The constitution of knowledge is cross-disciplinary

This old tweet has recently been making the rounds and sparked up some discussion among my Facebook friends:

As someone with a background in both science and the humanities, I am continually exhausted by the antagonism between them.  In any given argument I usually side with humanities advocates, because STEM workers are way more likely to be dismissive dicks.  But this critique really misses the mark.

All disciplines ought to teach about how knowledge is constituted in their domain.  That’s as true for biology and math and computer science as it is for history and philosophy and art.

It’s true that some of the disciplines most likely to discuss knowledge constitution are in the humanities.  Philosophy has epistemology, for instance, and there are subfields of history and sociology focused on knowledge constitution.  But in STEM we have statistics, and subfields of psychology and computer science concerned with what is knowable and how we know it.

Regardless, I don’t agree that we can or should assign ‘knowledge constitution’ to specific fields.  All knowledge is actively constructed and we ought to be teaching people about that process even as we’re teaching the current results of the process.  Which is, I think, what Neil Degrasse Tyson is getting at.

 

Tolerating Uncertainty

The business of thinking is like the veil of Penelope: it undoes every morning what it had finished the night before.

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 166

I’m an anxious sort of person.

That’s a glib way of saying that I have an anxiety disorder.  I’m afraid a lot of the time.  I have practical fears, like heights and driving and cardiovascular diseases.  I have existential fears, like global warming and the recent descent of American society into fascism.  And I have social fears, like public speaking and calling people on the phone and putting myself out there when I want something or someone.

Every single person feels anxiety sometimes.  What makes it a disorder is that it interferes with your life.  My disorder is not a bad one – anxiety is ever-present in my life but I largely work around it.  I hate flying and driving, for instance.  If I could take the train everywhere I would, but I can’t, so I fly and I drive and my nervous system freaks out but I’m okay.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m just anxious for no damn reason, and it lasts all day, or all week, and there’s nothing I can do.  And that’s hard but it’s also reassuring in its own way.  It’s a reminder that anxiety often can’t be reasoned with.  At a certain point, all you can do is acknowledge what’s happening.  “My nervous system is freaking out, but I’m okay.”

What I’m trying to say here is that my relationship to anxiety is very personal. I think that’s true for most people. You can reason about fear but there’s a part of it that’s inescapably embodied. And uncertainty exacerbates fear.  I’d rather get a single painful shock I knew was coming than sit around waiting for a shock that might come.  It’s less terrifying to ask out a person you know will say no than someone who might say no.  So my relationship to uncertainty is very personal too.  To tolerate uncertainty is not just an intellectual choice or an emotional choice, but a physical choice.

The Romantic poet John Keats in 1817 coined the term negative capability:

[At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.

Part of why negative capability is so rare and difficult to cultivate is because uncertainty provokes for so many of us a physical fear.  So we try to escape the fear by leaving the situation, or reasoning ourselves out of it, or blaming something else for the fear, or trying to grit our way through it.  Negative capability is the decision to sit with that fear, to say, “I’m afraid, but I’m okay”.  And when you approach uncertainty with that kind of acceptance, it lets you view the world – and the uncertain issue or object – in a different way.

This way of approaching the world is not something Keats invented, of course.  From Hannah Arendt:

It is in [thinking’s] nature to undo, unfreeze as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought – words (concepts, sentences, definitions, doctrines), whose “weaknesses” and inflexibility Plato denounces so splendidly in the Seventh Letter.  The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics.  These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handy you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now arouse in you, has roused you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is share them with each other.

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 177

In other words, Socrates sought to build a community of people with negative capability, people who could hold perplexities in their hands.

(Brief aside: I can’t help bringing up one of my favorite characters, Chidi Anagonye, again.  Chidi is a moral philosopher with severe anxiety and essentially zero negative capability, who I think would benefit enormously from having Socrates as a mentor.  Maybe I will write fanfiction about this.)

Negative capability is vital in so many endeavors:

It’s vital in scientific research, since you must tolerate uncertainty about how the world works and whether the hypotheses and theories you’re relying on are true.

It’s vital in technological innovation, since you must tolerate uncertainty about whether your inventions will work and what impact they’ll have on the world.

It’s vital in political coalition-building, since you must tolerate uncertainty about how to compromise and whose perspectives to favor.

And of course it’s vital in philosophy and art, as Socrates and John Keats would agree.

