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..:: Anomalies ::..


Alan Schneider


            An anomaly is a statistical inconsistency in an otherwise consistent field of observation. Anomalies are frequently troubling to the conscious mind – i.e. the ego – and stand in conflict with its need to make order of the sensory events in the environment. We tend not to like these challenges to our reason, yet the world is filled with them. It is only the statistically consistent action of the “laws” of physics and chemistry upon the senses and the body that enables us to perceive any manifestation of the order that may be present amid the apparent background chaos of the universe.  

            The “field of observation” referred to in the preceding paragraph frequently takes the form of the well-known bell-shaped normal curve, a graphic mode of data portrayal that is generally classified using the concepts of mean, median, and mode. These are the three measures of central tendency in statistics, and give an initial, overall picture of what is present in the observational data set. The mean is the average value of all the data values added together and then divided by the number of entries present in the survey. The median is the value in the center of the data set when the entries are numerically arranged in sequential order. And the mode is the most frequently occurring value among the data. In addition, the concept of standard deviations from the mean is used to classify the spread of data across the normal curve. The mean value is understood to fall somewhere in the center of the curve, at or near the peak of the bell shape, and there are three standard deviations to the right and left of this point, determined by calculating the interaction of the combined spread of the data values. Using standard statistical data evaluation procedures, it can be demonstrated that any set of data of sufficient size will “normalize”, or tend to assume the shape of the normal curve, eventually.

             One more statistical concept needs to be mentioned in this discussion – the outlier. The outlier is any datum that lies at or beyond the third standard deviation from the mean in either direction along the normal curve. Outliers are statistical anomalies that do not conform to the general trends present in the data set, and most statistical methodology advises dropping them from the analyses used, since they will invariably skew, or – in this case of the term – misrepresent the implications of the data.  

            Inasmuch as human culture and society tend to be well-represented by the normal curve – at least in terms of socioeconomic behavior – the value of statistical procedures, including the disregarding of outliers, is clear. The more measurements that are taken, the less significant the anomalies appear to be, and the more justified we seem to be from the ego’s  logical perspective in disregarding them.  

            At issue here are the long-term implications of the outlier occurrence in the data taken. In the case of physical measurements of physical data, this may be of little real consequence. A series of measurements of ambient temperature in a room taken at different periods during the day that includes one or two periods when the range has one or more burners on at high temperature out of perhaps forty-eight measurements taken in a twenty-four hour period will show some skewing, represented by the range temperature outliers present, and these can probably be disregarded in the data as not being truly representative of the true mean temperature variation present during the time period, with the proviso that the measurements were not thermal-lode significant (e.g. air conditioning measurements). In measurements of social systems and social behavior patterns, the implication of outlier phenomena can be very much more significant. It can be argued that the outliers in social systems are the deterministic strange attractors that decide outcomes for the entire system at critical points in history.  

            Hermann Hesse expressed this supposition very succinctly in his novel entitled Steppenwolf. His observation was that the flagrant banality of European middle and upper middle class society in the period in which he was writing was inherently incapable of sustaining itself over the long term as a result of its own vapidity. This bland, vapid culture could only be sustained by continuous injections of novelty and creativity that Hesse identified as customarily originating with the social outliers of the time – the Bohemian, avant-garde artists, musicians, writers, and political activists – whom he referred to as the Steppenwolves – a symbolic reference to the wild wolves of the Russian Steppes. These beings remained free and vital in their consciousness, and gave that vitality to the culture around them through their social activities and contributions, even though these “gifts” were frequently not initially well-received by the general population. There is an unreasoned resistance to change within human nature that tends to stifle all that is new on the first pass. Perhaps this is a survival characteristic that serves to buffer experience until that which is harmful can be identified and excluded, but the initial response seems to be to repress everything without regard to potential benefits. 

