Reeves, Isa Dick, the flick’s screenwriter, and another person. It’s funny to hear Reeves philosophize without the benefit of a script. Nearly every time he spoke up, it was to helpfully and prosocially elicit more commentary from one of the others, but it came off like a philosophical conversation between a bunch of sage elders as convened and presided over by a stoned 14 year-old.


Image is from this comic about the man.

Natural selection, statistical mechanics, and the idea of germs were all inspired by social science

It’s only natural to want to hold your scientific field as the most important, or noble, or challenging field. That’s probably why I always present the sciences of human society as the ones that are hardest to do. It’s not so crazy: it is inherently harder to learn about social systems than biological, engineered, or physical ones because we can’t, and shouldn’t ever, have the same control over humans that we do over bacteria, bridges, or billiard balls. But maybe I take it too far. I usually think of advances in social science as advances in what it is possible for science to teach us, and I uncritically think of social science as where scientific method will culminate.
So imagine my surprise to learn that social science isn’t the end of scientific discovery, but a beginning. According to various readings in John Carey’s Faber Book of Science, three of the most important scientific discoveries since the Enlightenment — the theory of natural selection, the germ theory of disease, and the kinetic theory of gasses — brought inspiration from human social science to non-human domains. One of Darwin’s key insights toward the theory of evolution came while reading Malthus’s work on human population. Just in case you think that’s a fluke, Alfred Russell Wallace’s independent discovery of natural selection came while he was reading Malthus. (And Darwin was also influenced by Adam Smith). Louis Pasteur developed the implications of the germ theory of disease by applying his French right-wing political philosophy to animalcules. The big leap there was that biologists rejected that very small insignificant animals could possibly threaten a large and majestic thing like a human, but Pasteur had seen how the unworthy masses threatened the French elite, and it gave him an inkling. Last, James Maxwell, the man right under Newton and Einstein in physics stature, was reading up on the new discipline of Social Statistics when he came up with the kinetic theory of gases, which in turn sparked statistical mechanics and transformed thermodynamics. Physicists have started taking statistical mechanics out of physical science and applying it to social science, completely ignorant of the fact that it started there.
All of these people were curious enough about society to think and read about it, and their social ponderings were rewarded with fresh ideas that ultimately transformed each of their fields.
I think of science as a fundamentally social endeavor, but when I say that I’m usually thinking of the methods of science. These connections out of history offer a much deeper sense in which all of natural science is the science of humanity.
Thanks to Jaimie Murdock and Colin Allen for the connection between Malthus and Darwin, straight from Darwin’s autobiography

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.

How would science be different if humans were different?

How would science be different if humans were different — if we had different physiological limits? Obviously, if our senses were finer, we wouldn’t need the same amount of manufactured instrumentation to reach the same conclusions. But there are deeper implications. If our senses were packed denser, and if we could faithfully process and perceive all of the information they collect, we would probably have much more sensitive time perception, or one way or another a much refined awareness of causal relations in the world. This would have the result that raw observation would be a much more fruitful methodology within the practice of natural science, perhaps so much so that we would have much less need for things like laboratory experiments (which are currently very important).
Of course, a big part of the practice of science is the practice of communication, and that becomes clear as soon as we change language. Language is sort of a funny way to have to get things out of one head and into another. It is slow, awkward, and very imperfect. If “language” was perfect — if we could transfer our perfect memories of subjective experience directly to each other’s heads with the fidelity of ESP — there would be almost no need for reproducibility, one of the most important parts of science-as-we-know-it. Perfect communication would also supersede the paratactic writeups that scientific writing currently relies on to make research reproducible. It may be that in some fields there would be no articles or tables or figures. Maybe there would still be abstracts. And if we had unlimited memories, it’s possible that we wouldn’t need statistics, randomized experiments, or citations either.
The reduction in memory limits would probably also lead to changes in the culture of science. Science would move faster, and it would be easier to practice without specialized training. The practice of science would probably no longer be restricted to universities, and the idea of specialized degrees like Ph.D.s would probably be very different. T.H. Huxley characterized science as “organized common sense.” This “organization” is little more than a collection of crutches for our own cognitive limits, without which the line between science and common sense would disappear entirely.
That’s interesting enough. But, for me, the bigger implication of this exercise is that science as we know it is not a Big Thing In The Sky that exists without us. Science is fundamentally human. I know people who find that idea distasteful, but chucking human peculiarities into good scientific practice is just like breaking in a pair of brand-new gloves. Having been engineered around some fictional ideal, your gloves aren’t most useful until you’ve stretched them here and there, even if you’ve also nicked them up a bit. It’s silly to judge gloves on their fit to the template. In practice, you judge them on their fit to you.

