Sunday, April 17, 2011

As It Stands: Social experiments, thieves, and six degrees of separation

By Dave Stancliff/For the Times-Standard

Posted: 04/17/2011 02:40:26 AM PDT

I wonder what would happen if I walked into a fancy jewelry store, tried on an expensive watch, decided I liked it, and walked out the door with it like Lindsay Lohan, who took a necklace?

A jury will have to decide if Lohan's guilty of grand theft. As for me? I'd soon be rotting in jail on grand theft charges if I tried that little trick. Heck, I couldn't afford one of her lawyers (even for an hour), and my defense team would probably look like the “Whose Who?” of struggling public defenders in northern California.

I'm picking on Lohan because she's been down this path before. Poor little rich girl caught stealing stuff. Gets old after a while, don't you think? Then I got to thinking (uh oh!) and wondered if she's conducting some sort of “social experiment” and plans to tell the jury all about it at the proper time?

I recently read about one teenager in Southfield, Mich., who claimed he was conducting a “social experiment” when he robbed a comic book store.

According to WJBK-TV in Detroit, the teenager didn't want money. He wanted a detailed list of collector merchandise and threatened to use a realistic-looking homemade bomb. Here's where it gets weirder; the clerk was stubborn and didn't meet his demands. Then the robber relented and paid cash for the few items on the list the clerk did have!

When he was arrested (you knew that was coming), he told the authorities that the whole thing was just a “social experiment.” Isn't that interesting? If so, he might want to contact Lohan's lawyers and see if they could take his case. Providing he's the son of an oil baron.

Now where were we? Oh, yeah. Social experiments. I found this great website -- www.ilovesocialexperiments.com/ -- which shares experiences in social experimentation, sociology and human observation.

I didn't stop exploring the subject of social experiments there. In a controversial social experiment currently going on in New York City, the city is denying part of its homeless population any assistance for the next two years. They want to see if their $23 million program, called “Homebase,” is helping the people for whom it was intended.

Sounds cold, doesn't it? Perhaps clinical is a better word. In medical testing, it's long been the standard to give drug treatment to one group while another, the control group, goes without. You can read more about this social experiment at www.nytimes.com/2010/12/09/nyregion/09placebo.html?_r=2&hp.

Have you heard of Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist most noted for his controversial study “the Milgram Experiment” in the 1960s during his professorship at Yale? You might look him up for further enlightenment on the subject.

He was influenced by the events of the Nazi Holocaust and carried out an experiment to demonstrate the relationship between obedience and authority. Shortly after the obedience experiment, Milgram conducted the small-world experiment (the source of the six degrees of separation concept) while at Harvard.

Particularly poignant to me is the song “American Pie,” which documents the period of 1959 to 1970 in the “10 years we've been on our own” of the third verse. Coming near the end of a turbulent era, “American Pie” spoke to the grand social experiments of the 1960s, which eventually collapsed under the weight of realities.

And in 1970, as I sweated in the jungles of Vietnam, I knew the world back home was rapidly changing. My peers in the States now looked at me and my comrades as the enemy. My generation didn't lead the country into a new Age of Aquarius where love ruled.

The really sad part is there is no going back to those innocent times when America's youth thought they could change the world with the power of love. Turned out, peace and love demanded a price. Harsher for some than others. We all paid it in different ways.

My final observation to share with you is that life is an ongoing social experiment, constantly evolving and challenging us to be happy.

As It Stands, the lyrics “Bye bye, Miss American Pie” still bring tears to my eyes.

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