reflective #2: testing

Family illnesses this past week, so this reflective post is late. Apologies.

One of the issues that we touched on in class involved the feasibility or plausibility of Heinlein's lunar society. It seemed important to us to ask whether some of the social conventions and norms that Heinlein explicates would, "in fact", obtain -- whether, in particular, the differential freedoms of action accorded to men and women would evolve and remain. [Interestingly, we didn't talk much about Heinlein's physics, particularly his elaborate discussion of escape velocities and the "cannon" technique of orbital delivery -- that's curious to me, since Heinlein goes into at least as much detail about that as he goes into about lunar social norms. Maybe it's because this is a class about social science and science fiction? Hmm.]

Scott made a claim in class that a differential male/female population ratio would, over time, naturally self-correct to something like 50-50. Subsequently he sought to substantiate that claim through some research and a simple iterated computer model. ["Simple" is not a knock on Scott here; "complex" models get very complex indeed, so the term is descriptive here and in no way pejorative. Indeed, my hat is off to Scott for his efforts.] Scott's model demonstrates that an imbalanced population will, in fact, self-correct back towards 50-50 over time. Of course, like any model, there is some sensitivity to parameters and assumptions, such as Scott's assumption of two healthy births per woman and an equal chance of male and female births; there is research out there that suggests that the actual percentage is not quite equal, although it's pretty close (but over time, those small deviations from 50-50 can add up). So in that way, it looks like the imbalance that Heinlein describes on Luna might not last too long.

This suggests another issue, however, which is the implied assumption that the physical male-female ratio at a given point in time will necessarily generate a certain set of social norms. This kind of naturalism is, as I've said, is a feature of Heinlein's position in this novel (and in other novels), so it's perfectly understandable that we might simply rest on it. But I'm not completely sure that we should, especially given the vast amount of scholarship on social norms and their "stickiness" -- their persistence after the conditions within which they arose alter. If that's the case, then the changing male-female might not have an impact on social norms. This is an idea that Heinlein plays with in some of his later novels, in which the incest taboo is treated as something that arose in a context where inbreeding might result, but which the availability of modern techniques of birth-control renders antiquated. But the norm remains, regardless -- his characters play around with it in various ways, and he is obviously playing on the reader's sensibilities about such things, but the fact remains that the norm is treated as sticky.

All of this poses a wider question about evaluation. Clearly a good work of science fiction has to display some degree of verisimilitude, literally, a resemblance to truth -- otherwise the reader doesn't buy it. The precise limits of this verisimilitude are, shall we say, open to negotiation, since a skilled author can often get a reader to suspend disbelief more broadly than a weaker author can. But the question remains: how should we deal with the evaluation of the verisimilitude of a science fiction novel, since by definition such a novel has some elements that are not realized in our present situation? What constitutes a "fair test" for a novel?

This gives me an idea for class tomorrow -- and that's the only hint you're going to get :-)

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