Levy on intermediate group power

Associations and groups that are substantial enough to fulfill needs for belonging and meaning, powerful enough to check the power of the state or to organize democratic life, or institutionally complete enough to offer authoritative norm-generation for their members, are also substantial, powerful, and authoritative enough to potentially threaten the freedom of their members.  That is, it is not just an unfortunate accident that groups come with features that, from a liberal perspective, are both good and bad.

The point is partly an intergenerational one.  Recall from the previous chapter the idea that inequalities of outcomes in one generation becomes inequalities of opportunity in the next and its analog: free associations in one generation become inherited ways of life in the next.  This is a necessary truth; children are born into particular times and places and social worlds that have been shaped by the choices their parents have made. This does not simply mean that the parents were free and the children were not; it was also true of the parents that they were born into particular times and places and social worlds.  If the parents had some freedom to reshape their worlds in partially original ways, to join or form groups into which they were not born, then the children also have some such freedom.  But there could be a narrowing over time; parents can join groups or adopt ways of life that leave their children with fewer choices than they themselves had.

But the point is only partly intergenerational.  It is, more simply, a point about power, even within one generation.  Robert Michels taught us that ‘who says organization, says oligarchy’.  That could suffice as a statement of the problem, but I propose to instead frame it as: whoever says authority, says power – and whoever says organization, says authority.

Jacob Levy, Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom, p. 71

Alinsky on doubt, compromise, and the letter of the law

I detest and fear dogma.  I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on.  That in the heat of conflict these ideologies tend to be smelted into rigid dogmas claiming exclusive possession of the truth, and the keys to paradise, is tragic.  Dogma is the enemy of human freedom. Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement. The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain, and injustice.  Those who enshrine the poor of Have-Nots are as guilty as other dogmatists and just as dangerous.  To diminish the danger that ideology will deteriorate into dogma, and to protect the free, open, questing, and creative mind of man, as well as to allow for change, no ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare’.  (p. 4)

 

A free and open society is an on-going conflict, interrupted periodically by compromises – when then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum.  Control of power is based on compromise in our Congress and among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be ‘compromise’.  (p. 59)

 

No organization, including organized religion, can live up to the letter of its own book.  You can club them to death with their ‘book’ of rules and regulations. That is what the great revolutionary, Paul of Tarsus, knew when he wrote to the Corinthians: “Who also hath made us able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth.”  (p. 152)

All quotes taken from Rules for Radicals.

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.

Mind the Gap: Navigating Between Rules and Reality

Bureaucracy is stupid, David Graeber writes in The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.  As the premise for a book, it’s more fertile than it sounds.

At their bare bones, bureaucracies are systems of impersonal rules.  This is my definition, not Graeber’s – he never specifies what he means when he uses the term, although he does trace its history, detailing all the things it could mean.  He also seems to believe that all bureaucracies (whatever they are) are dysfunctional.  While he admits that impersonal rules systems can be appealing, and even that they may be the best option when, for instance, coordinating organ donation, he spends most of his time elaborating bureaucratic “stupidities”.

Below, I will repurpose his critiques as descriptions of unhealthy systems, which can give us guidance for how to construct healthy ones.

(Unhealthy) bureaucracies blame all failures on individuals

Every system is imperfect.  There’s always a gap between rules and reality.  An unhealthy bureaucracy blames this gap on reality:

Bureaucracies public and private appear – for whatever historical reasons – to be organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected.  It’s in this sense that I’ve said one can fairly say that bureaucracies are utopian forms of organization.  After all, is this now what we always say of utopians: that they have a naive faith in the perfectibility of human nature and refuse to deal with humans as they actually are?  Which is, are we not also told, what leads them to set impossible standards and then blame the individuals for not living up to them?  But in fact all bureaucracies do this, insofar as they set demands they insist are reasonable, and then, on discovering that they are not reasonable (since a significant number of people will always be unable to perform as expected), conclude that the problem is not with the demands themselves but with the individual inadequacy of each particular human being who fails to live up to them.”  (p. 48-49)

Failures may be caused by the individual, or they may be caused by the bureaucracy itself, or by the complex interaction of both.  They may be unanticipated consequences or they may be known bugs.  (Voltaire famously said that it was better two guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer.  The presence of guilty but free men in a society governed by Voltaire’s rules would be a ‘known bug’.)

A healthy bureaucracy is capable of dealing with these failures accordingly: by acknowledging problems with their own rules systems, fixing those they can fix, apologizing for known deficiencies, and sanctioning individuals when it is truly necessary.

