Social Sciences: Is Anybody Out There?

Can the Social Sciences Account for Voter Behavior?

Pythagoras was not a social scientist though he was interested in human perception.  Either he or his followers gave us important laws  about music perception.  But it would be  two millennia before scientists turn their attention primarily to human behavior and institutions.

What have social scientists contributed?  Considerable! A textbook in any beginning social science class is thick and full of information. We’ve made progress in our scientific understanding of humans and their institutions but we clearly have a long way to go.  Case in point: the election of Donald J. Trump.  All  “explanations” of the 2017 presidential  election were after the fact.  No one prior to the results produced a theoretical account of what was about to happen.  All of the usual statistics gurus and normally reliable polling resources had it wrong.

Politics is difficult to address with the nation so divided.   But our job as social scientists is to explain and understand behavior even something as touchy as voting.  Around 33 to 40 percent of voters voted for Trump and continue to staunchly support him.  Voters have the right to choose whomever they wish.  Why was Trump so appealing and why has this appeal not wavered?

What Was the Appeal?

Trump’s theme was: “Make American Great Again.”  What  did it mean?  When was it great and when did it become not great?  What defined it as being great and how was Trump going to restore that greatness?   To some the theme  implied America of the 1950s and a predominately white culture.  It was a time without gay marriages, Black pride, a women’s movement, foreigners, and good paying jobs were available to men without college degrees.  Life was uncomplicated and  good.  But did the theme imply white racism?

The Trump campaign denied any such meaning.  It meant rather that Trump was going to reverse the job drain to other countries that resulted from globalization and all the unfair treaties to which the US had agreed. Products would be US made and jobs would not be stolen by foreigners, especially those coming illegally into the country of which there were thought to be millions.  Not only did they take away jobs but they brought crime and didn’t pay their fair share of taxes.  Trump even promised to build a “great and beautiful” wall across the border to Mexico – and Mexico would pay for it all.

Trump also promised to make US citizens safe from terrorism by banning people most likely to cause terror – Muslims!  Was this thinly veiled xenophobia and racism?  It seemed, however, to add to his appeal not detract from it.  Though he didn’t use the term, Trump was proposing a return to isolationism.  Gone would be the days when the US would find itself hopelessly ensnared in the business of other countries and he would avoid the mistake of foreign military conflicts, though he promised to greatly increase funding to the military.

Though Trump didn’t claim to be traditionally religious, he was twice divorced and lives the life of a pampered billionaire, he appealed to Christians by bragging that if he were president saying “Merry Christmas” would be OK again.  He also stressed a renewal of freedom from religious persecution that Christians seemed to feel.

He made himself the hero to many of the forgotten working class  struggling with life in the 21st century  US.  These were coal miners, laid off factory workers, and those left behind due to technology and  corporations moving to countries with lower corporate taxes.  He appealed to their sense of betrayal by their Washington representatives by claiming that he would “drain the swamp” of these self centered politicians and lobbiests.  Presumably to replace them with  down-to-earth folks like themselves.  Never mind that Trump was a New York City real estate mogul who would come to fill his cabinet with like-minded millionaires and billionaires many from the despised Wall Street.

Donald Trump was the master of the media.  He quickly came to utterly dominate it.  Many news programs  covered  Trump non-stop and viewers couldn’t get enough.  Ratings went through the roof and big money was made.   Real estate mogul  and Manhattan builder, it was his experience and verve in reality TV as host of “The Apprentice” that served him best.  He had a flair for the dramatic.

He talks in TV speak.  His pronouncements are uttered in short simplistic sentences full of drama and chutzpah.  He would repeal and replace Obamacare his first day in office with something everyone would love.  He would bomb the hell out of ISIS and finish them off in no time.  He would bring back jobs lost to foreign countries mostly via unfavorable trade agreements which he would renegotiate.  He would repeal and replace Obamacare with something everyone would love.  And most importantly, he would keep us safe from foreign terrorists, Muslims in particular.

He tore through his Republican primary opponents with his outsized personality and vicious attacks on them and their families.  He claimed for example, that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved in the assignation of John F. Kennedy and he published unflattering pictures of Cruz’ wife.  His brash reality-TV-uncensored -tone was shocking and despised by many but his growing number of adoring fans loved it – no more ‘political correctness.’  He reduced the front runner Jeb Bush to irrelevancy in short-order by deeming him as lacking sufficient energy.

