Archive for the ‘pet peeves and rants’ Category

the challenge in teaching behavioral genetics

In some of my courses, I will include a lecture or two on behavioral genetics, as a way to let students know about the area of research where we use biological ideas to understand human behavior. I am usually frustrated because students always take away the wrong lesson. Examples:

  • Fabio: Shared parents explain more of the variance than shared family.
  • Students: It’s all genetically determined.


  • Fabio: Our DNA is a random mix of genes inherited from both parents.
  •  Students: It’s all genetically determined.


  • Fabio: Shared family doesn’t even explain 50% of the variance in most models, which means that there must be non-family environmental factors at work.
  • Students: It’s all genetically determined.


  • Fabio: The expression of certain traits can depend on numerous social and environmental variables.
  • Students: It’s all genetically determined.

Oddly, it doesn’t even matter whether it’s a random undergrad who wants to think “its’s all genetically determined” or a cynical soc grad student who thinks all is socially constructed. They both take away the same message! Weird!

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Written by fabiorojas

December 20, 2017 at 7:08 pm

revising sociology’s public image

In the grand scheme of things, sociology is not in a bad position. Most colleges have sociology programs and our PhD grads find work. But I do not think that sociology lives up to its potential. We live in an economy where tech giants are building massive social networks, but our undergrad enrollments decline. We live in a world that asks for more rigorous social analysis, but sociology has limited impact in the policy world. My belief is that this is partially due to sociology’s poor public image. Here, I suggest ways to work on our public image.

The basic issue is that our image is driven by undergraduate enrollment processes and lack of interest in presenting ourselves as an easy to understand scientific toolkit for people in policy, business, and the non-profit world. To understand the first issue, ask yourself the following questions – what is the most common encounter that the average college educated person has with the discipline of sociology? Answer: the intro course or the social problems course. What message do they take away? If you read intro textbooks or syllabi (including my own!), the message is a combination of social problems with some theory sprinkled in, or a topic survey.

What you don’t get is a set of widely applicable theoretical tools. This might be taught in the course called “social theory,” but this course is usually taught as a kind of history of social thought. To compound the issue, most programs fill out the list of electives with courses that don’t present core theoretical ideas. This is done for a number of reasons such as retaining students with an interest in criminology, health, or business. The bottom line is that nowhere in the curriculum, as it now stands, do we actually present to the average college student with systematic thinking about social processes. Students, understandably, think that sociology is the study of oppression or marginality. Some of our instructors actively cultivate the view that sociology is museum of oppression. It is not surprising that the average college undergrad walks away from our courses not realizing that are a general social science.

A second issue is how we think of ourselves as professionals. If one asked the typical sociologist if they agree that they are doing some sort of scientific activity, they would likely say yes and they would be justified in saying so. However, that is not what is conveyed to the public. For example, sociologists are often called upon to translate poverty and criminality for the wider reading public. Perhaps the exception is the area of family research, where the media seems genuinely interested in what sociologists have to say as experts on a topic. Another dimension of sociology’s unusual reputation is that we are often associated with theories that were not created by sociologists and have much (if any) sway in sociology. Even other academics lump sociology in with deconstruction and post-modernism.

How do we change this? A few suggestions. First, create a “social analysis” course that acts as a foundation for all other courses and that teachers truly general social concepts. In terms of substance, you would teach traditional topics, like race, but instead relate them to general theoretical ideas (i.e., social construction, biological theories of behavior, rational choice, etc). The way it should work is: theory –> topics not “a bunch of topics.”  In terms of methods, make sure that every one understands core concepts such as variables, social process, identification, qualitative vs. quantitative, basic hypothesis tests, case studies, inference, etc – AND make other courses use these concepts. In other words, don’t let the curriculum be a bunch of electives on neat social science topics. Instead, build it around sequences of courses that first present general ideas and tools and then move into specifics.

Second, to alter our reputation in the intellectual field, I think it would be great to engage in more outreach. I recently gave a presentation on economic sociology, where I boiled down a lot of simple concepts and showed how they related to economics. The response was strong – people had never seen a sociologist speak to them directly and make the ideas clear. This outreach can happen in many ways – co-authoring with people, public speaking, and so forth. On a more ambitious scale, sociologists should set up institutes that facilitate strong interactions with other fields.

