Factor Analysis

A newly pervasive linguistic trope raises a question: Have we stumbled on the basic unit of social causality?

POLITICAL commentators assessing the prospects for Al Gore in his race for the presidency and Hillary Rodham Clinton in her presumptive race for the United States Senate have in recent months drawn attention to a phenomenon that could dampen public enthusiasm for both candidates: "Clinton-fatigue factor." The columnist Bob Herbert, writing in The New York Times about Hillary Clinton's campaign, defined Clinton-fatigue factor succinctly: "A lot of voters have had their fill of Bill and Hillary and would like to move on." Clinton-fatigue factor may be a palpable reality, but it is by no means the only factor that has been enjoying prominence in the news. Last spring Steven Spielberg's relatively modest showing at the Academy Awards -- his Saving Private Ryan received eleven nominations but won only five Oscars -- was attributed by an industry observer to a combination of the "Him again? factor" and the "What more does he need? factor." In Hollywood, according to one publication, the essential component of star quality is the "'it' factor"; modeling agencies, the same source says, are looking for a very different component -- the "X-factor." The movie The Mummy, a Los Angeles Times critic decided, was given momentum by the "squirm factor." Armageddon succeeded because of the "testosterone factor."

Economists, I notice, have been calling attention to a "feel-good factor" that has bolstered consumer confidence and prepared the way for a "drool factor," lubricating retail sales. The "spinach factor" refers to a potentially off-putting amount of actual substance in something intended for mass-market entertainment; of course, the "dreck factor" can also prove off-putting. People will often sit and stare anyway, media analysts observe, owing to the "If it's on, watch it factor."

Bill Clinton figures again in the "It could be me factor" -- cited by a writer in Time to explain the public's reluctance to judge the President's personal behavior harshly. Clinton-fatigue factor aside, Al Gore is said by the columnist David Broder to have benefited from the "G factor" -- that is, becoming a grandfather -- even as George W. Bush draws strength from the "inevitability factor." An aversion to public discussion of distasteful subjects is brought on by the "yuck factor." The attraction of journalists to predictions of doom originates with the "Chicken Little factor." Having survived the yuck factor and the Chicken Little factor, the Clinton Administration has been advised by political operatives to beware of the "gloat factor."

Pick a phenomenon and some sort of factor will almost always be found at the bottom of it. Hundreds have been isolated and identified in recent years. It used to be that explanations for complex behavioral outcomes were amorphous and murky -- insights to be approached by means of the hunch, the gut feeling, the surmise. These crude tools are now things of the past, replaced by new instruments of refinement and power.

* * *

All this needs to be seen against a larger backdrop. In his book the writer John Horgan makes the audacious claim that human understanding has closed in on all the big verifiable truths about the universe and how it works: the Big Bang, the theory of relativity, the forces governing matter, the fact of evolution, the mechanism of genetics. The sad truth, Horgan argues, is that "the great era of scientific discovery is over." Although a number of significant questions do remain unanswered (What is consciousness? Why did life begin?), the answers are necessarily speculative and therefore beyond the proper realm of science.

For purely scientific questions the task ahead has been reduced to filling in the details. Horgan states, "Further research may yield no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns."

I don't know if Horgan is right about the natural sciences; his book has aroused a certain amount of derision. But the situation he describes stands in contrast to the one prevailing in the social sciences. There the great era of scientific discovery has scarcely begun. Specific insights have been piling up for a century or more, unaccompanied by the emergence of an overarching theory.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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