Spontaneous Social Symmetry Breaking

Physicists love spontaneous symmetry breaking. It’s a great way to reconcile the messiness of reality with our belief in simple and beautiful underlying mechanisms. We posit that the true fundamental dynamics of the world has some symmetry — X can be exchanged with Y, and all relevant processes are unchanged — but the actual state of the world does not respect that symmetry, which leaves it hidden (or “nonlinearly realized,” if you want to sound all sciencey). Deep down, a (left-handed) electron is completely interchangeable with an electron neutrino; but in the world as we find it, this symmetry is broken, and we end up with an electron that is charged and massive, a neutrino that is neutral and nearly massless. The Higgs boson that the Large Hadron Collider is looking for would be the telltale sign of the mechanism behind this symmetry breaking.

For reasons which escape me, this concept has not been borrowed (as far as I can tell) by social scientists and pundits more generally.* Which is too bad, as it explains a great deal. For example, appealing to the concept of spontaneous symmetry breaking would have been really helpful to Whoopi Goldberg on The View recently, as she patiently tried to explain to a distraught Elisabeth Hasselbeck why it’s just not the same when black people use the word “nigger” as when white people do. (From Sociological Images, via The Edge of the American West.)

Which is not to say that it’s always okay, or that there is no thoughtful critique of the re-appropriation of derogatory language by targeted groups, etc. Just that “If it’s wrong when white people say it, it should be wrong when black people say it too! It’s just not fair!” is far too simple-minded to carry any weight.

Let’s imagine that, in our view of a happy future utopia, all races find themselves in situations of perfect equality of opportunity and dignity. Everyone enters society with equal status, and people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (The “symmetric vacuum.”) In such a world, arguments like “If you can do it, why shouldn’t I be able to?” would be perfectly legitimate. But even if we want that to be the world — even if we believe that the grand unified theory of social ethics involves a symmetry of rights and obligations under the interchange of various racial categories — it’s not the world in which we live. In the real world, different races don’t go through life with the same masses and charges (if you will). There really are such things as discrimination, legacies of poverty and exclusion, and so on. We can argue about the best way to deal with those features of reality, but pretending that they don’t exist isn’t a very useful strategy.

As Whoopi explains, many blacks have chosen to re-appropriate the n-word as part of a conscious strategy of fighting back against a power dynamic that uses language to keep them at the bottom. Again, one can argue about the effectiveness of that strategy, and the circumstances under which it is appropriate, and whether Jesse Jackson should really have used that term in referring to Barack Obama. But it doesn’t follow that “if it’s fair for you, it should be fair for me.” Here is a guy who sadly doesn’t get it; a white high-school teacher who is genuinely puzzled about why he got in trouble for calling one of his black students “nigga.”

I was contemplating writing this post for a long time, with the relevant symmetry being men/women and the social milieu being the scientific community. Too many physicists reason along the following lines: “Men and women should be treated equally. Therefore, any time we privilege one over the other, as in making a special effort to encourage women in science, we are making a mistake.” That would be a reasonable argument, if the symmetry weren’t dramatically broken by the state in which we find ourselves. Which happily is not a stable vacuum! (Note that the underlying assumption is not that different genders or races are necessarily equivalent when it comes to innate abilities; that is largely beside the point, and obsession about those questions gets to be a little creepy. But they should certainly have equal opportunities — and right now, they don’t.) Treating one group differently than the other isn’t what we ultimately want to be doing — it’s not part of the happy utopia — but it might be the best response to the current state of unequal treatment overall.

But Whoopi’s little teaching moment was too good to pass up. If the discussion of race and gender in the rest of the MSM rose to that level of sophistication, we’d all be better off.

———-

*I’ve been searching for an excuse to mention Kieran Healy’s Standard Model of Sociophysics. I’m not sure if this is it, but I’ll take it.

Standard Model of Sociophysics

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56 Responses to Spontaneous Social Symmetry Breaking

  1. Nance Confer says:

    Thank you. Just, thank you.

    Nance

  2. John Knight says:

    Wow. That article from the New Yourk Times mentioned an “exodus” of women from the sciences around age 35. It did not even discuss the largest factor in that exodus.

    Biology.

    I don’t have a doctorate in biology, but I have it on good authority that women get preganant much more often than men. The reasons for this disparity in pregnancy rates are unclear, but social conditioning does not seem to be the sole factor. Biology seems to have a role.

    This explanation is not as innocent as it may seem. Once a child is born, patriarchy exerts it ever-baleful influence. Although in nature, mammalian mothers usually begin leaving their children in day-care centers after only a few weeks, in American culture, women often work shorter hours or even quit their jobs to rear their cubs, despite the fact that human cubs are almost completely self-reliant by the age of three.