To summarize: reformat the curriculum so it builds on core theories on research methods and gets away from the bundle of interesting electives; emphasize the scientific content of our discipline in ways other people can understand; co-author work people outside the discipline in fields with large intellectual or policy relevance.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 15, 2015 at 12:01 am

sorry, but social science is actually a science

Every so often, you get the journalist, or academic, who loves trashing social science. The complaints are ritualistic – you can’t do experiments, people use jargon and math, and so forth. Well, Forbes has a nice article called “Enough Already with the Sweeping Claims that Economics is Unscientific.” It makes some obvious, but important points. Yes, some academics become divorced from reality with their models, but do you actually want people to study the economy without quantitative data or theory? These complaints also seem to ignore that economics actually does use experiments and much strives toward policy relevance:

Let me just start by pointing out that it is not the case that “almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments”. Look at the CV’s of economists like John List and Esther Duflo and you can see there are plenty of experiments being done. In 2013, the study selected as the best paper from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics was for a randomized trial on how teenagers respond to HIV risk information.  If you want a concrete example of where this has made a difference, randomized treatment has been a central part of the research on the effects of charters schools. Unlike the field of astronomy, which Gobry must also think is not a science, economists do sometimes have more than observational data to go on.

And while it is true that a lot of research doesn’t use actual randomized trials, it’s also true that other kinds of research are very useful and informative. If his point was simply to argue that experiments and replication are important, and whether or not a body of research includes this should be one input among others in weighing the evidence, I’d have to agree. But of course you’d have to include external validity in there, which often counts against randomized trials. Instead of a relatively common claim about how it would be nice to have more experiments in economics, as is his style, PEG boldly overstates his case and makes incorrect absolutist claims about the importance of randomized trials.

Yes. Here’s the implication of this argument. Nearly every other social science, except history (which is a weird social science and humanities border case), has the same properties. We have ideas, we have data. Sometimes we do experiments. We collect other data. Sometimes we can replicate results. Sometimes we make progress and accumulate evidence, but other times not. This is, essentially, how science is done. The next time you hear someone trash sociology, economics, or another social science as unscientific, you have my permission to write angry tweets about them.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 10, 2014 at 12:01 am

is “public intellectual” oxymoronic?

A guest post by Jerry Davis. He is the Wilbur K. Pierpont Collegiate Professor of Management at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

By this point everyone in the academy is familiar with the arguments of Nicholas Kristof and his many, many critics regarding the value of academics writing for the broader public.  This weekend provided a crypto-quasi-experiment that illustrated why aiming to do research that is accessible to the public may not be a great use of our time.  It also showed how the “open access” model can create bad incentives for social science to write articles that are the nutritional equivalent of Cheetos.

Balazs Kovacs and Amanda Sharkey have a really nice article in the March issue of ASQ called “The Paradox of Publicity: How Awards Can Negatively Affect the Evaluation of Quality.”  (You can read it here:  The paper starts with the intriguing observation that when books win awards, their sales go up but their evaluations go down on average.  One can think of lots of reasons why this should not be true, and several reasons why it should, all implying different mechanisms at work.  The authors do an extremely sophisticated and meticulous job of figuring out which mechanism was ultimately responsible.  (Matched sample of winning and non-winning books on the short list; difference-in-difference regression; model predicting reviewers’ ratings based on their prior reviews; several smart robustness checks; and transparency about the sample to enhance replicability.)  As is traditional at ASQ, the authors faced smart and skeptical reviewers who put them through the wringer, and a harsh and generally negative editor (me).  This is a really good paper, and you should read it immediately to find out whodunit.

The paper has gotten a fair bit of press, including write-ups in the New York Times and The Guardian (  And what one discovers in the comments section of these write-ups is that (1) there is no reading comprehension test to get on the Internet, and (2) everyone is a methodologist.  Wrote one Guardian reader:

The methodology of this research sounds really flawed. Are people who post on Goodreads representative of the general reading public and/or book market? Did they control for other factors when ‘pairing’ books of winners with non-winners? Did they take into account conditioning factors such as cultural bias (UK readers are surely different from US, and so on). How big was their sample? Unless they can answer these questions convincingly, I would say this article is based on fluff.

Actually, answers to some of these questions are in The Guardian’s write-up:  the authors had “compared 38,817 reader reviews on of 32 pairs of books. One book in each pair had won an award, such as the Man Booker prize, or America’s National Book Award. The other had been shortlisted for the same prize in the same year, but had not gone on to win.”  And the authors DID answer these questions convincingly, through multiple rounds of rigorous review; that’s why it was published in ASQ.  The Guardian included a link to the original study, where the budding methodologist-wannabe could read through tables of difference-in-difference regressions, robustness checks, data appendices, and more.  But that would require two clicks of a functioning mouse, and an attention span greater than that of a 12-year-old.

