Friday, September 30, 2005

Social Problems and Ideas

What are the social consequences of ideas? Ideas support both the problems that we perceive in society and the positive aspects of any society. (And you thought everything was the will of the gods I suppose!) Anyway, consider some of the general consequences of bad ideas:

Wasted money - Have you paid for a service that will help protect you from identity theft?
Wasted time - Have you ever participated in a multi-level marketing business?
Environmental degradation - Who cares, I'll be dead before things get too bad! Right?
International Crises - Do you think people really choose to become suicide bombers?
Public health crises - How many kids on Ritalin really need it?
"Structural" Problems - Do you generally trust the leaders of big businesses like IBM?

So, what are the ideas here? And why do they count as social pollution?

The world is swarming with dishonest and dangerous people; we must take responsibility for protecting ourselves and our families.
If you find the right opportunity you can "make it big" without great risk and great effort.
It is reasonable for me to care only about my own interests.
Decision making is rational.
A drug won't be widely prescribed unless it is safe, effective, and necessary.
We can't trust the powerful, so we have to be on our guard against them at all times.

The first statement is simply not supported by actual crime statistics and crime trends, at least for most crimes and most parts of the United States. The second statement goes against the experience of most successful people in the world. The third statement undermines values like social connectedness and honesty. The fourth, fifth, and sixth statements are counterfactual. Decison making is not rational in an absolute sense. Drugs are used for social control, convenience, and because of marketing campaigns. We only hear about the trouble-makers in business and government. The perception of corruption and amoral decisionmaking that we have could be the result of manipulation by people with political agendas.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Money, Health and Ideas

So, you probably knew that it was aise to be careful about the ideas that you allow into your head. Have you been good about acting on that insight? Never mind. What I really want to do here is cover some concrete reasons why you should be more attuned to the social pollution in your life.

Here are five specific reasons, with some probing questions:

Wasted money - Ever bought a lottery ticket?
Wasted time - Do you go out of your way to find natural products?
Health problems - Do you smoke? Diet?
Lost opportunities - Do you wish you could work more?
Relationship problems - Do you laugh at male-bashing humor?

Each of those questions is based on the social pollution that spawns the thinking behind common answers. What do I mean? Consider these thoughts:

Buying lottery tickets - relationship betweeen wealth and money does not hold up well at high income levels
Natural products - natural/synthetic is a false dichotomy; natural products can be useless(EX: echinacea) or dangerous (St. John's Wort) or silly (free-range pork)
Smoking - Smoking is in some way related to coolness, or to rejection of the mainstream culture that thinks smoking is a nasty habit
Working more - Again, there are many documented problems associated with workaholism; the relationship between happiness and increased income is weak beyond a certain modest level
Relationships - The attitude/belief that, maybe, one gender is inherently better in some way undermines human values; so, male-bashing jokes, cards, and refrigerator magnets are signs of social pollution

Next time: The same stuff with society as the focus, not you and me.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Power of Ideas, Good and Bad

This is just a short note to announce where I'll be going with future posts. I promised to make things more concrete, and so I will. I'm going to do that by focusing on how the ideas that circulate within societies affect the society and people. I'll also be writing about some of the beliefs you may have about how society works. Look for examples from television, news magazines, recent books, and the Internet. I'll inevitably have to comment on things I observe around Washington DC.

Next time: 5 reasons to be concerned about the sorts of ideas that you allow society to put in your head.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

On the Spread of Bad Ideas

OK, last highly abstract post for a bit. I promise.

Have you ever wondered about the sources of the bad ideas that seem to permeate society? For now, I'll gloss over the meaning of the term "bad idea". You can think in terms of social pollution as I've already defined it. Or you can think of a concrete idea, like NASA's plan to put more people on the moon.

TV, schools, the Internet, and churches are all involved in a roundabout way. Of course ideas come from people and not from television shows, churches, Congressional committees, or Web sites. A person gets the idea and spreads it around using television, church pulpits, or whatever. Sometimes groups of people work together to hash out an idea, then they promote the idea.

So, the messages (ideas) we encounter about many topics are the product of a relatively small group of people. In the shopping amlls , maybe this is not a real problem. What about in political debates where public policy is shaped?

One has to wonder: What sort of people are these people who have tremendous influence over the ideas we encounter in daily life? What sorts of values, ideas, beliefs, and peer groups shape their thinking about both reality, and about the way things ought to be? How much of what comes from these peoples' circumstances (I'm thinking of politicians here.) will really serve the public good? How much is just mor esocial pollution?

Consider that politicians are famous for caring about getting re-elected and for pandering to interest groups of all sorts.

An important social issue: Control over the ideas that we encounter over and over again. These ideas tend to shape events for good or ill.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Personal Consequences of Bad Ideas

Last time I focused on the large-scale consequences of social pollution. This time I'll make a few observations about the personal consequences of bad ideas. This is an important topic because people, and not societies, have values and beliefs and lifestyles. The social impacts of bad ideas are mostly a result of the cumulative impact these ideas have on people like you and me.

