She opened the car door and stepped out. Had someone been watching they would have thought it was one of those intentionally shot, sexy scenes as a bare leg clad in a sexy black pump hit the pavement. As the rest of her emerged she was the vision of beauty and elegance. Her carefully chosen evening gown with the slit up the left side was sure to catch the attention of many, but it wasn’t because she was vain. She simply had good taste, and liked to look good for a special night out. Her husband was being honored today. Her husband had won another big case. Civil rights cases were tough to win, and he had been winning it for the little guy for years now, in several high-profile cases. When she had met him, it seemed they were just heading to a normal upper middle class future, with the normal rate of advance as lawyers. But practicing law was different than learning it. As having a family came into the picture, her passion for the law was less. She had been offered being partner at her law firm, but it just didn’t seem all that appealing. She also saw how much her husband loved practicing law, and how good he was at it, and it wasn’t a difficult decision for her to pull back and practice law part time. Children and family meant something to her, and she knew that she would never find enough happiness in her career to compensate for not seeing her children more often. They would have had no trouble affording a nanny, but it killed her thinking about a stranger spending more time with her children than her. They would still be very comfortable, they had a nice house, and a good life was about more than money. She hooked her arm in his and walked together into the venue for the evening.
It was a reasonably big crowd as they entered the room. People were dressed to kill, and she was equal to the task. Some familiar faces approached them to welcome them. She felt a bit like a celebrity as she saw more people swarm towards them. This was their life now. They had made it. They were doing positive things in the world, and she had the right balance in her life in terms of career and family. But as the people came and went the focus was not on her. There was requisite smiling and small talk. Even genuine heartfelt warmth. There were good people in the room, but even they wanted their time with the man of the hour, and in many ways conversations with them were the worst. “What was it like to be married to such a great lawyer? How proud are you of your husband? Did you think he would win the case?” She tried to remain positive. Of course he would be congratulated, schmoozed, networked, and charmed for his accolades. What else did she expect?
She expected to be seen as important. She expected to have value. The way that she saw herself. Was it so hard to believe that as talented as her husband was that he might have married someone equally talented, with equal intellect, and with an admirable moral center? The magnificence of her dress felt like it was fading into the scenery. She felt like an object attached her husband’s arm. No one seemed to see her as having value, even when she knew that it wasn’t true. She could put up with it for night though. Right?
But if this case was any indication, he would become busier and he would get bigger cases, and his fame would continue to grow. She realized in that moment she would not be putting up with this for one night. It wouldn’t stop. How long could she take being solely defined by her husband’s career and success? Why didn’t it matter that the only reason her husband had so much time to be a great lawyer and have two children was because of her? Why didn’t the excellence in the choices she made for her life, marriage, and family, make less difference than his? And she was invaluable as someone to talk to when he’d come home and talk about his cases. After all she was a lawyer too. It wasn’t her husband’s fault society was like this, but she couldn’t help but wonder if it even entered his head to think about these things. If he was he’d make more of an effort, wouldn’t he? She wondered, if the situation was reversed, would any man be treated with as much indifference as she felt from others right now? Suddenly she was jolted out of her grim analysis.
“What a stunning dress! It must be nice to buy such expensive clothes after your husband’s big win!?” She nodded and smiled and hoped that she look convincingly gracious for that horrible compliment. She had the dress for several years and she could afford it all on her own. It was like people thought she had suddenly been invented for the purpose of accompanying her husband. She expertly stopped herself from crying and made an excuse to her husband to go to the lady’s room. She stared in the mirror, not knowing whether a flood of tears or pure rage would come next. It dawned on her that the rest of the evening would be spent wondering whether it was better to just continuing being small and hide in a hole somewhere, or to be visible in the crowd but still feel alone. She decided the former was the easier choice, but then she’d have let this superficial group of people chill her into hiding. She was better than that. It might be a hollow victory, but she held her head high and walked out again. There was a loose line of people waiting to talk to her husband. Eventually they would sit down at a table to eat, and he would give everyone else their undivided attention. With the grace of an empress she crossed the room and sidled up next to him. Outside darkness gave a respectful wave goodbye to the dusk, and inside she was content to be the stars shining through the night, even if the heads in the room were too heavy to ever look up.