Some people argue that an inability to tolerate uncertainty predisposes people to authoritarianism and fascism.  Others link it to conservatism:

[R]ather than make an unvarnished demand for freedom to oppress he is more apt to present himself as the defender of certain values. It is not in his own name that he is fighting, but rather in the name of civilization, of institutions, of monuments, and of virtues which realize objectively the situation which he intends to maintain; he declares that all these things are beautiful and good in themselves; he defends a past which has assumed the icy dignity of being against an uncertain future whose values have not yet been won; this is what is well expressed by the label “conservative.”

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, p. 39.

There has not been very much research on the links between uncertainty tolerance and authoritarianism or conservatism.  There has not been much research on uncertainty tolerance as a whole.

These are, fittingly, subjects for which we must tolerate a great deal of uncertainty.  So let us do as Socrates would do, and share our perplexities with each other.

Quick decisions

Last week I went to a rally to protest a series of raids by ICE in my city. The rally turned into an unplanned march through the streets, and I had to make two quick decisions: first, whether to join the march, and second, whether to remain in the street when the police started to give warnings.

When the march started and I had to decide whether or not to join, I had the following thoughts:

  • Shit, are we going to get arrested for this?
  • There’s several hundred of us, they probably won’t arrest us.
  • But it’s illegal, so we *could* be arrested. What would happen if I did?
  • I just got arrested for civil disobedience a few weeks ago, would there be extra consequences because of that?
  • Maybe, but there’d be *less* consequences because I’m white and a woman and a citizen and all my family are citizens.
  • And they’re probably not going to arrest people anyway.
  • Okay, let’s do this.

We marched for about thirty minutes, to the location where the raids had taken place, and then we stayed in the street. At one point, the police started to give warnings, and the leaders of the protest told anyone who didn’t want to risk arrest to move to the sidewalk.

  • Okay, they really might arrest us.
  • There are still a lot of us though. And the more of us stay in the street the less likely they are to arrest any of us.  And I’m still way less vulnerable than a lot of the people here.
  • But I haven’t even told anyone I might be arrested. I have no plan for this.
  • There will be other times to risk arrest later, when I’ve had a chance to research and plan. It’s not selfish to want to be prepared.

So I got up on the sidewalk. A lot of people stayed in the street, and no one ended up getting arrested.

I do feel a little bad that I didn’t stay in the street and risk arrest, but I think it was a reasonable decision. The context changed, and my actions changed, but my values stayed the same, and I stayed consistent with them.

There’s no one set of rules that can govern all of our decisions. There’s no “right choice”, only choices that are better or worse than others, and often you don’t even know what’s better or what’s worse until everything’s over.

One of my favorite fictional characters is Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place. Chidi has severe anxiety about making morally good decisions and I identify with him so much. I mean, my job used to be to stick people inside of magnets and give them moral dilemmas, of course I identify with Chidi. But his approach to morality is unhealthy. He’s obsessed with making the right decision, when the right decision doesn’t exist. His desire to be good actually makes him do less good.

I’m not always going to make the best decision, but I can be thoughtful about the decisions I do make. There will always be room to criticize, but I can learn from self-reflection and from the feedback of others without thinking that a better person would have done something different.

Judgment Above Principle, Judgment After Principle

Principles are really important, and by and large you should try hard to stick to them.  I have tremendous respect for those who have died or gone to jail for their principles.

That said, a principle is just a rule, albeit a highly abstracted and abnormally emotional rule.  And it is important not to follow rules blindly but to consider whether they apply in a given situation.  It is rare that a principle applies in all situations for a given person (how many people truly would never kill, even in self defense?) and it is impossible for a principle to apply in all situations for all people.  So you have to use your personal judgment.

This doesn’t mean “oh, whatever, just go with your gut”.  But it does mean “I have thought deeply about this and weighed the various principles and factors involved and this is what my gut says”.  Hence the title of this post*.  “Judgment Above Principle”: aka personal judgment is more important than sticking to principles.  “Judgment After Principle”: aka personal judgment requires a thoughtful consideration of principles.  It is not a rejection of principles but a transcendence of them.

This post on Emptywheel highlights a great example of putting judgment above principle:

Marcy’s post was not primarily about the investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election, though that is what has gotten a lot of the attention. What she was really talking about was the practice  — or should I say “malpractice”? — of journalism. Woven into the entire post, Marcy laid out how she wrestled with a very basic question: What do you do, as a journalist, when a confidential source lies to you?

I highly recommend reading both Marcy Wheeler’s original post, Putting a Face (Mine) to the Risks Posed by GOP Games on Mueller Investigation, and Peterr’s analysis (linked above).

