Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of a Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform ad shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks preventing us from linking Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Throughout her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts on their own. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring an idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea exactly the idea of social construction in politics and governance that I touched on in the opening note. Gefter quotes a note in one of Wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics.”

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from  the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our problem solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions about the workings of the universe.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs how we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspective matters, when it comes to science and physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to study and experiment with the universe. Keeping social constructionism in mind also helps us understand why we choose to study certain aspects of science and why we present our findings in the ways that we do. We may never be able to get to a purely rational place in either science or politics (though science is certainly much closer), but understanding and knowing where social construction plays a part will help us be more observant and honest about what we say, study, believe, and discover.
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Cutting Through

The truly great thing about physics is that it is universal. Literally. What we discover about physics here in the United States is true in South Africa, and what is discovered in South Africa can be learned just as well in Vietnam, and it all holds true on Jupiter or in the Andromeda Galexy. Physics is based in mathematics and repeatable experiments and it can be understood anywhere. It takes our perceptions and it boils them down into their most simplistic forms, tests them, repeats the test, and then determines what is real and what is unsupported. This means that physics has the ability to help us understand things in incredible new ways. We can better understand the universe and how it is held together, but only if we can study the physics and step beyond ourselves to understand what the tests, experiments, and math are trying to explain to us.

For Amanda Gefter, this is one of the best parts of physics. It takes our expectations, our assumptions, and what we want to be true, and completely ignores it. A good scientist, during their search for what is real and what is not, is able to cut through the noise of our expectations, beliefs, and desires to see the science underneath, holding things together.

Gefter writes, “That was what I loved about physics—that moment of pure surprise when you suddenly realize that what you had thought was one thing is really something else, or that two things that seemed so different are really two ways of looking at the very same thing. It was the perennial comfort that comes from discovering that the world is not remotely what it seems.”

By cutting through the noise of humanity, physics helps us to see the world more thoroughly. The world and the universe are not the way they simply appears to us from our perspective on Earth. Much of how we interpret and understand the universe is through what we see, but so much of the universe does not emit electromagnetic radiation or react with light in any way. How we perceive the universe depends on our point of view, and of our experience as human beings living on our planet. What physics does, is move beyond our experience of the universe to tell us how things are at any point in the universe, not just on planet Earth today. If we accept the world as it appears to us, then we somehow cease to move forward, and we begin to live in a story that never completely captures the reality we experience around us. We begin to live in ways that don’t add up, that put us at the center and don’t allow for the types of evolution and adaptation that we need to live in this universe responsibly. Physics takes the stories that we tell and re-writes them, adjusting the language to be the language of mathematics, giving us a new perspective from which to tell our story.

Interdependence

Senator Cory Booker starts the epilogue to his book United with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency.” Throughout his book he focuses on the connections that everyone in the United States shares simply by being an American. We are connected to those generations that came before us and the decisions they made, and we are connected to the generations that will come after us and those who will live with the world we create. Our lives are dependent on one another in ways that we cannot always imagine or understand, but when we focus on our connections we can begin to see how important it is to live intentionally and recognize how our choices impact others.

 

In the United States self reliance and personal responsibility are emphasized far more than interdependence or social reliance. When we talk about success we are quick to look at the ways that we have achieved greatness on our own and we are quick to provide examples of  individuals producing great value and reaping great reward. It is our individual spirit and our industriousness that we look at when we think about how we succeed. The situation and the environment are often left out of the equation in favor of the obstacles we had to overcome and the smart decisions we had to make. When we look at what a successful person is, we focus completely on the person, assuming that the person is great entirely due to their own actions and hard work. This translates back into the world in which we live, and we look at successful and famous people and assume there is something special about them or that they are worthy of praise because they achieved wealth, status, and fame through hard work and an innovative spirit. In some way, we elevate their moral standing, their intelligence, and their character simply because we see them as successful.

 

When thinking about failure on the other hand, we find many excuses that push responsibility away from us, onto the situation, onto other people, and onto random events. Our personal responsibility seems to diminish as soon as things are not going our way. We hold self-sufficiency as our goal, and push toward it, and any failure seems to indicate that we are somehow less than an ideal version of ourselves, so we find ways in which our failure or lack of success is not an indication of our self-sufficiency. Yet at the same time, when we see people who ask for money, or are out of shape and are not as financially well of as we are, we blame the individual and begin assuming that they have deficiencies in character and work habit that have led to their less than ideal situation.

