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:
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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.
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.
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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.
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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!) Read the rest
The University of Oregon's Mapping History site could easily suck up all your productivity for a day or two
. Filled with interactive graphs, charts, and timelines, it allows you to explore history in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. The US section is particularly robust, allowing you to trace everything from the development of railroads, to connections between the growth of the cotton and slavery industries, to changes in life expectancy. Fascinating and fantastic. Read the rest
Englishman in Japan showing how the Japanese queue for local football games.
We have this idea that physical crowds are stupid herds. Give them half a chance, and they'll form a stampeding riot mob driven by emotion. Look at history, though, and you'll see many examples of large groups of people being perfectly well-behaved. In fact, in disaster situations, like on 9/11, crowds can even organize themselves in practical ways to help others to safety.
Meanwhile, we tend to talk about virtual crowds — the kind that form online, or between physically distant members of a professional community — as smart. But if that's always true, why do these groups get caught up in financial bubbles and why isn't Twitter a more reliable place to pick up breaking news?
Physical crowds and virtual crowds are different things. But our stereotypes about them stem from a common problem. In both cases, we tend to treat "the crowd" as if it's a distinct entity — as if, at some point, individuals in a group stop being themselves and start to become limbs of a crowd creature. In my latest column for The New York Times magazine, I learned that that's not the way people work in real life. As Clark McPhail, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me, "Crowds don't have a central nervous system."
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Gustave Le Bon was one of the first people to write about crowds as entities separate from the people in them. His 1895 book, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” shaped academic discussions of human gatherings for half a century and encouraged 20th-century fascist dictators, including Benito Mussolini, to treat crowds as emotional organisms — something to be manipulated and controlled.
The Lord of the Rings Project
collects and analyzes data on all the characters inhabiting Middle Earth, to produce statistical comparisons of life expectancy, age distribution, population, and more. Read the rest
While 85% of Billboard Top 100 songs of the 1960s were written in a major key, that preference no longer holds true today. Minor key songs have become the majority, representing about 60% of modern hits. Scientific American's Helen Lee Lin delves into this, and other documented changes in musical preference
. The research is totally interesting, even if the scientists don't seem to have a good idea of what it means. Maybe we're depressed. Or maybe we're just trying to sound more mature. Here's the original paper. (Via ScienceGoddess) Read the rest
Here's an issue we don't talk about enough. Every year, peer-reviewed research journals publish hundreds of thousands of scientific papers. But every year, several hundred of those are retracted — essentially, unpublished. There's a number of reasons retraction happens. Sometimes, the researchers (or another group of scientists) will notice honest mistakes. Sometimes, other people will prove that the paper's results were totally wrong. And sometimes, scientists misbehave, plagiarizing their own work, plagiarizing others, or engaging in outright fraud. Officially, fraud only accounts for a small proportion of all retractions. But the number of annual retractions is growing, fast. And there's good reason to think that fraud plays a bigger role in science then we like to think. In fact, a study published a couple of weeks ago found that there was misconduct happening in 3/4ths of all retracted papers. Meanwhile, previous research has shown that, while only about .02% of all papers are retracted, 1-2% of scientists admit to having invented, fudged, or manipulated data at least once in their careers.
The trouble is that dealing with this isn't as simple as uncovering a shadowy conspiracy or two. That's not really the kind of misconduct we're talking about here.
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Holly curates a Tumblr called FUCK YEAH SOCIOLOGY STUDENT SHEEP, featuring a wide variety of symbolic Soc students having ironic epiphanies, and whose motto is "Time for some motherfucking Sociology." I love having my fun ruined!
FUCK YEAH SOCIOLOGY STUDENT SHEEP
(via Sociological Images)
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My second column for the New York Times Magazine went online today. It's about the history of technology and the forces that determine which tools end up in our everyday portfolio and which become fodder for alternate history sci-fi novels.
The key thing to remember: The technologies we use today aren't necessarily the best technologies that were available. We don't really make these decisions logically, based solely on what works best. It's more complicated than that. Technology is shaped sociocultural forces. And, in turn, it shapes them, as well. The best analogy I've come up with to summarize this: The history of technology isn't a straight line. It's more like a ball of snakes fucking. (Sadly, I couldn't figure out a good way to reword this analogy for publication in the Paper of Record.) One of my big examples is the history of the electric car:
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There are plenty of reasons Americans should have adopted electric cars long ago. Early E.V.’s were easier to learn to drive than their gas cousins, and they were far cleaner and better smelling. Their battery range and speed were limited, but a vast majority of the trips we take in our cars are short ones. Most of the driving we do has been well within the range of electric-car batteries for decades, says David Kirsch, associate professor of management at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” We drive gas-powered cars today for a complex set of reasons, Kirsch says, but not because the internal-combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery.
IUDs are the weird form of birth control. We don't really know exactly how they work, for instance. And they've been largely unpopular my entire lifetime—really, ever since a couple of poorly designed IUDs set off a mini-panic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But IUDs are effective birth control. The ones that you can buy today are safe. And, more importantly, they represent birth control that you don't have to think about, and birth control that is really hard to get wrong.
If you've ever done research on the effectiveness of various methods of birth control, you'll notice that the statistics usually come with a little asterisk. That * represents a concept that few of the people who rely on birth control ever think about—perfect use. Let's use condoms as an example. With perfect use, 2 out of 100 women will get pregnant over the course of a year's worth of condom-protected sex. Without perfect use—maybe you don't use a condom every time, maybe you don't put it on right when you both get naked—the number of accidental pregnancies jumps to 18 out of 100. The same basic problem affects birth control pills, as well. Ladies, did you know you're supposed to take those things at the same time of day every day? That's the kind of use error that can make a difference between 1 out of 100 women getting pregnant in a year, and 9 out of 100 getting pregnant.
In contrast, IUDs represent a fit-it-and-forget-it method of birth control. Read the rest
Melissa Hogenboom reports on women who turn to surgery in pursuit of the perfect vagina:
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Jessie said she used to spend hours flicking through magazines looking for women with similar labia to hers. She did not find any. She said it was "another piece of evidence that there was something wrong with me" and made her feel like a "complete freak". She experienced recurring dreams where she would imagine her labia as a scarf that would wrap itself around her neck. "There would be people standing around laughing and pointing."
This woman, Clelia Duel Mosher, conducted the world's first sex survey—a series of interviews with 45 American women, most of whom were born before 1870. She conducted the surveys off and on between 1892 and 1920, but never published on them. They were found in 1973, and present an interesting take on Victorian and Edwardian-era women's sex lives, something we usually only hear about from decidedly biased sources from that time period that often claim women didn't like sex at all.
The surveys show that wasn't the case. More interestingly, they tell the story of changing expectations about marriage and sex.
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Slightly more than half of these educated women claimed to have known nothing of sex prior to marriage; the better informed said they'd gotten their information from books, talks with older women and natural observations like "watching farm animals." Yet no matter how sheltered they'd initially been, these women had—and enjoyed—sex. Of the 45 women, 35 said they desired sex; 34 said they had experienced orgasms; 24 felt that pleasure for both sexes was a reason for intercourse; and about three-quarters of them engaged in it at least once a week.
Unlike Mosher's other work, the survey is more qualitative than quantitative, featuring open-ended questions probing feelings and experiences. "She's actually asking these questions not about physiology or mechanics—she's really asking about sexual subjectivity and the meaning of sex to women," Freedman says. Their responses were often mixed. Some enjoyed sex but worried that they shouldn't. One slept apart from her husband "to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse." Some didn't enjoy sex but faulted their partner.