January 31, 2013

Bananas, Nessy, The Secret, and Social Theory

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

My usual first day of class gambit is a framing story or activity that lightens the mood, avoids jumping right into the material and yet still provides a window into the key ideas for the class.

 I’ve started my Sociological Theory courses with all sorts of odd topics: “overdosing” on homeopathic medicine (which you cannot actually overdose on, since it is little more than sugar tablets in fancy packaging), the numerology of September 11th, horoscopes, and the Lincoln/Kennedy conspiracy. I also bought some dowsing rods (two metal bars that supposedly locate water or whatever they are “attuned” to) for students to test their ability at finding water.

One of my favorite bits is to razz folks who made the claim that the banana is intelligently designed (e.g., its peel indicates if it is underripe, bad, or just right; it has a tab-style top; it fits in the hand; it is bent toward the mouth, etc.). In the wild, a banana looks like the one pictured below, and the Wild_bananabanana we know has, of course, been modified through humans’ understanding of the theory of natural selection. If I’m feeling really game, I’ll bring a pineapple to class to see if their theory is testable on other fruits.

All these gambits, with varying degrees of success, work to make distinctions between chance, anecdotes, and lay opinions on the one hand and scientific theory on the other. Each story is geared toward illustrating the relationship between facts (e.g., details about a banana) and theory (e.g., an explanation for why bananas are shaped the way they are. It helps underscore the difference between theory as an everyday phrase (as in “that’s just a theory”) and theory as a part of scientific process (as in a repeatedly testable explanation for real world phenomena).

Budding sociologists can learn about this distinction from recent challenges to scientific theory. We can look at the real world implications of embracing non-scientific methods. For example, dowsing rods seem like a joke, but testable theories take a more serious tone when they given a fancy name (e.g., ADE-651), cost U.S. taxpayers and the Iraqi government up to $60,000 each, and are used in Iraq to detect bombs despite the complete lack of science-based evidence that they are effective (they never work better than random chance). According to the BBC., these devices that cannot discover suicide bombs are possibly a factor in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and civilians.

It is not just in Iraq. The U.S. military is now hiring acupuncturists for up to $90k/yr despite the fact that research shows a trained acupuncturist is just as successful as a random person poking a patient with toothpicks. (I’m in the wrong business. That’s $20k more than the average sociology professor’s salary!) Acupuncture might have helped some people, but a collection of anecdotes is not the same thing as data. Data is collected by testing theories. Remember a good rule of thumb: If alternative medicine were scientifically provable, they’d just call it medicine.

We also see anti-theory positions in education. Most of you have probably heard of the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.  High school teacher John Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach evolution at a public school. But there are similar fights afoot today. In 2008, the Bayou State passed the Louisiana Science Education Act, which cracks the door open for anti-science and anti-climate change doctrine (read: non-science) to sneak into school curricula, as it allows teachers to add supplemental materials to their classes.

This extracurricular material includes a textbook claiming the Loch Ness Monster as evidence against evolution. Enter 19-year-old, Rice University undergraduate, Zack Kopplin, who is leading the charge for repealing this law, with no fewer than 77 Nobel Laureates signing his petition, and the backing of the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences. Religious beliefs are not testable, and therefore, not theory. And kudos to an undergrad making the case for science.

Now, let us look at a ”theory” that we would talk about in a sociology course: The Law of Attraction. I often talk about The Secret as one of my first day gambits as well. It is a wildly popular book and film (the opening 20 minutes is available online), and is a glossy pitch for the ”LoA.”

 The central tenet of LoA is that people attract good and ill to themselves, by what they radiate out into the world. If you believe good thoughts, you can bend the objective world to your bidding. The film uses testimonials from people, one of whom says he learned ”The Secret” and all of the bills coming in his mail turned into paychecks. One of the charlatans in the film, Joe Vitale, claims that 2005 Hurricane Rita was diverted because of all the positive vibes pumped out by his local radio listeners.

It’s true that Rita weakened on its way to Texas, where Vitale lived, but if he did divert it, he made it turn east to Louisiana, worsening the devastation from Hurricane Katrina one month earlier. The theory: subjective positive vibes affect the objective world. The evidence: bills turning into checks and a hurricane changing its direction. (Maybe it is fears of pseudo-scientists like this guy that made New Orleans’ City Council back Kopplin’s petition as well!)

Here’s where the sociology comes in: Not only does The Secret prompt thinking about its lack of data and testability (which, therefore, makes it a non-theory), the Law of Attraction also illustrates tensions between agency and determinism, subjectivity and objectivity, and individual and society, the heart of much of our sociological theory. The LoA is a hyper-individualized perspective, placing the blame for one’s past failings and future responsibilities on his or her own shoulders alone.

This perspective is antithetical to sociology in this fashion as well, as it ignores deep, structural inequalities that students have learned prior to coming to my theory class. Most students realize that big, social forces like racism and sexism are often at work and that we, as individuals, don’t have easy control over them. The secret of The Secret’s battery of books and self-help lectures is that they blind readers from real problems and inequalities.

One of our greatest theorists, Robert Merton, called this the self-fulfilling prophecy, making the more sociological point that expectations shape outcomes but there are social limitations as well. Have you been turned away from a job based on your skin color? The Secret would contend that you are to blame! Do you not make as much money as your male colleagues? LoA would recommend having a more positive outlook!

Such a theory flies in the face of real scientific research on racism in hiring practices and the glass ceiling where the self-fulfilling prophesy comes up against real barriers. Sociology seeks to uncover those limits while LoA blames the victim. What is particularly disturbing is that an influential African-American woman like Oprah Winfrey would offer such full-throated endorsements of LoA on her television show! The Secret also tells us that if you are successful it is due to your own pure will, and if someone else is a failure it is his fault for not having a positive attitude. Sociological theory and testable evidence, by contrast, can assist in calls for social justice and change.


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Thank you for writing this! It was a very interesting read.

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