Hard & Soft Sciences–or perhaps the Simple and Complex Sciences..

My good friend Brent and I have had an ongoing discussion for many years about perceptions and labels for the sciences–i.e. the the natural and the social sciences.   In our society, the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology,..) are preeminent–and they also often are called the “Hard Sciences” in comparison to the squishy “Soft Sciences” of the social sciences (Economics, Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, …).

These labels have a history going back into the 19th century, and part of the meanings associated with the labels come from the notion that the mathematical rigor, testability, and overall durability of the results in the natural sciences is what made them “hard”–they provided stark, clear results that could be relied upon.

This hardness, of course, stood in contrast to–while co-creating–those “squishy” soft sciences whose results were so fleeting, and changeable.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Hard Sciences are seen as superior to the Soft Sciences in terms of cultural credibility and status.  Although the Hard Sciences themselves didn’t really become culturally powerful until WW2–when they were credited with all of the power of creating the first Atom Bomb–it’s clear in the history of the social sciences –which was one of my prelim fields–that there’s been a century long attempt by the Social Sciences to model themselves more and more on the Hard Sciences in order to be seen as serious

To many–this may seem natural and right–because when you look at the results of physics–it WORKS.   It seems so solid compared to research in something like psychology–which appears to be overthrown regularly and reinterpreted with a swiftness that often makes it seem more like a fad than a science.

At this point, I would stop and agree with the above to an extent. It is true that when you do physics work, the results you get are more controlled… less variable.  They stay put more. ( I love physics, I might add…. )

And that’s as fine as it goes.  But I would also like to point something important out–and that’s the fact that one of the essential traits of the hard sciences is that the objects of their study are–in many ways–relatively simple.

While this is most true of the hardest of sciences–physics–and becomes less true as you move to the more complicated chemistry and the very messy biology–the STUFF that they study  is simple in that it is just stuff.   It is matter–and quite often–it’s abstracted matter or mathematical models of small amounts of matter.

Atoms, Quarks, neutrinos, etc.

Or it’s huge masses of matter that you cannot actually grasp–stars, black wholes, galaxies–but when it’s this kind of physics–it is always just simplified accounts of it.

While working with this kind of stuff is certainly hard, it is important to note that this stuff is always just an object of study.

It is never a subject.

Think about it–what if atoms could have moods.  What if the same types of atoms–say Oxygen atoms—communicated with other atoms differently as English-Speakers do?   Or if how they related to other atoms changed over time based on laws that other atoms could create or remove at will?

What if atoms COULD LIE?

In a sense–just dealing with atoms is simple.  Chemists do have it harder–as they work more with molecules/compounds/mixtures—and biologists have it even harder.

But OHMYFUCKINGGOD–what about scientists studying subjects who lie to them–sometimes without knowing why–who change their minds, whose backgrounds are never exactly the same and who can learn to change their behaviors.  Who may change their responses to people based on cultural assumptions that vary from place to place?

That shit is REALLY FUCKING COMPLEX–and it makes coming up with results a lot more complicated.

In summation- I think there are a couple of important take home messages here:

1. One could say that an equally valid way to talk about these sciences is to talk about the “Simple Sciences” (natural) and the “Complex Sciences” (social).  This might frame these two different approaches to studying reality in a way that complements and balances the Hard vs Soft labels that we’ve had for so long.

2. One of the key differences that make the complex (social) sciences so difficult is that they have to deal with diversity IN THE MOST SERIOUS WAY POSSIBLE.  There is genetic diversity (also in Bio), experiential diversity, cultural diversity, intellectual diversity, and the last three kinds of diversity all “mutate” with a rapidity that would drive even the most complex simple scienstist (i.e. a biologist) batty.

3. Social Scientists have to take diversity in the subjects that they study seriously, or else they are going to miss so much.  Reflecting on this, having people in these complex sciences try to be more like the simple sciences–where they don’t have the same issues–can only really hurt them.  When psychologists try to pidgeonhole people in super-controlled experiments and try to turn them into human atoms–they are not going to get a lot of useful stuff. And attempts at “replication” in these ways are going to be mostly futile–because the numbers of variables that really at play are in the 1000’s at the very least–and most are just abstracted out of existence and ignored to do this work.

