Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Descent of Theory

Two of my in-laws are social science professors at a major university. As near as I can tell, they have made significant contributions to their fields and are delightful human beings as well as learned and intelligent. I love being with them at family events, but unfortunately for me, they usually are looking for a break from their work. I am always hungry for intelligent conversation, but they would rather talk about something else – anything else, with the possible exception of football. (I found out a few years ago that they did not know the name of their own football team.)

I decided on Thanksgiving vacation to sneak up on them with a tangentially related subject: memes. "So, is anyone in your field using meme-related approaches to any of their problems?" Well, the answer was not just, "No." It was, "No, of course not!" Needless to say, I was stunned. I know they went to school before memes were hypothesized, but seriously, Darwin had already published! The ensuing conversation was pointed and extremely satisfying to me, because one seldom gets seriously challenged, point by point, on things that one believes to be true. The nice part was that I was able to meet each challenge with an explanation and/or example. They were certainly asking the right questions. Even so, it took a good half-hour before one of them summarized that the defining characteristic of a meme was that it "reproduced" by means of imitation.

Apparently, they had not previously understood the concept, which implies that they did not really understand what Darwin had to say, other than the fact that the biological world was an end product of Deep Time and small changes. In fact, they didn’t really care about Evolution. In their minds, they were dealing with a static situation. How do people function under certain circumstances? What are people like? What can they do? How do they do it? What are the important explanatory variables involved in these behaviors? How do people perceive and understand their own behaviors?

In the same position I would be asking, do permanent behavioral changes invade a population? Is there homeostasis in alternative behavioral options? Do suites of behavioral attributes coalesce into clusters of mutually supportive elements? How do behaviors change? What environmental variables influence the direction and nature of those changes?

The model for their questions is the mechanical. How does it work? The model for my questions is ecological. Where is the balance? Why does it change?

I talked to one of the professors the other day. When I asked about progress on the meme front, laughter was my only response. These things take time.


I had a beloved professor of geology who taught courses on statistical concepts. It was his belief that professors did not change their opinions or approaches to Science. Their courses were set, their notes were written, their efforts were focused. Paradigm shift occurred only because these "dinosaurs" died off. His example was the Theory of Continental Drift, proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912, but not accepted until the 60’s. Everybody knew that this theory couldn’t be right. The Earth did not move for them. Wegener insisted and came up with a different explanatory mechanism every three weeks, one of which was correct. The professors got tired of shooting down these proposals and just stopped listening to him. The young students, however, listened and couldn’t help but look for confirmatory examples. They couldn’t talk about it, but they could think about it.

Maybe this is how memes will work their way into the social sciences. Old Heads will die off.

Maybe my geology professor was right. Individual professors choose a path that can be productive, or they can waste their careers following dead ends and digging dry holes. Students will more often follow the ones who are, by sheer chance, productive. Successive generations of students can acquire significant changes over Deep Time. Ideas thus shift slowly in the direction of productivity.

I prefer to think that scientists can change in real time, can accept new visions of the world. It’s just that they often build walls to cut off change in a given direction. These self-imposed constraints are complicated, often due to personal interactions as much as anything else. Some self-limitations are installed for good reason. For instance, resistance to the O.T. story of Noah made the old geologists reject Catastrophism, to the point that they could not see the story of an actual catastrophe in the stones. Professors are also often bound to the mast. The inertia of their particular academic trajectories drags them along for the ride.

Follow-through is necessary, and obsessiveness is a required trait for the profession. Notwithstanding these limitations, scientists do change. My geology professor was a good example of that. Having made his career as a petrologist, he became so enamored of statistical methods that he retired to teach it. He encouraged random sampling to such an extent, pushing a program for grid-drilling the entire continent, that he became known as the geologist with ten thousand holes in his head. He was proud of that.

1/2/2007 2:21 PM

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