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.

 

A summary of David Ciepley’s “Beyond Public and Private: Toward a Political Theory of the Corporation”

I recently read David Ciepley’s “Beyond Public and Private: Toward a Political Theory of the Corporation”.  I recommend reading it yourself, but here’s my best attempt to summarize it in my own words.

Historically, we used to think of corporations as institutions that existed by the authorization of the state and for the public benefit – although the public often did not benefit in practice (*coughs* British East India Company).  In the 19th century, especially in the United States, we began to view corporations instead as part of the private sphere.  This has led to incoherent legal and political results.  Ciepley argues that, rather than viewing corporations as public or private, they ought to be considered as part of their own distinct sphere.

The first corporations were created in the image of constitutional republics, such as Dutch East India Company, whose governing board held a proportional balance of representatives from each of the Dutch provinces.  Several American States such as Massachusetts and Virginia were originally chartered as corporations.  Despite this history, there are some key distinctions.  While republics are “by, of, and for the governed”, those most subject to corporate action (workers, and secondarily customers and contractors) are not represented in its governance.

There are three main spheres of rights that make a corporation a corporation, and it’s important to note that these are all governance rights, not business rights.  After all, there are many corporations that are not businesses, and many businesses that are not corporations.  The three rights are: 1) the right to own property, make contracts, and sue and by sued, as a unitary entity, which Ciepley calls ‘contractual individuality’; 2) the right to centralized management of their property; and 3) the right to establish and enforce rules within their jurisdiction beyond the laws of the land.  Ciepley only talks about the first and third rights.

Right #1: Contractual Individuality

All corporations are granted contractual individuality by the government.  Business corporations additional are granted by the government the right to use a joint-stock mechanism – that is, to sell shares.  The three key elements of contractual individuality are asset lock-in, entity shielding, and limited liability.

‘Asset lock-in’ refers to how investors in companies cannot directly withdraw their funds.  In a business partnership, a partner leaving the business withdraws their assets.  An investor in a corporation cannot withdraw their assets, only sell their shares to another investor.  This gives corporations an enviable stability, allowing them to specialize their assets and therefore increase their productivity.

‘Entity shielding’ means that the corporation’s assets are protected by creditors going after shareholders.  A creditor may take a shareholder’s shares, but cannot take assets from the company.  ‘Limited liability’, conversely, means that shareholders’ assets are protected by creditors going after the corporation.  Limited liability makes corporations attractive to small and/or passive investors.  Together entity shielding and limited liability are what make the trading of shares possible.  Share trading in turn is what makes investment attractive in the first place, because it allows investors to get their money back when they want – they do not have to wait until the company is dissolved.

Some people like to conceive of corporations as like fancy partnerships (a legal theory we’ll return to later) but this is incorrect.  Asset lock-in and limited liability can be approximated by partnerships, although with significant shortfalls (for instance, assets cannot be locked-in indefinitely and limited liability cannot protect against tort claims).  However partnerships cannot approximate entity shielding. To do so would require every shareholder to contract with every one of his creditors, from their bank to their plumber, against their laying claim to corporate assets.  This would be wildly impractical even if shareholders were willing to do it, but they would have an incentive not to, to allow the corporation’s credit to back up their own.

Contractual individuality means that corporations rely on the government for certain key privileges in way that other businesses do not – privileges which are foundational to their functioning and which allow them dominate the market through preferential accumulation and specialization of capital, as compared to private business.

Asset lock-in, entity shielding, and limited liability also mean that shareholders do not own a corporation.  So who owns a corporation?  No one: the corporation owns itself.  It is therefore neither publicly owned nor privately owned but corporately owned.

One of the central rationales of private property is that the owners bear the consequences of use or misuse of their property, and are therefore incentivized to use it well.  Because shareholders are alienated from corporate property, and in particular because limited liability means they bear fewer consequences, they are not well incentivized.

Neoliberal reforms which attempt to tie corporate management to shareholders have therefore only made things worse.  Shareholders more than anyone else are incentivized to take risks with a corporation.  Tying management to shareholders thus increases financial and legal risk-taking.  Shareholder also tend to be more interested in short-term gains than other associates of a corporation.  Over the last forty or so years, as these shareholder-focused reforms have been made, the average amount of time a stock is held has dropped from eight years to four months.

Right #3: Establishment and enforcement of rules

Management authority within an organization is widely assumed to derive from shareholders, who as “owners” of the corporation elect the board of directors.  But as Ciepley as shown, neither shareholders nor anyone else owns a company.  Where does management authority derive from, then?

It comes from the state, as specified in the corporate charter.  The corporate charter established the board of directors and then authorizes it to issue stock to shareholders – hardly the order of events you’d expect if the board’s authority derives from the shareholders.  Indeed, some corporations never issue stock at all, and some corporations issue nonvoting stock.  The current popular system of boards elected by shareholders is merely one possible way a charter can delegate control.

