Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Social Sciences and a Giant Unicycle

One of the cool things about this blog, particularly the Afternoon Inquisitions, is the occasional glimpse we get into the diverse backgrounds of the readers. Among other things, a lot of you are computer people, some are doctors, some are writers, and some proudly wave the flag of “indefinable”.

And there are quite a few social scientists and social workers that click by here as well. Some even stick around and comment.

So for today, let’s fire up a discussion about social science. As always, the questions are just the jumping off point. Don’t be afraid to take the discussion in a new direction if the flow calls for it.

What area of social science most interests you? Will social science(s) ever become methodologically similar to the natural sciences (i.e. make testable predictions, unveil natural laws, etc.)? Has it already? If so, can you give examples? And what was all that talk about a giant unicycle? I don’t see a giant unicycle. I don’t even see a regular unicycle. Sam has lost his freakin’ mind.

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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44 Comments

  1. I’m a usability specialist these days, so I’m very fond of sociology and cognitive science in general, as it relates to human-computer interaction.

    As a web developer for small business (because usability, regrettably, doesn’t pay the bills since it’s not seen as essential to most development projects), I like to tell my clients that I build a site looking at it both from the way they want their clients to use it, but also from the way they use it within their business SOP.

    So, if they are tech-y, I can offer them a more technical solution. If they are not comfortable with computers (for whatever reason), I try and find the most simple interface for them to use, or even discuss a scheduled maintenance contract. Not because I want to jack up the price by implementing expensive software or signing them to a contract (indeed – my contracts have a clause that make it easy for either of us to back out of the contract with a month’s notice), but because a web site the owners don’t understand how to use or are afraid to use is simply a waste of money.

    Bottom line – I try and do what is best for their business. I get word-of-mouth referrals – happy clients are one who are happy to share your name around.

    I don’t have a huge client base, but I’ve got a loyal one and sites I build on my own win awards alongside ones built by larger agencies. So I never underestimate the sociology and psychology involved in creating a successful web site.

  2. I love the social science of walking. I used to be very slow and tentative navigating airports and grocery stores. Over time I learned that if I act completely oblivious people will get out of my way even those that seem to be as oblivious as I am pretending to be. I just walk fast, head down, and absolutely no eye contact. I pretend that anything that gets in my way will have a Dave-sized hole in it. Occasionally this leads to a game I call “oblivion chicken”. I still lose sometimes, but less and less.

  3. First time postin’.

    I’m an archaeologist (studying ancient Rome, mostly) and in modern archaeological theory there are two main schools of thought: processualism and post-processualism. Processualism was begun in the seventies and eighties and is very much the modernist, positivist, “science-y” side of archaeology. The main tenet of it is that the processes of human life – hence “processualism” – leave behind traces, and by identifying what those traces are and then looking for them, we can identify how people lived. If you start from that standpoint, you can actually make testable hypotheses – for example, if this archaeological site was a butcher’s shop, we should find tools used for butchery and bones with cut marks on them. If you find those artifacts, your hypothesis is confirmed. From this approach it’s very difficult to say anything about thought processes and beliefs, especially for pre-literate people, because these sorts of activities don’t tend to leave findable traces in the ground for us to dig up.

    On the other side of archaeology, we have post-processualism, which was a post-modern reaction to processualism. In its extreme, exaggerated form (that some people do still cling to), post-processualism holds that since archaeology is a social science – which it is – we can’t ever know positively (it is a non-positivist school of thought) if our interpretations are correct. Therefore, any and all interpretations are good. This is the post-modern, “artsy” side of archaeology. From this standpoint, it’s very easy to interpret artifacts in terms of cognition and belief – but no one interpretation is any “right-er” than the other.

    Now for the most part, processualism has a stronger hold on prehistoric archaeology (archaeology of pre-literate peoples) and post-processualism has a stronger hold on historic archaeology (archaeology of literate people.) This is because when you have writing to go on, it’s infinitely easier to speak in terms of belief systems.

    I fall somewhere in between the two schools in my own work. I do try to make testable hypotheses and I am very cautious in and aware of the assumptions I make in interpretation. However, it IS true that archaeology is a social science, and as with any social science it’s very difficult (impossible?) to interpret anything objectively, so I do keep the post-processualist viewpoint in mind, too.

