03 April 2008

The importance of being discrete

La Vie s'en va...
Una mujer, con su mirada,
Me dice: - "Vívela"
La Vida a gritos,
-"Sigue a esa mujer"
From Poem #10 of "Luna Park" by Luis Cardoza y Aragón

Have you ever been asked "How life is treating you?" I get it once in a while and I always try to be witty and answer "At least she is still treating me". Probably this exchange takes place more commonly in Spanish, thus the gender of La Vida. Now that is one way of putting it... life, my dearest dear is still talking to me, and like to Cardoza it is yelling at me. I sometimes feel to be holding on dear life... making this super human effort just to keep my head afloat.
Lately, though, the feeling has changed, or at least is not that frequent. I have a feeling of accomplishment. Back in the academic year 2004/2005 I was given a task to reproduce some results published by my co-supervisor JPL and one of his former students back in the mid-90s where they used a data analysis technique called Latent Class Analysis (or LCA among friends) to classify the responses and the respondents of a study using one of the experimental tasks we used quite often in our lab. It was a long long year... not my brightest or my best moment, but not my dullest or worst either. I kept hitting my head against the wall (alas! only figuratively this time) over and over again, at school, at home, in my head and in my heart. Needless to say I survived with just a few scratches on my academic self. Well, fast forward to April Fool's day 2008 and there I was, presenting on the last class of the last course requirement for my degree and I was able to slip right into my presentation (which was about other type of data analysis) my first ever working LCA. No reworking someone else's results or even ideas. The data came from a larger project we are conducting in my lab, but the conceptualization of my variable, the recoding, interest, motivation, and final "measurement" was mine.

If you are still reading this quite boring post you may wonder what does this has to do with being discrete... or saying to yourself "huh?" or even "WTF? Manolo". Oh well, I will keep some details to myself because I am being discrete... but in any case, discrete is used to describe those characteristics (we call them "variables" in psych. lingo) that "classify" or "order" people (we call them "participants" or a more general "sample" or when we feel really almighty "population"). For example, city or country of origin, that is a discrete variable. The place in which you get to the finish line, which is a rank, is also a discrete variable. The difference between first and second might or might not be the same between second and third, it just "orders" the runners. That is what LCA does, it creates classes, it puts people into statistical boxes that then we can play with.

Psychologists have this inferiority complex (it is not just me, trust me) and we are always defensive against "hard sciences" and try to come up with this "scientific" explanations to things and we would like to believe that as gravity was once explained by supernatural forces and now it is an undeniable physical law, one day our little "ideas" about the world will also be one day recognized by means of neuro-this or gentico-that as "real". Personally I believe reality is a construction, but that is another topic. The point being that in our quest for "hard evidence" and for "hard cash" from science councils' grants we tend to pump up our explanations of things. We measure everything and we create scales (read questionnaires, surveys, etc.) for everything. We test them, we calibrate them, we "factor-analyse" them. We make them prim and proper for the stage of academia. And that stage of academia requires them to look nice and usually to "behave" like speed or gravity or luminosity or whatever it is "scientists-out-there" study. And because for the physicist or the astronomer or even the engineer it is not enough to say that well, the object falls faster on Earth than in the Moon but it has to say how faster we assume that to be part of the science club psychology needs also to say how much of anxiety or intelligence or social desirability or racism this or that person has. Yes and no are not enough. Discrete answers are not enough.

This is the beginning of a rant I have about being discrete. About the good qualities of being able to put things and people into boxes. Not of labeling in itself. But of accepting the limits of behavioural sciences in trying to understand the most fascinating organism on the face of Gaea. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes "une pipe, n'est-ce pas un pipe". They don't have to have less than 12 points on the BDI or gain 10 IQ points just by looking at them. Sometimes, just sometimes, a "yes-or-no" answer is enough. And sometimes it is not about getting to the finish line first, but to know how to get to the finish line.

Photo: "Homage to M.C. Escher" by the author. Taken on Niagara Falls Park on June 2007.


CarmenDeBizet said...

Wow. I believe I need to go get a cup of coffee and take notes on this post. I like to read your blog, let me try to *not* give a discrete comment. ^_^

I thought Humanities majors were the only ones to suffer from an inferiority complex. Our neighbors in the dorm were Bio majors and they actually made fun of the writing process behind a 10 page essay ...until they had to write one of course. Going back to that question of "How is life treating you?" I can think of "How are you?"...which in a lot of instances is not meant as a question, but as a greeting. That is, the person asking "How are you?" is not really interested in how you are, but is just trying to say "hello." I try not to ask these questions, but I find it's hard. At some level, we repeat what we see/hear.

In Guatemala, although I was thankful and knew that people had good intentions behind the "Mi mas sentido pesame" at my aunt's funeral, after hearing it for a number of times though it started to sound a bit...hollow? Maybe it was me, I was in my own world (perhaps) and I took these offerings with a huge side order of cynicism or maybe the persons walking up to me/us and offering their sympathy were doing the best they could under the circumstances.

I don't know what kind of answers you're looking for, but here's to you finding them. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Me encanta que el final de su elaborada teorización sea una cita implícita de una canción de Vicente Fernández. Me alegra tu hallazgo de categoría y luego también tu "discresión" al respecto. En qué box me coloca esa observación? No sé, hay que saber llegar, con dinero o sin dinero..., Salud, Ronald

Manolo said...

Carmencita Pues people have ways of doing things and asking questions in a way that when you scratch the surface of social norms don't make much sense. About the humanities thing... imagine being in a field where we can belong pretty much to any faculty possible within a university. In my U in Guate, psychology is under "social sciences", although some other universities back there have it under humanities (which is the professional college where Psychologists register in Guatemala). Here at YorkU, psychology used to be under Faculty of Arts and just last year it was transfered into the newly created Faculty of Health. Oh boy... take that for an identity crisis.

Ronald Gracias por tu visita y comentario. Jajaja... que buen ojo para notar mi referencia a la cultura popular latinoamericana... o es solo cultura chapimex? Tu observación te coloca en la categoría de "lectores anónimos"... felices 24 hrs. Mientras tanto seguiré haciendo lo que quiero... y mi palabra es la ley... :-)

AntiguaDailyPhoto.Com said...

Vaya que sí sabés ser discreto... diciéndolo todo. ;-)

Curiosamente hoy he estado con el título de Óscar Wild en la cabeza y por mi vida puedo encontrar la frase y/o palabras perfectas para traducir la ambigüedad y multiplicidad del título. Ya que "La importancia de llamarse Ernesto" sencillamente no refleja las sutilizas del juego de palabras que se ingenió el muy discreto señor Wild.

¿Cuántos LACA (as opposed to LCA) puntos me he ganado?