Monday, October 31, 2005

Happy Halloween!

I bet you never thought about the sociological aspects of Halloween. OK, neither had I until late last week. This post reflects my thoughts on the functions that the Halloween festivities serve.

Most of the functions involve selling stuff. Did you guess that much on your own? Good. So, here are the social functions of this only holiday where you can wear a tie with pumpkins on it and only look a bit odd. Halloween offers:

1. A marketing opportunity for candy makers
2. A marketing opportunity for costume makers
3. A marketing opportunity for sellers of novelty items, like little rubber spiders
4. A trigger for new product ideas, like little rubber spiders
5. Plenty of material for television news
6. A marketing gimmick for stores
7. A marketing gimmick for nightclubs - costume contests!
8. A social occasion for kids, and many people who sometimes want to act like kids
9. A party excuse for adults
10. A focal point for evangelical fears about the occult

(I'm not sure if those awful store displays serve any purpose. Maybe they do have some effect on our buying habits.)

Who knew a slightly silly little holiday could be so important!

Supposedly, demons are interested in Halloween too. I wonder what functions the holiday serves in the pits of hell (or wherever)? I need to look for a grant. Or maybe I can find a demonologist who knows!

Next time, I'll return to talking about religion, specifically some of positive and negative social impacts of religious ideas.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Religion and Ideas

It certainly won't be news to anyone that we get ideas from religion. Sermons, Bible study classes, the Bible itself (and other religious texts like the Torah and Quran) all provide us with many ideas that we may or may not adopt. And it isn't just ideas that we adopt; new attitudes, goals, behaviors, and values come from religion. Some of those ideas are harmless or beneficial while others truly qualify as social pollution.

Religion is the source of many ideas but not the cause of the bad ideas related to religion that circulate through society. What causes religious ideas to spread, or die an early death? There are several factors involved that relate to each other in several ways. I'll summarize them as best I can:

Popularity - The more popular the faith, the more likely an idea will take hold in peoples' minds, regardless of the idea's merit.

Marketing - Some denominations and faiths are better at selling ideas than others

Timing - Some religious leaders will be better at others in capitallizing on current events or on the spirit of the times to make an idea seem compelling

Official support - The more, and the more powerful the supporters, the better an idea's chances of spreading widely

Packaging - This is closely related to marketing; the extent to which an idea can be couched in popular and/or "exciting" terms the better the chances that it will become popular.

Next time: The types of ideas derived from religious teachings and the roles of various "carriers" in spreading those messages.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Ideas in Education Policy and Schools

So, last time I talked about both education as a carrier of ideas and how the institution of education is shaped by ideas. Now the focus turns to answering the question that you would be reasonable to ask: "How does this process work?"

(Later I'll return to the issue of how ideas in scoial institutions affect your life. I want to repeat these sorts of posts for the other four major institution then turn to the "ground level" discussions. Just bear with me for a few weeks.)

Now, we all know that there are many elements to our (USA) educational system. The system has includes educational policy at the national and state levels, school boards, teacher training, curricula for the various subjects, books, support materials for teachers, and principals to run the schools.

All of these elements are carriers of ideas. All are potential sources of social pollution. Consider the people who make educational policy. Policy decisions may force teachers to expose our children to counterfactual, destructive, or illogical ideas.

Intelligent design is a prime example of the problem. Teaching of intelligent design is now the subject of a court case in Pennsylvania. If the intelligent design side wins, biology teachers will have to read a statement casting doubt on Darwinian evolution and suggesting that the complexity of life can only be explained by the involvement of some sort of designer. What comes next? Intelligent design teaching guidelines from state education departments? Chapters in biology textbooks? One never knows.

Next time: Religion and Ideas, Good and Bad

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Ideas in Education

Maybe we should teach teens about masturbation, but not about intelligent design. Maybe it should be the other way. In both cases there is much debate about the impact of the ideas on the school system and on the students. Maybe sex education should not be taught. Maybe it should only focus on the biological processes involved. Maybe we should teach abstinence. Almost no one thinks that teaching about masturbation or outercourse (sexual activity that does not involve penetration) would be smart.

Since we all know that our institutions like education and religion both transmit and respond to ideas three questions arise:

What ideas are shaping our institutions?
What ideas are we being exposed to through our institutions?
What ideas are really, on balance, good for us?

(A sidenote: A social institution is a relatively stable arrangement that people have created to carry out some function. The institution may change over time or exist in different forms in different cultures. Happy hours and graduation ceremonies are also institutions because they have outlasted their creators.)

It would several books to address those questions. I just want to sensitize you to the issues that arise when we think about the ideas that both drive and flow out of our social institutions.

We need to be alert, not to the fit between ideas in education and a certain worldview, but to the "quality" of the ideas themselves. Do we want our education system, and the students' minds, to be shaped by ideas that are illogical, counterfactual, or destructive of widely held values? Of course not.