(Unhealthy) bureaucracies rely on the threat of personal force

Violence is central to Graeber’s conception of bureaucracy:

The bureaucratization of daily life means the imposition of impersonal rules and regulations; impersonal rules and regulations, in turn, can only operate if they are backed up by the threat of force.  And, indeed, in this most recent phase of total bureaucratization, we’ve seen security cameras, police scooters, issuers of temporary ID cards, and men and women in a variety of uniforms acting in either public or private capacities, trained in tactics of menacing, intimidating, and ultimately deploying physical violence, appear just about anywhere – even in places such as playgrounds, primary schools, college campuses, hospitals, libraries, parks, or beach resorts, where fifty years ago their presence would have been considered scandalous, or simply weird.”  (p. 32-33)

A system which always blames the individual for failing to obey its rules will not last very long if it depends on the voluntary cooperation of individuals.  If, on the other hand, it can respond to disagreement with violence, it has no need to avoid disagreement via self-reflection or compromise.

I agree with Graeber that violence underlies most bureaucracies, but I think he’d agree with me that bureaucracies can be more or less violent, and that the more violent they are, the less functional they are.  He cites a study of 19th century South Africa that shows as much: “Comparative analysis suggests that there is a direct relation however between the level of violence employed in a bureaucratic system, and the level of absurdity and ignorance it is seen to produce.”  (p. 65)

A healthy bureaucracy therefore almost never resorts to violence, even if the exclusive use of force is where it draws its foundational legitimacy from, as is the case of the state.  This includes not just acts of violence but both explicit and implicit threats of violence because, as Graeber rightly notes, the tendency to overlook implicit violence allows it to spread in ways that explicit violence can’t:

It is curious how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about [structural violence], or how instinctively we try to discount its importance.  That is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on the fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required.  It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical harm.”  (p. 58)

(Unhealthy) bureaucracies create a culture of complicity

Graeber writes:

In theory [bureaucracies] are meritocracies. In fact everyone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways. Many of the staff are in fact there just because they are someone’s cousin, and everybody knows it. The first criterion of loyalty to the organization becomes complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit, and not even based necessarily on being someone’s cousin; above all, it’s based on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, even though everyone knows this not to be true.  Or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when, in fact, they are often deployed as a means for entirely arbitrary personal power.”  (p. 27)

A dysfunctional bureaucracy blames all failures on individuals and responds to them with threats or use of force.  It also creates a culture of complicity within the system such that even internal change is stymied.

This culture of complicity is not inevitable.  A bureaucracy which recognizes its own inherent imperfections, and which sees its primary goal as identifying and addressing those imperfections, will not tend to reward those who claim no imperfections exist.  But this is a difficult culture to develop, and so few bureaucracies have it.

These three critiques revolve around a central flaw: the inability of unhealthy bureaucracies to self-correct.  To get at this from another angle, I want to discuss another concept from Graeber’s book: interpretive labor.

Interpretation and Imagination

Graeber borrows from feminist theory and critical race studies the term “interpretive labor”, which he defines at first as “trying to decipher others’ motives and perceptions” (p. 67).  Because violence often obviates the need for interpretive labor – you don’t need to understand someone’s perceptions if you can just threaten or hurt them – systems of structural violence tend to produce structural inequalities of interpretive labor as well:

Jim Cooper, a former LAPD officer turned sociologist has observed that the overwhelming majority of those who end up getting beaten or otherwise brutalized by police turn out to be innocent of any crime. “Cops don’t beat up burglars,” he writes. The reason, he explained, is simple: the one thing most guaranteed to provoke a violent reaction from police is a challenge to their right to, as he puts it, “define the situation.” That is, to say “no, this isn’t a possible crime situation, this is a citizen-who-pays-your-salary-walking-his-dog situation, so shove off,”  let  alone  the invariably disastrous, “wait, why are you handcuffing that guy? He didn’t do anything!” It’s “talking back” above all that inspires beat-downs, and that means challenging whatever administrative rubric (an orderly or a disorderly crowd? A properly or improperly registered vehicle?) has been applied by the officer’s discretionary judgment. The police truncheon is precisely the point where the state’s bureaucratic imperative for imposing simple administrative schema and its monopoly on coercive force come together. It only makes sense then that bureaucratic violence should consist first and foremost of attacks on those who insist on alternative schemas or interpretations.”  (p. 80)

Graeber goes on to discuss imagination, using the terms “interpretive labor”, “imaginative labor”, “interpretation” and “imagination” interchangeably.

I would prefer to define imagination and interpretation as two distinct concepts.  Imagination is the act of creating what-ifs: alternative ways of living, alternative ways of relating, alternative rules systems.  Interpretation is the act of matching up someone else’s what-ifs to your reality.  In some ways, these concepts are not just distinct but opposite: interpretation fills the gaps that imagination leaves.  And, in systems of structural violence, the labor is performed by different groups of people.  The powerful imagine, while the powerless are forced to interpret.