  4. @davew: That’s how I learned to be a pedestrian, in Harvard Square. Took a few bumps, but the cars learned to respect my space.

    P.S. This post criss-crossed with scribe’s… Yeah, Manhattan is exactly the same, only about 1000 times bigger…

  5. I majored in Linguistics in college, and have minors in Philosophy, History, and Japanese, so I feel pretty confident in saying that there’s a lot of mushy stuff in soft sciences. However, in Linguistics at least, we could do a great deal of observation, and a moderate amount of prediction. Never did get to do really cool experiments with humans though. I always liked Derick Bickerton’s bioprogram hypothesis of grammar development, and the fact that it’s somewhat testable, as long as you create an island full of adults who speak different languages and force them to form a pigeon language, and then see what the kids who are born grow up on that island do. Will they ape the largely structureless pigeon, or will they create a new grammatical structure, and what form would it take?

    If they create a grammar, then the implication is that grammatical structure is hardwired in the brain. Then you get to do it again, and see if the grammar is the same. Fun!

    Sadly, we aren’t allowed to mess kids up like that. Shame, really. It would teach us a great deal about language development, and how much is wired into the brain and how much is learned. Stoopid ethics, getting in the way of experiments.

  6. Will social science(s) ever become methodologically similar to the natural sciences (i.e. make testable predictions, unveil natural laws, etc.)?

    I find it intriguing to ponder whether or not psychohistory (or something like it) will ever become “real”.

  7. @Buzz Parsec: P.S. This post criss-crossed with scribe’s… Yeah, Manhattan is exactly the same, only about 1000 times bigger…

    Thanks for the heads up, guys. I’m comfortably certain my crowd skillz are not up to NYC. Thankfully I intend to never go to NYC.

  8. I think you made me crack a tooth.

    Sorry but I hate questions like these. As a IT academic taking a sociological perspective in her dissertation I’m situated in between the hard and social sciences in terms of disciplinary study (although my college is considered to fall under the social science heading). I run into computer scientists all the time who don’t understand the point of my research and social scientists who don’t see the value in it. So maybe I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about this issue.

    But I’m reading several assumptions into your questions. The first is that the methodological reasoning of the hard sciences is better and that to become more science-like or hard science like the social sciences must move in that direction. And you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that. If you look at the field of sociology there are great rifts regarding methods and research design that stem from the question “Do we need to set up our research to be similar to the hard sciences or do we do something different?” There are many sociological studies that would be very similar to hard science studies. I’ve read plenty of papers in the area of social movements that do hypothesis testing and statistical model generation. And they have found that there are instances to human behavior that do tend to be universal (although no one in science is going around establishing natural laws anymore. It only causes trouble).

    But personally I find that value judgment upon what makes for good science to be a false one. The methods of the social sciences are often just as valid, rigorous, and reliable as those used in the hard sciences (trust me I had to write a 25 page section of my dissertation proposal justifying just this fact). If you can prove that your methods meet those three qualifications then you are doing good science, full stop.

    Second, I feel that there is an assumption that social sciences are not contributing as much as they could if they were more like the hard sciences. And I find this assumption to be false as well. I feel that it comes from the same weighted view point that there is this perfect science out there and that the hard sciences are closer to that perfect than the social sciences are. But the whole goal of science it understand our world. And our world is constantly changing so there can be no perfect, abstract science that will answer all questions. Using this viewpoint I see the social sciences as adding equal but different contributions to our understanding of the world. I like to call them the squishy sciences because they deal with things that fundamentally can not be whittled away with abstractions, which we have seen time and time again. I think @Zapski illustrated this perfectly. In math and chemistry it becomes somewhat possible to abstract away from the actual environment to make things like hypotheses and natural laws. But removing social science subjects from their natural settings removes most of the important information that can be gained by studying them in the first place. Sure we can learn a bit about how language forms, or how people make decisions by studying them in a lab. But to really get it we need to connect them to a culture and a context. I guess that’s what the difference is: hard sciences can study the object while the social science study the relationship between the object and its context. Both are equally valuable to science. The hard sciences tell us a lot about our world and the objects that exist within it. But the social sciences tell us about our own place within that world and how objects relate to the world, each other, and us. We need both of these perspectives in order to have a well rounded understanding of our existence and science.

