Prelude to “The Wall”

Prelude to “The Wall”

Poster from "Roger Waters The Wall Live" (2010)
Poster from “Roger Waters The Wall Live” (2010)

This morning, my wife was running errands and stopped at the local gas station to fill up.  The corner gas station was hopping, and she waited her turn at the pump.  A space opened, she pulled in, and began to pump her gas.  Across the parking lot, about half-a-dozen young, African-American men were hanging out — sitting on their cars, talking, sipping soft drinks, and enjoying one of the last mild days of autumn.  Doing the things that teenage guys everywhere do on a lazy Saturday morning.  One of the young men turned on his radio to a hip-hop station.

According to my wife’s account, the music was barely audible at her distance.  Yet the elderly man gassing up his pickup on the far side of her pump was incensed.  Enraged, he popped open his camper shell, retrieved a baseball bat from within, and began swinging it wildly, screaming profanities and racial epithets.

My wife, caught in middle, quietly finished filling her tank and walked into the store to let them know that a “race riot” was about to break out in their parking lot.  The attendants followed their procedure: they locked the door (trapping my wife inside for the duration) and called 911.

We live in a small, quiet suburb and the police officer soon arrived.  The elderly man was still screaming and swinging his bat wildly, but he hadn’t advanced on the young men, who were still staring in amazement and laughing unbelievingly at his uncontrolled display.  (In my mind’s eye, from my wife’s description, I picture a white-haired Yosemite Sam on a wild tear.)  The officer parked his car in between the parties, but this didn’t discourage the tirade.

He took statements from the witnesses and, the last my wife saw as she left the station, he was calmly talking to the offending gentleman in the front seat of his squad car.  The young men smiled and waved covertly at my wife, the white lady in the Volvo who cared enough to say something in their defense.

We’re going to see Roger Waters’ touring revival of “The Wall” tonight at the Sprint Center.  That album was probably my first real “favorite” album, and it was an important voice though my adolescence.  I didn’t have the opportunity to see it back then (few did) — they only performed about 30 shows in four locations world wide.  The closest to me were New York and LA, and I was just a kid in Kansas City.  I had to wait until their next tour, in 1988, to see them perform live.  Until this tour, “The Wall” has only been performed live once (1990, Berlin, to mark the tearing down of that infamous Cold War wall).  I would have gone to that, but I already had a European trip planned and, being a poor, starving college student at the time, just couldn’t afford it — although I was jealous of a couple of friends who did manage to go.

So tonight is probably my only opportunity to see one of my favorite musical pieces performed live by its creator (although I’m sad the surviving members of Pink Floyd aren’t joining Waters).  It is an overwrought, psychedelic narrative mess.  But it still strikes me as profoundly honest and it deftly and courageously engages themes that are important to me.

I’ve been writing a lot about fear and hatred the past couple of years, as I’ve worked to complete a book manuscript about how the world we’ve created seems so often to disappoint, go astray from our plans, and divide us (as well as, of course, my modest thoughts about what we can do to improve it).  Those themes are central to “The Wall.”  And they are also crucial to understanding the small, shocking display of blind hatred my wife witnessed this morning, practically in our own backyard.

I don’t know anything about the man who so completely came unglued this morning.  There are many reasons for why he could have acted the way he did (and almost none of them have anything to do with the young men to which his hatred was directed).  But I’ll be thinking about him this evening as we watch “The Wall.”

We See What isn’t There

We See What isn’t There

I have long quipped that, “humans are so good at seeing patterns that we find them where none exist.”  But it wasn’t until sometime in graduate school that I learned the technical term for it: “apophenia.”  (A visual apophenia is a pareidolia.)  I still share this one with my students at some appropriate juncture almost every term.

Humans see figures in clouds, constellations in stars, the man in the moon, deeper significance in particular numbers (i.e., 3, 7, 12, 23, 666), and faces in geological formations.  We are more prone to seeing relatively simple patterns in randomness than we are to missing simple patterns that do exist.  We are also prone to asserting the reality of specific kinds of pattern: linearities, periodicities, and those that mimic some natural forms like the human face.