3. Similarly–aspiring to the mathematization of these Complex sciences so that computers  (big data!) can just come up with calculated correlations for people is going to lead to “garbage in, garbage out” type of situations more often than not.

4.  Since I’ve studied the history of engineering pretty in depth, I would also note that for all the disdain that engineering has from the sciences–how tacky, mundane, and impure engineering is compared to the abstractions and elegance of science–the same kind of thing is going on here.

Engineers don’t deal with idealized atoms connected to 3 other atoms–they deal with trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of different kinds of atoms thrown together in no discernible pattern that are interacting via imperfect, random, and “flawed” surfaces that make calculations and formulas impossible unless you’re just trying to get statistical and measured results–rather than calculated answers.
For this–engineering is disdained–but it’s in the acceptance of the diversity of matter and working with the matter as it is–rather than how you want to idealize it–that actual things are created.

And now.. I’m spent.  Time to do some push-ups.

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When equality becomes privilege

It is my experience that a lot of people have issues with the word, “privilege” when it comes to explaining the everyday experiences of inequality and of violence in our society.  I also would agree that “privilege” is not the perfect word for this kind of phenomenon–but I’m not sure there are any better words–and so it might just have to do. (One can look at John Scalzi’s great explanation of straight white male privilege here.  If you haven’t read it already, it will likely be the best thing you read today–and much better than what’s here.. )

As it stands–the word actually originally meant “private law”–in the sense that being “of privilege” meant that the regular law didn’t apply to you–only a kind of “private set” that was usually easier, less strict/harsh/etc..

Nobility had privilege–because regular laws that applied to all the peasants–didn’t apply to them.

What we see today is that not even REGULAR LAWS apply to minorities or women–that they don’t even get that. Most of the regular laws do apply to cis-het white males–but none of the “bonus” evil–like killing PoC–happens to them nearly as often.

So what this means is that the “regular laws” that we think govern society, DON’T. They have become a kind of “private law” that only some people get to enjoy.

Edit–Actually what’s going is that many are FINALLY NOTICING that what is presented as “regular laws” do not apply to everyone–that they are actually just “private laws” for some–and in reality–IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THIS WAY… (edit required because of my own privileged position here that I hadn’t realized when I first wrote it.. ).

And that’s deeply, deeply disturbing. Because it means that what is generally considered to be just a “even ground” for everyone–isn’t and really, never has been… it’s always just been a reduced to a set of privileges that only some get to enjoy. (Note–for rich straight white males–there is EVEN MORE privilege… )

This needs to be fixed. If we, as the privileged–don’t want to hear this word be used–then we need to change society so that these basic, regular, laws actually apply to everyone equally.

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Understanding Complexity

This post came from a response to a friend’s posting of this article about Trump, but it also relates to many thoughts I’ve had before about how we understand reality.. and how we do not.

In specific–it deals with the need for all of us to grok complexity and act on that understanding more often.


Along these lines, teaching people to deal with complexity seems to be a core need for the future. Complexity-in a sense–shows up in so many of the things that go by other names and that I and many others find important.


Diversity (complexity of people)

Democracy (complexity of power)

Critical thinking (complexity of ideas and perspectives)

Diplomacy (complexity of relationships)

Pluralism (complexity of society and culture)

And I’m sure there are more.

If there’s one thing that I’ve observed that seems pretty consistent in people who found Trump appealing–it’s that they don’t like complexity.

Because they don’t like it–they tend also to associate it with evil/badness/inefficiency/whatnot.. and to rectify this–they seek simplicity and if you can make your appeal based on simple answers to complex questions–they will latch onto it.

Attempts to bring evidence to refute these kinds of beliefs is also usually doomed because by doing so–you’re inherently trying to show that the situation is more complex–which makes you “evil/wrong” from the outset.. (as is your evidence and any attempt to bring evidence…)

How do you solve this? Well.. I’m working on that. I tend to think that the short-term and long-term solutions are very different (OMG, LOOK I JUST CANNOT GET AWAY FROM COMPLEXITY!).

Short term fighting is about presenting equivalent “simple” alternative answers (GODDAMN IT, I’M NOT GIVING UP THE UTILITY OF THE WORD ALTERNATIVE..) that come from our set of values and that hide the complexity beneath them.


The left’s answer to simplistic right-wing messaging:

a) We want Liberty, Justice, and Equality FOR ALL!

b) We want good jobs, good schools, and good opportunities FOR ALL!