    I guess the tl;dr of this is don’t mess with a PhD student who’s favorite class was philosophy of science :)

  9. Above all other social sciences I’d have to say I find history the most fascinating. And I cannot imagine, given the need to quantify the motives of dead people and interpret data from within a modern perspective, that history ever will be any more exact or precise than it is currently.

    @Siveambrai: I personally think a good historian is worth two physicists any day. ;-)

  10. I’m nearly done my BA, Double Major, Psychology & Sociology. I’ve also been doing part-time work in IT for the last few years.

    I think Siveambrai hit it pretty well, so I’ll just add a few things.

    As I learn more and more psychology, I start to find free will less believable and psychohistory more believable, especially when studying social psychology.

    I’m not an expert in the harder sciences, but I think psychology in particular has a greater frontier than say, physics. This may only be because participants for psychological studies are very cheap, and particle accelerators are very expensive. Nonetheless I find it remarkable that there is still so much to learn about the human mind.

    As for discovering natural laws, I’d have to ask what you mean by ‘natural’. Are humans artificial? Are our creations artificial? Are laws on consciousness, reason, learning, tool use, or technology laws of things that are artifical rather than natural?

    Psychology is already similar to the natural sciences in making testable predictions. But where the physicist can do a test on a few particles, psychology needs to test large numbers of subjects – the bigger the group, the better. As for natural laws? Don’t put too much faith in your memory.

    http://www.holah.karoo.net/loftusstudy.htm

    Take that experiment. Now imagine yourself in a courtroom where the speed of the car, or the amount of broken glass is important to the case. You’re sitting in the defendant’s chair, and the prosecution gets to ask the witness first. I’d be nervous as hell if he uses the word ‘smashed’.

  11. I’m an economist, so that’s my particular area of interest.

    I don’t think the social sciences will ever produce the degree of confidence than the physical sciences do because our job is much harder.

    The human brain is the most complicated object known to exist and the global economy is 6 billion human brains interacting with each other. Add to that the fact that we operate in an inherently political environment, and often find it nearly impossible to get clean data, and you have a big problem on your hands.

    A few other comments based on previous commenters:
    1) Post-modernists in economics: No such thing. I think the fact you have to be pretty competent at math to be an economist scares the po-mos away.

    2) Free will. It depends on what you mean by free will. I tend toward compatibilism, but that’s because I’m willing to define free will down until it fits into a deterministic framework.

    3) Psychohistory. Will never happen. Not only is society too complicated to be predicted without impossible amounts of data and processing power, but in accordance with Goodheart’s Law, the moment you start trying to use your predictions, society will change in unpredictable ways to render your predictions worthless.

  12. My degree is in Political Studies. If I had gone to just about any other Canadian university, it would have been in “Political Science.”

    There is a trend in the humanities that (correctly, IMO) points out that there are two fundamental types of truths: natural and artificial. Natural truths (gravity, evolution, AGW) are formed by natural laws, and hence need to be studied by the natural sciences (respectively, physics, biology, and climatology).

    However, artificial truths are generally fluid, and are socially constructed. Feminism, liberalism, civil rights cannot be experimented on like equations or test tubes because people are not reducible in such ways. Social truths are as dynamic as the people who comprise them.

    There are certainly mid-ground fields (anthropology, economics and psychology come to mind), but I am generally careful to make sure that the term “social sciences” is qualified with a huge asterisk.

    That said, literary criticism fascinates me. Most people think it’s just about looking into books and plays. The reality of the field is that they often harbor some of the most incredibly sophisticated discussions on ethics, morals, laws, liberties outside of a philosophy context. I read PZ Myers’s sophomoric complaints against Terry Eagleton last year, and it took me several months just to understand what Eagleton was arguing, before I took a stance on it. Sadly, many skeptics are quick to denounce Eagleton, and entire disciplines purely on the basis that they don’t make sense to them.

