Saturday, July 16, 2011

Round and round

We watched "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and it made me think of comments on explanation theory in the Duncan Watts book "Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer".  Watts is a sociologist and a physicist and specializes in analysis of networks, social and otherwise.  He is part of the Yahoo research department and naturally wants to understand and predict human behavior, especially in large groups, such as internet audiences and political parties.  

At one point in his book, he dismisses many criticisms and even explanations of events among people as basically circular.  He quotes Lynne Truss, the author of the book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves", when asked why her book on English grammar and punctuation was so popular.  "My book was such a big success because a great many people bought it."  

Watts says that many social phenomena are basically one of a kind events, with unique combinations of factors that cause them to happen but which are basically unpredictable.  Better predictions may be created some day but so far, many important and surprising events were not foreseen, even by those who study that type of event professionally.  I guess the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Soviet communism is an example.  As Watts points out, after the fact, it is much, much easier to assemble a list of factors that clearly affected the situation but after the fact vision is naturally much sharper that foresight tends to be.

Circular definitions and obscuring language are not new.  Jacques Barzun explained in the 60's that earlier scientists stated that some drugs put people to sleep because of their dormative powers.  However, it is wise to cut such language a little slack.  It may not be helpful and it may falsely satisfy but it may lead some investigators to posit a substance or process, creating an idea or theme or possibility that inspires research that is ultimately useful and enlightening.

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