In the mean time his Democratic opponent-to-be was  Hillary Clinton.  She struggled mightily against an unknown challenger from Vermont, the self described democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders.  She showed early weaknesses against Sanders whose message resonated with younger voters. And they became passionately attached to him.  Clinton prevailed but, as became apparent, not unscathed.  While everyone knew exactly what Sanders’ message was, Clinton suffered a real communication problem.  What exactly was her message, more of the same Obama agenda?

Clinton was tailor-made for Trump.  She and her husband were vilified and hated by the Conservatives and especially those at the extreme.  It was easy for the Trump campaign to whip up his voter base who seemed  to bitterly hate Hillary Clinton.   Clinton was an excellent debater in the traditional sense, but outshone by Trump because of his made-for-TV personality.  He referred to her as “crooked Hillary” and called for her to be “locked up.”  This ugly phrase soon began to be repeated in unison by Trump’s audience everywhere he went.

Trump also was aided by a murky team of data analysts who called themselves Cambridge Analytica. (A separate blog will be devoted to the methodology of this group and ones like it).  It is of upmost importance that readers, unfamiliar with what Pythagoras is about to say, familiarize themselves with its implications.  If you utilize the Internet you have become part of “Big Data.”  Unwittingly, you have had your pocket picked of all of the important information about you!  Somewhere, someone at this moment has just about every piece of information about you that can be known.  Who your friends are, websites you regularly visit, products you buy, your political affiliation, your address, your favorite foods, your social security number, your age and health, and on and on.  We have unwittingly made a Faustian bargain to provide all of our sensitive information for the privilege of using the Internet and its social media.  In addition as pointed out in an earlier blog, we write the material for the social media sites that lure in viewers in the first place.  You pay to play and then pay again.

All of these data you and everyone provide are important because it is worth a fortune to many people. Internet providers, Social networks like Facebook and Twitter earn a king’s ransom collecting  your data from your keystrokes and selling it.  This is all bad enough but now comes along companies like Cambridge Analytica that buy millions of data points about you and others and run algorithms on that data.  The point is simple; find reliable correlations among the data points: what reliably goes with what.  If the correlations are not spurious then a rough and ready prediction can be made about your future behavior that they can use for their purposes.

For example, there was a strong correlation between people who grilled outside and worked on their gardens and lawns in Iowa and who later voted for Donald Trump!  People who Cambridge Analytica determined to show paranoia expressed fear of being burgled and were very likely to purchase a gun and also importantly, vote Republican.  How is this information possible to get?  From you, simply telling them via your computer.  People reveal almost everything about themselves via social networks on the Internet.  You don’t think you do but you do.  In addition, folks are tricked into receiving gifts if they  just fill out an innocent looking questionnaire.  Not so innocent!  You reveal so very much about yourself with one of these.  We are told we can trust social media, after all their success depends on it – but do not be deceived – they can’t be trusted!!  Your data are being collected and sold as you read this.

How much Cambridge Analytica helped Trump get elected is disputed.  But it seems that they were either good or lucky at identifying who was most likely to vote for Trump and then they were heavily targeted toward the end of the election.  Cambridge Analytica found that there were many potential voters who were “double haters.”  They hated both Trump and Clinton.  These folks were targeted and then sent very negative information on Clinton, it was predicted  they would vote for Trump.  Most of these thus identified and targeted, opted for Trump.  Yes, folks it is the Brave New World we live in.  It is also not clear as of this writing how extensive and/or successful the Russians were at hacking and meddling in the election.

What’s the Concern?

A huge subset, perhaps one-third, of the citizenry of the united States passionately supported a candidate who had as his introductory salvo a savage attack on Mexican immigrants.   He previously claimed that Barack Obama was not a United States citizen.  He mocked a disabled reporter by grotesquely contorting his arms and face.  He disparaged the physical appearance of a female opponent and referred to the menstrual cycle of a  reporter whose question during a primary debate he didn’t like.  He was caught on an audio recording bragging about grabbing the genitalia of females without suffering retribution.  He called for a total ban of Muslims entering the U.S. in what seemed a thinly veiled attack on them.  He  appeared to encourage violence by asking his audience to “punch the crap” out of demonstrators and offering to pay their defense costs.