Another says:

This is a non story based on very iffy research. Like is not compared with like. A positive review in the New York Times is compared with a less complimentary reader review on GoodReads…I’ll wait to fully read the actual research in case it’s been badly reported or incorrectly written up

Evidently this person could not even be troubled to read The Guardian’s brief story, much less the original article, and I’m a bit skeptical that she will “wait to fully read the actual research” (where her detailed knowledge of Heckman selection models might come in handy).  After this kind of response, one can understand why academics might prefer to write for colleagues with training and a background in the literature.

Now, on to the “experimental” condition of our crypto-quasi-experiment.  The Times reported another study this weekend, this one published in PLoS One (of course), which found that people who walked down a hallway while texting on their phone walked slower, in a more stilted fashion, with shorter steps, and less straight than those who were not texting (  Shockingly, this study did not attract wannabe methodologists, but a flood of comments about how pedestrians who text are stupid and deserve what they get.  Evidently the meticulousness of the research shone through the Times write-up.

One lesson from this weekend is that when it comes to research, the public prefers Cheetos to a healthy salad.  A simple bite-sized chunk of topical knowledge goes down easy with the general public.  (Recent findings that are frequently downloaded on PLoS One: racist white people love guns; time spent on Facebook makes young adults unhappy; personality and sex influence the words people use; and a tiny cabal of banks controls the global economy.)

A second lesson is that there are great potential downsides to the field embracing open access journals like PLoS One, no matter how enthusiastic Fabio is.  Students enjoy seeing their professors cited in the news media, and deans like to see happy students and faculty who “translate their research.”  This favors the simple over the meticulous, the insta-publication over work that emerges from engagement with skeptical experts in the field (a.k.a. reviewers).  It will not be a good thing if the field starts gravitating toward media-friendly Cheeto-style work.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 26, 2014 at 12:05 am

Three thousand more words on critical realism

The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance.  The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance.  But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.

My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).

That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.

Read the rest of this entry »

data science is engineering – a guest post by karissa mckelvey

This is a guest post by Karissa McKelvey. She is affiliated with the Complex Systems PhD program at Indiana University’s School of Informatics. She works on the intersection of social media and political mobilization and has co-authored papers on Occupy Wall Street and the More Tweets/More Votes phenomenon.

Why Data Science is just a fad, and the future of the academy

We expect students to write research papers as well as do statistics in R or STATA or Matlab on small datasets. Why don’t we expect them to deal with very very large datasets? We are told that “Data Science” is the answer to this “Big Data” problem.

I’d like to redefine Data Science: it is the act of gluing toolkits together to create a pipeline from raw data to information to knowledge.There are no innovations to be made in Data Science. The innovations to be made here are in Computer Science, Informatics, Statistics, Sociology, Visualization, Math, etc. — and they always will be.

Data Science is just engineering.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

July 10, 2013 at 12:01 am

damnant quodnon intelligunt

Hi, Orgheads!

I am really excited to join the fray again as a guest contributor, and thankful to the team for inviting me. In my other posts I’ll be speaking on behalf of Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann (both of Vanderbilt University), my collaborators in the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). This one’s just me.

We’ve been asked to post on the state of arts graduates and artistic employment and skills in the contemporary U.S. I think the topic is timely and appropriate for this blog as we’ve discussed the value and relevance of an arts or humanities degree in the past. In particular, OrgTheory hosted a discussion in November titled, “why job hungry students choose useless majors.” The gist of Fabio’s argument, I think, is that college students are practical credentialists who want a BA to avoid service sector and manual labor; the least talented of these are drawn to majors that require the least “academic ability,” namely, the arts and humanities.

I won’t comment on the claim that arts and humanities disciplines require less “academic ability” (except to say that I think it’s bonkers), but I do want to remark upon the fiction that a firewall exists between math and science on the one hand, and the arts on the other. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jenn Lena

July 9, 2012 at 8:19 pm

common as air: the commons snare

There’s lots of scholarly interest in the commons these days.  The free software movement has led many to call for the broadening of the commons from software to all information and culture-based production: music, movies, books, journals, and so forth.  Many argue that intellectual property can’t meaningfully be treated as “property” – it should be free.  I disagree (with lots of qualifications: e.g., it’s up to authors and outlets) – though I think this is a fascinating topic (and I’ll follow up with a future post).