Graeber’s conflation of interpretation and imagination make it difficult for him to critique Marx’s use of the same terms:

One can already see the tension in Marx. There is a strange paradox in his approach to revolution. As I’ve noted, Marx insists that what makes us human is that rather than relying on unconscious instinct like spiders and bees, we first raise structures in our imagination, and then try to bring those visions into being. […] Yet  when Marx speaks of  social creativity, his key example—the only kind of social creativity he ever talks about actually—is always revolution, and when he does that, he suddenly changes gears completely. In fact he reverses himself. The revolutionary should never proceed like the architect; he should never begin by drawing up a plan for an ideal society, then think about how to bring it into being. That would be utopianism. And for utopianism, Marx had nothing but withering contempt. Instead, revolution is the actual immanent practice of the proletariat, which will ultimately bear fruit in ways that we cannot possibly imagine from our current vantage point.

Why the discrepancy? The most generous explanation, I would suggest, is that Marx did understand, at least on some intuitive level, that the imagination worked differently in the domain of material production than it did in social relations; but also, that he lacked an adequate theory as to why. Perhaps, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, long before the rise of feminism, he simply lacked the intellectual tools.  Given the considerations already outlined in this essay, I think we can confirm that this is indeed the case. To put it in Marx’s own terms: in both domains one can speak of alienation. But in each, alienation works in profoundly different ways.

To recall the argument so far: structural inequalities always create what I’ve called “lopsided structures of imagination,” that is, divisions between one class of people who end up doing most of the imaginative labor, and others who do not. However, the sphere of factory production that Marx concerned himself with is rather unusual in this respect. It is one of the few contexts where it is the dominant class who end up doing more imaginative labor, not less.”  (p. 93-94)

I’ve never read Marx, so I won’t assert what he “really” meant.  But I think distinguishing between imagination and interpretation makes for a clearer argument than the one Graeber provides.

By my definitions, the dominant class performs more imaginative labor, while those who are subservient perform more interpretive labor.  That is, the dominant design the system – whether that’s a social system, or a material tool – and everyone else is forced, under threat of violence, to perform the interpretive labor that will allow them to exist within the system.

Note that neither imaginative labor nor interpretive labor are bad things.  Both are required for any community to function and to grow.  What’s ‘bad’ is that the labor is performed unequally, the inequities sustained under threat of violence.

These definitions justify Marx’s disdain for utopianism.  Utopianism is imagination without connection to reality.  A utopian performs imaginative labor without bothering with interpretation – they leave that hard work to someone else, often people less powerful than themselves.  When Marx via Graeber calls revolution “the actual immanent practice of the proletariat” (p. 93) he is tying imagination to reality through interpretation, and demanding that the proletariat, already skilled in interpretation, have the right to imagination as well.

Another way for bureaucracies to grow unhealthy, then, is to separate out the labor of imagination and the labor of interpretation.  When the interpreters who bridge the gaps between system and reality are prevented from imagining changes in the system, we cut off any chance for the system to self-correct.  The system grows sick.  The bureaucracy grows stupid.

Final Thoughts

This post is not a review so much as some musings directly provoked by the book.  I do recommend it, even though it’s difficult at times to grasp what Graeber’s really asserting.  He wanders through a lot of interesting content that I didn’t have time to cover here, ending with a sociological critique of Batman.  If nothing else, it’s a fun read.

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.

 

Hard and soft sciences

Back when I was a research scientist, I straddled the boundary between “hard” and “soft” sciences.  I did social psychology, which is a pretty soft science as sciences go, but I paired it with biology and physiology in general and endocrinology in particular, which meant getting a taste for some of the harder stuff.

I have never particularly liked the terms “hard” and “soft”, though, because it’s too easy to conflate them with “hard” and “easy”.  There’s a saying that goes: the soft sciences are easy to do poorly and hard to do well.  They are easier to do poorly than the hard sciences, and harder to do well than the hard sciences.  Here, have a chart:

What’s going on here?  The hard sciences are better developed than the soft sciences, so it’s clearer when someone’s making obvious mistakes, cutting corners, or making under-supported claims.  That makes it difficult to do poor work.  It’s also difficult to good work, of course.  The easiest thing to do in the hard sciences is to meet a minimum level of competency and do solid but uninspiring work.

Meanwhile in the soft sciences there’s questions even about the field’s basics.  There’s still a minimum level of competency, but it’s much less stringent than in the hard sciences.  So sloppy researchers tend to end up in the soft sciences.

Here’s another way to approach the hard/soft distinction. What’s easier, formulating questions or answering them?  It’s almost always easier to do the latter, provided you’ve very clearly and specifically formulated your question.  Of course we seldom do get our questions right on the first try, and so answering them involves going back over and over again and updating our hypotheses, which makes answering questions feel hard.  But the hardest parts of answering questions are really secretly still about asking them.

