-James Scott, Seeing Like A State
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James Howard Kunstler recently posted a warning about a serious threat to American society. Try to guess.
It isn’t one of the usual dangers he beats on – not sprawl, or oil, not your Chevy.
No, the latest JHK “harbinger of social dysfunction” is… tattoos. I wish I were kidding you. I wish he were kidding us, especially because I actually kind of like the guy – he appeals to my inner Jane Jacobs. But after reading this:
The activity taking place here, however, is a symptom of the growing barbarism in American life. Tattooing has traditionally been a marginal activity among civilized people, the calling card of cannibals, sailors, and whores. The appropriate place for it is on the margins, in the back alleys, the skid rows. The mainstreaming of tattoos (on main street) is a harbinger of social dysfunction.
… it’s hard to take him quite as seriously, especially when you consider everybody everything else that was kept on the margins back then.
One of the advantages of being an electoral grunt is that I get to see the election as a whole, rather than just seeing a particular polling station. I know what 1,000 AVC Advantages look like (ugly and stupid); the disturbing frequency with which their printers jam, turning your paper trail into a scorched black bar; and I know the names of countless precinct locations here.
Schools, libraries and mainstream churches form the vast majority of precincts here. I cast my first vote at a state plant nursery, but that’s about the weirdest it’s gotten for me. I’m curious: have you ever voted at a mosque? An adult bookstore (hey, if you’re old enough to vote…)? Let me know the strangest place you’ve done your duty. I’ll work on finding out how precinct polling locations are chosen and update you.
Courtesy of Teppo at orgtheory.net, a certain physicist dumping on the social sciences. I realize this is a tired critique, but it is really persistent, so it either hasn’t been properly answered by social scientists (unpossible!) or it pokes us at a weak spot in the armor. Or both.
Feynman’s main criticism here is that the social sciences don’t produce laws. I think that is a very peculiar argument, because I don’t think that having a law in hand is the proof of science. The pursuit of laws is certainly important, at least to a positivist like me, but God knows every social scientist in the world would love to discover some universal law for all societies. We do, however, have some stuff that works pretty well within particular scopes. Which makes Feynman’s argument sort of like saying that you can sprint all you want, but if don’t win a medal at the Olympics, you’re not actually running.
It’s also my belief that the social sciences are fundamentally a hell of a lot more difficult than the physical ones. I’m not saying that that makes sociologists smarter than physicists – the opposite is probably true in general – but it does mean that we’ve got a much harder task. We don’t get to smash people into their component parts in a lab environment, for one thing, and even if we could (and could get IRB approval), we probably wouldn’t get a $5 billion grant to do it. Add in that social scientists actually have to abide by ethical codes, and well, it’s just not that simple. It’s like meteorology – we’re studying a vast, complex system that is certainly governed by laws, but isn’t really comprehensible to humans through that particular lens. Except if we want to fly a instrument-laden plane into our hurricanes, we have to get its permission first.
However, much like meteorologists, I think that the increasing power of computer simulations will pave the way for better prediction. I just hope it comes in my lifetime, because I am rather Feynmanesque in my views of most of the methods we use.
To date, I have defended our blessed democracy against:
- 1 missing detent
- 1 mismatched key
- 2 locks without keys
- 112 primary-related cards
- Several hundred pounds of paper
- 3 terrorists
- 1 ninja
Of course, most of my job consists of moving voting machines from one place to another, or humping the big ones to get them into just the right position (yes, humping). I am getting a brutal crash course in the side of elections you don’t hear about in a political science program. I like it… except that I leave home at 6am and don’t get home until 6 12 hours later.