So, one of my pet peeves is when an author strongly advocates for the information commons (e.g., that the peer-to-peer sharing of all music is perfectly reasonable) but then their own book itself is not in the commons.  Here’s one example (there are many others):  Hyde, Lewis, 2010.  Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. Farrar, Straus, Giroux.  Here’s an interview with the author a few years ago (where the commons are discussed).  A review of the book.  A Creative Commons interview.  Here’s the book talk at the Berkman Center (watch the first five-six minutes and you’ll get a sense).

(I may well be wrong, perhaps the above book indeed is out there in the commons somewhere. If so, I need to pull this post.)

Here’s also Lewis Hyde’s 1979 book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.  This book inspired the organizers of Burning Man.

Thankfully some of the commons advocates, like James Boyle, also walk the talk and post their books into the commons.  Here’s his The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. Yale University Press.

Bottom line: if your book advocates the commons (for others), then it should be in the commons. Seems reasonable.  (Sorry for the rant.)

Written by teppo

January 9, 2012 at 2:54 am

microfoundations of social theory: a response to jepperson and meyer

One of the most provocative things I have read this year is Jepperson and Meyer’s “Multiple Levels of Analysis and the Limitations of Methodological Individualisms” (free html version on journal web site) published in the March 2011 issue of Sociological Theory.

Jepperson and Meyer argue that sociological theorizing based on methodological individualism is “micro-chauvinist,” “doctrinal and exclusivist” and is founded on “liberal and American cultural models of society [that] notoriously dramatize and valorize purposive individual action.”

Jepperson and Meyer further argue that “methodological individualisms”

  • “[avoid or deny] multiple levels of analysis,”
  • focus on “mass of similar individuals,”
  • provide “images of modal individuals aggregating in plebiscitary or market-like ways.”

The upshot?  Jepperson and Meyer argue for the “displacement of action theories.”  Yes, you read that correctly.  Very provocative.  I wish more pieces like this were published.

But I think that they are wrong – on every count – and severely misunderstand methodological individualism.

First, there are of course various strong and weak versions of methodological individualism (see Lars Udehn’s thorough book on this) — as is suggested by Jepperson and Meyer’s use of the plural, “individualisms” — so this type of discussion can get into a war of quotations.  But no matter how one cuts it, Jepperson and Meyer’s arguments go against a large swath of social science: individualist metatheory was the foundation of many sociologists – Weber, Simmel, Tarde, Coleman, Selznick are just a few examples.  (Or to use a more recent example: John Levi Martin’s intro book chapter in Social Structures essentially defends a form of individualism, without using the label – Martin’s metatheoretical arguments are strikingly similar to Coleman’s excellent discussion of methodological individualism in Foundations of Social Theory, pp. 1-23.)

Second, to the argument itself, Jepperson and Meyer’s arguments against individualism and their call for the “displacement of action theories” would sideline and ignore what, to me, seem like some extremely significant issues in social theory:  Katz-Lazarsfeldian-type priors (a priori interests, values etc), the choices that actors make in terms of who/what to align themselves with (in short, self-selection – a critical mechanism), “exit, voice and loyalty,” strategies, choices that actors and organizations make about their structures and the associated heterogeneity in form that we observe, how heterogeneous interests or beliefs get resolved (or not), how social influence or institutionalization occurs as actors interact,  where various collective forms and institutions come from, etc, etc.  And despite Jepperson and Meyer’s call for “process” (mentioned 57 times), their own actor-less alternative is fundamentally anti-thetical to explicating social processes as they assume compliance, equilibrium and homogeneity (as noted by Selznick, Hirsch, DiMaggio – and now by folks doing work on “institutional work”).

There are many other problems with their arguments.

In response to Jepperson and Meyer – sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves (and since we’re in self-promotion mode here at orgtheory)  –  O&M’s Nicolai, Peter Abell (LSE) and I wrote a short essay addressing many of the above (and other) issues: (pdf, rough draft) “Microfoundations of Social Theory: A Response to Jepperson and Meyer.”  (BTW: Big-big-time thanks to commenters! – without implicating them since they disagree with us on some points!)  I don’t know that these types of debates necessarily convince anyone who is already set in their ways — probably not — but we felt that a quick response nonetheless was worthwhile given the rather strong arguments that Jepperson and Meyer make.