In the hard sciences, it’s easier to clearly and specifically formulate questions because so much knowledge has already been established.  Isaac Newton famously said (paraphrased) ‘If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.’  The hard sciences are full of giants, with shoulders for modern researchers to stand on.  The soft sciences are by and large still on the ground.

For this reason, I prefer the terms “developed” vs “undeveloped” sciences.  I think it comes closer to the essential difference.

Note: this post has an update/correction post.

Shades of gray

What shade of gray would you say this is?

Considered in isolation, and without the help of a photo manipulation platform to tell you the precise CMYK values, it’s hard to say.  We reach naturally for points of comparison.  It’s lighter than a slate gray, we might say, but darker than a gainsboro gray.  Cooler than warm gray but warmer than cool gray.  Is it lighter than light gray?

Maybe?  Probably?  Let’s take a closer look:

That’s our custom gray on the left, and light gray on the right.  So it’s just a smidge lighter than light gray, but we can only tell when we put them right up close.  Put it up against a different gray, and it looks darker rather than lighter:

This is of course a metaphor.

When it came out last week that Al Franken had sexually harassed and assaulted Leeann Tweeden, people naturally reached for the most obvious point of comparison: the other Senator/Senate candidate recently accused of sexual assault, Roy Moore.

Some people have claimed that Moore and Franken are similar.  They both have used their power to violate the boundaries and consent of women.  Others have claimed that they’re dissimilar: that when you put Franken’s behavior up against Moore’s systematic stalking and molestation of girls as young as fourteen years old, he might as well be a saint.

But is Moore a useful point of comparison?  It’s not like Franken’s running against Moore.  And “the ideal public servant” is not all that useful either.  After all, no public servant is perfect.

So what is a useful comparison for Franken’s behavior?  Given that the question on everyone’s lips is whether Franken should resign, I submit the following point for comparison: the minimum acceptable standard for a US Senator.

Only 15 Senators have ever been expelled from Congress, the majority for making war against the United States by supporting the confederacy.  A larger number have resigned rather than face expulsion. Most of these cases were about bribery and corruption, but some were due to sexual misconduct.  Take for example Bob Packwood of Oregon, who resigned when the Senate Ethics Committee unanimously recommended his expulsion for gross sexual misconduct.  The chair of that committee, none other than Mitch McConnell, spoke about it four years later during the Clinton impeachment:

During the Packwood debate, we made the tough choice. And, I have to say, that decision was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do in my career in public service. To recommend expelling from the United States Senate a colleague, a member of my own party, and most importantly, a friend with whom I had served in the Senate for over a decade.

We sent a clear message to the nation that no man is above the law. That no man is so important to the well-being of our strong and prosperous nation that we have to compromise the fundamental, founding principles of truth and justice. We chose to rise above, not sink below. Rather than change our standards, we changed our Senator.

Let me also make a political point, here. We Republicans were aware during the Packwood debate that we would likely lose that Senate seat if Senator Packwood was removed from office. So, we had a choice: Retain the Senate seat or retain our honor. We chose honor, and never looked back.

I think that the United States Senate has a clear choice today. Do we want to retain President Clinton in office, or do we want to retain our honor, our principle, and our moral authority?

For me, and for many members in my impeachment-fatigued party, I choose honor.

What happened?  Twenty years later, McConnell has chosen dishonor over and over again, not least by supporting the leader of his party, Donald Trump, who has been accused of assault and harassment by 15 different women and has been caught bragging about harassing women on tape.  Perhaps if you asked McConnell, he’d say that Democrats started the moral race to the bottom by refusing to hold Clinton to the same standard as Packwood.  But what is the “standard” to which Packwood was held?  One could likely articulate a standard for behavior that Clinton passed while Packwood fell short of.

Packwood and Clinton and Moore and Franken are all different people who committed different types of wrongs. The same is true of Trump, and Dennis Hastert, and Anthony Weiner, and the many other elected officials who have been accused or convicted of harassment, assault, or abuse.  The question is not how they compare with each other but how they measure up to our standards for public officials, and whether we are strong enough to enforce our standards when people fall short.

I believe that our elected officials should be held to high standards.  Specifically, I believe that any type of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment should be disqualifying.  I am open to the idea that those who have done these things in the past and have made reparations should be able to hold office, though I’m not aware of any official or candidate who meets that description. I’m also open to the idea that those accused deserve an impartial investigation, although the strength of the evidence against both Moore and Franken make that point moot.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying I think Franken should resign, but I think it’s worthwhile to sketch out the framework through which I came to that conclusion, so that I can hold myself to it in the future.