Sociology goes inside the police state

The Chronicle of Higher Education talks to a sociologist who spent years living with and learning the stories of people affected by mass incarceration.

What we learn about women from research vs. what we learn from evolutionary psychology speculation

An interesting study on female aggression points out the trouble with making declarations about inherent human nature based on speculation about sexual dynamics. New studies, including this one, are finding that women can be plenty competitive and aggressive. At The New York Times, John Tierney points out that old ideas about female passivity were based on "an evolutionary analysis of the reproductive odds in ancient polygynous societies in which some men were left single because dominant males had multiple wives".

Eat, sleep, and visit the mall ... for tomorrow we die

Survey-based sociology research in Israel and the United States finds a correlation between fear of death and impulsive shopping. The researchers behind these studies think that the connection represents people using materialism as a coping mechanism to deal with death anxiety.

The science of to-do lists

Research says "to-do" lists don't work, writes Daniel Markovitz at Harvard Business Review. That's not exactly what he means, though. Instead of condemning the very idea of "to-do" lists, Markovitz piece makes an interesting case for re-thinking how you use those lists. If you're throwing a jumble of stuff to be done onto a page, that's probably not going to be terribly effective. A better solution involves breaking down how various tasks fit into allotted spaces of time on specific days, and setting up that more realistic list as a part of your routine, rather than just magnetizing it to the refrigerator. Basically, it's not that "to-do" lists suck. It's that some people probably aren't using them effectively.

How to: Fake being a virgin (16th-century style)

You will need: 1 fish bladder, blood of indeterminate origin, and the motivation to shove both up your hoo-ha.

Evangelical Christian scientists in Oklahoma

This is not the story you're expecting. Instead, Tulsa TV news channel 6 is reporting on a group of 200 Oklahoman evangelical Christian scientists who have banded together to urge Congress to both accept the science of anthropogenic climate change, and take action to prevent the worst of its effects. Stuff like this is important. Research shows that one of the best ways to change minds on controversial social issues is to have the mind-changing message delivered by someone who is part of the community to be changed. Messages from insiders are more convincing than lectures from outsiders.

Poverty does more damage to kids than crack

Researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have been following and studying the brains and lives of so-called "crack babies" for more than 20 years. Now, they're beginning to publish their findings, and what they're finding is not what they expected. The researchers saw few statistical differences between kids exposed to crack in utero and those who weren't. But they did find big differences between the exposed babies and the controls when compared to children who grew up in wealthier families. Now, they're coming to the conclusion that it's poverty — not crack — that may present the biggest risk to children's neurological development and their later opportunities in life.

Bubble boy: Baby born inside intact amniotic sac

"Born in the caul" is a phrase that's connected with a lot of cross-cultural myths and superstitions — babies born in the caul are supposed to be destined for lives of fame and fortune (or, possibly, misfortune and grisly death, depending on which legends you're listening to). Biologically, though, it refers to a baby that's born with part of the amniotic sac — the bubble of fluid a fetus grows in inside the uterus — still attached. Usually, a piece of the sac is draped over the baby's head or face. These are called caul births, and they're rare. But, about once in every 80,000 births, you'll get something truly extraordinary — "en-caul", a baby born inside a completely intact amniotic sac, fluid and all.

There's a photo of a recent en-caul birth making the rounds online. The photo is being attributed to Greek obstetrician Aris Tsigris. It's fascinating. But it's also pretty graphic, so fair warning on that. (If the sight of newborn infants and blood gives you the vapors, you might also want to avoid most of the links in this post, as well.)

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Actually, it's good for low-income kids if their mom works

At the PsySociety blog, Melanie Tannenbaum looks at the meta-analysis cited by Erik Erikson of Redstate.com as proof that low-income families fare worse when mom works outside the home — and finds that it says exactly the opposite. This post is notable not only for deconstructing a "common sense" belief, but also for doing a great job of explaining what a meta-analysis is and why it matters. Also provides a full daily serving of Fox News schadenfreude.

