April 25, 2007


The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope is a series of musings on human knowledge and how we explain reality (whether the word/world fit works very well or not). Lots of other stuff is to be found herein as well.

If this is your first visit, please scroll down to earlier entries.

The human tendency to come up with stories and other explanations of reality on the fly has probably served our ancient ancestors well, although their reality may have been less complex than ours. It still can, with some limitations.

For an interesting look at human snap judgments, check out Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink.

Still, good information about social life or the world around us takes more than a quick storyline or a snap judgment. There are lots of ways both social scientists and ordinary people go about it, but I feel the urge to look at two complementary types today.

One looks at a specific situation in depth, while the other looks for overall patterns that cover large bodies of data.

The first kind is called idiographic, with the idio- meaning unique or specific events or situations. This is the approach most biographers and historians use, along with investigative reporters, detectives, etc. It looks at specific, unrepeatable events and tries to understand them in detail. An example would be the investigation of a specific mine disaster.

The other approach is called nomothetic, with the nomo- coming from the Greek word for law. As you might, expect, this approach looks for general conclusions that cover a large population or body of information. An example might be a study of the relationship between poverty and health outcomes or education and earnings.

Like every other way of looking at the world, both of these have limitations. An idiographic investigation might be very rich in detail but have little applicability to other situations. A nomothetic approach loses a lot of that richness--you can't unscramble an egg once it's been scrambled. And it could be prone to over generalizations.

Either way, it can be very hard to establish causality--the fact that A led directly to B--with a great deal of certainty. Real life in all its messiness doesn't permit the kinds of control one has in a laboratory experiment, not to mention repeatability.

Finally, to prove causation you need three things, two of which are easy to get and one of which ain't.

But that will keep until tomorrow.

BIG COAL, BIG TROUBLE. If you haven't done so yet, El Cabrero recommends Jeff Goodell's book Big Coal: The Dirty Secret behind America's Energy Future. Goodell has an article on The Dirty Rock and global climate change in the current issue of The Nation. I'll skip to the rousing conclusion:

By all means, let's praise innovative companies that take risks with new technology, and let's boost federal funding for carbon capture and storage research--the more we know about the costs and risks of burying CO2 the better.But let's not lose sight of the big picture here. Coal is the fuel of the past,not the future. The sooner we muster up the courage to admit that, the sooner the revolution can begin.

THE FOX/HENHOUSE THING. Here's a good one about how OSHA has come under industry control to the detriment of U.S. workers.

HALF MAST. I saw a news report recently in which U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, on lowering the flag in memory of those killed at Virginia Tech, wondered why it wasn't lowered for their own fatalities. With so many deaths lately, maybe we should lower them for all the fallen and leave them that way for a season.



Donutbuzz said...

I enjoyed Blink, and think it would translate into a nice documentary feature. In my work, my "gut" instincts have proved mighty helpful, too.

"Perception is reality," as I like to say.

El Cabrero said...

Hey Geetar Man,
How are you and the family?

Did you read The Tipping Point too? I like his stuff. I imagine gut instinct is a big plus in your line of work.

There's a sociology saying I think they call the Thomas Theorem, which goes something like "If people perceive a situation to be real, it will be real in its effects."