  13. I am a sociology graduate and I now ride a giant unicycle for a living (honestly I really do – here’s my website http://www.babcockandbobbins.co.uk ) do I win a prize?
    Its 18 years since I did my degree and i remember there being a real “them and us” attitude towards those doing “proper science”. I don’t think social science can become methodologically similar to the natural sciences, but that doesn’t mean to say there is no value in it as a subject – it’s through sociology that I took an interest in ethics and philosophy and then scepticism so it has had some worth.
    If I’m completely honest I just wasn’t clever enough for the natural sciences.

  14. @James K:

    James K, I am not, as such, disagreeing with you, but I am confused … or something like that.

    You say:

    Free will. It depends on what you mean by free will. I tend toward compatibilism, but that’s because I’m willing to define free will down until it fits into a deterministic framework.

    Bafflegab. No, really, I think it is.

    I must admit I had never heard of such a thing as “compatibilism”, and after researching it, admittedly somewhat briefly, I feel it is a somewhat sophistic and, ultimately, excessively intellectually make-believe piece of empty rhetoric, without very much solid-ground backing … rather like Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” philosophies.

    Piffle, as it were.

    You also say:

    Psychohistory. Will never happen. Not only is society too complicated to be predicted without impossible amounts of data and processing power, but in accordance with Goodheart’s Law, the moment you start trying to use your predictions, society will change in unpredictable ways to render your predictions worthless.

    The list of things that have been described as and determined to be “too complicated to be predicted” with such an indeterminate, falsely limited, and unknown thing as “impossible amounts of data and processing power”, is far, far, far too long, too ageless, and much too vast to be, as it were, “predicted without impossible amounts of data and processing power”.

    Quite literally, none of those absolutes are, as it were, absolute or, as it were, predictable with any kind of accuracy whatsoever. In other words, “Balls”.

    Furthermore, while psychohistory is, at this point in time, little more than the entertaining and somewhat exciting intellectual “artifactitious” legacy of the great Asimov, it must be noted that one of the fundamental and essential rules of psychohistory was the absolute and unbreakable requirement that one must not ever under any circumstances, fictitious or otherwise, “start trying to use [one’s] predictions” in any practical sense whatsoever for the simple fact that such action would then necessarily render any such psychohistorical predictions null and void.

    By all of which I mean to say your reasoning is, um, I think circular, or self negating, or at the very least incomplete and, well, um, rather flawed and false.

    I think.

    It could be argued, at least in my opinion, that ST’s (@Some Canadian Skeptic: ) second and third claims, er, paragraphs, additionally substantiate my argument.

    Perhaps.

  15. John, I’ll admit to not being aware of that little feature of Psychohistory, so I’ll cop to making an error there. Of course, it seems to me that predictions you can’t use are pretty pointless.

    As to compatibilism, well perhaps it would help if I explained the model economists use to describe decision-making, so you can see where I’m coming from.

    What determines what alternative a person will choose? Economists break it down like this:

    1) You have preferences, which is what the person wants (theoretically, its complete ranking of all possible states of the universe from most preferred to least, but of course no one actually has preferences this well ordered in reality).
    2) You have constraints. How much income the person has is a big constraint in economics, but basically anything that prevents the person from choosing certain alternatives matters.
    3) then you have a bunch of complicating factors like the person’s state of knowledge and any boundaries on their rationality.

    When you break a decision down like this (what you want, what you can do, and how well you can make the decision), one can see that every aspect of the decision has a physical basis and should be bound by the laws of causality, so I’m not disputing the deterministic aspect of this.

    My question is: what does it mean to say someone freely chose something? Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but if it does mean something then I think that it is to do with preferences. People can separate their constraints from their identity easily (this happens every time someone says they want something but can’t afford it), and you can even separate your cognitive or informational limitations from your identity (arguably this is what addiction is), but I don’t see how someone could separate their preferences from their identity.