These are simple responses/messages that resonate with the core american ideals… and they frame it in a way that makes opponents come across as “No, we want liberty and justice for Some??? ”

More of this kind of thing would be the short-term approach.

Long term is to organize and take over all of the “low-level” positions of power–school boards, city councils, state governments–consistently–so we can build up the systems that explain and teach complexity.

The more people are at ease with complexity–the better off we will be.

To conclude, I have a quote I’ve appreciated since I first discovered it in the early 90’s.  It is:

“Seek simplicity and distrust it.”  It’s from Alfred North Whitehead and I always liked the juxtaposition in it.  The more extended version of it is:

“The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it.’ “

We need not be natural philosophers to embrace this.  Or maybe rather we should all embrace being natural philosophers–at least partly–to deal with the kind of complex world we live in.

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The Resonance of Exclusion

“Look, the people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us.”

—Tyler Durden

I think the fight club quote (and it’s one of my favorite movies) is instructive for how the message of “we little people are the ones who you must not dismiss” resonates with so many of us.

The fascinating thing is–fight club–and esp. project mayhem that follows out of it–is that it is a textbook model for how to start a fascist organization.

I never realized that until years after I had seen the film and someone mentioned that it was taught in classes about fascism.

What’s important here–is how easily this message resonates–how it helps create group solidarity–esp. against an evil “other.”

It is also exactly the kind of thing that Trump used to get votes.  His entire campaign was this kind of thing–but the evil other were minorities, “urban folk” (both white urban liberals and minorities), “elites”–a nebulous group meaning anyone you think is “above you” in some way that you dislike.. and others.

Anyway.. if you think about it–the end message of Tyler Durden is destruction of the current order–something that so many of Trumps followers have claimed they wanted –you know.. “to shake things up!”

Of course–they don’t really mean it.. I mean–they don’t want the roads gone.. or their medicare or social security gone… They’re just mad and want to fuck things up.. 

.. and that’s one of the central lies/lessons of fight club–Tyler says something (at one point) like.. “self-improvement is masturbation.. Self-destruction, on  the other hand..”  –> which points to this idea that we need destruction to make things right..

But destruction is actually pretty easy.  We live in an entropic world.. things tend towards decay and destruction naturally.. and it’s pretty easy to join in with these processes to break things.

It’s MUCH harder, on the other hand, to create.  To build.  To teach.   To maintain.  To grow.

These things work against the natural entropic tendencies in the world–and they require patience, refinement, and constant dilligence..

And they are often therefore draining and also flawed.

This is the twist.

We can be better than this.

And in being better–we will win.

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Random convergence on privilege

Two points converge.

1. So this morning I was driving to the east side bus transfer location (where I would park and then catch the bus in).  On the Bob & Tom comedy show (radio), one of the hosts started talking about the movie Deliverance. Just as every other time I’ve ever heard about this film, the point being made was related to the act of male rape that happens in the film.

2. After I got on the bus, I sat down.  Across from and up top was one of the bus billboard/advertisements, but this one was about sexual assault.  It had a picture of a woman covering her face with her hands, and it had the headline of “1 in 5 college age women will suffer a sexual assault or rape”–a number that has been documented elsewhere–and which is just part of the larger tragedy that–as I’ve documented– 1 in 3 women will be raped or sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetime.


Now—the convergence/realization came together when my brain compared these two things.

On the one hand, we have the instance of male rape that has come to play an almost iconic role in our society.  We have a film that was “selected for preservation in the United StatesNational Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’” and the one thing that everyone references it with–and which gives it this cultural significance–is that a group of 4 men are attacked and one is raped.

A man getting raped is grounds for cultural significance.

3 million college-aged women getting raped or sexually assaulted in the next 5-6 years is something we still find necessary to make people aware of and to try and pay attention to.

This is part of male privilege–and its part of the fucked-up system of gender relations that falls under the name of “the patriarchy” that many people are justifiably pissed about.

Now–before anyone even begins to complain about how men are also sexually assaulted and raped–I know this.  If you read the links above, you’ll see that college age men have a 1 in 16 chance of being assaulted–so that’s a million men too… That’s also part of the partriarchy–and it’s also almost never talked about–except by people fighting against rape–because that’s not something that is supposed to happen to men.

