Sunday, October 28, 2012

A New Kind of Social Science for the 21st Century

This is the title of an interview on the Edge web site with Nicholas Christakis, a “Physician and Social Scientists” at Harvard. He hails the “biological hurricane approaching the social sciences” and “the era of computational social science.” He believes that by pooling all the relevant data “we” (or, rather, clear-sighted scientists like him) will soon achieve a clear understanding of previously murky aspects of human behavior – for example, of how “humans aggregate to form collective entities.” These new causal models will then allow for effective “interventions” at different societal levels.

To illustrate this new approach, Christakis points to a study he and others did on the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer population spread thinly on the Kenyan savannah. They created “a kind of Facebook for the Hadza” mapping the totality of their social connections. The result was quite surprising. As it it turned out, modern telecommunications and urbanization have absolutely no effect on the “structure of human social networks.“ In Christakis’s words, “Hadza social networks look just like ours. In every kind of way we could study these networks, mathematically, they didn't differ from ours.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The go-go economist

The NYT features a profile of Glenn Hubbard, “Romeney’s Go-To Economist.” Hubbard is still dean of the Columbia business school, and can well become Secretary of the Treasury if Romney somehow sails into the White House. Once there, he would likely seek to revive George W. Bush’s economic policy, i.e., return the US to the economic course which once led it to the precipice. Otherwise, Hubbard looks like another nerdy libertarian economist who passes for a “conservative,” American-style. He has not shrunk from raking in millions from industries whose practices he has justified in academic papers and articles; and from corporations and executives accused of fraudulent behavior, in whose defense he has readily provided “expert” testimony.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Going solo Tajik style

On one of the news channels there was some curious footage from Tajikistan. It highlighted the plight of thousands of Tajik women who have been abandoned by their husbands. Since Tajikistan doesn’t offer an abundance of well-paying jobs, it turns out that perhaps 30 percent of Tajik bread winners have spent years as sometimes unwelcome gastarbeiter in Russia. As they were toiling away from home, at some point quite a few decided to call back home with a shocking announcement. They solemnly declared they were divorcing their wives, often leaving them to shoulder the burden of raising several children with very little income. Why has this trend taken such epidemic proportions in recent years? I have another elegant theory explaining it all.

Conspiracies all the way down

Maverick feminist Camile Paglia has joined the chorus singing paeans to capitalism on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. In her contribution, titled “How Capitalism Can Save Art,” she argues there is a simple reason why art has lost existential ground over the last couple of decades – what elese could you expect, if “the most talented college students are ideologically indoctrinated with contempt for the economic system that made their freedom, comforts and privileges possible.” This, of course, is a refrain of the conspiracy theory embraced by all sorts of cultural/social “conservatives” – and Paglia has swallowed it as self-righteously, though she describes herself as “a libertarian Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.” This fatal attraction of conspiratorial thinking is in fact quite curious.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Shame no more

Today, Dr. Brook Magnanti is some kind of British research scientist. A few years ago she was writing – alongside her dissertation – a racy blog describing her exploits as a high-end prostitute in London. Interviewed recently on the BBC chat show Hard Talk, she claimed that prostitution had empowered her; and said she would do it all over again if she had a choice. She also said she wished her daughter would one day follow confidently in her footsteps.

Hey, big spender

Following President Obama’s dispirited performance at the Denver debate, even many of his ardent supporters tweeted a blizzard of grumbles. According to the NYT, Andrew Sullivan, a liberal blogger, complained that the president was “boring, abstract, and less human-seeming than Romney!”