The Cydonia Mensae region of Mars.  Many see the hill in the top center of this photo (taken by Viking 1 in 1976) as a face.  Inset: the same region photographed in 2006 by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Recon Orbiter.
The Cydonia Mensae region of Mars. Many see the hill in the top center of this photo (taken by Viking 1 in 1976) as a face. Inset: the same region photographed in 2006 by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Recon Orbiter.

I contend that apophenia was adaptive.  In fact, one of the key characteristics defining our shared experience is that humans are active, adaptive, meaning-makers.  Our strength and our weakness is that we are so very good at identifying perceived patterns in all forms of stimuli: visual, aural, tactile, conceptual, cultural, social, and others.  This is a characteristic humans share with all life, but we are particularly facile at it and this ability is one of the roots of our evolutionary success.  It is also a source of many of our human problems.

Our ancestors who were more likely to discern patterns in the world were more likely to detect potentially harmful patterns, and so more likely to survive.  They lived in the midst of nature, life was precarious, and mistakes could often be deadly.  If they reacted to a potentially negative sensory pattern and it turned out to be false, then they could survive to laugh it off as an overreaction.  But if they failed to notice those environmental signals, then the chances are one of those missed cues would eventually kill them.

Consider Og and Froosh, two early human ancestors hunting on the savannah.  They grunt to one another in their proto-language…

Og: “Oh, look, there’s a rustling in the underbrush.  Ya think it might be a sabertooth tiger?”

Froosh: “Nah, it’s just the wind.”

Og: “I dunno.  I think I’m gettin’ outta here.”

Og runs away.  Froosh, laughing at his timidity, is eaten by the sabertooth tiger that emerges from the brush.  This may have happened many times before with Og running from shadows and the wind while Froosh mocked his jumpy friend.  But the result was that, the one time Og was right, Froosh died.  Cautious Og lives on to have a family and dies peacefully on his pallet at the ripe old age of 40.  We learned, over many generations, that it is better to err on the side of apophenia.

There are only two ways we can be wrong: we can think we’ve detected a pattern when, in fact, there is none (Type I error, alpha error, or false positive), or we can miss detecting a pattern that really exists (Type II error, beta error, or false negative).  Type I error happens when our detection gear is too sensitive, Type II error is a result of it not being sensitive enough.

The scientific method is inherently conservative — not in the political sense, but in the sense of requiring exceptional evidence for us to provisionally accept a newly identified pattern as probably real.  It is designed to guard especially against those false positives.  This is particularly important because humans are adapted to err on the side of Type I, and not Type II, error.  All things being equal, we are far more likely to “see” something that does not exist than to not notice something that is real.

But being prone to Type I error is not now as adaptive as it long was.  We have created an environment that no longer rewards this tendency as it did.  We have created a world that is busier and chock full of signals, but many of those are not meaningful or relevant — and their speed and density is confusing, further encouraging us to find meaning where we can make it.  We have also created a world where a greater proportion of the signals we experience are human created cultural products — reinforcing our default position of finding patterns (because they now really are everywhere), and so our likelihood of falling prey to apophenia (not everything is pattern).

Extreme cases of apophenia may be debilitating, and so usefully categorized as pathological, but such cases are rare.  It’s everyday forms are far more common and often result in poor decisions.  Apophenia is also doubtlessly related to human creativity, which is a necessary trait.  Innovation entertains us, enriches us, and allows us to progress, individually and collectively.  But too much creativity incorrectly applied leads us down blind alleys, wastes human effort, and even destroys lives.

As always, the trick is still to discern which patterns are real and which are (sometimes even well-meant) illusion.  The trick is to find the balance allowing us to recognize the reality facing us and still see those possibilities not yet recognized.  It is easy to recognize apophenia in those with whom we disagree.  Our continuing challenge is to see it in ourselves, and in those we love and respect.

[I particularly recommend this Digital Bits Skeptic article for an in-depth exploration of apophenia.]

