Monday, November 24, 2014

Data And The Spread Of Knowledge Pretense

Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophica, 1504, via Wikimedia Commons
The aphorism industry would you have you believe that one of the signs of intelligence is knowing how little you know. It's a nice picture, like we're all sort of mini-humble-Einsteins, meek in the face of a mysterious universe. But to me trends seem to be going the other way -- by which I mean, the more knowledge we're gaining, the more knowledge pretense there seems to be.

By "knowledge pretense" I mean the idea that it's important to have "an answer" even if you don't know whether it's the right answer and maybe even if you know it's the wrong answer.

It's like, no matter what problem you are facing, in our era of metrics and optics, you hear constantly about the importance of gathering more data. Gather data. Plot it visually, and run it through some software. Some numbers will come out.

But with a lot of modern problems the issue isn't that we don't have enough data, it's that we're trying to measure and what we have data on are two completely different things. But no one wants to admit we just can't know. So we gather more data.

For example, everyone wants to improve K-12 education. And we keep coming up against the problem that what we want to improve is really really hard to measure. "How much a student learned" just isn't the kind of thing you can go around easily quantifying.

But instead of acknowledging that, and admitting there's a lot we don't know, there's this relentless rhetoric about the importance of data, gather more data, it's important to get more data so we can understand, make rankings, evaluate. Then when that doesn't work everyone freaks out. But of course it doesn't work. The answers measure what we don't want to track and so can't help but be wrong.

I was first alerted to this problem in my research in ethics. The approach I favor involves acknowledging that there are multiple values -- such as justice and benevolence and respect for others' autonomy -- and then thinking about how we should weigh those values against one another when they conflict, as they so often do.

It's a common knock on this kind of approach that to do that last bit -- think about it, weigh values against one another -- you have to make a judgment call. The theory itself doesn't give you an answer. Often, the explicit implication is that a more unified ethical approach, like simple cost-benefit analysis, would allow you to avoid this problem, by giving you an answer in every case. One principle, a complete set of answers. Voilà! No judgment required!

But this line of thought has always really bothered me. It's no advantage that your theory gives you an answer if you have no reason to think it's the right answer. If there really are a plurality of values, unified approaches like cost-benefit analysis give you the wrong answer. How is it any improvement to get an answer if you know it's wrong?

Isn't a judgment call better than an answer you know isn't right?

Here, I believe, we get to the deep cultural nub of the matter, which is that for some reason in our modern era nobody wants to make a judgment call.

Some people who want to improve education find it alien that the answer might partially involve attracting and retaining people with really good judgment who might exercise that judgment in making decisions. The suggestion that we should use our collective judgment to sort out tricky issues about distributive justice or the environment is scorned as touchy-feely, old-fashioned -- not the kind of objective data-generated answers we've come to know and love.

It's like everyone wants everything to run by algorithm or something. WTF? Why is this?

I'm sure there are many reasons, but I suspect lurking in there are the following. There's the anti-elitism of "who gets to decide?" There's the fear that someone is looking out for their own interests in an unfair way. And mostly, I think, there's the sense that somehow a judgment call is arbitrary. What's a judgment call but just what some person happened to think about something?

I get these are concerns. But honestly, they don't seem weighty enough to me to avoid the alternative,  given that that alternative is knowingly preferring the wrong answer, just because it looks like "science," which seems to me an exercise in utter perversity.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Impotence Of Rational Thought, Or, You Know It's Somebody's Job To Make You Feel Bad, Right?

Self-Loathing Comics! How did I not know about this?

I don't know if you read the piece in the Guardian last week by the feminist who "confesses": "I feel guilty but I hate my body."

I thought it was a good and interesting piece, and I'm sure the point of view expressed is -- well, shall we call it "relatable"? Is that the right word for millions of women of all ages and body types screaming "Oui! Oui! Moi aussi!"

But personally, I wasn't surprised at all to hear that a feminist woman hated her body. What could be less surprising than any woman hating her body in the 21st century? Why is it a "confession"?

I guess it's supposed to be a confession because somehow as a feminist she's supposed to "know better," but I've always thought that was pretty much a dead end kind of thought. I mean, who thought "knowing better" was the key to all mythologies? How often are intense feelings like self-loathing impacted by rational thinking? Like, never?

If you ever want to experience the impotence of rational thought, just try to think yourself out of anything like self-loathing, or feelings of inadequacy, or really any negative emotion in which you compare yourself to others.

Your thoughts will just sit there like cartoon bubbles, inert, powerless, hovering over you. Your cartoon bubble might say in 18 point bold point font: "you are good and smart and beautiful!" You might try to think it. You might reason it out. You might even come to think it is true. Still, you get that thought into your brain alongside some bad feelings, it's like a bug going into a the ring with an elephant. "Oh, it was cute you had that though but ... oh."

