The Simpsons slips in a math lesson now and then – and it probably doesn’t change much

Check out this listing of The Simpsons episodes that feature math lessons. Having seen some of these episodes, I remember a few of these moments quite clearly. Yet, while it is clever that the writers dropped these in, how many of the viewers noticed? We could use these examples as a sign that The Simpsons is an erudite show, one often derided as an animated comedy with little redeeming value that typically punches above its weight in terms of cultural references and ideas. But, if the viewers don’t notice or care, what is the point (beyond making some critics happy)?

It sounds like we need an experiment where viewers are asked to watch these episodes and see if they spot these math moments. Or, we might set something up to see whether viewers of these episodes, compared to viewers of other episodes, learned something more. The answer, I suspect, is that including the math doesn’t change most viewers.


Picking the white doll or black doll in Mexico

The Mexican government has started a conversation about racism based on a video that shows an experiment where children have to pick between a black and white doll:

Is Mexico’s an inherently racist society? Does the culture overwhelmingly favor those with light skin over those with dark skin? And if so, is that a legacy of European colonialism or present-day images in television and advertising?

These are among the thorny questions emerging in online forums in Mexico since a government agency began circulating a “viral video” showing schoolchildren in a taped social experiment on race.

The kids are seated at a table before a white doll and a black doll, and are asked to pick the “good doll” or the doll that most resembled them. The children, mostly brown-skinned, almost uniformly say the white doll was better or most resembled them…

Mexico’s National Council to Prevent Discrimination, or Conapred, in mid-December began circulating the video, modeled on the 1940s Clark experiments in the United States. The children who appear in it are mostly mestizos, or half-Spanish, half-Indian, and a message said they were taped with the consent of their parents and told to respond as freely as they could.

See the full video here.

This reminds of Jane Elliott’s famous blue-eyed, brown-eyed experiment with a third-grade class (highlights here). One of the most powerful parts of this exercise is the fact that these are supposedly innocent children who are quite capable of reflecting the racist attitudes of society. Similarly, the doll video suggests that even young children know full well about race and what skin color is valued more.

I can only imagine the outcry if a US government agency released a video like this…

More on examining six degrees of separation on Facebook

I noted earlier this week that Yahoo and Facebook are conducting an experiment to see how interconnected people are the world are. Here are some more information about the experiment that was revealed in an interview with Yahoo sociologist/research scientist Duncan Watts:

  • On the quality of Facebook’s data:

Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s research scientist and “in-house sociologist,” said that because Facebook’s social graph is essentially the best representation of real world relationships available, “our data can speak more definitively to this question than anything else in history.

Facebook has a treasure trove of information that could be the source of some fascinating research. Does this study signal the start of a new era where researchers will be able to have access to profiles? Will Facebook users, often worried about privacy, stand for this?

  • Watts on the problems in past replications of Milgram’s original experiment:

The problem that all of the experiments have had—and the problem that we’re trying to address with this one—is that you never really know what the ground truth is. You know that there’s some network out there involved that connects people, and you know that messages are being passed along on top of this network. The problem is because you can’t see the network underneath them, you don’t know whether people are making the right choices, you don’t know if the chains are as short as possible, and you don’t know why the chains that aren’t completing are stopping.

The major difference here is that Facebook [is] the network over which these messages are being passed. We can see through Facebook how everyone is really connected to everyone else. We can see whether people can actually find these short paths. In previous experiments you were missing this background picture, but now we have the background and we can run the experiment on top of it.

It sounds like past experiments allowed researchers to see the outcome – how many letters reached the target – but didn’t allow them to trace out the paths, either successful or unsuccessful. Being able to see behind the curtain could also reveal some insights about the speeds of certain networks.

  • On whether the data is representative:

There are two issues here. You might be concerned that the Facebook network is somehow an unrepresentative sample of the real social graph of the world. The other concern is the people participating in the sample might be an unrepresentative sample of Facebook. I’m not worried about the first concern. Facebook has 750 million users. If it works on Facebook, it’s increasingly difficult to argue that it wouldn’t work for the rest of the world. But the second problem is one that we’re concerned about. It’s really just a matter of getting a broad enough recruiting effort.

I bet there are people who could make a good case that this data is not representative. These same issues plague web surveys: who has consistent access to the Internet and who can be recruited? I would guess that Facebook still skews younger and more educated than the general population.

Watts suggests the results will be published in an academic journal. It will be interesting to read about the outcome and how this is viewed by academics.

Redoing Milgram’s degrees of separation experiment with Facebook

Stanley Milgram is best known for one particular experiment but another of his experiments is being replicated with new technology:

Yahoo and Facebook are setting out to test the hypothesis that anyone in the world is connected to anyone else in just six steps.

The experiment aims to prove or disprove that which was first suggested by Harvard sociologist Stanley Milgram when he asked 300 people to get a message to a Boston stockbroker using their personal networks.