What Our Shoes Say

I wear only four different pairs of shoes: muffy house slippers for around the house (except when, being an absent-minded professor, I forget to change before going out), New Balance running shoes that I try to put a few miles on each day, Birkenstocks for the summer, and for everything else, my cowboy boots.

Now for those of you unfamiliar, a quality pair of cowboy boots is the most comfortable thing you will ever slip on your feet.  I’ve had my pair of Lucchese Classics for about 14 years — far more expensive footwear than I could ever have afforded in grad school were it not for serendipity or plain dumb luck.  They’ve been re-heeled each year and half-soled at least four times.  They go with everything from my jeans to my tuxedo.  They’ve taken me everywhere for any occasion: down to the corner and around the world, to many states and several countries — and I was even married in them (twice).  But despite the best care I can give them, they’ve just about reached the end of their road.

It was with heavy heart that I finally decided to find a new pair.  I like to support local merchants, so I looked around and found Nigro’s Western Store.  I spoke with George, the owner, and he asked me to come in so that we could make sure he got it right.  We drove across the city and, despite a bustling business, he took the necessary time to make sure I had the right boot order (and at a price that beat anything I could find on the web).

So in another five to seven weeks, my new pair of friends will arrive and, I’m sure, we will become comfortable and find many new adventures together.  But as a sociologist, I started thinking, “what do our shoes say about us?”

My new boot.
My new boot.

Since I only really wear two types of footgear out of the house, my feet are only sending two messages: both cowboy boots and Birkenstocks have strong, and conflicting, cultural associations.  Birkenstocks are the apex of “hippy-dippy” liberal association, and I suppose they match my hair, which has not been cut in more than a decade.  Cowboy boots are the quintessential rural American footwear, and these do match my truck.  Both have strong political associations: Birkenstocks are taken as liberal and cowboy boots are seen as conservative.

My sandals are also associated with my profession: my students have never thought it strange to see a sociology professor in Birkenstocks, but many have commented over the years on how strange they thought it was for a professor to wear cowboy boots.

On the one hand, this association speaks to the stereotypes we learn: why must sandals denote liberalism and boots imply conservatism?  And on the other, it illustrates the shortcuts we all take to pigeonhole one another using the most superficial signs.  All feet clad in Birkenstocks are not attached to bodies with liberal skulls, and all those in boots are not out to kick the “other.”  Most of us are far more complex, conflicted, and middling.  Yet it is easy for us to conveniently ignore these facts as we vilify those who seem different.

But since I am very aware of these associations, the deeper personal question is: how am I choosing to portray myself?  I could just wear tennis shoes or loafers.  But I don’t.  It could just be that I find my boots (and to a lesser extent, my sandals) comfortable.  And I do.  But how much of that comfort is physical and much is mental?  That I do not know.

What I do know is that I am not comfortably and consistently at home in either extreme of the political spectrum.  It is true that I am most often on the “left” side of the chamber, but not for the reasons most would think.  It is also true that I tend to see both sides of a well-reasoned argument, just as I am put off by unthinking cant from either end.

Perhaps my feet are a quiet testament to the conflict always raging in my heart — or perhaps not.  I’m just looking forward to my new boots.

“Yeah, But is it Science?”

Random lab scientists, in their stereotypical uniforms, from days gone by.

Maybe the most difficult issue faced by social scientists is the perception that, somehow, what we do is not “science.”  Although, in fairness, it doesn’t seem as widespread or blatant now as when I first got into the game; it is almost unthinkable now that a business, agency, or organization would implement a new policy without provision for its social scientific study; and funding for US social science research continues in the billions every year.

One reason we face this challenge is that all people are so familiar with what social scientists study that everyone thinks they know what’s really happening.  But that is not the case.  If it were, we would all be living better lives and our social systems would operate far more smoothly.