    If you’re willing to accept my chain of logic on this, then you’ll see that you can define free will as “making decisions under conditions where one’s preferences are a significant factor in the outcome of the decision”. This is a slightly eccentric definition, but I feel it falls well within the commonly used definition of the term: basically that people are doing what they want (within some constraints, clearly we’re not perfectly free). That one’s preferences are determined is irrelevant to the question of whether we are free, if my preferences were different, I wouldn’t be me I’d be someone else.

  16. @Siveambrai:

    Man, we need to get a cup of coffee. If only because my favorite professor in college incorporated the philosophy of science into all his lectures, so it’s part and parcel of science to me :D

    I’m curious: have you ever gotten the “Oh, of course you’re doing the sociology aspect of IT because you’re a girl” vibe?

    I used to do more “hard” programming, but when I migrated to UI, I got a bunch of that, including “Oh, you found programming too hard?”.

    After giving them my death-stare-lite, I responded that the UI aspect was actually more challenging than back-end programming (which I still do). Because you can coast from project-to-project for months or years with a good code library, but developing successful interface on every project means you have to deal with people. And unlike code standards, people’s reactions can change in an instant, so I had to actually work harder than I had at code. Because I have to anticipate those changes.

    No one asks me anymore – kills ’em every time ;)

  17. I find it amusing how incredibly agitated many social science people here can be about even Sam’s /phrasing/ of certain questions.

    To those saying that social science cannot and should not resemble hard science, BAH!

    The transition towards evidence-based social science, rather than armchair theorizing, I think everyone can clearly agree is better.

    @Siveambrai:

    But personally I find that value judgment upon what makes for good science to be a false one. The methods of the social sciences are often just as valid, rigorous, and reliable as those used in the hard sciences

    Rigorous, valid, and reliable ARE what makes hard sciences good science. So, in my eye’s, you’re basically saying “We don’t need the same standards as hard sciences because we have the same standards as hard science.”

    I don’t think unreproducibility, bias, lack of evidence, or being unthorough add anything to social science… or hard science…

    And thus they should follow the same basic logical tenets.

    o.O

  18. @Some Canadian Skeptic:

    Clearly and concisely stated.

    I was trying to say the exact thing about the types of “truths” to a buddy of mine recently, and I kept stumbling over my own thoughts. I will now simply read your comment to him (and take full credit for it).

    @sporefrog:

    I find it amusing how incredibly agitated many social science people here can be about even Sam’s /phrasing/ of certain questions.

    Hehe . . . I’d say “passionate” not “agitated”.

    But your comment is well taken.

    For the record, I try to keep my own views out of the questions on the AIs, but of course am not always successful. The goal for these posts is to generate discussion, and this one has generated some very good discussion.

    Thank you all for your input.

  19. @Rei Malebario: It’s true, we’re smoking hot.

    Definitely biased towards anthropology myself, and since my anthro history and theory was taught to me in a, “Isn’t it great that we no longer take the old-white-dude-in-an-armchair approach?” I think there’s a definite respect towards research methods more often associated with the hard sciences.

    History really appeals to me as well, especially since well-written history has to take into account so many modern biases on the part of the author. Watching someone wrestle those out in their writing is really fascinating to me.

  20. I always like to say that the social sciences are actually the “harder” sciences for the reasons many of you have said here. Basically what we study are moving targets, people develop, cultures change, languages change etc. There are more complex interactions in human sciences that make it more difficult to control variables. But, science is a process not a set of tools or facts and social sciences rigorously employ these same procedures.

    As a note to Zapski about studies of language: You can study the emergence of language in people without having to lament the impossibility of doing the experiment you suggested. For 20 or 30 years researchers have been studying how deaf children who are not exposed to language (neither spoken languages because they can’t hear them nor sign languages because they are prevented from exposure to other signers) spontaneously create language (or, rather create some aspects of language) without any input. Researchers have also been looking at how sign languages have emerged among groups of deaf people without input from either spoken language or other sign languages (check out Coppola, Sengas, Goldin-Meadow, Padden, etc.). It is possible to study those questions using naturally occurring groups.

  21. @sporefrog:
    “Rigorous, valid, and reliable ARE what makes hard sciences good science. “

    Fine. How do you measure the value of free speech? Equal rights for women in the workplace? A child’s painting? There are simply too many variables to treat subjective human experience as though they were objective data points to be added and subtracted in a statistical analysis.