            There also appears to be a dialectic at work in the process of social change and revitalization. Jung has noted that a sinusoidal pulsation can be seen in the processes of history in which that which is new is initially (and frequently violently) rejected by the existing social order, which has become stagnant. As the novelty is considered by the human elements of that society, it is subjected to a purging process that eventually produces a refined version of the novelty, one more generally acceptable. This version eventually comes to be accepted as normative, revitalizing the social system for some period of time, until the system again becomes stagnant, and another novelty emerges and is introduced, again to considerable resistance – and the process continues as described above. G. F. W. Hegel has summed this up as the Dialectic of change – thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – the thesis here is the existing social order, the antithesis is the social novelty, and the synthesis is the resultant higher order of truth that represents the combination of the first two. In this way, the progressive social evolution of human history is observed and explained through one theory of change – a great philosophical advantage over many competing, fragmented theories. 

            Communication Theory has identified several mechanisms of change as well. The social filter theory identifies specific individuals or groups that serve to introduce novelty into existing social systems. These may run the gamut from established organizations to radical factions, and may utilize any of a variety of legal and extra-legal means to communicate the proposed agenda of change to the general society. The social deficit theory maintains that change results from implied deficits in the existing social matrix that essentially call for corrective modification. The random interaction theory states that change simply occurs automatically in the context of normal, ongoing communication processes. All of these theories are correct as far as they go, and all are still analytical. The great strength of the Hegelian Dialectic resides in its essence as a simple, acausal observation of the general mechanism of transition without regard to the underlying social factors that may be at work, essentially treating causation as something existing in the realm of the strange attractor. Again, theoretical simplicity is desirable both in science and philosophy, and the Dialectic has well-withstood the test of time.  

            Hesse’s theory of the Steppenwolves is obviously one that conforms to the social filter model. Anyone who questions the validity of this model need only consider the evolution of jazz music. This musical form originally evolved from so-called Dixieland music peculiar to the area around New Orleans, arguably around the turn of the last century. Jazz was initially thought by traditional American society of the period to be yet another version of the seductive, debauched Dixieland expression – morally depraved as was its forbearer. Yet the instrumental refinement of this new form added to the original Dixieland strains produced a new a stimulating music unheard before. As the musical Steppenwolves of the period adopted the new music, it became a more refined art form, and was gradually accepted as such by the general culture. One can see the same thing occurring to the as yet still condemned Rap music today, even though the majority of the musicians are determined to maintain the status of Rap as socially outcast and unacceptable. It should be noted here that there is always an element of any society or culture that will insist on rejecting any and all novelty as morally and socially degenerate by definition. The Mennonites, Amish, and other socially reclusive organizations come to mind here, and, in a free society, they must be given their due. Yet, very few individuals would choose to live such austere existences in the absence of intrinsic acculturation – in other words, having been born and raised that way. As Rap becomes more common place, something which even I regard with a grimace, it will undoubtedly also become more acceptable, and this will call forth another new form in its place.  

            So the outliers and anomalies are the sources of most or all of the vitality in any culture, and cultures which reject and repress these influences are seen to pass away into history’s annals eventually, while those who understand the crucial role fulfilled by them and make provision for their disturbance of social norms tend to adapt and change successfully to new environmental conditions and requirements. In the whole of history and existence, the only constant is change, driven on by an endlessly evolving complex of strange attractors, none of which is directly observable, and all of which are decisive in their impact on social systems.  The world today is challenged as never before by a phalanx of enormous challenges that will require more novelty than at any time in history to provide the needed solutions. And, predictably, many of the existing social orders are resisting the transitions required for survival with violent, dogged determination, as the established institutions and individuals currently enjoying privileged status within them react with hate, fear, and repression to the specter of change. Perhaps there comes a point in the evolution of entire species when adaptation to and through change must be generally accepted and supported for the sake of ongoing survival. I believe we have reached this point in today’s world, and are standing at the brink of a decision to survive and prosper, or deny, repress, and pass out of existence. My personal choice has been made for adaptation, survival, and prosperity. What is yours?

                                          - With Love, Alan -

                                  (CR2008, Alan Schneider)


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