Cultural arbitrariness is not the thing that is at the root of how race doesn't exist.

On the old Radiolab episode about race, the producers used an interesting fact to make an argument that race doesn’t exist — that it’s entirely a social construct. It turns out that the genetic variability within races is greater than the variability between races; the average difference between two people of the same race is greater than that of groups of people across races. In that sense, the idea of race is not really meaningful. But the same is true for the sounds p and b.
Put your finger to your throat and say “ppuh.” Then say “bbuh.” The vibration you felt for the second one is called voicing; it’s supposed to be the only difference between p and b. That said, things get fuzzy fast. Say “pee.” “Pee” doesn’t start out voiced, but it ends that way (in contrast with “bee,” which is voiced more from the beginning). Depending on context, you can actually move voicing up a lot more and still be perceived as uttering a p. And you can move voicing down from the beginning and still be a b. There are big individual differences too, so that the thing that came out of my mouth as a p might have come out of your sounding like a b. In real everyday language, the fluctuations are so wild that the variability within p or b is greater that then variability between them.
Does race exist? As much as p and b do. So wait: Do p and b exist? It turns out that there are sharp people working to destroy the ideas of the sounds p and b. For example, cognitive scientist Bob Port put his career behind undermining the static approaches to phonology that permitted the idea of linguistic atoms. And there’s something to it. It turns out that p and b are really complicated. But he can still pronounce his name. It seems you don’t have to be able to draw a clear line between them for them to be used by reasonable people as ideas. To take them too seriously is wrong, and to think that they can’t be used responsibly, or even usefully, is also wrong.
p, b, and race all look superficially like basic building blocks, but really they are each a complicated result of things like physiology, culture, and the context of each instant. So they are constructs, but not just social constructs. Their cultural arbitrariness is not the thing that is at the root of how they don’t exist. What does it mean for you? These constructs aren’t insubstantial because they are nothing, they are insubstantial because they are complicated.

The law of welfare royalty

To propose that human society is governed by laws is generally foolhardy. I wouldn’t object to a Law of Social Laws to push along the lines that all generalizations are false. But this observation has a bit going for it, namely that it depends on the inherent complexity of society, and on human limits. Those are things we can count on.

The law of welfare royalty: Every scheme for categorizing members of a large-scale society will suffer from at least one false positive and at least one false negative.

The law says that every social label will be misapplied in two ways: It will be used to label people it shouldn’t (false positive), and it will fail to be applied to people it should (false negative). Both errors will exist.
The ideas of false positives and false negatives come from signal detection theory, which is about labeling things. If you fired a gun in the direction of someone who might be friend or foe, four things can happen: a good hit, a good miss, a bad hit (friendly fire), and a bad miss.** Failing to keep all four outcomes in mind leads to bad reasoning about humans and society, especially when it comes to news and politics.