* The post title is also a play on a paper I was co-author on.  It’s not really relevant to this post, except as a reminder that I’ve been obsessed with morality for a while.  😉

 

A matter of trust

This originated as a post to a mailing list on the subject of blockchains and how they might help the cause of open science.  The quote below is the claim I was directly responding to.

Shauna: “but the scientific community is arguably the most effective trust-based system in human history” – according to this view we wouldn’t need version control systems or preregistration either. I couldn’t disagree more; trust has no place in science. To me, that’s one of the major things with open scientific practices: removing the trust from science and instead practice transparency.

My response:

Trust is a fundamental issue in all human relationships and communities.  Every single interaction we have with other human beings involves some level of trust.  Just today I had to trust the people who harvested and packaged my food not to have accidentally or maliciously poisoned me, the drivers on the street to obey traffic conventions, and my house mate to have locked the house and not invited anyone dangerous inside — and those are only the most obvious examples.  I could come up with dozens more.

Different situations require different levels of trust.  If a situation requires more trust than you currently have, you can try to increase trust in a number of ways.  You can build new technologies, but you can also strengthen relationships, create neutral institutions, or add legal or regulatory force to your agreements.  None of these work perfectly, and often you’re best off pursuing a combination of them.  In all cases, though, you will have to trust someone at some point – it’s just a matter of deciding which system will allow you to trust in a way that’s acceptable to you.

The scientific community has trust issues, yes, like every other human community.  But its trust issues are of a specific type.  When you read a scientific paper, what makes you doubt the findings?  Personally, I’m not worried that the authors have faked the data, or that the publisher has changed the content of the paper without anybody knowing, or that the paper is stolen or plagiarized.  I know that the scientific community has very strong norms against these types of violations, and so they’re relatively rare.  Broadly speaking, I trust the scientific community to minimize these problems.  There’s not a lot of communities I would trust like that, which is why I claimed that science is special in this way.

The trust issues that the scientific community currently has are largely based around mis-aligned incentives.  I trust most scientists not to engage in outright fraud but I don’t trust them not to make choices in their research practices that may hurt their careers.  They know how the funding, publication, and tenure systems work, and they know that replications, preregistration, and following strict practices to minimize false positives will hurt their careers.  Simply put: most scientists don’t trust that taking actions to make science better will be rewarded rather than punished.  In a world of decreasing funding and a decaying social safety net, is anyone surprised that people do what’s best for themselves within the existing norms of the community?

My focus, then, is on supporting initiatives that help scientists trust that taking actions to make science better will be rewarded rather than punished.  I don’t see how blockchain helps with that even slightly.  I’d rather put time and energy and resources into things like lobbying funders to require certain research practices, supporting journals that facilitate preregistration and minimize publication bias, convincing departments to require a minimum number of replications per researcher per year, and educating students and early career researchers about the importance of these practices.  In other words, changing the norms so that engaging in these behaviors is easy rather than hard – because I trust humans to prefer the easy thing to the hard thing.

Civic Virtue and the Profit Motive

In an article about Milton Friedman in the Pacific Standard, Rick Paulas quotes from an article of Friedman’s published in 1970:

There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud

The phrase “rules of the game” immediately caught my eye, as it did Paulas’:

Another thing missing from Friedman’s framework of corporations playing “within the rules of the game” was the outsized role that the corporate lobbyists have had in the creation of those rules. As Sachs points out, “[i]n 2016, special interests spent $3.15 billion to employ 11,166 lobbyists in the U.S.” If Friedman’s theoretical world was based on the ability of outside actors—like government regulators—keeping societal rules intact, then that world has long been compromised.

There’s always a gap between rules and reality, and we require good judgment and public spirit from those navigating that gap.

Years ago I read Zephyr Teachout’s excellent book Corruption in America, and was struck by her description of how the framers approached the constitution.  Teachout writes:

We have two thoughts: (1) men are not always angels, and therefore structures must help us; and (2) virtue is necessary, and structures alone cannot help us. The reconciliation between these two Madisonian beliefs holds the key to understanding the moral psychology of the framers. These can both be true if one perceives a dynamic relationship between constitutional structure and political morality. Because men are not always virtuous, structures must be enacted in order to discourage self-serving behavior in public life. The public orientation that flourishes in these structures in turn helps maintain the structures, which in turn helps maintain virtue.

The argument is not merely that, in the absence of good regulations, individuals (or companies) must temper their self-interest with civic virtue.  It is that good regulations must be actively maintained, and that it takes virtuous individuals to do so.

Okoye’s Judgment Call

Warning: Black Panther spoilers.