The fact that the universe is complex shouldn’t surprise anyone yet one of the things I find surprising how vehemently people try to argue that it’s not. I have already written a blog post about correlation vs. causation, but I’d like to talk about something a little broader than that. Correlations try to demonstrate the relationship between one variable and another. It would be a sensible decision to try and correlate the amount of gun ownership with gun deaths. I don’t think anybody would argue that it might be a relationship. And even if we do find a correlation what does it mean? What is a good correlation, or a bad correlation?
So what can we expect out of a correlation? First we might ask, “Can any two things to ever be perfectly correlated, even if we have a mathematical relationship?” The answer is no. Quite simply for data to be perfectly correlated it would require perfect measurements. Since every measurement always has some error there will always be a less than perfect correlation. The more difficult the measurement the less likely we are to get a good correlation at all. In social sciences measurements may depend on a survey, qualitative and/or subjective observations, and complex sampling techniques. This will all impact the correlation we calculate. Correlations range from 0 (no correlation) to 1 (perfect correlation) and it depends on the quality of the data and the nature of the problem to really determine what correlation is high enough for us to be positive of a relationship, but generally anything about 0.5 is significant. Correlations can also be negative as well. A negative correlation actually implies that as one variable increases, the other decreases, and those are important relationships as well.
Now, what happens when we try to correlate things that have no relationship to each other? It turns out we can get all sorts of results. The often cited graphic to the right is often used to show the difference between correlation and causation. Two variables may appear to be correlated but have no relationship at all even if the results are repeatable. Correlations turn out to be even a little trickier than that. Some types of data show natural variability that is higher and lower than the average. A couple of examples would be the amount of blood sugar or atmospheric pressure. Now let’s say we correlated those two things. Let’s say I have two years of daily air pressure values. And let’s say I have sampled the amount of blood sugar in my blood every for 30 straight days. The smart thing to do is select the atmospheric pressure values that correspond to the days that I took the sample and correlate them. But what might I find. Well it could be that in those 30 days, a slow moving high pressure system moved in as we approached the end of the period meaning that in general pressure increased. And then perhaps my diet was not so good, or I ate infrequently, irregularly, or had a few big meals one day and then light snacking the next, blood sugar will fluctuate. I might find that there is a negative correlation between pressure and blood sugar. But what would happen if I did the experiment for another 30 day period. Depending on the specific conditions I might find a positive correlation. But what I’d find, that over time, after doing many of these repeated tests is that I would have no correlation. The average of all the correlation calculations I perform will be essentially zero. This speaks to the importance of having a larger sample size and whether or not results are repeatable for the same experiment. Had I taken two years worth of pressure data and 2 years worth of blood sugar data, I would have found zero correlation. Furthermore even if I did find some correlation, my results would not be repeatable over many studies. The media often exaggerates findings from experiments that try to say link certain foods or cell phones to cancer. Variables that naturally fluctuate may randomly show a correlation, but further experiments reveal no correlation. But the media usually just picks up on the one study that found a correlation.
To further illustrate this point, take a look at the following two images. The one on the left is a large sample of raw data trying to correlate to variables. If these two variables were correlated we would see the data points approximate a line. Maybe a straight one, maybe a curved one, but definitely some sort of trend would be apparent. You are right if you think that whatever these two variables are they have no relationship two each other. Next to it is the same data set except that some of the data points are missing. Now it looks like there might be a correlation between these two variables. Sure I have selectively chosen in this case which ones to eliminate, but it is possible that a random selection of some of the data points could be these same data points on the left. Thus it is possible that we might think we’ve found a correlation when we didn’t. Once again the more data we take and the more we try to repeat the experiment we would show no correlation.
In the next part we will investigate how we hypothesize about correlations, and how complex most relationships are.
I have been reading a lot of Isaac Asimov lately. I am not sure if all lovers of science fiction would love Isaac Asimov, but if you are interested in the human condition I think Asimov would be your thing. His understanding of human nature is phenomenal and his writing of the future seems to me more of a commentary on who we are as a people and what we are capable of then attempt to be some sort of prognosticator of the future. To me that
is the best part of good science fiction and I am sure it is to many as well.
One of his books that really got me thinking was The Naked Sun which is part of his Robot Series. In it he paints a picture of a planet called Solaria that has been colonized by Earth and is similar in size to Earth but has only 20,000 people. The people are very spread out having vast estates that are similar in size to something like Delaware. In this future people have robots and especially on Solaria where the ratio is around 10,000 to 1 for every human. Robots do everything. Build all the houses, maintain the grounds, cook the food, and basically tend to every human need. It is a world without human contact, where even sex becomes mechanical and only for the purposes of breeding. And that breeding is only selective because they always maintain the population at exactly 20,000.