 

A more healthy world view would be one similar to Gandhi’s. We would recognize that our success is not simply a matter of our own great decisions and actions, but rather the consequence of our choices within an environment that in many ways shaped the actions and options available to us. Our success or our failure would be dependent on the lives of those who came before us and the systems, norms, and culture they left behind. Shifting how we think about where self-responsibility fits with success can change the way we think of others, helping us see value in all people, and not just those who have achieved notoriety and wealth.

 

When we step outside the personal responsibility bubble we can begin to see that our actions and decisions matter a lot, not just for our own success but for the well being of everyone. We can begin to see that we had assistance from people and factors that we could not control or predict, and it helps us to become more connected with those around us.

If You Could Not Fail

Before Senator Cory Booker had taken up politics, he went to law school and dedicated much of his time to civil rights and helping those who had the fewest resources. Throughout law school he had only a vague idea of what he wanted to do, and focused on helping people who did not have the means to help themselves. As every young person going through college, he was bombarded with questions about what his next steps would be and what his plan looked like. Booker did not have a clear path toward a large law firm, the way many of his colleagues did, since he was instead motivated by social issues and injustice in the communities around his hometown in New Jersey. Questions about plans and the future haunted Booker, as they have so many young people, until one day, his mother posed a question that changed his narrative.
In a conversation with his mother she referred back to biblical teachings and switched Booker’s thoughts of fear into perspectives of untold possibility. The question posed was not what would he do after receiving his degree but rather, “ask yourself what would you do if you could not fail? If you knew for sure you would be successful, what would you do?”
Booker writes about his reaction to his mother’s question saying, “It was a question that began to keep me up at night—not with anxiety but with energized thought. The question awakened my imagination again; it ignited dreams. What would I do if I could not fail?”
The question posed by Booker’s mom is an excellent shift in the way we think about the challenges and hurdles ahead of us. It is easy to get sucked into a space where we can only seem to focus on the negative possibilities of failure rather than the various forms of success that we may find along our journey. We often view failure as if it is a final end and a defining characteristic of our life, but in reality failure is just one of many experiences that we have throughout our lifetime, and we should not let it hold us from our dreams and pursuits.
When Booker’s thought process switched he recognized the power of the thoughts he was living with. He recognized how damaging his narrative about himself had become. “The most powerful conversations we have in any day,” he wrote, “are the conversations we have with ourselves.” Focusing on the negative and the fear of not knowing what his next steps would be had limited Booker and trapped him in fear. Shifting the focus to what he could do gave him new energy and inspiration to accomplish great tasks.

Aliance

Speaking more specifically about romantic relationships, Author Colin Wright in his book Some Thoughts About Relationships said, “Approaching relationships as an alliance, not just as a physical and emotional bond, gives you the excuse to put aside the irrational, vengeful, and hurtful in favor of the practical. It’s an excellent way to view someone you care about as not just a romantic partner, but a partner-in-crime. A confidante.”

 

Wright approaches this idea by detailing some of the negativity and hurt that can accompany the end or breakup of a romantic relationship, and offers this viewpoint to suggest that we can view our relationships through different lenses to have different perspectives and ideas about who and what we and our partner are. Wright’s argument is that by seeing our relationships in a new light, we can change the way we react when things are not going well. Seeking novel viewpoints and ideas can help us understand ourselves and our partner in new ways, and can help us have more positive reactions during challenging and negative times.

 

He does not argue that physical and emotional bonds are not important in relationships, but embraces those ideas and includes further connections that help to safeguard us in times of friction. If we see our partner as a true ally, then we will be less likely to cause them harm, or desire to cause them harm, during a break-up or challenging time. Thinking of our partner in new ways and thinking of our relationship to our partner in ways that help up build positive connections can give us new ways of being with them. The alliance viewpoint helps us see that we are not competing against them, but rather building who we are together and advancing for a shared cause and purpose. We can become less deceitful of the other, building trust between us both, and we can grow more fully as a couple.

Unpredictability

Come Back Frayed is Colin Wright’s book about his time in the Philippines and his evaluations of the way that people exist within and between cultures. He focuses on his personal reactions to changing environments and life in an area of the world that sounds amazing, but can actually be quite inhospitable for long stretches of time. Addressing how we react to the places we live and the order in our lives, he writes, “We all have a different level of tolerance for unpredictability and incomprehension. Some of us have a tolerance that is almost a need: we require novelty and a regular dollop of confusion and disorientation to feel complete. We need to have our world set spinning so that we can ever so slowly bring it back to a more regular rotation on a sturdy axis.”

