15 February 2009

How Many Degrees of Seperation?

The popular notion that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else in just six steps intrigues many. Just today on the Science Channel there was a program that could be described as a six degree polemic. When Prof. Judith Kleinfeld analyzed the data, however, she discovered something interesting.

First a discription of one of the experiments. Stanly Milgram had letters handed out to people all over the world and they were to pass the letters to their friends until the letters returned to Milgram himself. He said the average number of steps the letters had to pass through was six, hence the idea of six degrees of seperation was correct.

What Kleinfeld discovered was that Milgram cherrypicked the data. 95% of all the letters not only didn't make it back to him in six steps, they didn't make it back at all! All the similar experiments involving sending out letters revealed that only about 3% of all the letters made it back. Kleinfeld notes
"If 95 or 97 letters out of 100 never reached their target, would you say it was proof of six degrees of separation?"

The documentary also made huge generalizations. They mentioned how every neuron in the brain is connected to every other neuron through only six steps. A second later they say that the only creature whose nervous system has been completely mapped out is a microscopic worm. They're extrapolating from a single individual to every creature with a nervous system. That's like when they say another Tunguska event is "not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," based on the only Tunguska event ever known to have happened! You can't extrapolate from a single datum to make bold generalizations about how the world works.
I'm not even sure if they said the worm's brain exhibited the six degree trait or not.

Here is another paper on the six degree idea from someone who also doesn't believe in it.

Be careful what you take as fact (read: global warming, ephiphenomenalism, no UFOs, no Psi, etc.), it just may be academia pushing something onto you.


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