It isn't hard to see how social pollution affects one's own life. The signs are like the signs of a physical illness really. When you are sick, you may feel fatigued or maybe you develop a stuffy nose. Bad ideas produce similar symptoms of dis-ease in our lifestyles, beliefs and behaviors.

Do you need to lose weight? Get more organized? Put the kids through college? Learn more about feng shui? Get breast implants? Take steroids to get "big enough"?

I'm not saying that all of those things are wrong. Its just that the ideas behind them may qualify as social pollution. Some of the questions in the previous papargraph could be based on ideas that are counterfactual or illogical. Or, the ideas produce consequences are more harmful than helpful.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Social Pollution, Politics, and Culture III

Last time I wrote about the social origins and the consequences of social pollution. This post continues with that emphasis on the broad, sociological view of social pollution. Next time I'll bring things down to a personal level.

Last time I mentioned some values that seem central to human life, at least in the sense of being widely shared by people across diverse cultures. These values include freedom, tolerance for diversity, health, economic justice, social justice, ecological protection, relationships, the welfare of future generations, honesty, and compassion.

(I used "Humanity's Common Values: Seeking a Positive Future" by Wendell Bell, in the September-Otober, 2004 issue of the Futurist for most of the items on the list.)

So, a broad question is this: Do the ideas you encounter in everyday life tend to support or undermine these values? Consider not just the ideas themselves, but behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes. Is belief in palm reading harmless? How about belief in stuff like astrology, crystal power, and homosexuality being an unnatural behavior?

What about messages we get about what it means to be a "real" man or a "real" woman, or a succesful person? These subjects have been beaten to death by other culture critics, so I'll only add one observation, for now. The extent that those images of manliness, wommanhood and success prevent us, as a society, from uphol;ding those global values that I just mentioned, then they are damaging to society. If it damages society then it must be social pollution.

Think of things like horoscopes and anti-gay activism as being signals of social pollution. We measure the levels of ozone and nitrogen oxides in urban air to determine how dirty the air is. There is a sociological equivalent of air pollution. The rates of respiratory distress in a city can indicate that the air quality is poor. The popularity of horoscopes, lottery lucky number books, and belief in the "badness" may suggest a certain undesirable level of pollution in society.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Social Pollution, Politics, and Culture II

How do ideas affect your own health, fitness, financial security, happiness, and general success in life? You knew that the ideas you encounter have an impact on your life, for good or ill. Did you ever wonder how, to measure bad ideas, or good ideas for that matter? Did you ever wonder how you could tell just how bad an idea is for us, and why it is so bad?

Here's a short of social pollution again: ideas that have negative social or personal consequences without overriding social benefits. I focus on ideas but the related behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyle choices also count. The beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors we encounter give us ideas about what to do and think. Social pollution is illogical, counterfactual, or undermines a widely held value. That last thing is a new criterion. We'll be using it in the next couple of posts.

(BTW: Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins referred to the ideas we pass along to others as memes. They are the intellectiual equivalent of genes. You could think of this current series of posts as a discussion of the social and personal consequences of bad memes.)

Consider the analogy of air pollution. Smog is pollution, but you really only experience the consequences of it, throat and eye irritation for example. Social pollution is like that. You may not notice the ideas themselves but you notice the consiequences in beliefs and attitudes that people express. You also experience social pollution in the form of bad choices that people make. This is where social pollution becomes a personal issue.

Obvious question: What counts as a bad choice, belief, idea, or attitude? If I condemn reality television and NASCAR without reason you could easily dismiss me as an intellectual elitist. And you'd be correct to do so. Defining social pollution is a process of defning what is "bad" in some way that we can (mostly) agree is valid and useful. Such a measuring scheme can be created!

We can measure the badness of ideas, their status as social pollution, by reference to widely held values. I'll describe those values and how to use them in assessing social pollution's impact on our lives next time.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Social Pollution, Politics, and Culture

The Supreme Court vacancies, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the messages of popular culture provide fertile ground for the breeding of bad ideas and sloppy thinking. The holidays are coming. The fall TV season is about to start. Oh, and Congress is back in session. All of these things have implications for your life, and for society as a whole. I'll explain in more detail in future posts. But first...

What the heck is social pollution and how does it relate? Well, I'm still working on a good definition of social pollution, but here is what I have so far:

"behaviors, ideas, and beliefs that have negative consequences for society and individual members without commensurate benefits, all measured statistically or assessed qualitatively"

I know this definition raises questions. Who says what counts as negative, or as a benefit? Good question! We'll have to stick with measuring things that most people would judge good or bad. Most people think racism is bad, for example, and that there are good and bad ways to use credit.

I can clarify the concept with an example of social pollution. Fashion magazines are both a source and an indicator of social pollution. Feminists have decried the unrealistic image of women's bodies often potrayed in fashion magazines. The images lead women, feminists say, into depression about their "substandard" body types, So, the ideas about womens' bodies that we see in these magazines constitute a form of social pollution.

