Posts tagged ‘satire’

Science (esp. econ) made fun

| Gabriel |

In a review essay, Vromen talks about the (whodathunkit) popular book/magazine-column/blog genre of economics-made-fun that’s become a huge hit with the mass audience in the last 5 to 10 years. Although Vromen doesn’t mention it, this can be seen as a special case of the science-can-be-fun genre (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould’s short essays that use things like Hershey bars and Mickey Mouse to explain reasonably complex principles of evolutionary biology.)

Vromen makes a careful distinction from the older genre of economists-can-be-funny (currently exemplified by the stand-up economist), which is really a special case of the general genre of scientists doing elaborate satires of their own disciplines for the benefit of their peers. There is an entire journal of this, but my all time favorite example is a satire of mid-20th century psychology in the form of a review of the literature on when people are willing to pass the salt at the dinner table.  Two excerpts from the “references” section should suffice to convince you to click the link and read the whole thing.

  • Festinger, R. “Let’s Give Some Subjects $20 and Some Subjects $1 and See What Happens.” Journal for Predictions Contrary to Common Sense 10, 1956, pp. 1-20.
  • Milgram, R. “An Electrician’s Wiring Guide to Social Science Experiments.” Popular Mechanics 23, 1969, pp. 74-87.

If you don’t remember what Festinger and Milgram actually did in the 50s and 60s this won’t be funny, but if you do it’s hilarious. Hence, the scientists-can-be-funny genre is a self-deprecating genre for an audience of insiders that simultaneously demonstrates the joker’s mastery of the field and the field’s foibles. In contrast, the science-can-be-fun genre is targeted to a mass audience and is about demonstrating the elegance and power of the field. The former inspires humility among practitioners, the latter awe among the yokels.

One of the interesting things about the econ-made-fun literary genre is that it is largely orthogonal to any theoretical distinction within scholarly economics. The most prominent “econ made fun” practitioners span such theoretical areas as applied micro (Levitt), behavioral (Ariely), and Austrian (Cowen). In part because the “econ made fun” genre exploded at about the same time as the Kahneman Nobel and in part because “econ made fun” tends to focus on unusual substantive issues (i.e., anything but financial markets), this has led a lot of people to conflate “econ made fun” and behavioral econ. I’ve heard Steve Levitt referred to as a “behavioral economist” several times. This drives me crazy as at a theoretical level, behavioral economics is the opposite of applied micro, and in fact Levitt has done important work suggesting that behavioral econ may not generalize very well from the lab to the real world. That people (including people who ought to know better) nonetheless refer to him as a “behavioral economist” suggests to me that in the popular imagination literary genre is vastly more salient than theoretical content.

I myself occasionally do the “sociologists can be funny” genre (see here , here, and here) but these are basically elaborate deadpan in-jokes and I am under no illusions that anyone without a PhD would find them at all funny. I have no idea how to go about writing “sociology can be fun” (this is probably the closest I’ve come) along the lines of Levitt/Dubner or Harford, nor to be honest do I see any other sociologist doing it particularly well. There are plenty of sociologists who try to speak to a mass audience, but the tone tends to be professorial exposition or political exhortation rather than amusement at the surprising intricacy of social life. Fortunately Malcolm Gladwell has an intense and fairly serious interest in sociology and is very talented at making our field look fun.

November 10, 2009 at 4:40 am 1 comment

La vie en mort

| Gabriel |

Denis Colombi has contributed a few entries to the thriving sociology of zombies literature. His abstracts (including a description of zombie habitus) are all funny, but for my money the most sublime satire is his rational choice marginal analysis of zombie equilibrium:

Il faut comprendre les zombis en restituant les “bonnes raisons” de devenir zombis, afin de le faire apparaître comme un comportement rationnel. Ainsi, le choix de devenir ou non zombi dépend avant tout d’un calcul en fonction du rendement espéré de cette transformation. L’agrégation de ces comportements se traduit par un effet émergents, à savoir la réduction du nombre d’humains non-zombifiés ce qui réduit les gains de sa propre zombification. On peut ainsi parler d’une inflation zombifique, comme pour les diplômes.