But back to the numbers–why is that one movie more culturally significant than the 3 million sexual assaults that will happen?  And why aren’t all of the sexual assault rape scenes involving women–Say like in The Revenant, The Watchmen, A Clockwork Orange, V for Vendetta for starters or the ENTIRE CATEGORY OF FILMS CALLED RAPE AND REVENGE that exists–more culturally significant?  I mean–would Deliverance really be culturally significant if men were raped with the frequency that women are in our media (and the real world)?

I do not have any answers here–but I do certainly have more questions.

And so might you.


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MBTI–flawed but still meaningful

On Facebook today I came across this article in my feed–with the title of:

“Why the Myers-Briggs test is totally meaningless”

And I had to respond.  The response is below…
Um.. the critiques that it’s not scientifically valid are totally on.

To say it’s meaningless, however, is somewhat missing the point–in that meaning is not the same thing as scientific validity.

Beyond that–although corporate types will latch onto anything that they think will give them quantifiable/typing results about people–it is them–rather than most people doing mbti–who promote this notion about how this will make you successful in a field.

Anyway–anyone who uses such tests as predictive has WAY BIGGER problems in their heads than this test. I’ve found MBTI to be useful most as a way to teach about diversity in perception, approach, and communication. You’d be amazed–or with you.. probably not!–at HOW HARD it is for people to grok that not everyone sees the world in the same way you do–and that the things that people use to judge whether something is good–or what people are actually doing when they are talking–are pretty simplistic.

Perfect example–(and this rests on the only part of the test–introversion/extraversion–that does have scientific testing behind it..)–when people talk about stuff out loud–it doesn’t always mean the same thing to people. Extraverts–and I’ve watched this in class when I ask them a question–will talk through an idea out loud in front of everyone –but at the end–they don’t just act as if they hadn’t said anything. The points they were making were just discussions of possibilities and at the end they don’t stick to what they said.

Introverts tend to think within their heads first about it–and then only say something when they believe it to be true.


An example of social behavior differences that I’ve found to be true.. 

This is a real difference in how people act–and not everyone understands it. I’ve watched introverted students get ROYALLY frustrated when dealing with an extravert–because they assume that everything said is “meaningful” in the sense of being believed to be true–but it’s not.. it’s just verbal “scratch paper.”

I’ve also seen extraverts complain about an introvert not engaging in all of the discussions–not “bonding” in the conversation/thinking that they are doing—and thinking that the introverts aren’t contributing—when they also then don’t really give them a chance to talk.. (but the introverts then did have something to say..)

If MBTI can be used to make this clear to both groups–it can be meaningful.

Finally–the binary structures they have are clearly bullshit. This becomes very clear in free tests that show you relative numbers (like the humanmetrics site.. where you’ll get I(13), S(1) T(67) P(33)) which shows how far you fell in their binary system. Such a structure is better–in that it gives you a sense more of whether you only strongly or weakly fit their “ideal” types.. and most people fall in the middle–and they vary depending on mood or age…

Now–where the tests really fail is that they don’t actually accurately measure the relative strengths of 4 main traits (SNTF) in a person. Where MBTI can be useful is seeing how people:
S: perceive and process details, facts, sensory information.
N: perceive and process ideas, abstractions, and patterns
T: make decisions, judgements, and ask questions using objective, impersonal criteria & frameworks.
F: make decisions, judgements, and ask questions related to social/human criteria & frameworks.

These things can also be aimed either at the internal, subjective world in our minds (I) or focused more outwardly to the external, objective world around us..

The real flaw in MBTI–is that they assume implicitly in their structure that if you’re good at S–that you must not be good at N. Or that if you are good at F–that T is weaker.

But that’s just bogus. Someone who worked at all of these things could be good at all of these with a lot of work. It might be true that some people’s brains are esp. good at pattern matching–but that might also just be how they were raised–or strongly influenced by it…

So–I reject these “IT’S ALL JUST LIKE ASTROLOGY!” type arguments… Naive understandings and applications of MBTI are terrible–but that’s pretty true of most things. MBTI is an attempt at producing a system of understanding human behavior and cognition–something that humans have a tendency to want to do a lot (see religion, culture, etc..). When people create rigid and “digital” category systems and try to force the analogue reality to fit perfectly within them–they will break and show flaws.

As they should.