Even as president of the United States, Trump tweets insults daily at those he believes oppose and dislike him.  He rails against the Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press, calling their work he doesn’t like “fake news” and lies.  He has refused to give up control of his extensive business empire dismissing any regard for possible conflict of interest while president.  He has installed his unelected family members in the White House as “advisors.”  He and his campaign staff are currently under investigation by two committees in Congress, and a special prosecutor, for alleged collusion with the Russian government concerning  possible interference in the presidential election.  The list of transgressions seems endless but the above hopefully summarizes how voter support for Trump seems difficult for some to justify.

Why is Trump adored by reasonable and decent people?   Exit polls showed that 80 % of Evangelical Christians, who pride themselves on following the moral teaching of Jesus, voted for Trump.   Most Republican members of Congress seem paralyzed at the thoughts of speaking up against him even as his erratic behavior continues to plague their political agenda. As of this writing his signature campaign pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare with something so much better has suffered a devastating defeat as members of his own party refused to support the Senate bill.

A Closer Look

Hillary Clinton had as much governmental experience as one could have.  She was First lady, Senator from New York, and finally Secretary of State.  She could be the first women president and should garner a majority of women votes.  But exit polls showed that 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump!  (CNN poll).  She had the backing of women from almost every minority constituency in the US ( 94% of black women and 68% of Latino Women) but 63% of white men voted for Trump while only 31% chose Clinton!  So much for the effectiveness of the women’s movement among white women.  Feminism apparently stopped at the voting booth.

Trump made his points in  simple language familiar to TV viewers.  Clinton appeared ill at ease and over-scripted on TV and allowed Trump to draw her into fights that led her away from her talking points.  She was no match for him as a TV persona.  In addition, she probably was hurt when 55% of eligible voters failed to cast any ballot.  It is also conceivable that the last minute vague revelation of the then FBI director that some Clinton emails were discovered on disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner’s lap top.  The FBI director later admitted that these emails were not new and that nothing of a top secret nature was on them.

  • As a percentage of eligible voters, Clinton received 28.43% (65,845,063) of all votes compared to Trump’s 27.20% (62,980,160) and Did Not Vote’s 44.37%(102,731,399). Only 8 states + Washington DC, had high enough voter turnouts where one of the actual candidates won more votes than people who did not bother to vote. Iowa and Wisconsin for Trump and Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire and DC for Clinton.

Millennials, mostly stayed home, only about half bothered to vote.  of those voting 55% did support Clinton.

What Motivated Trump Supporters?  Do Polling Statistics Help?

The most common refrain gleaned from polls and self-reports, that motivated Trump supporters was economic fear and insecurity.  Yet, a study by the Atlantic   magazine suggests financially troubled voters in the white working class were more likely to prefer Clinton over Trump disregarding party affiliation. Being a Republican was the best predictor for support for Trump.  In addition, it was cultural anxiety—feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and not valuing  educational investment—that best predicted support for Trump.

While white, non-college-educated voters tend to prefer Republicans, Trump won them by a larger margin than any presidential candidate since 1980, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Pew Research Center also showed  nearly two-thirds of the white working class say American culture has gotten worse since the 1950s. Sixty-eight percent say the U.S. is in danger of losing its identity, and 62 percent say America’s growing number of immigrants threaten the country’s culture. More than half say discrimination against whites has become just as problematic as discrimination against minorities.  The survey shows that many white working-class Americans, especially men, no longer see the American dream possible through a college education. … Was it this sense of economic fatalism, more than just economic hardship, that was the decisive factor in support for Trump among white working-class voters?

There was also an implicit cultural/educational war initiated by the Trump campaign.  Trump’s enemies became his supporters’ enemies.   They were labelled “elites” as in “elitists.”  They were the snobby educated folks who “flew over” in jets traveling to their elite coastal destinations.  They believed in man-made climate change and evolution.  They supported gay marriage and all possessed college educations.  There developed among many Trump supporters a disturbing sentiment of anti-intellectualism.  Trump himself at times denied global warming calling it a hoax initiated by the Chinese!

Interviews of staunch Trump supporters indicate that they have also adopted his hatred of the mainstream media.  Preferring to get their information from Trump friendly sources such as Fox News and conservative talk radio hosts such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Laura Ingram.  His supporters seems to fall for the time honored ruse that any negative news about Trump is simply cooked up by the mainstream media as “fake news.”