    When we reduce people to subjects in an equation, we get the Stamford Prison Experiments. What drives my physical science-minded friends especially batty is that some things CANNOT be quantified. This is why we have quantitative and qualitative truths. This is high school stuff really.

    I could probably design an experiment, using the scientific method to find out which kind of diet cola I like best, because blinding works on people. As it so happens, I did. But try and come up with an experiment that explains why there is workplace inequality for transgendered people. Try to come up an experiment to figure out why some children of musical homes are not musical at all, and some kids not from musical homes can play a dozen instruments. Account for all the variables in a mathematical way to explain the ethical issues of a woman selling her eggs to corporate fertility interests.

    If I had any faith that the physical sciences could possibly account for ALL possible variables in such a dynamic species such as we, I might consider their reductionism to be a valid point of inquiry into the human condition. Science can tell us a great deal, but it is not the end of the line when it comes to humans. This is why scientism is such a bad thing….respect and love of science has driven many to exalt it to the point of ideology. Ubiquitous in skeptic circles, but no less disheartening.

    I’m sorry: Quantitative analysis doesn’t work for qualitative issues.

    This is not “agitation”, it’s just the truth ;)

  22. @Canadian Skeptic
    About science, I think social science use scientific methods. Sure, they are not quantities and all math, but I am pretty sure there are proper ways to investigate history, psychology, sociology, etc. And I am pretty sure those methods are rigorous. So I think social sciences are science, even if not exactly quantifiable and the results are more nebulous.

  23. @IBY: Yes, there are some methods borrowed from the physical sciences, but the research does not, nor can not end there. In the case of history, basic fact checking is necessary to determine an event’s historicity, but this is not always reasonably possible (missing records, conflicting accounts etc…), so what is the historian to do in such a situation? They might extrapolate what they already know to determine the facts, they might determine that an event is unknowable until more evidence comes in, they might value one piece of evidence more than another purely on the basis of reputation. This is a kind of argument from authority (the authority of the source, not the historian), yet sometimes historians need to employ this argument that is unacceptable in the sciences.

    I minored in history and majored in political studies. During the course of my degree I noticed all manner of logical fallacies (argument from authority, special pleading, teleology) that were ubiquitous. I doth protested (too much, it was expressed) that we need to get to the facts.

    But sometimes, the facts are unknowable, or we don’t have the tools to know them. It sucks, but we do the best we can. When it comes to the human condition (expressible in politics, philosophy, literary criticism, and art), the tools of the physical sciences are but one of the many tools we need to employ.

    But in the physical sciences, we cannot use arguments of ethics or morals to explain natural phenomena. We can account for them, but we can’t end there.

  24. @Siveambrai:
    COTW

    I have a master’s degree in political science, which I adore, and am getting another in social work, because I need concrete skills to do what I want to do. As it is, I’m moving from a field so steeped in behaviorism it has trouble remembering that it studies people (ask any realist how important individuals are) to a field that is quite young and unbelievably fluffy. Evidence-based study is important. And I’m definitely not going to say “there are many kinds of evidence.” But there are things that social scientists study that can only be questionably quantified. And, if you can’t quantify something, you can’t be very hard with it.

    My interests lie in genocide and ethnic conflict, (recovery from) & (redevelopment after). How do we quantify grief? How do we quantify ethnicity? How do we quantify culture? How do we quantify the impact of ethnically-targeted rape and forced pregnancy? How do we quantify the loss of home? How do we quantify the refugee experience? Certainly, we can devise and study evidence-based practice which increases the chances of being able to reestablish economic activity following trauma. Certainly we can devise practices that increase family reintegration following defilement (as defined by local cultural values of ethnic and physical purity), if we can invent a definition for family integration as marriageability, marital status, living with family, number of subsequent children, etc. But it’s going to remain pretty fluffy. That isn’t a challenge that can be met by acting more like a hard science. It’s simply a limitation we must accept and work through.