 

The quote above seems to very accurately describe Wright himself, and it resonates strongly with me despite the fact that I am incredibly routine focused. I do not do well when it comes to planning long term for vacations and I feel that I really perform well when I can build a set schedule that incorporates the things I love like, running, reading, writing, and listening to podcasts. But despite my love for routines and the benefits of performance and success that routines bring, I also recognize the human need to get away from what Tyler Cowen calls “the status quo bias”, and wright is an excellent example of how manage such a feat, and why shaking up our worlds can be so important.

 

Wright explains that he also thrives with strong routines, particularly in regards to health and writing practices, but by traveling consistently and exploring the world, Wright has been able to incorporate vastly different perspectives of the world into the frames from which he understands the universe. He has allowed his travel destinations and living places to be directed for him by his fans, and it was actually his fans’ suggestions that sent him to the Philippines. Along the way, Wright has been able to expand his thought processes and tolerance for change while also recognizing how routine actions, such as simple exercise and writing habits, can allow one to stay grounded, disciplined, healthy, and proficient during times of change in wildly different social and cultural environments.

 

My life in Reno, Nevada is not the most exciting of all time, although in a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show, Tyler Cowen argues that boring environments can push one to explore in greater depth the online world (for example blogging), but I enjoy the region and the routines afforded to me. Learning to incorporate Wright’s strategy for travel would help me shake up my world in a way that would give me new perspectives. Wright would argue that changing my routine and challenging the comforts and consistency it offers would push me to grow and discover new parts of myself, creating engaging and exciting experiences to help me feel more connected to myself, society, and perhaps all of humanity. From the interview I listened to I think Cowen would agree that efforts to avoid status quo bias can pay off in the long run and satisfy some part of our humanity that craves change, even if we have a small tolerance for the novelty and uncertainty it brings.

Obstacles and Growth

“The struggle against an obstacle inevitably propels  the fighter to a new level of functioning. The extent of the struggle determines the extent of growth. The obstacle is an advantage, not adversity. The enemy is any perception that prevents us from seeing this.” Author Ryan Holiday wrote this in his book The Obstacle is the Way, perfectly summarizing his thoughts about the challenges and difficulties we face along our journey. We will all struggle and we will all hit roadblocks trying to get to the point we want, but we are only ever defeated if we decide to allow ourselves to be overcome by the challenges we face.  In his book, Holiday explores ways in which we can change our perspectives and work to better understand ourselves and our expectations, so that the difficulties and limitations which seem to hold us back instead become tools to be used in our own growth.

 

The quote above starts with an idea that is nothing more than a change in perspective. The idea that our obstacles, the things that hold us back, are actually the propellents we need on our journey is incredibly foreign to most people. We often desire a life where things simply come easy and where we move without being inhibited from one success to another, but that is simply not the life for any of us. Holiday urges us to study our obstacles and press forward even harder when faced with challenges. It is absolutely true that modern descriptions of success, defined by income and possessions, can be more easily attained for some with fewer obstacles, but true growth and fulfillment necessarily includes obstacles and challenges. To  learn and become a more well rounded and an overall better individual we need to have adversity to learn from. The challenges that hold us back and make our lives difficult are also the things that connect us with the rest of humanity, and understanding those challenges and growing from them is what will help us reach a version of success that is far more rewarding than a bank account or vehicle.

 

Recognizing the ways in which obstacles help us requires a herculean shift in our perspectives and the ways in which we think about success, hard work, and growth. If success is reaching a place where struggle no longer exists, then you may need to rethink your goals. The only place where struggle does not exist is in a land of mediocrity where one is well supported (read: spoiled) by people beyond oneself. It is a goal that necessarily lacks any goals. At the same time, a goal defined by a certain income, house, or lifestyle can be just as dangerous as the goal of a life  free from challenges since we never truly control our income and are using a false measure of success as our yardstick. It is a goal with a constantly moving finish line that is often well beyond our control.

 

Holiday would encourage us to better understand our goals so that when we face obstacles we can better understand the ways in which those obstacles help us and prepare us for the success we actually seek. Focusing on the way an obstacle holds us back and diving to better understand the obstacle will force us to action and growth in a way that a life of simplicity never could. By being challenged we are given an opportunity to expand who we are, and we can find ways forward that we never knew existed.