  • No matter how generous a social welfare system, it will always be possible to find someone suffering from starvation and exposure, and to use their story to argue for more generosity.
  • No matter how stingy and inadequate a welfare system, it will always be possible to cry “waste” and “scandal” on some kind of welfare royalty abusing the system.
  • No matter the inherent threat of violence from a distant ethnic group, it will always be possible to report a very high and very low threat of violence.
  • Airport security measures are all about tolerating a very very high rate of false positives (they search everybody) in order to prevent misses (letting actual terrorists board planes unsearched), but it cannot be guaranteed to succeed, and the cost of searching everybody has to be measured against that.
  • In many places, jaywalking laws are only used to shut down public protests. During street protests, jaywalking laws have a 0% hit rate and a 0% correct reject (true negative) rate: they never catch people they should, and they catch all of the people they shouldn’t.

The law of welfare royalty is important for how we think about society and social change. The upshot is that trustworthy reporting about social categories must report using lots of data. Anecdotes will always be available to support any opinion about any act on society. You can also infer from my formulation of the law a corollary that there will always be a talking head prepared to support your opinion, though that isn’t so deep or interesting or surprising.
In fact, none of this is so surprising once a person thinks about it. The challenge is getting a person to think about it, even once. That’s the value of giving the concept a name. If I could choose one facet of statistical literacy to upload into the head of every human being, it would be a native comfort with the complementary concepts of false positives and negatives. Call it a waste of an upload if you want, but signal detection theory has become a basic part of my daily intellectual hygiene.

The selling out diaries: Surprising sources of pressure

I’m a behavioral scientist, pretty lefty, and I currently do research for a major media corporation. I predicted before taking on this job that I would feel some pressure to drift from deeper questions about society towards “business school” questions — questions that are less about human behavior and more about consumer behavior. What I didn’t predict is that all of that pressure would come from within myself. I voluntarily propose questions in the direction of consumer behavior when it’s not what I want to do and I’m not being pressured to do it. Why?
The big factor is that I’m amiable and eager to please. So while I maybe am not drawn towards consumer research questions, the people I meet in other parts of the company are often interested — personally interested as reasonable people — in just that stuff. I like these people, and I recognize the good in the things they want to accomplish, and I want to be worth their time to do other kinds of work with them in the future, so I offer to help.
And there it is: I prepared myself against outside pressures, and got surprised by the pressures I’m really vulnerable to, the ones that come from the inside. They are trickiest in that they seem to come from good places — in particular from the ways that I like to think of myself as a good person.
In introspection-heavy spaces, recognizing a problem is the bigger part of solving it. For this particular problem, the rest is easy enough: For every 50 questions I generate, 10 are academically interesting, and 1 also has appeal to the people I work with. So if I stay creative enough to sustainably generate 100s of questions, I can constrain my helpfulness to the ways that I want to help without making any party feel constrained; I can do satisfying work and help my colleagues at the same time.
This particular solution is a patch, and it will raise other problems. I’m not done thinking about these things. But as long as I pay attention and stay aware of my values I think I can do work that is good for me, good for the people who support me, and good for the world. on the ethics of developing addictive social games

I’m looking at using big social game data to do science. I wanted to advance my own thinking about the ethical issues, so I rooted up some of the names that are pushing the social-gaming conversation in new directions. Among the places I found was, a social gaming startup that is very excited to involve gambling in the future of online gaming. It is also very good at marketing itself. Given its prominence in the scene and its eagerness to present itself as avant garde I figured its leadership would have provocative — even original — thoughts on the subject of ethics. Is that so naïve?