I was also struck that there's so little reflection in the essay about the various causes. In keeping with our highly individualized times, it's a very individual essay, about what is and isn't "wrong" with certain kinds of eating and certain kinds of thinking about eating.

I always think that in these situations that it's important to remember - among other things - the wide array of forces assembled against you. I mean, in addition to all the usual suspects, you have to remember that it's practically the first commandment of capitalism that you have to feel bad about yourself.

Can we pause to remember there are armies of people whose whole job it is to induce you to feel like you are not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough -- and while we're at it, you smell, and you're fat, and your dick isn't big enough?

After all, the insecure consumer is the consuming consumer. And the consuming consumer is the lynchpin of the new categorical imperative: "economic growth." If you're not feeling inadequate, you probably won't buy as many things.

Obviously, I do not mean to imply that somehow in a world of equality and mutual respect and free love that people would go around feeling magically happy and self-loving and so on. People don't NEED capitalism to feel awful. They can do it by themselves. And they can do it to each other, very effectively. And obviously, I do not mean to imply that there is nothing gendered about body-loathing and disordered eating, because obviously there is.

I'm just saying that when you feel bad, it's worth taking a moment to remember that among the many factors and causes the set-up is not neutral. They're using sophisticated tools, honed through eons, to target your emotions. Against that army, how is your little rational thought going to get any traction whatsoever?

News flash: it's not. In a world of competition for everything, when you feel bad, someone actually benefits. It's not a problem with an individual solution. And it's not something you can think your way out of.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Culture of Judgment

Athletes in a gymnasium. Gouache painting. Via Wikimedia Commons

Overall I consider myself a pretty non-judgmental person. Unless you're doing something mean or hurtful to other people I'm usually pretty much like "Whatever; knock yourself out." It's a free country.

But lately I've been catching myself judging. Especially in certain situations, I seem to be judging beyond the judgment necessary for daily life. And for some reason the gym -- and especially the exercise class I go to -- is a place that really brings out the judgmental asshole in me.

I judge people who join the exercise class late. I judge people who bring their phones into the class and check them in between workout tracks. I judge people who choose the more challenging option for a particular movement instead of the less challenging one even though they're physically incapable of doing the more challenging one in anything like a proper style.

You know when people doing a plank refuse to put their knees down even though they're not strong enough to do a plank on their toes, and so their butts go way up in the air, so it becomes a non-exercise for them, like doing downward dog? I am so judging those people. They drive me nuts.

But why? I know it's stupid to have an opinion. I know these people all have their reasons. Besides, what do I care? But unless I'm constantly policing my thoughts, these judgment comes right back.

The other day I went to an hour long exercise class and fifteen minutes into it -- fifteen minutes in to an hour class! -- a woman-of-a-certain-age came in. This happens to be a class where there's a lot of running and jumping, so before class the instructor always asks "Is this anyone's first time at this class?" and then explains how you don't have to do the running and jumping and how you can do other things and make substitutions so you're still getting the same workout etc. etc. etc.

Right away my inner judgment person was on high alert. Fifteen minutes late! But I thought to myself, "OK, maybe she comes to this class all the time and knows the drill; that'd be all right."

But no. She had no idea what was going on. For all the moves she couldn't do, she just kind of made up her own bopping to the music in a way that suited her. Her burpee was a kind of touch-your-toes and mini-hop move. Her plank was a classic downward dog.

And inside -- even as I'm doing the class and panting for breath -- I'm thinking, "If it's your first class you should come on time! And follow the instructions! They're there so you don't hurt yourself! And so that you actually get a work out!" She was right next to me and I just couldn't put her out of my mind.

So, WTF? What the fuck is my mind on about? I can't understand it myself. But since we're all here, let me work through a few hypotheses.

The "What Is The Point Of Exercise Class" Hypothesis: Exercise classes work partly because of the camaraderie of everyone being on the same page. The latecomers and flakes get in the way of that, and so I judge them.

Evaluation: Probably partly true, but doesn't explain the depth of feeling I bring to the whole thing, or the way I judge at the gym generally. Also kind of boring as an explanation.

The "Chaotic Environment Hypothesis": The rest of everything has become so chaotic, with everyone doing whatever the hell they want all the goddamn time, that the few spaces of structured expectation become sacred. Dealing with constant crossing against the light, eating and talking in the library, and throwing the recyclables in the garbage wears me down and turns me into a judgmental lunatic.