Next time I'll say more about the ways in which ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and beahvaiors influence education.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Ideas and Social Institutions

Education, religion, the family, business, and government are all carriers of ideas. Some of those ideas are good and some are not so good. The next series of posts will be about the ways ideas are spread through society by those five major social institutions. I'll also note some of the ways that ideas shape those institutions. I'll continue to focus on social pollution, meaning that you'll also be reading about lifestyle choices, beliefs, and attitudes.

Oh, and I'll try to keep things concrete. Maybe reality will accomodate and produce some juicy news to blab about.

Next time I'll be saying a few things about the ideas being spread by our educational system. Sex ed and intelligent design will both come up. I know you can't wait!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Protect Yourself from Social Pollution

We buy air purifiers for our homes, and water filtration systems too! But how many people devote a significant amount of time or money to dealing with the bad ideas that bombard them daily? Okay, so the constant assault of bad ideas isn't nearly so worrisome as bird flu, global terrorism, or gas prices. I get it. Still, there seems to be an insidious little problem brewing here, one that we as individuals and as concerned members of society ought to consider doing something about.

What do I suggest? I'm glad you asked that because I do happen to have a few suggestions:

1. Critical thinking - Practice your critical thinking skills. I know you have them but the press of time, money, and many other concerns may lead you to neglect them. And that leads to another suggestion.

2. Know less - Ignorance is not blisss and knowledge is power, but information is not knowledge and we get too much information sometimes! Keeping up with too many events and issues takes away time from giving fuller consideration to the things that will really affect your life the most.

3. Vote with your wallet - Reward nonprofit organizations and companies that are reasonable and logical about what they do!

4. Create a fuss - Write letters and speak up at meetings. Speak out against social pollution at shcool and at work, but be civil about for the love of God! Oh, and support organizations that support reason and science.

And, if these steps are not ambitious enough for you, here is another suggestion: Maybe we need to create and promote new decision-making rules and guidelines, like "What would Jesus do?" as antidotes to social pollution.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Natural Cures: A Case Study in Social Pollution

I just saw Paula Zahn interviewed Kevin trudeau regarding his bestselling book Natural Cures. Why is Natural Cures so popular? I can think of three explanations:

(1) The book fills a big, gaping hole in the market for health information
(2) Trudeau is a tireless self promoter
(3) A lingering popular distrust of big institutions, like medicine, makes people open to the claims of a known scam artist (jail time for credit card fraud, FDA ban on selling healthcare products) with no medical training

You'd think I would favor number 3, being that I'm a sociologist. Actually, a combination of tireless self-promotion and popular mistrust of social institutions is at work here. After all, doctors are, collectively, a pretty powerful group. The drug companies are even more powerful. And we just know that the executives of drug companies care nothing for people or morals, or anything but profit. We are right to be suspicious of drug companies and their lackeys in the white coats.

You just read a great example of social pollution: The idea that business people, are generally amoral is simply not supported by any evidence. Even if they feel mo moral imperative to do anything for the unwashed masses, laws, regulations, and their legal departments mostly keep them in line. Are the leaders in government, education, the military, religion, and science also well bahaved, for the most part? The correct answer is obvious.

The counterfactual and illogical idea that the people at the top of our major social insitutions are generally crooked in some sense is nothing but social pollution. Kevin Trudeau's book is a sign of that social pollution, like a persistent cough that indicates you may be breathing unhealthy air.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Preventing Pollution of Our Social Institutions

Today I'd like to offer up an idea on how to protect our society from social pollution. A high degree of protection is the loftiest goal we could hope for, since there are too many sorts of social pollution spawned by too many sources for the problem to be eliminated. You may as well hope to keep erosion from happening. Even if we can't stop erosion we can try to exert some control over it.

We need an organization devoted to helping us control the effects of social pollution. It would be a nonprofit foundation, or maybe a network of commited writers and scholars. The organization, let's call it the Social Pollution Prevention Institute for the sake of discussion, would focus on analysis and public education. So, what exactly would the Institute do, and how?

The Social Pollution Prevention Institute would analyze ideas, policies, programs, laws, regulations, and trends in behaviors to evaluate their consequences for society. The Institute's researchers would look for evidence of faulty logic, counterfactual claims and ideas, and things that undermine widely shared values. The results could be disseminated through books, Web content, and downloadable reports. (I have fantasies of a TV show with cute reporters and a bikini model who makes fun of the "crazy idea of the week.")

During election seasons the researchers could audit the thinking of politicians. How bad is their thinking? Who's ideas are dangerous? Do politicians care about being logical or factual? Not really. However, the sloppiness of their thinking may become cause for concern among voters, and ammunition for opponents. Politicians do care about those two things!

What tools might researchers at the Social Pollution Prevention Institute use? The rules for spotty illogical thinking (stra men, ad hominem attacks, et cetera) could be used. Certain thinking tools like PMI and CAF could also be used. Researchers could also run though experiments and construct scenarios.