Fact checkers have sprung up in an attempt to try and set the record straight concerning claims by Trump and his staff.  Trump insisted that his inauguration drew some of the largest crowds ever, far greater than for Obama.  He claimed that thousands of Muslims cheered the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Towers.  Such statements are rather easily refuted and it was believed that such “facts” would dissuade his supporters.  But when so confronted with the facts, the effect was simply to harden the erroneous beliefs of his followers.  Logic failed in the face of emotional commitment to Trump.

Can Social Science Offer Any Theories to Account for Trump Supporters Beyond The Statistics Mentioned Above?

The answer to the above question is yes and will be in Pythagoras’  next blog.











More On the Internet and Discouraging News From your Trusted Representatives in Congress

Joint Resolution

Providing for congressional disapproval under chapter 8 of title 5.  United States Code, of the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission relating to “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services.”

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress  disapproves the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission relating to “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services (81 Fed. Reg. 87274 (December 2, 2016)), and such rule shall have no force or effect.

50 – 48                   215-21

       Senate Vote            House Vote

What the heck is the above gobbledygook all about?  Well, remember in the previous blog post Pythagoras described how various Internet sites, particularly social media, are essentially in business to get you to write interesting content for them to put on their sites to attract viewers.   Then they turn around and sell the information compiled about you from your responses while on the site without your permission.   Remember that long incomprehensible page of lawyer-speak you had to agree to in order to use the social media site?  Well, buried in there you agreed to give them all of your information – free!  So, who reads those pages – no one of course and they know that.

   Now, let’s look at some history.  Much of this is taken from the online report by the Federal Communications Commission and can be referred to for verification

 (Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services).

As far back as 1934 Congress worried about the privacy of customers using the telephone.  It enacted a far-reaching “Communications Act” designed to help protect user information.  Then in 1996 Congress further strengthened the Communications Act by including Section 22 when it became known that telecommunications carriers were collecting data from users (customer proprietary network information CPNI).

Meanwhile as consumer use of the Internet exploded, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enacted a series of orders addressing privacy on the new Internet.  A new term was introduced: Broadband Internet Access Service (BIAS).  Broadband service providers were subjected to the rules of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  But they were exempt from the Congressional Communications Act and its rules governing CPNI because prior to 2015 BIAS was classified as an information service.

So, in 2015 with the Open Internet Order coming from the Obama administration the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassified the BIAS as a telecommunications service subject to the Communications Act Section 22 .  Google and Facebook were still under the rules of the FTC which BIAS felt were more lenient.

Prior to 2015, the ISPs (BIAS) were poised and ready to follow the lead of what are known as Edge Providers e.g., Google, Netflix, and Facebook to collect customer data and sell it for a huge profit.  These ISP providers like Comcast, AT & T, and Metrocast, argued that they were only a part of of a larger online ecosystem and that they should not be subject to a different set of regulations.

 Not so said the FCC,arguing that ISPs ignored the particular role of network providers and the context of the consumer/BIAS provider relationship.  The FCC stated; “ISP providers sit at a privileged place in the network; at the bottle neck between the customer and the rest of the Internet and can collect an unprecedented breadth of electronic personal information. By contrast Edge providers only see a slice of any given consumers Internet traffic.  Unlike other Internet participants that see the Domain Name System (DNS) lookups only to their own Domains (e.g., Google, Netflix, or Facebook) BIAS providers can see DNS lookups every time a customer uses the service to go to a new site.”

(A Domain Name System (DNS) takes an alphabetical name of an Internet site such as: and translates it into an Internet Protocol (IP) address which is a numerical address such as

Mozilla further states: “because these are paid services they have the subscribers name, address, phone number, and billing history…that can be used to profile the user in ways that are commercially lucrative.”  For the most part customers cannot switch BIAS providers and are left without recourse but to simply abandon the Internet.

This earlier ruling  by the FCC was overturned by a Republican controlled Congress.  They bought the argument of the ISPs  that the rules stifled creativity and business opportunities and didn’t allow them to provide customers  ads tailored to them.  Interesting argument isn’t it?   By the way, if there is an outside data breech BIAS is not required to notify the customers.  All this is justified so they can tailor ads to the customer that somehow,  really wants them!   The large Internet Service Providers such as Metrocast, AT&T, and Verizon are now free to steal your personal information and sell it to the highest bidder without you authorizing or knowing about it.

You might ask how did Congress go about pulling off this incredible slide of hand with so few people knowing about it.  The answer may be even more disturbing.