Elle Magazine gets it right: one of the best scenes in Black Panther is between Okoye and Nakia, after Killmonger has defeated T’Challa in combat and legally taken control of the country.  Nakia has gotten the royal family to safety, and turns to Okoye for help, but Okoye refuses.  “I am loyal to that throne,” she says, “no matter who sits upon it.”

Let’s leave aside the wisdom of a hereditary monarchy.  It’s a system ripe for abuse, but any system can be abused, and one can imagine Okoye and Nakia’s debate taking place in any government during any period of destabilization.  At its heart, the debate is whether one should go outside a system in order to save it.

R. Eric Thomas, the author of the Elle Magazine piece, says that Okoye eventually comes around to Nakia’s point of view:

Ultimately, she and the rest of the Dora Milaje turn on Killmonger and fight for Wakanda because he reveals through his actions that he is less interested in a political shift in the country—one that aligns more closely with Nakia’s missions to save those in peril in other countries—than in destroying the nation, and perhaps the whole world, as a grand act of damaged vengeance.

That’s one reading.  But when T’Challa returns he immediately makes a legal argument, that because he neither died nor yielded the challenge is still active.  When Killmonger refuses to continue the challenge, he’s violating the rules of the system which Okoye is loyal to.  Okoye’s motives in this moment are certainly complex, but it seems plausible, even likely, that she’s driven not by a reassessment of Killmonger’s character but by the change in Killmonger’s relationship to the system.

In some ways, this is a cop out.  It allows Okoye to avoid the question of when to go outside the system by offering her a resolution within the system. But I’m okay with her avoiding it.  In the United States we place a lot of emphasis on the distinction between military and civilian power.  The answer to “When should the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff act outside the system in order to save it?” is “Pretty much never.”  As the country’s most talented fighter and as the head of the its military force, Okoye is the character most analogous to our military leadership.  She should remain a loyal enforcer of the system longer than any other character.

But this denies the fundamental complexity of the situation.  Whatever Wakanda’s rules actually are, they likely do not contain a clause covering ‘what to do if you think a combatant for the throne is dead but they re-emerge days later’.  Once T’Challa returns they are all already, irreversibly ‘outside’ the system.  All Okoye can do is make a judgment call about what course of action is most consistent with the system’s traditions and values.  And so in that moment she’s analogous not just to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs but also to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – the chief interpreter of law.  It’s a tremendous amount of power, and it speaks to Okoye’s integrity that she hesitates to use it.

In a working system, people can specialize and act according to their roles.  T’Challa can wield the power the system gives him.  Okoye can enforce the law neutrally.  But when the system breaks down we may be called upon to act as a whole individual: to use whatever power we have according to our own judgment.  This can be restorative, or it can be deeply destructive.  It all depends on the situation: on the specific decision being made, on the character of the person making the decision, and on whether the decision is made with the aim of returning the system to a state where such judgments are no longer needed.

Identity fragments

In an essay at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova sketches out a conception of identity as a collection of fragments which is, paradoxically, being repressed and sanded down by identity politics:

Paradoxically, in our golden age of identity politics and trigger-ready outrage, this repression of our inner wildness and fracturing of our wholeness has taken on an inverted form, inclining toward a parody of itself. Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others.

[…]

This inversion of intent only fissures the social justice movement itself, so that people who are at bottom kindred-spirited — who share the most elemental values, who work from a common devotion to the same projects of justice and equality, who are paving parallel pathways to a nobler, fairer, more equitable world — end up disoriented by the suspicion that they might be on different sides of justice after all, merely because their particular fragments don’t happen to coincide perfectly. In consequence, despite our best intentions, we misconstrue and alienate each other more and more.

I found myself nodding along until I reached this line:

The censors of yore have been replaced by the “sensitivity readers” of today, fraying the fabric of freedom — of speech, even of thought — from opposite ends, but fraying it nonetheless.

I am a big fan of sensitivity readers.  Let me try to articulate why.

If our identities are full of fragments – irregular, unpredictable, jagged – then it’s inevitable that we’re going to hurt each other occasionally as we reach out to connect and touch.  We can’t prevent it.  This leaves us with three options:

We can stop trying to connect to each other.  This is the saddest of all possible options, and I reject it entirely.

We can try to remove the fragments that seem most different and most dangerous.  This is the self-repression that Popova is speaking out against, and I agree that it’s not ideal.

Which leaves us with a third and final option: we can communicate with each other to try and warn about our various jagged edges and to help nourish and heal when we accidentally stab each other.

This, to me, is what sensitivity readers do.  They begin the conversation about accidental harm early on in the process, before much damage is done, and give the author a chance to change course – not to sand down their edges, but to find a better place for them, a way of connecting without harming.