Ciepley refers to corporations as “franchise governments”: run on private initiative, but receiving their form and purpose from the state.  This is easy to see with municipal corporations (New York City is the largest municipal corporation in the US) but harder to see with business corporations, since we tend to view commerce as a private matter.  The increasing identification of corporations with business corporations, the increasing commercialization of the public sphere, and the elimination of the requirement that corporations be for the public benefit all go hand in hand.

(Ciepley doesn’t delve too deeply into the judicial history behind these trends but does cite a number of key court cases in this, starting with Dartmouth vs Woodward (1819), where the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were independent of the state and did not have to prove they were acting in the public interest.  According to Wikipedia, the eloquence of Daniel Webster’s oratory was thought to have been a deciding factor in the case.  Thanks, Daniel Webster.)

Implications of Ciepley’s theory of corporations

Ciepley argues for a return to the older view of corporations: that they are an artificial entity created by government, whose enjoyment of special legal rights requires them to act in the public benefit.

He also notes that during the mid-twentieth century, the Supreme Court began requiring that states and towns observe the core provisions of the Bill of Rights.  If municipal corporations are required to respect these rights, shouldn’t business corporations also be required?

Two alternative legal theories of corporations have dominated judicial arguments, the theory of “corporation as partnership” and the theory of “corporation as real person”.  The theory of corporations as partnership argues that corporations as voluntary associations of individuals and therefore the constitutional rights of the individuals extend to the corporation.  But a foundational element of the corporation is the alienation of shareholders from their property.  So why would their property rights apply?  And more generally, why should corporate partners enjoy rights such as limited liability that no individual or group enjoys?  The theory of corporations as real person answers this question by claiming that corporations are a distinct and special, emergent entity distinct from the state.  But while historically some corporations such as medieval towns, or Dartmouth College in Dartmouth vs Woodward, may predate their current government, all corporations derive their status from the government, whereas real people have rights inalienable by government actions.

Despite the flaws in these theories, they have been used to grant corporations a vast number of legal rights, for instance in Citizens United.  Lawyers for Citizens United argued both the “corporation as partnership” and “corporation as real person” perspective, even though the theories are contradictory.  If corporations are partnerships are reducible to their members, why should it get extra rights?  If corporations have emergent properties distinct from their members, why should it claim their constitutional rights?

Conclusion

There’s actually nothing worth summarizing in the conclusion, but I felt bad just stopping abruptly.

tl;dr: corporations are not private concerns, shareholders do not own them, we should go back to requiring corporations act in the public benefit, there’s no rights-based reason for shareholders to have any influence on the governance of a corporation, the rights granted to corporations based on these conceptually incoherent theories are bad for the economy, bad for society, and really rather unfair to actual private businesses, and someone should rewrite The Devil and Daniel Webster to be about Darmouth vs Woodward

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.  😉

 

Money, and the violence of lost context

It is in the very nature of a question like “What do I owe my parents?” that there is not and can never be a final, numerically answer. It is a question that we re-visit and re-negotiate every minute we are with them; obligation and love form an endless Möbius strip, through which our complex interdependence on each other makes the idea of paying off that debt – and of thereby severing the relationship – a sort of bitter joke. Precisely because it is a non-monetary “debt,” its function is to be an unpayable and unbreakable bond, one whose dividends never end and one that could and will never default.

By contrast, Graeber argues that purely monetary debts – such as the $14k I owe in student debts to a variety of banks – legitimize violence and exploitation precisely because they take an otherwise irreducibly complex human relation and reductively simplify it into a number. When you quantify a debt with financial precision – and especially when you invest paying it off with profound moral gravity, making it a fundamental moral imperative – you take what was a human relationship of mutual imbrication and co-implication into a financial one based on a kind of moral dominance, and thereby subject the indebted party to the mechanisms of financial debt collection instead of the precepts of human morality. If my relationship to my parents was a financial one, then I could pay it off and be done with them (or they could forgive the debt and be done with me). Or (and here is where it gets interesting), they could present me with a bill, demand that I pay it, and throw me in jail if I failed to do so.

This is just a thought experiment, of course, but the point of it is to bring out and make explicit that contrast. While the perversity of paying off your debts to your parents hardly needs comment – or of them garnishing your wages to pay for the hospital costs of birthing you – it is just as unspeakably normal for our debts to banks to seem, always and forever, the first thing we need to honor and respect. Graeber argues that this contrast, and our failure to register it as such, demonstrate the conceptual constriction of possibility that has come to be built into the moral landscape of our present: it is because a quantifiable debt could be paid off, with numerical precision, that it can therefore be seen as an imperative to do so, and becomes a moral failing when it is not. More than that, it becomes not only a moral failing that is enforceable and punishable, but a moral reasoning which makes the violence of that constraint your own fault, your own choice: no one forced me to take on student debt, goes the reasoning; it was my own choice. And so, the violence of debt collection is just chickens coming to roost.