It’s No Secret How Things now Operate in Congress

While you might take some comfort in thinking that the Trump administration is foolish and ignorant when it come to politics – think again.  The Trump administration is brilliant in manipulation of the media for the purpose of distraction.  To disguise a target, simply surround it with lots of noisy distractions.  Large schools of colorful fish distract the  predator from seeing and eating the small, easily captured young fish hidden within. So too, the latest headlines swirl with shimmering distractions such as Trumps latest outrageous Tweet or the ongoing investigation into Russian intrusion into our democratic process of free and open elections or the testimonies of James Comey or Jeff Sessions, etc.  Within this cloud of tempting morsels for the media to cover, Congress too  works in secrecy, hidden from the spotlight.  Such was the case in passing the resolution overturning the prohibition for Internet Service Providers to secretly collect and sell your personal information without your knowledge or permission.

Republicans Gain Control of FCC – an Opening

Please bear with me for a little more history.  Tom Wheeler was the former head of the FCC under the Obama administration and had worked for two years to pass the privacy rules.  In addition, he also championed the so-called “net neutrality” rule.  Net neutrality is meant to guarantee equal broadband speed for every user in the Internet.  Without it ISPs can reward certain, Edge providers, with deep pockets, with faster speeds while slowing down others.

ISPs including AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon  favor this two-tiered internet service model that  allows them to charge a premium fee for priority placement and faster speed across their carrier network pipes. They maintain that government legislation of the Internet is an unnecessary barrier to innovation and economic growth.  Clearly, they stand to gain financially from this two-tiered system.  The Edge provider such as Netflix and Facebook, though having to pay a fee, would receive faster service.

Proponents See An Opening: Trump and Republicans Win

Ajit Pai was appointed to replaced Tom Wheeler as head of the FCC and Republicans became a majority on the commission. Lobbyists from trade groups funded by large broadband companies and Silicon Valley: (e.g., ISPs; Facebook and Google; and US Chamber of Commerce); sprung into action.  They sought sponsors in the House and Senate to introduce bills refuting the protections  poised earlier by the FCC.

In the Senate they found a taker in  Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) who received  $22,000 in “donations.”  In the House  Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) gladly sponsored the bill and $20,500 was “donated” to her.  By the way, those outnumbered souls fighting to preserve the FCC ruling provided no money to either lawmaker.  Both lawmakers had previously voiced opposition to the original FCC ruling.

Both Flake and Blackburn delayed introducing  their bill to kill the privacy rules.  Blackburn coyly waited to introduce her bill until after Sen. Mitch McConnell  and other Republican leaders asked the Trump administration to issue a statement that Trump would sign the bill.  Both bill passed pretty much along part lines.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)

Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.)

The point is that both in the House and Senate the bills were introduced and passed with little fanfare and not much debate and even less media coverage.  Only after the bills were passed did what was done come to light.  But of course, by that time it was too late.  Adjit Pai soon announced that the second part of the net neutrality rule was next in line to be chopped.

As Pythagoras will discuss in a future blog, the senate is repeating its distraction strategy with their health care bill.  It is being done virtually in secret amid the swirl of “news” distractions  and will they hope, be passed before anyone really understands its implications.

Fake Facts and Confirmation Bias

A Few Thoughts About Fake and Alternative Facts

Pythagoras  believes it’s important to  reassure the reader of the validity of his blog.  Amidst the thickets of false, fake, and disingenuous information, we are today forced to  sort out what is actually true.  There are unsavory individuals, everywhere it seems, who specialize in tricks of information corruption.  The overarching plan, particularly within the political realm, is to sow so much disinformation, – i.e., false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth – that nothing is to be trusted.


But why in such circumstances should they be trusted?  Because they know a trick.

The trick is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.


We humans have a particular weakness to accept as truth, that which confirms what we already believe.  If we are fed information that confirms our already held beliefs, then we uncritically accept it.  The information can seem outrageous to others, but as long as it supports what we already hold true, we’ll accept it without question.  Unfortunately, if the information disconfirms what we already believe, even though it may be true, we assume it to be false.  And the stronger our already held belief and the more we commit to it, the stronger is the confirmation bias.  It is uncomfortable to hold on strongly to a belief and hear information contrary to that belief.  Psychology calls this conflict cognitive dissonance –    developed and apparently coined by U.S. social psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-1989) – 

  • The psychological tension that occurs when one holds mutually exclusive beliefs or attitudes and that often motivates people to modify their thoughts or behaviors in order to reduce the tension.
  • American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
  • Cognitive dissonance is more a description inferred from behavior as opposed to a theory from which precise predictions can be experimentally tested. But that description seem to serve us well here.