It’s been a long time since lycée, but here’s my loose translation

We can understand zombies by restoring the “good reasons” to become zombies and thus make it apparent that it is a rational behavior. Thus the choice to become a zombie or not depends primarily a calculation based on the expected value of this transformation. The aggregation of these behaviors results in an emergent phenomenon, that is increasing the number of zombies reduces the marginal value of zombification. We can thus speak of zombification inflation, as with credential inflation for diplomas.

October 23, 2009 at 12:29 pm 1 comment

Towards a sociology of living death

| Gabriel |

Daniel Drezner had a post a few months ago talking about how international relations scholars of the four major schools would react to a zombie epidemic. Aside from the sheer fun of talking about something as silly as zombies, it has much the same illuminating satiric purpose as “how many X does it take to screw in a lightbulb” jokes. If you have even a cursory familiarity with IR it is well worth reading.

Here’s my humble attempt to do the same for several schools within sociology. Note that I’m not even to get into the Foucauldian “whose to say that life is ‘normal’ and living death is ‘deviant'” stuff because, really, it would be too easy. Also, I wrote this post last week and originally planned to save it for Halloween, but I figured I’d move it up given that Zombieland is doing so well with critics and at the box office.

Public Opinion. Consider the statement that “Zombies are a growing problem in society.” Would you:

  1. Strongly disagree
  2. Somewhat disagree
  3. Neither agree nor disagree
  4. Somewhat agree
  5. Strongly agree
  6. Um, how do I know you’re really with NORC and not just here to eat my brain?

Criminology. In some areas (e.g., Pittsburgh, Raccoon City), zombification is now more common that attending college or serving in the military and must be understood as a modal life course event. Furthermore, as seen in audit studies employers are unwilling to hire zombies and so the mark of zombification has persistent and reverberating effects throughout undeath (at least until complete decomposition and putrefecation). However race trumps humanity as most employers prefer to hire a white zombie over a black human.

Cultural toolkit. Being mindless, zombies have no cultural toolkit. Rather the great interest is understanding how the cultural toolkits of the living develop and are invoked during unsettled times of uncertainty, such as an onslaught of walking corpses. The human being besieged by zombies is not constrained by culture, but draws upon it. Actors can draw upon such culturally-informed tools as boarding up the windows of a farmhouse, shotgunning the undead, or simply falling into panicked blubbering.

Categorization. There’s a kind of categorical legitimacy problem to zombies. Initially zombies were supernaturally animated dead, they were sluggish but relentlessness, and they sought to eat human brains. In contrast, more recent zombies tend to be infected with a virus that leaves them still living in a biological sense but alters their behavior so as to be savage, oblivious to pain, and nimble. Furthermore even supernatural zombies are not a homogenous set but encompass varying degrees of decomposition. Thus the first issue with zombies is defining what is a zombie and if it is commensurable with similar categories (like an inferius in Harry Potter). This categorical uncertainty has effects in that insurance underwriters systematically undervalue life insurance policies against monsters that are ambiguous to categorize (zombies) as compared to those that fall into a clearly delineated category (vampires).

Neo-institutionalism. Saving humanity from the hordes of the undead is a broad goal that is easily decoupled from the means used to achieve it. Especially given that human survivors need legitimacy in order to command access to scarce resources (e.g., shotgun shells, gasoline), it is more important to use strategies that are perceived as legitimate by trading partners (i.e., other terrified humans you’re trying to recruit into your improvised human survival cooperative) than to develop technically efficient means of dispatching the living dead. Although early on strategies for dealing with the undead (panic, “hole up here until help arrives,” “we have to get out of the city,” developing a vaccine, etc) are practiced where they are most technically efficient, once a strategy achieves legitimacy it spreads via isomorphism to technically inappropriate contexts.

