Where have all the good questions gone

22 Jul

I frequently ask myself why I became a political scientist. Unfortunately, the answers I give myself are unlikely to be of much comfort to my placement director as I go on the job market this fall. While I am intuitively drawn to the social sciences, political science is not the most interesting or even always my favorite of these soft sciences. The truth is, if I had it to do all over again, I think I would have gone into political sociology instead. Of course, this could just be a case of the grass looking greener on the other side. In this case, it seems to me that sociologists have an easier time asking the interesting questions, although the dearth of interesting questions in the social sciences pervades all disciplines[1].

That gets me to the actual point of this post, a particular example of an interesting question in the social sciences. It comes from an article in the August issue of Discover titled "Are the Dessert People Winning." The article's premise stems from the observation that:

All across the world, the sort of culture you live in has something to do with the ecosystem around it. Traditional tundra societies are more likely to share cultural patterns with each other than with tropical rain forest societies, regardless of whether some descended from a common ancestral culture. High-altitude plateau cultures differ in systematic ways from fishing cultures in island archipelagoes. Some of these correlations are fairly predictable: Tuareg desert nomads are not likely to have 27 different words for types of snow or fishhooks. But as [Stanford anthropologist Robert Textor found in his 1967 book A Cross-Cultural Summary], some of the correlations are far from predictable and have helped contribute to the sociopolitical mess we now inhabit.

While the article's author sometimes seems to forget that correlation is not the same as causation, he rightly demonstrates that at the very least is culture linked to climate and ecology. He also perhaps stretches when he says the study of this relationship has become "scientific" with the rise of anthropology as a discipline (Rigorus, yes, scientific no). The increased rigor afforded by the development of an academic discipline has lead to a basic dichotomy between societies born in rain forests and those from the desert deserts because "the correlates are unnerving."

An example:

A striking proportion of rain forest dwellers are polytheistic, worshipping an array of spirits and gods. Polytheism is prevalent among tribes in the Amazon basin (the Sherenti, Mundurucu, and Tapirape) and in the rain forests of Africa (the Ndorobo), New Guinea (the Keraki and Ulawans), and Southeast Asia (the Iban of Borneo and the Mnong Gar and Lolo of Vietnam). But desert dwellers—the bedouin of Arabia, the Berbers of the western Sahara, the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert, the Nuer and Turkana of the Kenyan/Sudanese desert—are usually monotheistic. Of course, despite allegiances to a single deity, other supernatural beings may be involved, like angels and djinns and Satan. But the hierarchy is notable, with minor deities subservient to the Omnipotent One.

This is not the only correlation. Overall, these correlations suggest that "we are subject to the influences of ecology, like any other species." Now these is where the interesting questions (and answers) come in. We have many interesting answers, but the social sciences does not have the questions. What we need to do, IMHO, is to begin applying what we know about genetics and neurochemistry to the facts (answers) of our social realities. Doing so will guide us towards asking the right questions, questions which are interesting.

[1]For a simplistic discussion of this problem, as well as an example of a social scientist who isn't afraid to ask interesting questions, I strongly recommend Steven D. Levitt and Stephan J. Dubner's Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. While the book has some problems, they are mostly just nitpicks of a trained social scientist reading a book written for the average reader. Most importantly, Levitt's work shows that asking interesting questions often leads to the most interesting answers.

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