  25. I know that in social sciences, sometimes, the facts are nebulous or missing or the tools are missing, but as you said, you guys do the best you can with what you have. And I know enough of social science that I can see a lot of value in it. So while it is not “hard,” I still consider it science in some ways since it helps us understand the world we live in, and I consider humans to be part of that world.

  26. @Amanda:

    History really appeals to me as well, especially since well-written history has to take into account so many modern biases on the part of the author. Watching someone wrestle those out in their writing is really fascinating to me.

    Exactly this; and it’s one reason I really enjoy historical novels when the author is passionate about getting the history correct and even tries to reflect the thinking of the characters in as accurate a historical context as is possible.

  27. @Amanda: I have no idea how historically accurate they are, but I’ve enjoyed the Brother Cadfael books and Bernard Cornwell’s novels set in the time of King Alfred. Also Robert Graves wrote at least one set in during the later stages of the Roman empire (in addition to the Claudius novels.)

  28. @davew: I do something similar when I have to go into a Wal-Mart… mine, however, involves speaking only in German, with an angry/stressed tone in my voice.

    @Amanda: An interesting set is Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon” novels, starting with “The Last Kingdom.”

  29. @Buzz Parsec: I’ll second those recommendations, I’ve read all of those and enjoyed them greatly.

    @Amanda: Patrick O’Brian’s highly acclaimed Aubrey / Maturin series. I’d suggest starting with the second book Post Captain as being a bit more accessible than the first. But you should read all the books in that series. They are fantastic.

    It’s a series set in the Napoleonic wars, and centers on Captain Jack Aubrey, and his particular friend, Dr. Stephen Matruin. Captain Aubrey is a dashing commander who loves horses, toasted cheese, and playing the violin. Dr. Maturin is an accomplished physician and natural philosopher who is easily distracted by passing birds, and unusual insects. He is also a spy in His Majesty’s service.

    The first book, Master and Commander tells of Jack’s first command, the Sophie, and his adventures in the Mediterranean (which includes cuckolding his commanding officer, the odious Admiral Harte). He and Stephen meet at a garden concert, and set to offending one another, resulting in a duel. Neither is very much inclined to fight though, and they reconcile their differences, finding a mutual love of music, and Jack invites Stephen to sail as his surgeon.

    The second book begins during the peace of 1801, and has the two of them ashore in England, setting up a country home together, and looking for wives. That’s why I generally recommend starting there, as it has a more rounded story, on land and sea and works quite well in isolation if one decides not to continue the series.

    I’ve read all 20 books at least three times now, and am currently reading them aloud to The Girlâ„¢ on lazy Sunday afternoons.

  30. Yay for the anthropology love! I got my doctorate in anthro not too long ago, and now I’m teaching it. :) Anthropology is frelling awesome! People are just fascinating (channeling my inner Mr. Spock here). I have an applied bent, so I’m all about using research to improve people’s lives. You want to find out a community’s attitudes towards animals? Do an ethnography! Want to find out why people don’t vaccinate? Get an anthropologist in there! And as much as I’d like to do either of those, I’m not able to any time soon, because my college has zero research support.

  31. @Buzz Parsec: @Mark Hall: Thanks for the recommendations!

    @Zapski: One of my dearest friends is completely obsessed with the Aubrey/Maturin series. I feel like I know them already through her, but I should read them myself! Especially since I’ve enjoyed a couple other series that were said to have the same feel as Patrick O’Brien’s writing.

  32. @Amanda: I’ve read and enjoyed all the novels by Edward Rutherfurd, (a pen name for Francis Edward Wintle) However I have not read his latest about New York. I was also going to recommend the Patrick O’Brien series which I really enjoyed. Funny thing about O’Brien is that he made up all kinds of shit about his own personal history as a WWII aviator that was complete BS. Another amazing series of three books I’d recommend is The Baroque Cycle by Neil Stephenson. There is a fair amount of fiction woven into the general history involving the 17th Century with special attention paid to the Newton Leibniz calculus conflict, with gold, pirates, church corruption, and the plague thrown in. Neil Stephenson is one of the few authors I’d say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything he’s written. One of his earlier novels is called Cryptonomicon which has parallel stories taking place between WWII cryptographers and a modern internet banking business that’s developing computer encryption.

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