Let us, then, look with new eyes at the fact that when a dictator takes out a loan from a Western bank – pledging as his surety the future revenues produced by the people who he uses men with guns to rule — we can be utterly sure that long after he is dead and gone, that debt will live on. Banks will not only claim the right to be paid back, but the moral force of the world’s political and ruling classes will assent to the proposition that children unborn when their nation went into debt will somehow still be on hold as the debt’s guarantors. This will appear normal. This will not seem a monstrous perversity.

from Aaron Bady’s review of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 500 Years

Hannah Arendt on the role of reflection in political and moral behavior

Socrates, however, who is commonly said to have believed in the teachability of virtue, seems indeed to have held that talking and thinking about piety, justice, courage, and the rest were liable to make men more pious, more just, more courageous, even though they were not given either definitions or “values” to direct further conduct.  What Socrates actually believed in in such matters can best be illustrated by the similes he applied to himself. He called himself a gadfly and a midwife, and, according to Plato, was called by somebody else an “electric ray”, a fish that paralyzes and numbs by contact, a likeness whose appropriateness he recognized under the condition that it be understood that “the electric ray paralyzes others only through being paralyzed itself.  It isn’t that, knowing the answers myself I perplex other people. The truth is rather that I infect them also with the perplexity I feel myself.”

[…]

The trouble – and the reason why the same man can be understood and understand himself as gadfly as well as electric ray – is that this same wind, whenever it is aroused, has the peculiarity of doing away with its own previous manifestations.  It is in its 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.

Hence, the paralysis of thought is twofold: it is inherent in the stop and think, the interruption of all other activities, and it may have a paralyzing effect when you come out of it, no longer sure of what had seemed to you beyond doubt while you were unthinkingly engaged in whatever you were doing.  If your action consisted in applying general rules of conduct to particular cases as they arise in ordinary life, then you will find yourself paralyzed because no such rules can withstand the wind of thought. To use once more the example of the frozen thought inherent in the word “house”, once you have thought about its implied meaning – dwelling, having a home, being housed – you are no longer likely to accept for your own home whatever fashion of the time may prescribe; but this by no means guarantees that you will be able to come up with an acceptable solution for your own housing problems.  You may be paralyzed.

This leads to the last and, perhaps, even greatest danger of this dangerous and resultless enterprise.  In the circle around Socrates, there were men like Alcibiades and Critias – God knows, by no means the worst among his so-called pupils – and they turned out to be a very real threat to the polis, and this not by being paralyzed by the electric ray but, on the contrary, by having been aroused by the gadfly.  What they had been aroused to was license and cynicism. They had not been content with being taught how to think without being taught a doctrine, and they changed the nonresults of the Socratic thinking examination into negative results: if we cannot define what piety is, let us be impious – which is pretty much the opposite of what Socrates had hoped to achieve by talking about piety.

The quest for meaning, which relentlessly dissolves and examines anew all accepted doctrines and rules, can at every moment turn against itself, as it were, produce a reversal of the old values, and declare these as “new values”. This, to an extent, is what Nietzsche did when he reversed Platonism, forgetting that a reversed Plato is still Plato, or what Marx did when he turned Hegel upside down, producing a strictly Hegelian system of thinking in the process. Such negative results of thinking will then be used as sleepily, with the same unthinking routine, as the old values; the moment they are applied to the realm of human affairs, it is as though they had never gone through the thinking process.  What we commonly call nihilism – and are tempted to date historically, decry politically, and ascribe to thinkers who allegedly dared to think “dangerous thoughts” – is actually a danger inherent to the thinking activity itself. There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous, but nihilism is not its product.  Nihilism is but the other side of conventionalism; its creed consists of negations of the current, so-called positive values to which it remains bound. All critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and “values” by finding out their implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense nihilism may be seen as an ever-present danger of thinking.  But this danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living but, on the contrary, out of the desire to find results which would make further thinking unnecessary. Thinking is equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed.

However, nonthinking, which seems to recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its dangers.  By shielding people against the dangers of examination, it teaches them to hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time in a given society.  What people then get used to is not so much the content of the rules, a close examination of which would always lead them into perplexity, as the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars.  In other words, they get used to never making up their minds. If somebody then should show who, for whatever reasons and purposes, wishes to abolish the old “values” or virtues, he will find it easy enough provided he offers a new code, and he will need no force and no persuasion – no proof that the new values are better than the old ones – to establish it.  The faster men held to the old code, the more eager will they be to assimilate themselves to the new one; the ease with which such reversals can take place under certain circumstances suggests that indeed everybody is asleep when they occur. This century has offered us some experience in such matters: How easy it was for the totalitarian rulers to reverse the basic commandments of Western morality – “Thou shalt not kill” in the case of Hitler’s Germany, “Thou shalt not bear false testimony against thy nature” in the case of Stalin’s Russia.

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 173-178

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.

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