How Do Others Find Out What We Already Believe:

The Internet and accompanying social media venues are designed to reveal immense amounts of information about the user – us – you!  You’ve noticed that ads continually pop up on our favorite social media sites that seem to apply to us in a particular way.   It is scary how much “they” know about us – you.  This is how most such site make their money, by selling our information to interested parties.

It’s the sweetest deal imaginable.  You provide the interesting  content that attracts others, i.e., stuff about you or cute videos of your pet, etc. All the while each of your key strokes is recorded and fit together into a profile of you the user.  Then after you have provided the content – completely for free – to suck in other users, the site turns around and sells the information it has secretly stolen from you without your permission!  See a great book by Jaron Lanier: “Who Owns the Future?” by one of the most insightful writers about Silicon Valley rip offs.  He argues with good reason, that contributors should be paid for their contributions to social media sites.  After all, without such contributions, the particular social media site would go belly up.

So the clever sower of disinformation feeds their disinformation  to the susceptible.   It is an unfortunate fact of life that today we are described as living in silos; receiving our information from sources that provide only comforting confirmation for what we already believe.  Our minds get closed off, we become divided against ourselves as a society, making compromise impossible.  The less we know about the “others” holed up in their own silos, the more we distrust and dislike them.  But without compromise a democratic and free society becomes impossible.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  From a speech by Abraham Lincoln and paraphrased from the Bible.

  • http://www.abraham lincoln

This blog site  does not rely on fake or alternative facts, Pythagoras cites sources from which information used in the blog has been taken.  If Pythagoras gives an opinion, the blog will state it as such.  The blog is not being sponsored or funded by anyone.  These two things are critical in determining if any information source is legit.  Does the site provide sources that you can go and check, indeed, do they site any sources? It is also so important to try and determine the motives of the writer disseminating the information.  Often it is easy to see that they are going to be seriously biased and slanted.  A blog or scientific study singing the praises of say, drinking goats’ milk and written or sponsored by the Goat Milk Institute of America should be very suspicious.  You should always be suspicious of any information that comes your way, even from this site, so check it out.

There is no hidden agenda for this blog, my sole purpose is to entertain and enlighten you with information you perhaps didn’t know before.  I trust I will not misrepresent Pythagoras either.



Pythagoras Speaks: Music of the Spheres or a Smattering of Lunacy

The name Pythagoras congers up memories of the dreaded Pythagorean Theorem.  

The sum of the squares of the base (b) and height (a) of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse (c) – see the equation above.  But don’t be frightened off.  Pythagoras was a very interesting guy and though metaphorical, this blog channels some of his wisdom.

He will have much to say about a variety of subjects and hopefully you will find it interesting and enlightening.  A few words about historical Pythagoras are in order.


Little is known of thel person Pythagoras.  He was born on the Aegean Island of Samos probably around 570 B.C..  He left the island in about 530 B.C. and settled in the Greek colonial city of Croton. He mysteriously had to flee for is life to Metapontum where he died in approximately 500 B.C. under rather mysterious circumstances.  He was in the tradition of the Socratic teacher-philosopher and had many devoted disciples.  He was a reclusive cult figure who believed that numbers  reflected the perfection of  nature.  He left no writings nor are there any first-hand accounts by eye witnesses.

One of the first author to write about Pythagoras was Pilolaus.

  • Huffman, C. A., 1993, Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Greek texts of the fragments and testimony with translations and commentary in English.)

He informs us that Pythagoras proposed that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos but moved about. Thus, predating Copernicus’s heliocentric theory (published in 1543) by almost 1500 years.  He taught that the known planets emitted songs, “music of the spheres”, of ethereal quality not perceivable by humans.  With so little factual evidence it is difficult to separate truth from myth and how much attributed to Pythagoras can be historically accepted.  There are suggestions from other writers that Pythagoras traveled and may have learned the mathematics of the day and especially the decimal system from the Egyptians and Persians.

