Tag Archives: social science

“Where are the Gatekeepers?” a lecture by Dr. Dannagal G. Young

Dr. Young teaches at the University of Delaware Center for Political Communication. She writes for Huffington Post and The Atlantic magazine. I heard her lecture at Stockton University on April 13, 2017. The “Gatekeepers” of which she speaks are those who oversee the internet and, more specifically, social media.

Good question. What “gatekeepers”? What do we need/want in terms of internet and social media regulation? I think we agree that violent crimes should not be live streamed or posted. What else?

I am assuming “Communications” is one of the social sciences. By way of background, I admit to vague prejudice against the social sciences. I’m a chemist by training. I like the physical and biological sciences.

  • Experiments
  • Observations
  • Reproducibility

How do the social sciences meet those standards? (I’m speaking very generally here, lest I get bogged down.) I am skeptical about some social science research conclusions. I’m also skeptical about some “new “ fields of academic study – which is seriously unfair of me since I taught in one (Environmental Studies) for years, a very short time after it emerged.

Dr. Young provided important historical perspective. The “mass media” of my childhood (see blog post dated December 26, 2016) underwent a paradigm change, with 1982 as a pivotal year. “Mass media” was a form of “top down” communication, divorced from feedback, directed at isolated target individuals. “Digital mass media” enables feedback and networking. A person can be both a consumer and a producer of content. This is what Al Gore was thinking of when he theorized about “networked democracy”.

Dr. Young labels the internet a “sewer” of

  • Noise
  • Self indulgence
  • Flattery
  • Conspiracy theory

In other words, a dangerous disappointment. Moderation, education, contextualization and crowd sourcing are tools Facebook and other social platforms can use to improve their level of social responsibility.

During the Q/A period, I asked Dr. Young what kind of research on social media she would like to do, and what methods she would use. I can’t remember how she characterized her research interests, but the technique she said she used was the TELEPHONE SURVEY. I may have scowled – I’ve dodged telephone surveys for years. I hate them. Someone asked how you get people to participate. She said by “robo” dialing – on and on and on until you get the number of replies you need. She claimed that after 1000 replies, your outcome didn’t change much, so that was your “answer”. Really?? Someone pointed out that different sectors of the population must surely respond at different rates, and Dr. Young said that, for example, older people were more likely to participate in phone surveys, but cell-phone-only people emphatically do not. She mentioned “weighting” results to allow for this. By this time, she was looking sheepish. I was probably looking very skeptical indeed. Possibly I was glaring.

The discussion moved on the other topics, like WikiLeaks and political empowerment. Normally a seminar would lead to interesting discussion afterwards, but my internal alarm went off (dinner can only be postponed about so long – 7:15 pm is my absolute limit), so I departed.

Dr. Young investigates interesting subjects, and I’ll be watching for her name among the authors who turn up in my news feeds.

“The Rosie Effect” by Graeme Simsion

See my blog post of August 7, 2016, for information about Simsion’s earlier novel.

This is the second novel about the autistic genius Don Tillman and his brilliantly flamboyant wife Rosie. Don is still trying to figure out “normal people” and emotions. His wife’s unexpected pregnancy throws both wife and husband for a loop.

Simsion draws out the confusion extensively – hey, that’s what romantic comedy is all about! Along the way he creates some great characters. There’s Bud (baby under development), and Aaron the Air Marshal ( assigned to determine if Don’s autistic behavior means he’s going to blow up a flight to LA) and the B-team, three researchers dedicated to explicating the reactions of babies to lesbian mothering.

This book is wildly funny. Read it for good laughs! I hope for a sequel.

“The Rosie Project: A Novel” by Graeme Simsion

I read this novel because I watched someone react to it – she kept laughing. The premise (“it isn’t easy being autistic”) isn’t funny. I enjoyed The Rosie Project much more than I expected. It’s funny AND engaging.

Don Tillman is an autistic genius with a research and teaching appointment in genetics at an Australian university. He knows that his social skills are lacking. Deciding that life would be better with a wife, he designs a questionnaire that he expects will find him the ideal candidate. He also knows he needs practice in dating and socializing. A friend throws a “wildcard” candidate at him. Rosie fails to qualify according to several of Don’s criteria, but she attracts his interest.

Don refers to his quest as The Wife Project. Rosie has a quest of her own, The Father Project. She wants to find her genetic father.

Don and Rosie adventure boldly together, despite the confusion generated by their wildly different mental habits, and form an intense romantic bond.

Recently I read an article (on Facebook?) about the concept of “cognitive diversity”. It has been suggested that problem solving by groups would be improved by the intentional inclusion of people on the autism spectrum. In theory, the differences in the world view should improve decision making outcomes.

I have a further suggestion. What about brain injury survivors? Surely a person who makes a comeback from a major brain injury has a brain that is “different”, with major use of alternative pathways and other “work arounds”. Might he or she see something important in a situation that others would miss?

Meanwhile, I’m going to download Simsion’s next book, The Rosie Effect, against my next train trip or rainy afternoon. Or for when I need a good laugh.

Noble Savages – My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by N A Chagnon

This is a “big” book – it covers Chagnon’s long career and deals with big ideas – including culture, science and professional standards. It’s also a long book, but it held my interest. I remember seeing one of the early popular articles based on Chagnon’s field work when I was a teenager. Was it in National Geographic? I was intrigued.

So why, 35 or 40 years later, did my friends seem so surprised that I was reading a book about anthropology? After all, I took an anthropology course in college (just one). Didn’t we all read Margaret Meed and fantasize about running off to Samoa? 

So much can be said about this book. First, Chagnon asserts his identity as a scientist and rejects “advocacy” as the proper role of the field anthropologist. 

I’m struck by the fact that the Yanomamo culture was/is so “successful”. These people, who only rather recently came into contact with the wider world, lived lives we might consider violent and “dirty” (I simplify here), but they fed themselves, were possessed of language, myths and goods, and their population was slowly increasing. Chagnon spent time recording genealogies and observing changes that occurred as group size increases.

The Yanomamo had no particular reason to help or even tolerate anthropologists. In some sense, all information was “purchased” with trade goods, ranging from fish hooks to machetes. Chagnon formed friendships that ranged beyond the mercenary, in some cases extending for decades. He worked under rigorous and often dangerous conditions.

The possibility for trouble during contact between staggeringly different cultures always looms. Chagnon explores and documents two deadly issues – firearms and measles. 

Chagnon’s difficulties in getting along with others in his profession provide an interesting window on growth and change in the social sciences. He describes the extent to which his colleagues clung to preconceptions. Many were unwilling to accept his assertion (based on years of observation) that the Yanomamo fought over WOMEN (not over resources needed for subsistence). They considered his characterization of the Yanomamo as “fierce” to be inaccurate and prejudicial, although he was quite certain they would have felt complimented.

I was surprised to find extensive discussion of E O Wilson’s Sociobiology, which burst on the academic scene while Chagnon was fighting with his fellow anthropologists. Chagnon and Wilson both use the scientific method and evolutionary theory to investigate what it means to be “social”. 

If you are interested in how social sciences are taught in American colleges, you should read this book. If you like lively autobiography, don’t miss it.