Note here that it’s not the jagged edges that are a problem.  It’s the pain those edges cause when they connect with others.  Similarly, it’s not my white skin or my cisgendered body that’s a problem.  It’s the way my skin and my body influence my interactions with others.  I feel no need to be ashamed of my skin or body, but I have a responsibility to act thoughtfully so as not to hurt others with them.

I have always been an instinctual individualist.  For a long time, my knee-jerk response to anyone asking me to change myself was a stubborn ‘hell no‘.  And I remain wary of being pressured to conform for no good reason or worse, being coerced to.  But when you see your place in the world, and the ways you can adapt yourself to make life brighter and richer for everyone, then “changing the way you act in order to fit in” can be a profoundly beautiful and individualist act.

Feeling good vs doing good

Back in college, I based my Division III (senior thesis) research on a set of empathy studies by Nancy Eisenberg.  Eisenberg’s line of research hinges on a distinction between two different kinds of empathy: empathic concern, the ability to recognize and care about the hurt others feel, and personal distress, the experiencing of the other person’s hurt yourself.  Counterintuitively, personal distress is not positively associated with helping behavior.  In fact, it may even decrease the likelihood of helping, if there’s an easy escape route away from the empathy-provoking situation.

There’s a related line of research by June Tangney into the difference between shame and guilt.  As Tangney and Jessica Tracey summarize:

Shame is an acutely painful emotion that is typically accompanied by a sense of shrinking or “being small,” and by a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness. Shamed people also feel exposed. Although shame does not necessarily involve an actual observing audience to witness one’s shortcomings, there is often the imagery of how one’s defective self would appear to others. […]
Guilt, in contrast, is typically a less painful, devastating experience because the object of condemnation is a specific behavior, not the person as a whole. One’s core identity or self concept is less at stake. Rather than feeling a need to defend a vulnerable self-image under attack, people experiencing guilt are focused on the offense and its consequences, feeling tension, remorse, and regret over the “bad thing done.”

Just as empathy-induced personal distress may get in the way of helping behavior, shame-induced distress may play a causal role in antisocial behavior.  Research has found that a tendency towards shame responses rather than guilty responses predicts recidivism.

Some people advocate for emotion-free, ‘rational’ decision-making.  Others refuse to repress their emotions, and draw strength from their anger, their fear, their hope, their pride.  For me, the distinction between personal distress and empathic concern, and between shame and guilt, provides a way of reconciling these two approaches.

I embrace my emotions, but try to see them as separate from my identity: what I feel doesn’t change who I am.  This distance helps me to respond to my emotions more appropriately.  When I get angry, I ask myself: “Why am I angry?  What is provoking this anger?  Will taking action X address the problem that is provoking the anger, or will it just be cathartic?”  This helps me to make choices that I’m less likely to regret.

The yin and yang of questions and answers

In a previous post, I wrote that asking questions is harder than answering them, although I qualified that in a big way with “answering [questions] involves going back over and over again and updating our hypotheses, which makes answering questions feel hard”.  I want to revisit this claim.

Some of you may be familiar with the “reproducibility crisis” happening in the sciences, where many popular and well-known results have failed to replicate.  But what does failure to replicate mean?

Maybe it means that there was something wrong with the original study.   Maybe it means that there was something wrong with the replication.  But those aren’t the only options.  As nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahnamen wrote in an open letter to the scientific community:

In the myth of perfect science, the method section of a research report always includes enough detail to permit a direct replication. Unfortunately, this seemingly reasonable demand is rarely satisfied in psychology, because behavior is easily affected by seemingly irrelevant factors.

Note that underspecification of methods is an issue in all sciences.  Psychology just has a particularly rough time of it because psychology itself, like other soft sciences, is so underspecified.  Behavior is affected by seemingly irrelevant factors which are actually relevant previously unspecified factors.

In a better world, replication would be a collegial and common process involving many back-and-forths between originators and replicators.  Each replication could help identify new factors that turn out to be surprisingly relevant.  Eventually the hypothesis and methodology would be specified enough to permit consistent replication, at which point we’d have both our question and our answer.

This example makes clear that asking and answering questions are not two separate activities.  They are intertwined, at least when the questions and answers are new.  So it makes no sense to say, “Asking questions is harder than answering them” or vice versa, because you can’t do one meaningfully without also doing the other.

FYI: to read more about replication, try this article I wrote back in 2014 on the Open Science Collaboration blog: What we talk about when we talk about replication.