Conspiracy theorists aren't crazy

I have a personal Facebook account, which I use to keep up with friends and family. Like many of you, I've also discovered that this gives me a peek inside the psyche of those friends and family — and one of the things that I saw was an interest (and sometimes belief in) conspiracy theories. It wasn't limited to the Right or the Left. And it definitely wasn't limited to people I love but consider a little "off", if you know what I'm saying.* Over and over, I saw perfectly rational, sane people, supporting and spreading ideas that, to me, seemed a little nuts.

And that made me curious: Where do conspiracy theories come from? The answer, according to psychologists and sociologists, is not "Glenn Beck's fevered imagination." In fact, the category "people who believe in conspiracy theories" can't even really be separated into The Other in a nice, neat way. If you look at the data, the people who believe in conspiracy theories are us. And those theories grow out of both historical context, our feelings about ourselves and the wider world, and the way that our brains respond to feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty. Here's a short excerpt from my most recent column for The New York Times Magazine:

While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.

Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.

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*This joke is totally going to get me into trouble. Dear friends and family: Trust me, you are not the one I'm referring to here.

Image: December 21st...., a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from clawzctr's photostream

Elite Panic: why rich people think all people are monsters

Here's a quote on "Elite Panic" from Rebecca Solnit, It's an idea I'm fascinated by, particularly the notion that if you believe that people are fundamentally a mob waiting to rise up and loot but for the security state, you will build a security state that turns people into a mob of would-be looters.

The term "elite panic" was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster -- Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke -- proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.

Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don't become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface -- that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn't actually happen; it's tragic.

But there's also an elite fear -- going back to the 19th century -- that there will be urban insurrection. It's a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the '85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.

I've just ordered her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. This is basically what I was talking about here, when I described the idea I hoped to capture in the prequel to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

BOMB Magazine: Rebecca Solnit by Astra Taylor

(via Schneier)

The tweets you should follow in a crisis aren't necessarily the most obvious

Some interesting research based on the Arab Spring uprisings suggests that the best people to follow on Twitter during a crisis are often not particularly influential on Twitter outside the crisis. Likewise, they aren't likely to have had many followers before the event. Essentially, it's evidence supporting the common sense idea that, if you want the most accurate and relevant information, your best bet is to find people closest to the source, rather than relying on third-hand accounts.

Sloppy statistics: Do 50% of Americans really think married women should be legally obligated to change their names?

Jill Filipovic wrote an opinion column for The Guardian yesterday, arguing against the practice of women taking their husbands' names when they get married. It ended up linked on Jezebel and found its way to my Facebook feed where one particular statistic caught my eye. Filipovic claimed that 50% of Americans think a women should be legally required to take her husband's name.

First, some quick clarification of my biases here. Although I write under a hyphenate, I never have legally changed my name. I've never had a desire to do so. In my private life, I'm just Maggie Koerth and always will be. That said, I personally take issue with the implication at the center of Filipovic's article — that women shouldn't change their names and that to do so makes you a bad feminist. For me, this is one of those personal decisions where I'm like, whatever. Make your own choice. Just because I don't get it doesn't mean you're wrong.

But just like I take objection to being all judgey about personal choices, I also take objection to legally mandating personal choices, and I was kind of blown away by the idea that 50% of my fellow Americans think my last name should be illegal.

So I looked into that statistic. And then I got really annoyed.

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Can we ever model sociology like we model climate?

Earlier today, in a feature on the science behind gun policies, I told you about how difficult it is to get reliable answers that pinpoint exactly what helps society and what hurts it. Models — computer algorithms that help us understand how complex systems work — play a role in this, but the ones used for gun research aren't very good yet. In fact, that's true about a lot of sociology fields, write the editors of the Get Stats blog. In general, our knowledge of how society works lags far behind our knowledge of the natural world. Can that ever be fixed? Some scientists think so.

Great moments in pedantry: Actually, there is a Jedi mind meld

It's right there in the Expanded Universe book series, says Chris Peterson, a research assistant in MIT's Center for Civic Media. It's a form of group communication. What's more, Peterson writes, if you follow the theories of anthropologist and sociologist of science Bruno Latour, the Jedi meld might actually be the most useful tool for Obama to employ. (Thanks Ryan!)