Population ecology. Improvised human survival cooperatives (IHSC) demonstrate the liability of newness in that many are overwhelmed and devoured immediately after formation. Furthermore, IHSC demonstrate the essentially fixed nature of organizations as those IHSC that attempt to change core strategy (eg, from “let’s hole up here until help arrives” to “we have to get out of the city”) show a greatly increased hazard for being overwhelmed and devoured.

Diffusion. Viral zombieism (e.g. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later) tends to start with a single patient zero whereas supernatural zombieism (e.g. Night of the Living Dead, the “Thriller” video) tends to start with all recently deceased bodies rising from the grave. By seeing whether the diffusion curve for zombieism more closely approximates a Bass mixed-influence model or a classic s-curve we can estimate whether zombieism is supernatural or viral, and therefore whether policy-makers should direct grants towards biomedical labs to develop a zombie vaccine or the Catholic Church to give priests a crash course in the neglected art of exorcism. Furthermore marketers can plug plausible assumptions into the Bass model so as to make projections of the size of the zombie market over time, and thus how quickly to start manufacturing such products as brain-flavored Doritos.

Social movements. The dominant debate is the extent to which anti-zombie mobilization represents changes in the political opportunity structure brought on by complete societal collapse as compared to an essentially expressive act related to cultural dislocation and contested space. Supporting the latter interpretation is that zombie hunting militias are especially likely to form in counties that have seen recent increases in immigration. (The finding holds even when controlling for such variables as gun registrations, log distance to the nearest army administered “safe zone,” etc.).

Family. Zombieism doesn’t just affect individuals, but families. Having a zombie in the family involves an average of 25 hours of care work per week, including such tasks as going to the butcher to buy pig brains, repairing the boarding that keeps the zombie securely in the basement and away from the rest of the family, and washing a variety of stains out of the zombie’s tattered clothing. Almost all of this care work is performed by women and very little of it is done by paid care workers as no care worker in her right mind is willing to be in a house with a zombie.

Applied micro-economics. We combine two unique datasets, the first being military satellite imagery of zombie mobs and the second records salvaged from the wreckage of Exxon/Mobil headquarters showing which gas stations were due to be refueled just before the start of the zombie epidemic. Since humans can use salvaged gasoline either to set the undead on fire or to power vehicles, chainsaws, etc., we have a source of plausibly exogenous heterogeneity in showing which neighborhoods were more or less hospitable environments for zombies. We show that zombies tended to shuffle towards neighborhoods with low stocks of gasoline. Hence, we find that zombies respond to incentives (just like school teachers, and sumo wrestlers, and crack dealers, and realtors, and hookers, …).

Grounded theory. One cannot fully appreciate zombies by imposing a pre-existing theoretical framework on zombies. Only participant observation can allow one to provide a thick description of the mindless zombie perspective. Unfortunately scientistic institutions tend to be unsupportive of this kind of research. Major research funders reject as “too vague and insufficiently theory-driven” proposals that describe the intention to see what findings emerge from roaming about feasting on the living. Likewise IRB panels raise issues about whether a zombie can give informed consent and whether it is ethical to kill the living and eat their brains.

Ethnomethodology. Zombieism is not so much a state of being as a set of practices and cultural scripts. It is not that one is a zombie but that one does being a zombie such that zombieism is created and enacted through interaction. Even if one is “objectively” a mindless animated corpse, one cannot really be said to be fulfilling one’s cultural role as a zombie unless one shuffles across the landscape in search of brains.

Conversation Analysis.

1  HUMAN:    Hello, (0.5) Uh, I uh, (Ya know) is anyone in there?
2  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai[ns], =
3  ZOMBIE2:       [Br]:ain[s]
4  ZOMBIE1:              =[B]r:ains
5  HUMAN:    Uh, I uh= li:ke, Hello? =
6  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai:ns!
7  (0.5)
8  HUMAN:    Die >motherfuckers!<
9  SHOTGUN:  Bang! (0.1) =
10 ZOMBIE1:  Aa:ar:gg[gh!]
11 SHOTGUN:         =[Chk]-Chk, (0.1) Bang!