It is accepted that either Pythagoras, who was a musician  himself or at least his immediate followers developed the first natural law ever formulated mathematically: the relationship between musical pitch and the length of a vibrating harp string.  It was discovered that to produce a tone an octave higher than a given tone, the length of the harp string must be exactly half that of the original.  Thus, the ratio of the lengths of the two strings is 2 to 1.  This law holds for musical strings of any length; it is a general law.  This simple ratio appeared as natural beauty to Pythagoras’ followers who saw in such numbers a reflection of truth and beauty in the universe.  The octave ratio 2 to 1, is a pleasant sounding interval, termed “consonant.”  If men and women sing a Capella as in a choir they do so naturally an octave apart.  Music of all cultures throughout history base their music around the octave.  Pythagoras was on to something!

It can be argued that Pythagoras originated the quest for answers utilizing the principles of science.  Pythagoras and his disciples  “the Pythagoreans;”  the scholars who actually left behind written documents, were constrained by their exclusive use of rational numbers; numbers that can be written as fractions where both the numerator and denominator are whole numbers.  Never-the-less they developed the beginnings of geometry (later developed by Euclid, born c. 300 bce, Alexandria, Egypt), and encouraged the importance of measurement.  They also invented a universally adopted musical scale  and from it evolved music theory of which much more will come later.

A Quest for Understanding:   Pythagoras employs science over myths

Even if the open window of science at first makes us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”  Bertrand Russell

Humans possess an intense  curiosity about themselves and the universe. What are we all about?   Did we just randomly appear some quarter million years ago on this particular planet?  What’s “out there”  beyond Earth?  Why is anything out there?   Is it infinitely large and expanding?  If it’s expanding does that mean that there is an edge to the universe?  What’s beyond the edge then?  Are we alone in the universe?  (Some of these questions can be answered as we’ll see later.)

Such questions can drive us mad; it seems there are no  answers.  They both fascinate and disturb us.  But as uneasy as it makes us, we return again and again seeking answers.  Thus, seems the fate of human kind.

History reveals our many attempts to answer these difficult questions.  We are prolific inventors  but too often we succumb to the fictions we substitute for truth.  These fictions come too easily and can lead us astray.  While truth and understanding come with burdensome effort.

The many ways toward possible enlightenment

In our quest for truth and understanding,  we often turn to profits and holy ones who lay claim to Divine inspiration. Their teachings promise simplicity and fulfillment and become the foundation of religions.  Conveniently,  their answers require unquestioning faith to be effective and are thus, more satisfying to some than others.

Other approaches to understanding, crafted without claim of Divine intervention, are produced by secular philosophers.  These are very thoughtful people who conjure up complex ideas about the universe and human nature based on assumptions and woven together into a logical system.

Still others create works of art which mirror the human situation and in which we take great delight because of their aesthetic appeal and in the wisdom they communicate.  Why do we still read the plays of William Shakespeare?  In his tales, age-old human conflicts and travails are played out with humor and drama.  We seem to gain some understanding of ourselves and our nature.  Who can listen to perhaps the most famous soliloquy in all the English language and not ponder Life, with all its travails, and Death, with its absence of life.

“To be, or not to be- that is the question: …

To die- to sleep- No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.

‘Tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d.

To die- to sleep.

To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub! …

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.

There’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life. …”


Further , listen to the soliloquy of Macbeth as he boarders on madness contemplating the death of Lady Macbeth and the murder of King Duncan:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.


His cynicism at the stark realization of the traumatic events reveal Macbeth’s attempt at rationalization and reveal his growing madness.  Anyone willing to give these words of Shakespeare a moment’s reflection can’t help but be moved as they stir long denied feelings within.

Science’s Approach as revealed by Pythagoras

There is another way humans seek answers;  seek rather than to devise.    It  is called science.  In future iterations of this blog Pythagoras will have more to say about science and  explain its distinguishing features.  The various schemes by which humans seek answers all contain grains of truth.  But science  contains a powerful “self corrective” feature unique to itself.

To start off: Science as practiced by Pythagoras long ago, relies on measurement and   empiricism.  Pythagorean empiricism insists on measurement which is both a strength and limitation.  Certain questions  are off limits because measurement is impossible.  “Were we created by a higher power?”  Off limits since although we may “believe” in a higher power, we cannot presently measure such a power.  Without measurement there will be inevitable disagreement.

An Example of the Application of Science to a Difficult Question

We live on planet Earth.  OK, so how big around is the Earth?  Don’t cheat and Google it or ask an expert.    None of the other systems mentioned earlier seem to be of much help.  I can’t just “imagine” a useful answer and philosophers and profits have little to offer.  Science does.  Remember empiricism and measurement.