Written by teppo

August 8, 2011 at 6:49 am

the asa’s money problems

The Disgruntled Sociologist has been looking at the tax returns of the American Sociological Association and has uncovered some facts about spending and financial activities that should concern most of the organization’s members ( Part 1, Part 2, and ASA, Wizards of High Finance).  Here are some of the highlights, which in some cases I’ve copied and pasted directly from TDS:

  • The ASA spent $10M on a “condo.”
  • From 2003 to 2008, total revenue has been flat, but revenue from dues has increased substantially — almost 17%.
  • The staff of the ASA grew 26% in five years. Wages and salary increased roughly the same amount.
  • Total expenses for the the ASA ($7.6M) are greater than any of their peer organizations: American Political Science Association ($6.2M), American Economic Association ($7.1M), American Anthropological Association ($4.7M), and American Historical Association ($3.5M).
  • Total compensation of headquarters staff for the ASA is substantially higher than for the other organizations (with the exception of the AEA, which lists more than twice the number of employees).
  • The ASA has substantially higher interest expenses than the other organizations.
  • In 2008 the ASA spent its cash reserves of $1.8M – “from approximately $3M at the beginning of the year to $1.2M at the end,” presumably to make up for that year’s 28% loss in investments.
  • The ASA has $8M in bond liabilities.
  • The big change in liabilities comes in the ominous category, “Other liabilities.” This increases twentyfold, from $101,000 to $2,000,000. The ASA describes these liabilities on the tax form as an “interest rate swap obligation.”

What should we make of all this? TDS rightly points out that we might be disturbed that the ASA has increased spending substantially without any apparent improvement in member services. It’s not clear what all this spending is doing. But the bigger problem is that nobody knew about this. The ASA releases very little financial information. In the words of TDS:

In this context it is very disturbing that the ASA releases very little financial information to its members, and does not communicate regularly about the state of the association.  Audited financial statements are available on the ASA website, but they are a) hard to find (you have to search, you cannot find them by browsing) and b) the most recent audited statement is from … 2007! Coincidence?…

The real scandal is the fact that nobody knows. Go to the ASA website and search for “interest rate swap” or “bond issuance.”  Nada.  Search in the full-text index for Footnotes.  Nothing.

Written by brayden king

March 1, 2011 at 4:37 pm

ah, the little choices we make

Two years ago I did a radio interview about a company called “The Point”.  The name of the company came from Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”.  The idea was to use the web to facilitate collective action.

After the interview, I contacted the founder.  We had lunch.  He was brimming with ideas.  But he was also really interested in… well…  OrgTheory.  He wanted to take the ideas we talk about on this blog and try to turn them into a company.

We talked a few more times after that. He wanted to know if I wanted to get involved. I decided it would be better to focus on my writing.  But I did mention there were grad students who would love to spend time with his company; to mine it for data and hopefully help tweak the model too.  In the end though, I couldn’t find anyone willing to pull themselves away from studies of status rankings and categorization.

By the by, Andrew Mason and I lost contact and that company became Groupon which has, apparently, been sold for $6 billion to Google.


Written by seansafford

December 1, 2010 at 1:25 pm

who’s getting screwed on the Nobel thing? cognitive science

We all know that only three real science Nobels exist: Physics, Chem, and Medicine/Physiology. Social scientists can get their consolation prize via the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Fabio has already started some sort of countdown clock until a sociologist (presumably Granovetter) gets that one. Given our facility with adopting victim postures, it is easy to scare up some indignation as to why a sociologist has never won a Noble, real or fake.

But the real problem with carving up the scientific space in such an ancient way is that the most important scientific cluster that was actually born in the twentieth century was actually left out. So it is really cognitive science (and to some extent its older psychology cousin) which has gotten the shaft, with people that have produced scientific contributions of a magnitude that dwarfs that of 90% of the people who have received the SRPIESIMOAN never having received any recognition.

So for instance, there will never be a “Nobel” for Noam Chomsky. Jean Piaget could never win one either. Stanley Milgram? You might be bar-none one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, but sorry! You are a “psychologist” (unless you are a psychologist who studies “economics” related stuff like DK you are out). Allen Newell? Too bad; we gave a SRPIESIMOAN to your co-author Herbert Simon for a bunch of random stuff, but ignored the fundamental work in Artificial Intelligence and Human problem solving that he did with you. So Herbert Simon will forever be referred to as “A Nobel Laurate” but you are just Allen Newell. George Miller? Your foundational work on the limits of human cognitive processing capacity might have jump-started the cognitive revolution and actually provided the main inspiration for Simon’s work, but you get nada. This list could of course be expanded indefinitely (e.g. Marvin Minsky, Schank and Abelson, Eleanor Rosch, Rumelhart and McClelland, etc.).

Written by Omar

October 17, 2010 at 5:51 pm