Only about 60 of the messages reached their target, with the average number of steps in the chain being six – coining the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’.

Yahoo’s research department is aiming to replicate that experiment, this time using Facebook, which has 750 million users worldwide.

If you go to the official page, you can then choose to participate. But before you can, you have to agree to a “Terms of Use” and four other statements. This is essentially the “informed consent form” for the experiment.

Also, the “Terms of Use” provides this description of the project:

The purpose of this study is to test a long-standing theory in sociology that everyone on Earth is connected together in a giant social network. In this experiment, participants called “Senders” forward messages to their Facebook friends in an attempt to reach a given “Target” individual, about whom they are given certain identifying information, in the shortest number of steps possible.

I can’t say that I have heard this specific sociological theory but I would be interested to see the results.

If you want to read a short (several paragraph) description of Milgram’s initial experiment, find it here.

Since corporations like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and others are sitting on treasure troves of data, can we expect to see more experiments like this in the future?

Museum exhibit on the social construct of race

There is no question that the idea of race has had a profound impact on Western history, particularly the American experience. A museum exhibit in Boston helps attendees see that race is a social construct:

Developed by the American Anthropological Association, the exhibition draws on science and culture, history and politics. It surveys race as concept and the almost always unfortunate consequences that concept has had and continues to have.

Race is a relatively recent term, dating from the Age of Discovery, with its many European encounters with non-European others. (Of course, go back far enough, and we’re all non-Europeans, humankind having originated in Africa.) The first legal use of the word “white’’ in America wasn’t until 1691, when the increasing importance of slavery added a whole new dimension of complexity to the concept of race.

A better word than “concept’’ would be “construct.’’ That’s what race is. Black and white and yellow and red aren’t biological categories as, say, male and female are. Race is more of a social, or even psychological, category, as class is; and, like class, it owes far more to culture and society than it does to genetics.

Sociologists would say the same thing about race: it is a construct based on skin color, not inherent biological characteristics.

I would be interested to know if a museum exhibit like this changes people’s minds about race. There would be an easy way to find out: give a pre-test including questions about race to all those who enter the museum. When the visitors leave the museum, give the same test and also ask which visitors went through the race exhibit. Compare results and see if the group that went through the race exhibit have different views.

How to keep the seat next to you on the train empty

Chris Wilson examines an argument recently made by a writer about how he is able to keep the seat next to him on the train empty:

In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Wideman describes how, during his regular commute between New York City and Providence on the Acela, he almost always enjoys a double seat to himself. I call that divine intervention. He chalks it up, after considering and rejecting the alternatives, to being black…

Wideman, a successful writer, describes his observations as a “casual sociological experiment.” But he lacks any controlled variables. Granted, the only direct way I can think of to test his hypothesis would be to adjust his complexion while holding everything else—dress, demeanor, reading material—as constant as possible. The ethics of doing this notwithstanding, the makeup is murderous to your pores.

A couple of thoughts:

1. It would not surprise me at all if race was the important factor in this situation.

2. But this is a nice illustration of how one could go about testing this hypothesis: devise an experiment where the person next to the empty seat alters their appearance/features and then sees how people respond.

The trolley problem, race, and making decisions

The trolley problem  is a classic vignette used in research studies and it asks under what conditions is it permissible to sacrifice one life for the lives of others (see an explanation here). Psychologist David Pizarro tweaked the trolley problem to include racial dimensions by using characters named Chip and Tyrone. Pizarro found that people’s opinions about race influenced which character they were more willing to sacrifice:

What did this say about people’s morals? Not that they don’t have any. It suggests that they had more than one set of morals, one more consequentialist than another, and choose to fit the situation…

Or as Pizarro told me on the phone, “The idea is not that people are or are not utilitarian; it’s that they will cite being utilitarian when it behooves them. People are aren’t using these principles and then applying them. They arrive at a judgment and seek a principle.”

So we’ll tell a child on one day, as Pizarro’s parents told him, that ends should never justify means, then explain the next day that while it was horrible to bomb Hiroshima, it was morally acceptable because it shortened the war. We act — and then cite whichever moral system fits best, the relative or the absolute.

Some interesting findings from a different take on a classic research tool. This is always an interesting question to ask regarding many social issues: when does the end justify the means and when does it not?

The value of kindergarten (and kindergarten teachers)

Several economists recently presented a paper analyzing the effect of  kindergarten performance on adult outcomes. The New York Times summarizes the findings:

Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

All else equal, they were making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too.

The study still has to go through the peer-review process and the researchers aren’t sure what the link is between kindergarten performance and the adult outcomes.

Based on these findings, the economists suggest excellent kindergarten teachers are worth $320,000 a year.

This analysis is based on data from a Tennessee study, Project Star, from the 1980s. By randomly assigning kids to kindergarten classes, they set up an experiment where differences between classes could later be examined.