How we create culture from noise

I don’t like to act too knowledgable about society, but I’m ready to conjecture law: “Peoples will interpret patterns into the phenomena that affect their lives, even phenomena without patterns. Culture amplifies pareidolia.”
It’s interesting when those patterns are random, as in weather and gambling. “Random” is a pretty good model for weather outside the timescale of days. But we can probably count on every human culture to have narratives that give weather apprehensible causes. Gambling is random by definition, but that doesn’t stop the emergence of gambling “systems” that societies continue to honor with meaningfulness. Societies do not seem to permit impactful events to be meaningless.
This is all easy to illustrate in fine work by Kalish et al. (2007). The image above shows five series (rows) of people learning a pattern of dots from the person before them, one dot at a time, and then teaching it to the next person in the same way. Each n (each column) is a new person in the “cultural” transmission of the pattern. The experiment starts with some given “true” pattern (the first column).
The first row of the five tells a pretty clean story. The initial pattern was a positive linear function that people learned and transmitted with ease. But the second and third rows already raise some concern: the initial patterns were more complicated functions that, within just a couple of generations, got transformed into the same linear function as in the first row. This is impressive because the people were different between rows; Each row happened without any awareness of what happened in the other rows — people had only the knowledge of what just happened in the cell to their immediate left. Treating the five people in rows two or three as constituting a miniature society, we can say that they collectively simplified a complicated reality into something that was easier to comprehend and communicate.
And in the fourth and fifth rows the opposite happens: Subjects are not imposing their bias for positive lines on a more complicated hidden pattern, but on no pattern at all. Again, treating these five people as a society, their line is a social construct that emerges reliably across “cultures” from nothing but randomness. People are capable of slightly more complex cultural products (the negative line in the fifth row) but probably not much more, and probably rarely.
The robustness of this effect gives strong evidence that culture can amplify the tendencies of individuals toward pareidolia — seeing patterns in noise. It also raises the possibility that the cultural systems we hold dear are built on noise. I’m betting that any work to change such a system is going to find itself up against some very subtle, very powerful social forces.

Translation with rotation. An American railroad man sold Marx on Iroquois culture.

By a strange irony, the League of the Iroquois has become a model for Marxist theory. The twisting trail that leads to Friedrich Engels begins with Lewis Henry Morgan, a Rochester lawyer and lobbyist for railroads. His interest in the Iroquois was aroused because he wanted to use their rituals in a rather sophomoric fraternal organization he and several business friends were setting up. As a result, he studied the Iroquois deeply …
He was a thoroughly conventional man, unquestioning in religious orthodoxy, and also a staunch capitalist. But he published his theories in Ancient Society in 1877, at the very time tht Karl Marx was working on the final volumes of Das Kapital. Marx was enthusiastic and made notes about Morgan’s findings, which by accident fitted in with his own materialistic views of history. Marx died before he could write a book incorporating Morgan’s theories, but Engels used them as the cornerstone for his influential The origin of the family, private property, and the state (1884). This volume has become the source book for all anthropological theory in Soviet Russia and most other communist countries. Engels was ecstatic about what he had learned, or thought he had learned, of the League of the Iroquois from Morgan … That bourgeois gentleman Morgan is to this day enshrined in the pantheon of socialist thinkers.

“This day” is the 1968 of Peter Farb, from his book Man’s rise to civilization as shown by the Indians of North America from primeval times to the coming of the industrial state. Any book written by a 1960’s anthropologist is going to be dated, but this one is also so progressive in some places (even by today’s standards) that I say it breaks even.
Other valuable excerpts from the book:
Extremely literal rank accounting:

Once a society starts to keep track in this way of who is who, there is no telling where such genealogical bookkeeping will end. In Northwest Coast society it did not end until the very last and lowliest citizen knew his precise hereditary rank with a defined distance from the chief, and he knew it with exactitude. There is record of a Kwakiutl feast in which each of the 658 guests from thirteen subdivisions of the chiefdom knew whether he was, say, number 437 or number 438. … A specialist in the Northwest Coast has wisely stated: “To insist upon the use of the term ‘class system’ for Northwest Coast society means that we must say that each individual was in a class by himself.”

Emergent market exchange:

Membership in other kinds of societies was also often purchased, and in fact many things were for sale among the Plains tribes: sacred objects, religious songs, and even the description of a particularly good vision. The right to paint a particular design on the face during a religious ceremony might cost as much as a horse. Permission just to look inside someone’s sacred bundle of fetishes and feathers was often worth the equivalent of a hundred dollars. A Crow is known to have paid two horses to his sponsor to get himself invited into a tobacco society, and teh candidate’s family contributed an additional twenty-three horses. A prudent Blackfoot was well advised to put his money into a sacred bundle, and investment that paid him continued dividends.