October 13, 2009 at 4:24 am 21 comments

The winner is …

| Gabriel |

WASHINGTON — The American Sociological Association announced today that it is giving the distinguished book award to the prospectus for Climbing the Chart by Gabriel Rossman. In a statement, the ASA prize committee said they were awarding the prize for the prospectus’s “extraordinary efforts to synthesize sociology of culture, economic sociology, and social networks.”

Appearing in his front yard, Professor Rossman said he was ‘’surprised and deeply humbled” by the committee’s decision, mostly because he hasn’t finished writing the book yet. Previous ASA book awards have gone to such completed manuscripts as Charles Tilly’s Durable Inequality. However Professor Rossman quickly put to rest any speculation that he might not accept the honor. Describing the award as an “affirmation of the production of culture paradigm’s leadership on behalf of aspirations to scientific rigor held by scholars in all sociological subfields,” he said he would accept it as “a call to action.”

“To be honest,” Professor Rossman said “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize, men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their actually finishing writing their books.”

[Update: I see Mankiw made what is essentially the same joke]

October 9, 2009 at 1:26 pm 3 comments

Categorical distinctions: special victims unit

| Gabriel |

Alcibiades: But Socrates, what is it that you mean by justice?
Socrates: Suppose that there was a poet, Polkurgus, who gave a young girl unwatered wine and then once she was drunk made love to her both as a girl and as an eremenos. Certainly it would be just for the city authorities to make Polkurgus to suffer?
Alcibiades: Indeed it would be just for Polkurgus to suffer. But I know this sad story and in fact Polkurgus took refuge in the Lydian court. His friends could not see him in his home city and he could not enter his works in the city’s poetry competitions. Over the course of a lifetime of exile certainly you would agree that Polkurgus suffered greatly.
Socrates: Indeed, Polkurgus suffered but suffering is not justice. Justice consists in righteous punishment by the city authorities. Even if it created greater suffering, Polkurgus’ exile was mere suffering and not justice, indeed it was the denial of justice.
Alcibiades: You are wise indeed Socrates.

Alcibiades: But Socrates, what is it that you mean by justice?

Socrates: Remember that Polkurgus gave a young girl unwatered wine and then once she was drunk forcefully made love to her both as one would a girl and as one would an eremenos. Certainly it would be just for the city authorities to punish Polkurgus?

Alcibiades: But Polkurgus was and remains a great poet, certainly the beauty of his poetry is greater than the suffering of his crime.

Socrates: Did not Agamemnon deserve to suffer for his crimes, even though as in conquering Troy he brought great glory to Greece than he would have by preserving Iphigenia?

Alcibiades: I see, indeed it would be as just for Polkurgus to suffer as for any criminal among the thetes. But I know this sad story and in fact Polkurgus fled his city and took refuge in the Lydian court. His friends could not see him without a very inconvenient voyage and he could not enter his works in the city’s poetry competitions. Furthermore, while in Lydia, he violated no more girls. Over the course of a lifetime away from his city, certainly you would agree that Polkurgus suffered greatly.

Socrates: Indeed, Polkurgus suffered but suffering is not justice. Justice consists in righteous punishment by the city authorities. Even if it created greater suffering, Polkurgus’ exile was mere suffering and not justice, indeed it was the denial of justice.

Alcibiades: You are wise indeed Socrates.


(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see Kieran’s post at CT, including the mostly odious comment thread).

September 28, 2009 at 3:20 pm 5 comments

Applied diffusion modeling

| Gabriel |

Via Slashdot, some mathematicians at the University of Ottowa have modeled zombie infestation. It’s basically your standard endogenous growth model with a cute application. Here’s the conclusion:

In summary, a zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilisation, unless it is dealt with quickly. While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often. As seen in the movies, it is imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble.

Here’s an even more “sophisticated” simulation, which allows spatial heterogeneity.

August 14, 2009 at 11:04 pm

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