But we should not just say the system is totally meaningless–any more than we should say “well, religious theology obviously isn’t scientifically valid–therefore it’s meaningless.” Such pronouncements entirely fail to understand the multiple points of reference that humans use to deal with the universe around them.. and they are more than just a little bit arrogant in their claim to REALLY know how things are..

In the end, I’d argue that MBTI is a tool. It is limited and it can be easily misused–but it does have benefits when used smartly.

And I intend to improve it..

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Iowa-2016 Caucuses

Perspective on last night’s Iowa Caucuses:

1. Cruz has successfully won the Republican side–with such other illustrious former nominees like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.


Wait! Neither of those guys went on to be the nominee! Instead it was Romney (came in 2nd in 2012) and McCain (came in 4th in 2008) who did. What this says is that on the Republican side, Iowa is not representative for the Republicans for who can win the entire process–it favors religious conservatives too strongly. Now perhaps this has finally shifted as the Republicans as a whole have become far more conservative–but Cruz’s win doesn’t actually bode that well for him.

Trump and esp. Rubio are the ones to watch. Now–if Rubio does well in New Hampshire–he’ll become the establishment candidate–and pick up some support (but not that much–it’s like 10% total divided amongst all the establishment candidates). If he doesn’t come in at least 3rd, however, he loses this momentum and it looks again like Trump will take it.

Trump just has to not fold in New Hampshire–and he’ll again be the odds on favorite.

2. On the Democratic side, interestingly, the person who has won in Iowa has gone on to be the nominee the last two times. Kerry upset Dean and Obama upset Clinton. Iowa is a better bellwether state for the Democrats. There are progressives there–but also mainstream and even somewhat conservative democrats.

And what did we see? Well–Clinton appears to have won 49.8 to 49.5 .. by .3%. This is essentially a tie.


With this–she’ll get 23 delegates while Bernie gets 21. However–in context, the Clinton camp must be worried. A year ago, polls had Clinton leading Sanders 60% to 6%. Six months ago, it was 51% to 25%. 3 months ago 51% to 34%. At the start of the year, 47 to 42%, and yesterday it was still 47 to 44%.

Her vast dominance in name recognition and apparent coronation has disappeared from a 54% lead down to a .3% win in the space of a year. She–the former first lady, senator of New York, and secretary of state with the best name recognition of any politician in the country–has barely squeaked by with a win in a farm state over a strongly left-wing social democratic Jew from Brooklyn(not even a solid party member, but a lefty independent) whose history is of being the mayor of Burlington (a city of 42,000 people), then an independent Rep from Vermont (a state of less than a million people), and then finally senator from the same.

Given this–do not talk to me about “electability” arguments. Iowa is a good testing ground for electability for Democrats–and Clinton appears to be barely able to beat someone who calls himself a socialist in public and who many people describe as a radical. Furthermore–Clinton is actually from the midwest–she grew up in a suburb in Chicago–Park Ridge–not far from where I grew up–which should provide you with a better sense of the culture & values of the midwest than a New York Jew.(This is not saying that New York Jews don’t have values and culture–not at all–they have a great culture and values–but it is different than that of the midwest…).

And yet–after all of your money and name recognition–you are barely holding on, Hillary.

What does this tell you, Hillary? Perhaps that if you think you can win by just being the “default” candidate, you will fail.

That is not leadership. Leadership is about vision–it’s about staking out actual positions that people may not agree with and then working to persuade them. You claim to have great persuasive powers having worked in the senate–but you don’t seem to think that you have to use them with the voters who will elect you. That we all will just trust you.

But many of us don’t. You are too close to the people who have regularly crashed the economy and stolen our wealth (to protect their own) and who think of us as peasants. Yes–you have a pretty decent record on reproductive rights and women’s issues–but you did not lead when it came to LGBT at all–and while your history on racial issues is not bad–it’s not any better than Bernie’s. In fact–in all of the issues that you tout as your strengths–Bernie agrees with you (exception being guns–where he’s actually more aligned with what the average American thinks…). But when it comes to inequality and taking on the Oligarchy–you are incredibly silent. You don’t lead–you look flustered and just a bit sheepish.

This must change if you want to win. You will have to steal Bernie’s thunder rather than claiming that thunder is bad.


And yes–this turned into a rant–but it’s an important one.. because this is an important data point for this election. It’s just one–more will follow–but it’s a big one.

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