Scientific Models and Individual Experience

by David Kordahl

I’ll start this column with an over-generalization. Speaking roughly, scientific models can be classed into two categories: mechanical models, and actuarial models. Engineers and physical scientists tend to favor mechanical models, where the root causes of various effects are specified by their formalism. Predictable inputs, in such models, lead to predictable outputs. Biologists and social scientists, on the other hand, tend to favor actuarial models, which can move from measurements to inferences without positing secret causes along the way. By calling these latter models “actuarial,” I’m encouraging readers to think of the tabulations of insurance analysts, who have learned to appreciate that individuals may be unpredictable, even as they follow predictable patterns in the aggregate.

Operationally, these categories refer to different scientific practices. What I’ve called a difference between mechanical vs. actuarial models could just as well be sketched as a difference between theory-driven vs. data-driven models. Both strains have coexisted in science for the past few centuries.

Just for fun, we might attempt to caricature the history of modern science in the mechanical vs. actuarial terms introduced above. In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton proposed a law of universal gravitation, applicable everywhere throughout the universe, which allowed naturalists to imagine that all physical effects, everywhere and for all time, were caused by physical laws, just waiting to be discovered. This view was developed to its philosophical extreme in the eighteenth century by the French mathematician, Pierre Laplace, who imagined that the universe at any particular moment implicitly contained the specifications for its entire past and future.

But in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin introduced his theory of natural selection, which allowed naturalists to take actuarial models more seriously. Just as hidden order could cause the appearance of randomness, hidden randomness could cause the appearance of order. Read more »

Clothes & Fashion, Feminism & Other -isms

by Tara* Kaushal

The clothes, models and visual imagery standards set by the fashion industry leave women across the world to balance complex dynamics in their personal style choices. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.

Feminist-Fashion-Sahil-Mane-PhotographyThat clothes and, by extension, fashion, are a feminist, gender, class, financial, social, political, psychological, cultural, historical, ageist, religious, lookist, etc. issue is a given. Our ability and reasons to wear, or not, the clothes we do is charged with individual choice rooted in environmental dynamics, and is remarkably telling of our who, what, where, when and why. Though Abraham Maslow does refer to “differences in style of hair-dress, clothes” in his important hierarchy of needs theory as “superficial differences in specific desires from one culture to another”, clothes themselves would probably rate from basic needs all the way up the pyramid to self-actualization.

So I start with a few caveats: I'm not talking about the sartorial ‘choices' of women living in places of the world where religion and/or laws determine what to wear—the burka is beyond the scope of this column. I talk of socio-cultural environments where people can wear what they choose for the most part, despite traditionalists expressing varying degrees of disapproval, though even here I leave out those who, in Maslow's words, “live by bread alone”.

My premise is that this demographic of people the world over taps in to and is influenced by global fashion culture rooted in Western styles in various ways and degrees, consciously or sub—either directly on the internet or through more traditional media feeding off the internet, either fresh off the international runways or through its influence on their country's own fashion convention. And these Western styles continue to incorporate global influences, making for a hotbed dynamic with exponential possibilities.

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