Travel back to ancient Greece some 2276 years ago to when Eratosthenes was born.  Eratosthenes (276 BC-194 BC) was a Greek mathematician, geographer and astronomer. He was born in Cyrene (now Libya) and died in Ptolemaic Alexandria. He is noted for devising a map system based on latitude and longitude lines and computing the size of the Earth.

At the time of Eratosthenes the size of Earth was unknown.  But the ancient Greeks weren’t stupid.  From watching ships’ masts disappear over the horizon and the pattern of light and dark during eclipses they knew the Earth was round – not flat.  Greek mathematicians had begun to devised critical mathematics such as trigonometry that enabled them to calculate information inaccessible by any other means.

Eratosthenes the mathematician/scientist did some very clever measurements.  First, he already knew  some important things.  During the summer solstice (June 21st)  the Earth’s axis tilts most directly toward the sun.  At this time, if the sun is at “local noon,” i.e., it is  most directly overhead of the Tropic of Cancer, it will not cast a shadow directly below. No angle will be created by the sun’s rays; it is as if the rays are momentarily completely perpendicular to the Earth’s surface directly below.  The Greek city of Cyene sits almost on the Tropic of Cancer so at the summer solstice at local noon, the sun will cast no shadows on Cyene.

At precisely the same time in the Greek city of Alexandria roughly just North of Cyene, the sun is not exactly at local noon and will cast a shadow.  That means the sun’s rays are coming down on Alexandria at a slight angle, not completely perpendicular.   Eratosthenes or a colleague measured this angle.  They took a vertical rod of a given length and measured the length of shadow it cast.  Given the height of the rod and the length of the shadow the angle of the sun’s rays can be determined.  Divide the height of the rod by the length of the shadow to get the tangent of the angle.  Obtain the inverse tangent function to determine the actual angle.  Today’s hand calculators can easily determine all of these values.

Think of the sun”s rays hitting the Earth in the region around Cyrene and Alexandria.  The rays hit Cyrene with an angle of zero, they come straight down.  But the Earth curves slightly away from the sun”s rays above the more northern city of Alexandria so they hit with a slight angle of about 7 degrees.  Imagine, a right triangle being formed by the rays hitting Cyrene and Alexandria.  There would be a right angle formed between the rays hitting Cyrene and the imaginary line connecting Alexandria.

right triangle formed

Figure retrieved from:

Eratosthenes estimated the distance from Cyene to Alexandria to be about 5,000 stadia. A stadion was a unit of measurement estimated to be 185 meters.  It is rumored that this figure was estimated from the time it took camel caravans to go the distance from Syene to Alexandria.

Eratosthenes also knew that there are 360 degrees in a circle.  The Earth’s circumference was assumed to approximate a circle.  The distance from Alexandria to Syene must be 7/360 of the total circumference in degrees of the Earth. He established a final value of 700 stadia per degree of angle.  Which implies a circumference of 252,000 stadia (700 x 360). The exact size of the stadion he used is no longer known but it is generally believed that Eratosthenes’ value corresponds to between 39,690 km and 46,620 km.

The circumference of the Earth around the poles is now measured at around 40,008 km. Eratosthenes result is not bad at all.  He went on to measure the distance to the sun also using science.  It is interesting that Christopher Columbus, relying on the figures of Eratosthenes, confused Arabic metrics with Italian and erroneously believed he needed only 3,700 km to reach the Orient.  The true distance was around 19,600 km!  The appearance of the Americas saved his life and gave his historical reputation a second chance.  There is  a Columbus Day.

Similar logic was used by another Greek Aristarchos of Samos (310 c. – 230 BC) (recall Pythagoras was from there) to determine the size of the moon and its distance from the Earth.  Aristarchos formally placed the sun at the center of the then known universe. Copernicus centuries later attributed the heliocentric theory to Aristarchos.

Science has provided us with many answers to questions about our universe.  These sorts of ultimate questions, posed by cosmologists , are answered precisely with numbers.  This is critical for science, because the numbers are precise and can ultimately be tested to be right or wrong.  We land exploratory rovers on Mars because science has determined the exact measurements needed.  If these are wrong, landings are impossible.

Science has been extended into realms besides cosmology such as biology and psychology.  More about these in later blogs.  And more also about science such as how hypotheses and theories are incorporated.