“The Steve Jobs Anti-Eulogy” raises some interesting points

Now that the media blitz following the death of Steve Jobs has slowed, there is more space to consider the coverage. Here are five interesting observations from one writer who also wins points for invoking “Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer” and Malcolm Gladwell:

1. People write about Steve to write about themselves…

2. Individuals do not make history. Populations do…

So the idea that Steve Jobs changed history is just plain bad analysis. Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer argued that attributing historical events to the decisions of individuals was a hopelessly primitive, childish, and unscientific position. After he published these views in The Study of Sociology, the case was closed. At least for professional historians.

3. You can tell a lot about a society by the people they honor…

4. Steve Jobs sheds more light on the nature vs. nurture debate than he does on the history debate…

5. Espousing the glories of genius gets us nowhere.

What I like the most about these is that they try to place Jobs within his context. They also raise larger questions including “what does it mean to be a genius,” “what values does society promote,” and “are societal or group trends more important than individual actions.”

Space for sociological factors when looking at scientific research

I ran into this blog post discussing a recent study published in Hormones and Behavior titled “Maternal tendencies in women are associated with estrogen levels and facial femininity.” This particular blogger at Scientific American starts out by suggesting she doesn’t like the results:

Friend of the blog Cackle of Rad was the first person to send me this paper, and when I first tried to read it, I got…pretty angry. Being a rather obsessively logical person, I know why I felt angry about this paper, and I worked very hard to step back from it and approach it in a thoroughly scientific manner.

It didn’t work, I called in Kate. That helped a little.

In the end, it’s not a bad paper. The data are the data, as my graduate advisor always says. But data need to be interpreted, and interpretations require context. And I think what’s missing from this paper is not data or adequate methods. It’s context.

In the end, the blogger suggests the “context” needed really are a number of sociological factors that might influence perceptions:

So I wonder if the authors should make more effort to look into sociological factors. How does the intense pressure on women to become wives and mothers change as a function of how feminine the girl looks? I think you can’t separate any of this from this whole “women with higher estrogen want to be mothers” idea. This is why papers like this bug me, because they try to sell this as a evolutionary thing, without really acknowledging how much sociological pressure goes in to making women want to be mothers. And of course now I read them and I instantly get bristly, because what I see is people making assumptions about what I want, and what I must feel like, based on a few aspects of my physiology. It can be of value scientifically…but I don’t want it to apply to ME. I know it might be science, but I also find it more than a bit insulting.

I don’t know this area of research so I don’t have much room to dispute the results of the original study. However, how this blogger goes about this argument for adding sociological factors is interesting. Here are two possible options for making this argument:

1. Argument #1: the study actually could benefit from sociological factors. Definitions of femininity are wrapped up in cultural assumptions and patterns. There is a lot of research to back this up and perhaps we can point to specific parts of this study that would be altered if context was taken into account. But this doesn’t seem to be conclusion of this blog post.

2. Argument #2: there must be some sociological factors involved here because I don’t like these results. On one hand, perhaps it is admirable to admit one doesn’t like these research results. This can often be true about scientific results: it challenges our personal understandings of the world. So why end the post by again emphasizing that the blogger doesn’t like the results? Does this simply reduce sociology to the backup science that one only calls in to suggest that everything is cultural or relative or socially conditioned?

Perhaps I am simply reading too much into this. I don’t know how much natural science research could be improved by including sociological factors, whether it is often considered, or whether this is simply an unusual blog post. Argument #1 is the stronger scientific argument and is the one that should be emphasized more here.

Many Americans not optimistic that their childrens’ lives will be better

A recent Bloomberg poll asked Americans whether they felt the future would be better for their children. The results:

What optimism there is about the immediate future doesn’t carry over to the longer term. Pluralities of those polled say they’re not hopeful they will have enough money in retirement and expect they will have to keep working to make up the difference. More than 50 percent aren’t confident or are just somewhat confident their children will have better lives than they have.

This belief has been an important part of the American Dream for decades. American parents seem willing to sacrifice much for their children to help insure this. Americans are usually quite optimistic about the future and tend to believe American ingenuity and progress will lead the way.

A question I would like to ask on these surveys: would it be okay for your children to have the same quality of life as you have experienced? If not, why not?

(A note about the reporting: many numerical statistics from the survey are thrown out. However, there is little context. The author tries to throw in some commentary about how these statistics link up with what is going on in the country or with a few quotes but this doesn’t add much. Additionally, let’s break down the numbers a bit more: do they differ by gender, race, region, political party, etc.?)