Of the Cheyenne, with a connection to Bengime:

Only the bravest of the brave warriors could belong to the elite military society known as the Contraries. Somewhat like the Zuni Mudheads, they were privileged clowns. They did the opposite of everything: They said no when they meant yes; went away when called and came near when told to go away; called left right; and sat shivering on the hottest day.

How the Cherokee got screwed, an important story from the USA’s 19th century campaign of genocide:

About 1790 the Cherokee decided to adopt the ways of their White conquerors and to emulate their civilization, their morals, their learning, and their arts. The Cherokee made remarkable and rapid progress in their homeland in the mountains where Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina meet. They established churches, mills, schools, and well-cultivated farms; judging from descriptions of that time, the region was a paradise when compared with the bleak landscape that the White successors have made of Appalachia today. In 1826 a Cherokee reported to the Presbyterian Church that his people already possessed 22,000 cattle, 7,600 houses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 1,488 spinning wheels, 2,948 plows, 10 saw mills, 31 grist mills, 62 blacksmith shops, and 18 schools. In one of the Cherokee districts alone there were some 1,000 volumes of “good books.” In 1821, after 12 twelve years of hard work, a Cherokee names Seqoya (honored in the scientific names for the the redwood and the giant sequoia trees in California, three thousand miles from his homeland) perfected a method of syllabary notation in which English letters stood for Cherokee syllables; by 1828 the Cherokee were already publishing their own newspaper. At about the same time, they adopted a written constitution providing for an executive, a bicameral legislature, a supreme court, and a code of laws.
Before the passage of the Removal Act of 1830, a group of Cherokee chiefs went to the Senate committee that was studying this legislation, to report on what they had already achieved in the short space of forty years. They expressed the hope that they would be permitted to enjoy in peace “the blessings of civilization and Christianity on the soil of their rightful inheritance.” Instead, they were daily subjected to brutalities and atrocities by White neighbors, harassed by the state government of Georgia, cajoled and bribed by Federal agents to agree to removal, and denied even the basic protection of the federal government. Finally, in 1835, a minority faction of five hundred Cherokee out of a total of some twenty thousand signed a treaty agreeing to removal. The Removal Act was carried out almost everywhere with a notable lack of compassion, but in the case of the Cherokee—civilized and Christianized as they were—it was particularly brutal.
After many threats, about five thousand finally consented to be marched westward, but another fifteen thousand clung to their neat farms, schools, and libraries “of good books.” So General Winfield Scott set about systematically extirpating the rebellious ones. Squads of soldiers descended upon isolated Cherokee farms and at bayonet point marched the families off to what today would be known as concentration camps. Torn from their homes with all the dispatch and efficiency the Nazis displayed under similar circumstances, the families had no time to prepare for the arduous trip ahead of them. No way existed for the Cherokee family to sell its property and possessions, and the local Whites fell upon the lands, looting, burning, and finally taking possession.
Some Cherokee managed to escape into the gorges and thick forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, where they became the nucleus of those living there today, but most were finally rounded up or killed. They then were set off on a thousand-mile march—called to this day “the trail of ters tears” by the Cherokee—that was one of the notable death marches in history. Ill clad, badly fed, lacking medical attention, and prodded on by soldiers wielding bayonets, the Indians suffered severe losses. An estimate made at the time stated that some four thousand Cherokee died en route, but that figure is certainly too low. At the very moment that these people were dying in droves, President Van Buren reported to Congress that the government’s handling of the Indian problem had been “just and friendly throughout; its efforts for their civilization constant, and directed by the best feelings of humanity; it’s watchfulness in protecting them from individual frauds unremitting.”