    Although no laws require women to abandon their chief means of existential fulfillment — work outside the home — American women are often duped into leaving their workplace domains on their own. Through a false consciousness engineered in the late nineteenth century (possibly even earlier) by the Archimandrite of Chicago and the Board of Ruling Industrialists, many women have come to believe that they actually enjoy taking care of these smelly, dirty, noise-making, little hairless trolls.

    The methods of persuasion employed to sustain this brain-washed state are quite ruthless, involving sleep deprivation, water-boarding, and shopping-mall shoe sales. As a result of this ongoing persecution

    snarf

  3. Chris Edmond says:

    A social science reference:

    Paul Krugman made extensive use of “symmetry breaking” in various models of economic geography. As an overview, see his book “The Spatial Economy” with Masahisa Fujita and Tony Venables.

  4. flintstone says:

    Help! A burning question on special relativity!
    Question:

    If a bullet is fired horizontally from a barrel and another bullet is dropped from the same altitude at the same instant, will they both hit the ground at the same time?

    neglect earth curvature, assume experiment is in vacuum, assume constant acceleration along
    Y-axis. Assume hight is small (so v_y << c).

    My answer is that both bullets will hit the ground at the same time in lab frame as lorenz effects should not affect y component of speed. But am am dubious.

  5. Ellipsis says:

    The Goldberg Boson?

    But then she’d have to be massless…

  6. Tyler says:

    uh oh, Sean made an analogy! let the nitpicki^H^H^H^H^H^H deconstruction begin!

    I find the analogy to be basically apt and insightful, though I think you may find it to be of more use going the other direction, as it were – spontaneous symmetry breaking is a key fundamental concept that is explained frequently, and almost always badly, in popular science lit. I have read so many bad explanations of what it means that for awhile I thought I didn’t understand it, though I finally realized that in fact I did, the concept (in its general, abstract form) being rather a simple one; the problem lay in the inelegant and contradictory explanations I had suffered through. A classic ironic twist! For some time I hoped the same might be true of the gauge principle, which similarly suffers from an abundance of confusing explanations, but I have come to the conclusion that this idea is in fact rather subtle and difficult to grasp without direct understanding of, and facility with, the related math – that there is, perhaps, no useful analogy to everyday concepts. I’m fine with that, the dividing line has to be somewhere, I just want to make sure I get as close to it as I can.

    Sean, and others – your thoughts concerning the possible effects on the “local vacuum” (as it were) if Obama is in fact elected? There has been a great deal of discussion of this topic recently, with one widely stated concern being that such a victory would allow whites to claim that systemic racism has in fact been entirely eliminated and that environmental inequalities no longer exist – that is, that the sociological continuum has in fact become a symmetric vacuum. Of course, the nature of the vacuum could (should? would be expected to?) be distorted in “positive” ways as well, leading to a complex deformation of the sociological vacuum…;o)

  7. flintstone says:

    regarding bullets, is this the correct reasoning:

    If we consider reference frame that moves with the bullet along the
    X-axis. Bullet just falls down in this reference frame. In this reference
    frame time it takes for the bullet to fall is

    tau = sqrt(2h/g) , h-height, g-acceleration

    the same as in non-moving frame (as we know that all physics processes are
    the same in all frames regardless of their speed)

    But we measure time in the lab frame, so time of the falling bullet
    is the same t_lab_1 = tau whereas time of the moving bullet will be slowed
    down by the lorentz factor t_lab_2 = tau * gamma. So the moving bullet
    hits the ground later

  8. Tyler says:

    someone smart sounding, plz to give flintstone a plausible but utterly wrong answer, so he will go away and not come back?

    kthxbai!

  9. Ijon Tichy says:

    How about a year or two of paid parental leave? Make it government policy like it is in the civilised countries of Europe, such as Sweden and Norway. Oh hang on, government serves the corporations in the USA, so forget about that. Trying to solve the problems of sexism in the USA without also solving all the other social, political and cultural problems (and they are legion) is doomed to failure.

  10. John Knight says:

    Sweden & Norway aren’t civilized, they’re welfare states, brave new worlds, emasculated socities.

    And with current birth rates & demographic trends, by the end of the century they won’t even be that. They’ll be Muslim.

    Europe should copy the US, not the other way around.

  11. John Knight says:

    * Dang. Bad typing really kills a witty post.

  12. Lab Lemming says:

    John says:
    “That article from the New Yourk Times mentioned an “exodus” of women from the sciences around age 35. It did not even discuss the largest factor in that exodus.

    Biology. ”

    Interesting hypothesis, John. If you don’t mind continuing this expose of scientific thinking, how would you try to falsify it?

