On Wednesday, Devin Gaffney and Nathan Matias shared a warning for computational social scientists: Large-scale missing data in a widely-published Reddit dataset could be undermining the quality of your research. Alarm bells rang, and by the next morning, several friends and colleagues who know I use this data rushed to share the link with me. While their work is still in the preprint stage, the analysis is good and it makes an important contribution. I feel the same about Hessel et al.’s response analysis, which is printed in full at the end of the preprint. I agree wholeheartedly that more people working with this kind of data should investigate what’s really there rather than trusting grandiose claims about its quality.
“The reified world is, by definition, a dehumanized world. It is experienced by man as a strange facticity, an opus alienum over which he has no control rather than as the opus proprium of his own productive activity.” (Berger and Luckmann 1967:89)
Philip K. Dick’s story “The Autofac”—published in 1955 and recently adapted as an episode in Amazon’s series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams—takes place on Earth after an apocalyptic war. All institutions are destroyed save the Autofac, an automated mega-factory that controls every aspect of production—collecting resources, manufacturing, and shipping—for every product humans need. Created before the war, the Autofac continues production, and is completely beyond human control.
At the Eastern Sociological Society Annual Meetings this past weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a fantastic Author-Meets-Critics session for Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed. Lower Ed is a great book, but it’s not a complete analysis of the sector. In writing up my comments, and in the discussion during the session, I tried to think of what you would need to bring together to get that fuller picture. Here’s my brief recommended list, and how I would use them together in say a unit of a sociology of education or higher education course.
Psychohistory is the mathematical social science from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series which can be used to predict important societal developments at the population level. My colleagues writing in this blog series have used Foundation as an illustrative example of structural functionalism for a sociological theory course and likened psychohistory to quantitativesociology. Elsewhere, Paul Krugman described it as an inspiration to his younger self. It is a series which is familiar to more than just the geekier social scientists – there are clearly plenty of us! – after winning the only Best All-Time Series Hugo award and selling many millions of copies. For good measure, the series was packed into the boot of the Tesla roadster recently launched into space.
As recounted in Asimov’s Foundation, psychohistory can be used to generate probabalistic predictions of future events, works with mobs and large populations rather than individuals, can only handle a limited number of independent variables, works best when freedom of action is heavily constrained, and only works when its findings are kept secret. In the opening of the book, Hari Seldon – the founder of psychohistory – tests the new hire to his research institute by having him calculate (in his head) the probability of the galactic empire’s demise within 300 years. The collapse of the empire will lead to 30 millennia of chaos, but Seldon wants to reduce that interregnum to 1000 years by judiciously guiding the rise of a new empire through the use of psychohistory. I argue against the possibility of psychohistory by drawing on concepts of emergence and meaning making, while also questioning the normative basis of such a social science and its usage.