Odds and sods

Dunbar’s number

Social media has changed everything! Well despite the frequent assertions of that it apparently hasn’t changed the validity of the Dunbar number.

In 1993 Dr Robin Dunbar of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology came up with the number, a rough measure of the number of stable relationships that people can manage, while looking at the size of the neocortex of different species of social primates. He then applied the findings to humans and postulated that we should have social circles of about 150 people. Looking at archaeological and other records he identified that people had traditionally organised themselves into groups of between 100 and 200. This has become known as the social brain hypothesis although commonly termed the Dunbar number.

Social media has allegedly transformed that and some people (not only celebrities) have huge numbers of followers/friends on various social media platforms.

Now in a new paper- Do social media cut through the constraints that limit the size of offline social networks? –  Dr Dunbar suggests it doesn’t. The paper is available at Royal Society Open Science. The paper’s abstract sums up the argument well but the detail is worth reading. Essentially the paper challenges the idea that online social networking “breaks through the glass ceiling” implied by the social brain hypothesis which is “determined in part by cognitive constraints and in part by the time costs of serving relationships” thereby potentially expanding our capacity to maintain social networks.

But on the basis of the data from two separate UK surveys (which seem a lot more robust than some behavioural psychology samples) “the size and range of online egocentric social networks, indexed as the number of Facebook friends, is similar to that of offline face-to-face networks.” Dr Dunbar concludes “For one sample, respondents also specified the number of individuals in the inner layers of their network (formally identified as support clique and sympathy group), and these were also similar in size to those observed in offline networks. This suggests that, as originally proposed in the social brain hypothesis, there is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome. In practical terms, it may reflect the fact that real (as opposed to casual) relationships require at least occasional face-to-face interaction to maintain them.”

In simple terms – you are not necessarily a Luddite if you doubt the social media changes everything mantra – and the outcome of recent elections suggests face to face communications are still the most powerful possible.

Kim, DFAT and the PM get it right

The Department of Foreign Affairs and our outgoing US Ambassador, Kim Beazley, might have been sidelined by some PMs but it is clear that they can be very useful. During Malcolm Turnbull’s recent US visit he did something which was little reported – he rang some US Presidential candidates. Now the PM is smart and probably worked it out on his own but DFAT and Kim must have had some fingers in the mix as well and must have done some of the pre-preparation. After all you don’t get off the plane, pick up the phone and make a quick call to Hillary hoping she’ll pick up. The significance is that one of the candidates he called was Republican Marco Rubio – well behind in the polls of Republicans – but probably the contender much of the Republican establishment would love to get up. More importantly election betting markets are favouring Rubio whatever the polls show about Trump and Cruz. There’s no certainty about the outcome by any means but it was, according to recent standards, an uncharacteristically adroit bit of Australian diplomacy.

Across the detail

One thing, however, is that as yet no one has claimed that one of the Republican candidates – as they often did of Thatcher and Reagan – has “a great grasp of detail.” The historian Andrew Roberts did it for Paul Ryan, a Republican VP candidate, last time round but that came within an endorsement of his brilliance so all-encompassing that it is a surprise he wasn’t credited with the capacity to cure cancer. The claim of detail mastery is meant, of course, to suggest that the person is really across the brief although in practice it’s a euphemism to describe a tendency to seize on some particular detail and belabour and belabour and belabour it. In special cases, such as Kevin Rudd, it is simply a case of the old saying about not seeing the wood for the trees. It’s not only politicians, of course, who are praised for looking at detail. Some years ago the FT had a profile of the then Walmart CEO. It quoted one of his employees as saying: “He’s the only person I know that never looked at his watch and always sat with his back to the clock. But five minutes before the meeting was supposed to be over he’d say: ‘Let’s wrap up. What you got?’” Same principle and probably same conclusion an unbiased observer might come to.

Science, innovation and why support it

Despite the USA’s astonishing scientific achievements there’s not much debate in the Presidential campaign about science – other than about the scientific ‘conspiracy’ on climate change as a means of bringing in world government enforced by black helicopters. Similarly Australia’s decadal government statements on innovation focus more on corporate structure or technology than they do on basic science. So the blog was delighted to come across, for the first time in some years, a report of Robert Wilson’s comments to a 1969 US Congressional hearing. Wilson was seeking funds for Fermilab and was being questioned by Senator John Pastore – not hostilely but rather through sort of Dorothy Dixers encouraging Wilson to say what Pastore wanted to hear. Pastore wanted Wilson to agree that the project had some connection with national security and twice Wilson failed to take the bait. Finally after a third question Wilson said: “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has nothing to do with defending our country except to make it worth defending.” If you want more details of this, and other descriptions of scientists, administrators and politicians involved in the funding and development of US physics see Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe: The Hunt for Higgs and the Discovery of a New World.

Thomas Cromwell

Hilary Mantel is completing the third volume of her fictional depiction of Thomas Cromwell. One wonders how she will handle Cromwell’s final scene. Did the executioner deliberately bungle the job or were Cromwell’s neck and shoulders as tough as he was? Meanwhile Diarmaid MacCulloch is following up his recent books on the period (in between a magisterial history of Christianity) with a new biography of Thomas Cromwell. He wrote a terrific biography of Cranmer and one expects the Cromwell one will be as good. Recently Mantel and MacCulloch appeared together at a December Royal Academy session discussing their subject. A broadcast of the panel is available online.