Earth on the other hand is crowded with everybody living in cities and all cities at populations of 10 million or more. While human touch is still a part of everyday life, there are many social conventions that act to keep people’s privacy intact. Not overly different from today’s city life really.
Both societies seemed very plausible in the way they developed and I started to think of how we might be trending in a direction of isolation whether it is an isolation in which we are surrounded by others or a physical isolation in which human contact in unnecessary or unwanted. We know from studies of anthropology that we started off in hunter-gatherer groups; a society in which we were dependent on each other for survival. Survival was a result of the coordination of each member’s skill set applied with extreme vigilance. As we have developed civilization, larger populations, and new technologies, life has essentially become easier for some of us, and quite a bit harder for a lot of other people. The disparity in standard of living makes the culture of the “haves” admirable to the “have nots”. It seems, at least in this country, that many spend a lot of time reducing the value of the poor, on whose backs our comfort is maintained. It seems to me though that the culture of the “haves” is not necessarily one to admire, and is perhaps not beneficial for our health.
In the house I grew up in, my parents knew most of the people on our street. Perhaps not well, but knew their names, and a few of our neighbors they did know well. I know there are some neighborhoods where people remain very close, but think there is a lot more distrust towards neighbors today than there was in the past. I know the names of two people on my block and that’s it. As I write this article to post it on my blog I am reminded that while it may touch the lives of others, perhaps many of them I will not meet. I will not shake their hands, not see their smile, not hear their laughter, not embrace in warmth and friendship. Like the people of Solaria a large percentage of my interactions are not face to face. Is it simply because these types of interactions are not part of the mental grammar in which I was raised or are we moving towards a world in which physical interaction is less and less necessary?
And the truth is that if I wanted I really don’t need to rely on anyone if I so chose to except for in very impersonal and indirect ways. I can still conduct
my business, get groceries, get a car fixed etc, but don’t really need to get to “know” any of them and certainly no need to touch them or for them to touch me. You can do most of your shopping on-line and have things brought to your door. Banking and paying bills can be done on-line. As a professor I could even be a solely on-line teacher. And while I would still be reliant on society, my need to actively engage in it is not necessary. Of course, that is not to say I couldn’t be a good person and give money to charities, I’d still be paying taxes, I may even be a fantastic teacher who can write well enough and give interesting exercises that will expand the minds of others. The question is, is that the kind of future we want to be. Clearly what I’ve outlined is a lot of personal choice, but it seems that this is a trend amongst those who are as privileged as me and worse yet it seems that this type of lifestyle is almost admired.
For those who do know me, you know I’m not a technophobe and I don’t think technology is evil, but I do think it is worth stopping and thinking about the lives we lead and whether we are going in a direction we want to be going, not only as an individual but as a species. Is it simply not part of our
mental grammar to be surrounded by millions, making cities a place of almost fighting against the idea of community due to sensory overload in comparison to smaller and more rural communities? Do we have specific social traits that come from millions of years of evolution such that we do ourselves harm as we become less and less reliant on the close proximity of our fellow man? Or do we simply adjust easily to the times and simply find happiness where we find it? What seems clear is that many of our prejudices and distrust comes from a lack of familiarity and empathy with struggles and hardships of others. In some ways the power of the internet and new technologies bring us so much closer in an informational way, but less so in a physical way. Does learning about someone’s struggle from a distance build the level of compassion necessary to help them in any meaningful way? Or is it something that I can just say I care about, disseminate the information to others and then move on to the next interesting tidbit of information.
If I had something important to say, I should be glad that it could so easily reach a million people or even more. But is it better to reach a million people without my smile, a friendly tone of voice and warm embrace? Or do I change the world more through the interaction with a few hundred people that I meet while volunteering at a soup kitchen? I guess Isaac Asimov’s writing made me worry that despite global warming the world might be getting colder. It made me pause and wonder whether we may be trending towards more separation and isolation and thus towards less empathy and more apathy.
For me I will keep working on it, try to find the right balance. I have now spent too much time in the digital world and I will now go spend time with the family. 🙂