Now that I've clarified that (I did clarify it didn't I?) we can go on to reflect on social pollution in politics and culture. That's where I'm going in the next few posts. I'll offer a way to measure the impact of social pollution on your life. I'll also describe an index of social pollution for society as a whole. Maybe there should be a rating scale, with levels such as Peachy, Marginal, and Appalling. OK, maybe not.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Hurricane Katrina, Disaster Relief, and Sociology 2

Well, one thought I had since last posting was about the structure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). We've probably all encountered stories of the problems with disaster relief. Whether FEMA officials really screwed things up is immaterial for my purposes. All I want to do is point out that perhaps FEMA should be structured differently. The current structure (as far as I can tell from their web site) is a bureacuracy with characteristics like specialization, formal rules and procedures for most activities, and a heirarchy of authority, impersonality, and merit-based career advancement.

Bureaucracy is a bad word in America but these sorts of organizations have their place. What is their place? Well, a bureaucracy works fine in a situation where the social environment is stable and the tasks to be performed are repititive and routine. The Social Security Administration is a classic example. The population served is relatively stable. The means of disbursing funds does not change much. The specific programs don't change much. Annual economic fluctuations have minimal impact. There is no competition, as far as I know.

Coordinating and conducting disaster relief is a different proposition! One part of FEMA's mission is to (quoting from "effectively manage federal response and recovery efforts following any national incident", a job that calls for a looser sort of structure. Perhaps FEMA should use project teams empowered to make things happen in any particular disaster relief effort. This part of FEMA would work more like a consulting firm or engineering design firm and less like a classical bureaucracy trying that's struggling to cope with a crisis.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Hurricane Katrina, Disaster Relief, Sociology

Well, hurricanes and disaster relief are on peoples' minds these days. Since this is supposed to be a blog about sociology I naturally wanted to combine three subjects. This is not going to be a proper essay since my thoughts are connected solely by there relevance to Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent relief efforts.

Racism in the evacuation and rescue has come up a few times. This is worth mentioning for two reasons. One, some people feel compelled to say that when anything disproportionately hurts blacks it must be racism. Racism is the belief that one group, defined by its physical characteristics, is inferior to another. Discrimination is action based on race, religion, or any other trait. So, what we may have is a case of discrimination, but not necessarily against black people. It seems far more likely that poverty was the important issue here. Poor people were overlooked because they were poor, one could argue. Most of the poor happened to be black.

The relief effort was botched according to many reports on Fow News and CNN. Why were things handled so badly? The simple answer may have been that there were simply too many variables involved. With so many processes, regulations, organizations, groups, and laws involved the seemingly serious mistakes were probable events, not the outcome of mismanagement. Aside from that, so many people were trying to do so many things that some slip-ups were probably inevitable. In this case, those slip-ups were multiplied into another sort of disaster.

Is there an environmental dimension to this disaster? Apparently, some of the marsh land that buffers New Orleans from the Guld was lost to urban development. Who knows if that loss was a factor in the magnitude of the disaster in New Orleans. Environmentalists do complain about how we often act without due consideration for the impacts of development that alters or destroys natural features like wetlands and tree-covered hills. Maybe we can keep that fact in mind as New Orleans is rebuilt?

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Millenium Development Goals & Sociology

Yeah, I know we are really focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina now, but I want to write about global economic development.

In 2000 the United Nations established a set of eight Millenium Development Goals focused on improving the quality of life for the world's poor. You can read the details in the September, 2005 issue of Scientific American. I'll just mention the goals that we are not on track to achieve by the UN target date of 2015. Then I'll mention some sociological concepts and research that could be useful.

Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Extreme poverty (living on less than $1 a day) is actually on the increase in Central Asia and is not getting better in sub-Saharan, Latin America, or the Caribbean.

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women

Progress to date is not adequate to meet the 2015 goal of eliminating gender disparity in primary, secondary, and tertiary education.

Goal 5: Improve maternal health

Maternal mortality rates are very high in many countries so a 75% reduction, from 1991 levels, by 2015 may not be attained.

Goal 6: Ensure environmental sustainability

Access to drinking water and basic sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa remains unacceptably low.

So, what about sociology is relevant to improving progress? Improving progress will require quite a bit of innovation. Whole new ideas and technologies are called for. Faster adoption of existing ideas and technologies needs to be encouraged. Sociologists have studied the relationships between the characteristics of innovations and their success. We should apply the lessons from this research in our future efforts.

Sociologists can also help us sell the individual behavior changes, policies, and practices needed to achieve the goals. How? Partly, that research on the diffusion of innovations can help. Social research on past success and failure in promoting behavior changes, like condom use in Thailand for example, would also help.

Next time: More details on achieving the Millenium Development Goals, or some comments on the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Find Blogs in the Blog Directory