Evaluation: There may be something to it. You're in a long line and you deal with ten people in a row who finally get up to the cash register and THEN suddenly start getting out their wallet and you want to scream "Yes, payment! You will be paying! You could have spent the last ten minutes getting out your wallet! It wasn't a surprise" It builds up.

But still, it's pretty incomplete. Why judge at the gym when I could directly judge these actual anti-social behaviors?

The "Culture of Judgment Hypothesis": We live in a culture of relentless and constant judgment. Every third thing out of someone's mouth is passing judgment on someone else. It gets to me. Judgment is normalized, and feeling judged, I judge back.

Evaluation: There might be something to it. Even though on the surface we're all "live and let live," underneath, we're all silently judging one another. The internet these days is like one massive sharing of everyone's grievances with everyone else's behavior.

Not only does this normalize judgment, but maybe it makes me defensive. You judging me? You have opinions about my hairstyle or my devotion to Apple products or my love of Trollope or my  choice to wear high heels?

Well, two can play at that game, sweetheart.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hard Copies And The Coming Apocalypse

Detail from Medieval Book of Hours (1533), via Wikimedia Commons

A little while ago I told a friend that when I buy an e-book, I often buy a hard copy of the book at the same time. Not surprisingly, my friend was a little like, WTF? Is that an "oh look at my library" sort of thing?

No. As I told my friend at the time, one reason I buy and hold on to a lot of hard cover books is that I think you'd have to be crazy to trust the mega-corporations that produce e-books. Surely you remember when Amazon disappeared all those copies of 1984 from people's Kindles in 2009, becoming an early strong entry in the most ironic moment of the new millennium? How creepy was that?

Amazon just has the power to take away or change your book at any time. Once Amazon has that power, what are we supposed to do, trust them not to use it? What will happen when Homeland Security tells Amazon some book or part of a book is pro-terrorism/anti-American/related-in-some-nebulous-way-to-the-vague-possibility-of-child-pornography?

You know what will happen. The book will be synced out of your kindle and out of your life forever.

That's reason number one for having the ink and wood pulp on the shelf. But there's also this other thing, which is that the fact that so few people want to buy and hold on to physical books makes me wonder: is no one else thinking about the coming apocalypse?

I mean, is it really so far fetched to think that part of the coming climate disaster is going to involve having little access to electricity? And that if there's not much electricity, the only texts we're going to have access to is the text that's actually printed on paper?

Everything else would be lost, right? I'm struck at how few people seem to worry about this. Getting rid of library books -- especially if you can have "e-access" -- seems to strike almost everyone as simple common sense. But what's going to happen when the lights go out?

In his recent book Ethics for a Broken World, the philosopher Tim Mulgan deploys the incredibly imaginative technique of presenting his book in the form of lectures that take place after the coming apocalypse, when resources are terribly scarce and there's not enough to keep everyone alive. In the imagined future, they refer to life in our period as the "affluent" world.

In studying the affluent world, the lecturer of the future explains, they use texts "translated from fragments of affluent philosophy recently recovered from the sunken cities of the western Atlantic: the famous Princeton Codex."

You get the picture. A lot of land is under water. There's no internet. There's no JSTOR or iBooks  or Project Gutenberg.Whatever we got is salvaged from some actual books and actual pieces of paper.

In my home, we use the term "Princeton Codex" as shorthand for the collection of ideas around the possibility of a dark future, where tattered damp copies of Portnoy's Complaint and A Theory of Justice and The Autobiography of Malcom X are all there is from which the people of the future might be able to connect with us, to remember us, and to grasp what the hell we were thinking.

Hard copy books were much on my mind a few weeks ago, when I went through my crisis of stuff. I got rid of clothing and kitchen stuff and unwanted gifts and old pieces of paper, but there's one category of thing I didn't touch: the books. They're piling up, but it doesn't bother me.

The possibility that the tiny libraries of readers like me all around the globe might help, or at least momentarily entertain, the people of the future came to mind immediately when I read this week's fiction in The New Yorker, a story called "The Empties" that takes place in the near future, two years after the power goes out.

A small city Vermont is struggling along. Everyone who hasn't died of disease has pretty much learned how to chop wood, how to use fireplaces, how to make "arrangements" for the other things they need, and how to get along without knowing what is happening anywhere else.

And at the center of town, a librarian carries a shotgun. She sleeps in the library, and allows no one to check out anything. You want to read, you sit in the building, because:

"People might share their last finger of motor oil, Matilda says, break a four-inch candle in two, divide a pot of beans to serve eight, but they’ll kill you for a book."

Next time you're tempted to avoid the clutter and go e-book only, think of your 23rd century counterpart. She might be cold and hungry, but she might also be jonesing for a little education or light reading. Don't let the Princeton Codex be all she has.