If you were wondering what PMI and CAF are about, you may want to check out Edward De Bono's books on thinking skills. Search for Serious Creativity or De Bono's Thinking Course at

Yes, I am willing to actually do something about starting such an organization. Any ideas where I should start?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Measuring the Power of Ideas

So, let's say we want to know how influential a belief, idea, attitude, or behavior really is. How do we do that? In my last blog I suggested that the power of an idea is a function of the number of people who hold the idea, the influence those people wield in society, the importance of the idea to the people in question, and the attention that the idea gets in the media.

Measuring the power of an idea means finding a way to measure numbers, influence, importance and attention. These things are not necessarily easy to measure.

Numbers are pretty simple - use survey questions to estimate how many people hold an idea. I used "simple" on purpose to show that numbers are easy to measure in principle but can be hard to nail down when you study slippery things like ideas or beliefs.

Influence is a bit tougher. Sociologists use a variable called socioeconomic status (SES) to measure a combination of job status, education level, and income. The influence of a group that holds an idea could be approximated by measuring the group's average SES: "78% of people in the upper class say that we should be more concerned about the interests of our own people than with helping other countries." I think you get the idea.

Two other measures of influence suggest themselves. Another good measure of influence might be voting patterns. Or, we could figure out what types of jobs our idea holders have, and in what industries. Management or policy making jobs in education, entertainment, print media, and government are more important because they offer more opportunties to influence society at large.

Importance might be answered by survey questions. We could ask people to rate the importance of an idea to their own worldview, value system, daily life or whatever seems most reasonable under the circumstances.

Example: "How important is it to you that the federal government focus on the interests of the American people as opposed to solving problems in the rest of the world."

Attention is going to be tricky to measure. You may need to use the maligned and misunderstood technique called content analysis. To elaborate, content analysis is a methodology designed to uncover the themes that emerge in some sort of communication, be it Michael Moore's books, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, television commercials, television programming (Watch Desperate Housewives and call it research!) or newspaper articles. Content analysis is also good for finding missing themes, ideas, explanations, or whatever. The point is to assess, in a detailed and systematic way, the nature of whatever interactions, communications, or documents you are studying.

Example: In newspaper articles and editorials how often do stories or essays on international affairs mention the need to protect U.S. interests versus the need to help people in other countries deal with their domestic problems.

(NOTE! This has been a shallow overview of content analysis. I had to read a couple of books and do a couple of small projects before I began to understand the process.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Impact of a Bad Idea

CNN, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, Oprah, Mother Jones, The National Review, Harvard, Sarasota High School, and your Bible study group all share one vitally important role in society: They foster the spread of ideas, good or bad. Beyond that, they give us the motivation to act on our ideas.

So, those are the sources of ideas, including social pollution. I've defined social pollution as...what?

Social pollution - any idea, belief, practice, or lifestyle choice that is counterfactual or illogical and that is harmful, especially in the sense of undermining human values like phyiscal health and honesty.

Everyone knows that not all ideas are equally important. That fact leads into a few observations on some ideas more influential and enduring than others. (Note: These observations apply equally to behaviors. practices, attitudes, and lifestyle choices)

How important is the idea to a particular group? The more important to their goals or worldview, the more time and resources they will give the idea. Why do Christians focus on salvation but don't generally care how many varieties of angels exist?

How many people hold the idea? The answer may be less important than the answer to this question:

How influential are the people who hold the idea? The more power, the more power. Obvious!

How much attention does the idea get in the mass media? This is obviously going to be largely due to the importance, influence, and numbers of people interested in the idea. Perhaps influence is the most important variable here. Perhaps not.

So, who worries you more? A fringe group spreading a message that we were created in an alien genetic engineering experiment? Or, the leader a poweful nation saying on national television that homosexuality is a sin?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Social Environments and Ideas

Okay, so I've covered the sources of social pollution, the impacts on you asn an individual, and the impacts on society. Now is the time to change topics to consider the social environments that spawn certain types of ideas. In particular, I want to focus your atention ofn the social environment of elites who control the media, government, publishing, and business in general.

The first thing you should do is bear in mind the fact that the social environment, the ideas, standards of behavior, and such, is not the same as the social environment experienced by people like you and me. So what fo you do with that insight? Bear with me for a minute!

Consider for a few minutes what the social environment might be like for a top executive at a media conglomerate, or for a Congressman. They probably associate only with people who are well-eduacted and well-off financially. They inherited decision-making rules, moral principles, and ideas about why society is the way it is from shareholders, other executives, their superiors in the organization, their peers, and et cetera. You get the picture.

The situation is pretty much the same for people like us, but with different sorts of people and different material circumstances shaping our ideas. In all cases the ideas we inherit are partly good, partly bad but harmless, and partly dangerous. The problem is when the dangerous ideas become popular with regular folks OR with the policial and economic elite.

Our political and economic elites sell social programs (more social welfare), fashion ideas (you need to put togeether a "look"), and lifestyle choices (suburban SUV driving guy) based on the interests of their own group. I use "their own group" to avoid the suggestion of a vast consipracy to make us into shopaholic, politically powerless drones. Perhaps such a phenomenon is really happening, but only coincidentally.
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