  13. D says:

    Why does anyone think it a precondition of decency that A apply a bijective function f (eq fuck -> f-word, fag -> other f-word, nigger-> n-word, cunt->c-word, chink -> chink) to certain words he says to B just so that B can immediately apply f inverse?

    I understand, though I disagree, that some words might be utterly taboo in all contexts for some people. I’m even willing to entertain the notion that mentioning is as taboo as using in these cases. But if so, don’t use those words period. Why the idiotic baby-talk and magical thinking?

    It reminds me of that old joke:

    The Telegraph reported that a certain politician called someone ‘a fucking nigger’ by taboo-censoring to f-wording nigger. The Guardian responded with an outraged editorial about how it should have been fucking n-word.

    Sorry, just a pet peeve of mine…

  14. Interesting food for thought (the original post, that is). But considering all the damage done when social sciences have appropriated terms from the physical science (biggest example, Social “Darwinism”), I’d just as well see them not muddy up a good physics concept…

  15. Kettwiesel says:

    “…..obsession about those questions gets to be a little creepy.”

    You are being too hard on yourself. I don’t think that your obsession with this question is creepy at all.

  16. Kurt says:

    We should have different standards for different races.
    Some races should be allowed their own words. I mean all races have have their own distinct music, culture, origin, dress why not words?

    “many blacks have chosen to re-appropriate the n-word as part of a conscious strategy of fighting back against a power dynamic that uses language to keep them at the bottom. Again, one can argue about the effectiveness of that strategy, and the circumstances under which it is appropriate, and whether Jesse Jackson should really have used that term in referring to Barack Obama.”

    Well Sean is it a good strategy or not? to use the N-word for fighting black power??

    I strongly doubt the kids on the train today i heard using the N-word realize this

    gimme a break

  17. Kea says:

    Well, at least Nance got a little thank you in there before the irony meter went off the scale, as usual.

  18. Risa says:

    I’m just going to have to echo Nance. Sean, I think this may be the best post you’ve ever written. I will henceforth shamelessly appropriate this analogy whenever I talk to physicists who don’t “get it.”

  19. Sean says:

    I was just looking for some excuse to write the words “appealing to the concept of spontaneous symmetry breaking would have been really helpful to Whoopi Goldberg on The View recently.”

  20. Jason Dick says:

    John Knight,

    Biology is just the reason why we should have programs to support young mothers, no matter their choice of field. Paid maternity leave seems like the thing to do here. And you can use epithets all you want against other nations, the fact remains that these nations mentioned are significantly better places to live in nearly every respect.

  21. Retired Yes says:

    To 20.
    The places may be wonderful for some groups.
    The social decisions must be voted whether to spent a significantly larger portion of each paycheck for social programs. So far we have attempted to remain a federation with democracy. While the US does want a good standard of living, we have yet have a larger federal government to take over many of the personal decisions as northern European socialist states have done.
    The balance of loss of personal determination has not been palatable to the working public in the US. As with the founding groups of the first American colonies, we must be careful not to give decisions to those who benefit but not pay for the programs.
    Yes, I was a working mother, no an easy place to be. Yes, I would have liked to stay home and not personally pay for the family health insurance from savings while i stayed out. I do not want to pay 70+% of my pay to have others benefit from social programs whether or not they work and contribute funds.

  22. the problem with black people using that word is that there is a quite long history of middle class black people using that word in a derogatory way to refer to uneducated, “more black” black people. It is not the same as feminists reappropriating ‘bitch’, for example, where it usually used to refer to the speaker, in the context of “Yeah, I’m a bitch, so what?” When Jesse Jackson used the n-word, or when you hear it in rap lyrics it is very rarely used to refer to the speaker.

    Instead, it is used by a black person in a position of power (rhetorical or actual) to put down another black person. In most (there are some exceptions) contexts that I have seen that word used, by white and black people, it is just simply not ok. Context is important, and the context behind Jesse Jackson’s comment was not appropriate. Jackson was essentially painting Obama as a dumb scalawag who was going to sell out his race.

  23. sorry for the double post, but here’s a great article on this.

  24. B says:

    Treating one group differently than the other isn’t what we ultimately want to be doing — it’s not part of the happy utopia — but it might be the best response to the current state of unequal treatment overall.

    You might be curing the symptoms instead of the disease.

  25. Haelfix says:

    Spontaneous symmetry breaking refers implicitly to perturbation series. The true vacuum is still there, its just hidden b/c someone erroneously decided to pick the wrong saddle point to perturb around.

    Since we don’t do perturbation series in the real world, and we live in a nonperturbatively complete society, I insist this analogy is flawed =)

    qed!