Natural scientists have the advantage here because, even though we also all live in the physical and biological world, those feel more distant to the level of our direct experience.  Distance between observer and observed, easily mistaken for objectivity, is built into their process.  Natural scientists study many phenomena that are relatively simple (that is, reducible to simple mathematical models), while most everything social scientists study are complex (in the formal, mathematical sense).  And natural scientists are more readily forgiven their invention of necessary technical language to precisely describe what they study, while social scientists are questioned for introducing unnecessary complications to something that is, after all, patently obvious, right?

So what makes something “science?”  Several distinguishing characteristics have been suggested.  Here are a few of the most popular:

  • “Science” can be objectively described.
  • “Science” can be quantified.
  • “Science” can be directly observed.
  • “Science” can be manipulated experimentally.
  • “Science” can be falsified.

And yet it is as easy to find examples of respected, influential natural science that violate each of these criteria as it is to find examples of social science that hold to them.  My point is simply that, sometimes, “social” scientists adhere to all of these ideals, and other times, “natural” scientists do not — not to start yet another squabble over who has the more difficult time of it.  Good science is a challenge, no matter what we study.

So if “science,” in practice, violates each stereotypical principle, what does make something “science?”

  • “Science” is systematic.
  • “Science” is empirical.
  • “Science” is theoretical.
  • “Science” is capable of being compared to other explanations.
  • “Science” is self-correcting over time.

Science is about pattern recognition: separating signal from noise, and about identifying whether those patterns we think we see are real and meaningful.  We seek to find the simplest defensible explanation for a phenomenon, but not an oversimplification.

Science, in all its forms, is a human endeavor.  That means that it is sometimes messy, always imperfect, and seldom bears much resemblance in practice to what it looks like in the ideal.

I’ll return to each of these points in the coming weeks.  As a research methodologist, it is a subject near and dear to my heart.  But for now, I’ll step down off my digital soapbox.

Happy New Year!

As an academic type, I’ve always considered the end of summer the beginning of a new year: preschool, primary school, secondary school, college, graduate school, and now, entering my 13th year as a teacher of college students.  My whole life has been lived according to the rhythms of the academic calendar.  Now, by the precedent set of historical necessity, is when that all begins again.

It may seem strange to someone long away from education and out in the “real world” (few phrases set my teeth on edge faster — of course school is the real world and it’s demeaning to all those hard at work learning to hear otherwise), but this is the beginning of our year.

So as the leaves begin to turn and fall, and as the world starts her slow decline into another season of well-earned slumber, turning the cycle into another of rebirth, I feel my annual sense of renewal.  Autumn is the season I most love.  In my part of the world, it promises environmental beauty as nature puts on one last show before quieting until spring.  But it also promises another beauty as I am privileged once more to take my small part in that thing that makes us undeniably human: to learn and to take that knowledge forward into our own lives.

The sight that greets me each autumn morning on campus.
The sight that greets me each autumn morning on campus.

Alright, so that’s a bit idealized.  But throughout my life in the academy, that remains how I feel.  I am still almost giddy at another opportunity to share what I have spent my lifetime learning, and to learn from the fresh student eyes drawn toward questions that I would never think to ask.

In my family, this season marks another milestone.  For three years I have watched our son bound up the hill each school morning to the bus stop with his mother in order to see our daughter off on another scholastic adventure.  Then I watched him trudge back home, dejected that he could not join her.  Too young by the calendar, although his spirit was eager.

But that changes on Monday when he begins his own academic odyssey with kindergarten.  I am excited by the prospect of those new things he will bring to our family’s dinner table conversation.  I hope that he will nurture his own love of learning, as have I.

So the world may be dying once more, but the annual cycle of the life of the mind is, once again, being reborn.  Teaching in the classroom is only one of the many ways I am renewed by learning.  Research, service, writing, speaking, and consulting all have their valued places for me.  But college teaching is the most tangible expression of that honorable learning process, and I look forward to greeting another batch of students tomorrow.

In celebration of the Academic New Year, I resolve to better attend to my blog, which has languished too long.  I wish a very “Happy New Year” to all of you about to become engaged in the serious and joyful business of learning and teaching once more!