Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’

China Financial Crisis Art

Chen Wenling, “What You See Might Not Be Real” (2009)

I’ll admit, there are times when I regret the fact that I’m a relativist. Wouldn’t it be nice, I say to myself on occasion, to be able to claim—beyond a shadow of a doubt, to my students, colleagues, or readers of this blog—that something or other (neoclassical economics or capitalism or name your poison) is wrong and that the alternative (Marxian economics or socialism or what have you) is absolutely correct.

But then I read a defense of capital-T truth—such as David Roberts’s [ht: ja] attack on the alt-right and fake news and his presumption that the liberal mainstream is uniquely capable of upholding “truth, justice, and the American way”—and I thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to make such outlandish, embarrassing arguments. Fortunately, my relativism means I’m not saddled with the mainstream liberals’ delusion that they have, if not God, at least Superman on their side.

I’ve been over this epistemological terrain before (e.g., here, here, and here). But it seems, in the current conjuncture, mainstream liberals—in their zeal to attack Donald Trump and the right-wing media’s defense of his administration’s outlandish claims about a wide variety of issues, from climate change to the Mueller investigation—increasingly invoke and rely on an absolutist theory of knowledge. And then, of course, claim for themselves the correct side in the current debates.

As Roberts sees it, the United States

is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.

The primary source of this breach, to make a long story short, is the US conservative movement’s rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy) — the ones society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute.

In their place, the right has created its own parallel set of institutions, most notably its own media ecosystem.

Consider the assumptions built into those statements for a moment. Roberts believes that society has appointed a unique set of mainstream institutions—journalism, science, the academy—to serve as referees when it comes to adjudicating the facts in play. Nowhere does he discuss how, historically, those institutions came to occupy such an exalted position. Perhaps even more important, he never considers the disputes—about the facts and much else—that exist among journalists, scientists, and academics. And, finally, Roberts never mentions all the times, in recent years and over the centuries, the members of those institutions who got it wrong.

What about the reporting on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Or the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male? Or the university professors and presidents, at Yale, Harvard, and elsewhere, who supported and helped devise the U.S. war in Vietnam?

The list could go on.

There is, in fact, good reason not to simply accept the “facts” as gathered and disseminated by mainstream institutions. Historically, we have often been misled, and even mangled and killed, by those supposed facts. And, epistemologically, the members of those institutions—not to mention others, located in different institutions—produce and disseminate alternative sets of facts.

Maybe that’s Roberts’s problem. He actually thinks facts are gathered, as if they’re just out there in the world, waiting to be plucked, harvested, or dug up like fruits and vegetables by people who have no particular interest in which facts find their way into their baskets.

Alternatively, we might see those facts as being created and manufactured, through a process of knowledge-production, which relies on concepts and theories that are set to work on the raw materials generated by still other concepts and theories. The implication is that different sets of concepts and theories lead to the production of different knowledges—different sets of facts and their discursive and social conditions of existence.

I have no doubt that many journalists, scientists, and academics “see themselves as beholden to values and standards that transcend party or faction.” But that doesn’t mean they actually operate that way, somehow above and apart from the paradigms they use and the social influences exerted on them and the institutions where they work.

As for as Roberts is concerned, only the “far right” rejects the “very idea of neutral, binding arbiters” and adheres to a “tribal epistemology.” And mainstream liberals? Well, supposedly, they have the facts on their side.

If one side rejects the epistemic authority of society’s core institutions and practices, there’s just nothing left to be done. Truth cannot speak for itself, like the voice of God from above. It can only speak through human institutions and practices.

For Roberts, it’s either epistemic authority or nihilism. Absolute truth or an “epistemic gulf” that separates an “increasingly large chunk of Americans,” who believe “a whole bunch of crazy things,” from liberal Democrats.

What Roberts can’t abide is that we “live in different worlds, with different stories and facts shaping our lives.” But, from a relativist perspective, that’s all we’ve ever had, inside and outside the institutions of journalism, science, and the academy. Throughout their entire history. Different stories and different sets of facts.

And that hasn’t stopped the conversation—the discussion and debate within and between those different, often incommensurable, stories and facts. The only time the conversation ends is when one set of stories and facts is imposed on and used to stamp out all the others. A project always carried out in the name of Truth.

Clearly, Roberts mourns the passing of a time of epistemological certainty and universal agreement that never existed.

Roberts instead should mourn the effects of a Superman theory of knowledge that got him and other mainstream liberals into trouble in the first place. In recent years, they and their cherished facts simply haven’t been persuasive to a large and perhaps growing part of the population.

And the rest of us are suffering the consequences.

 

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Mark Tansey, “Coastline Measure” (1987)

 

I’ve been over this before.

But I continue to be amazed at the ubiquitous, facile references to science, evidence, and facts and the derision that is directed at the proposition that we live in a post-truth world. On topics as diverse as climate change, globalization, and the role of the working-class in electing Donald Trump, commentators invoke Truth, with a capital t, as an obvious, unproblematic characteristic of making statements about what is going on in the world.

To me, they’re about as silly—and dangerous—as attempting to measure the coastline using a tape measure.

This is the case even in studies, such as those conducted by Tali Sharot [ht: ja], about the supposed diminishing influence of evidence and the existence of confirmation bias.

The very first thing we need to realize is that beliefs are like fast cars, designer shoes, chocolate cupcakes and exotic holidays: they affect our well-being and happiness. So just as we aspire to fill our fridge with fresh fare and our wardrobe with nice attire, we try to fill our minds with information that makes us feel strong and right, and to avoid information that makes us confused or insecure.

In the words of Harper Lee, “people generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.”

It’s not only in the domain of politics that people cherry-pick news; it is apparent when it comes to our health, wealth and relationships.

At one level, this makes sense to me. There’s a great deal of confirmation bias when we try to make sense of various dimensions of lives and the world in which we live.

But. . .

I also think people are curious about things—information, experiences, and so on—that don’t seem to fit their existing theories or discourses. And, when they do attempt to make sense of those new things, their ideas change (and, of course, as their ideas change, they see things in new ways).

Perhaps even more important, while people like Sharot acknowledge that people often “accept evidence that confirms their preconceived notions and assess counter evidence with a critical eye,” they never consider the possibility that the people who are conducting the research concerning confirmation bias are themselves subject to that same bias.

Why is it always people out there—you know, “the ones who are thinking about health, wealth, and relationships”—that cherry-pick the facts. What about the so-called scientists, including the ones who invoke the Truth; why aren’t they also subject to confirmation bias?

Sharot invokes “the way our brain works”—without ever acknowledging that she and her coinvestigators also use one theory, and ignore or reject other theories, to make sense of the brain and the diverse ways we process information. Others rely on the “scientific evidence” concerning climate change or the gains from globalization or the existence of a resentful white (but not black or Hispanic) working-class, which in their view others deny because they don’t believe the obvious “facts.”

What’s the difference?

I can pretty much guess the kind of response that will be offered (because I see it all the time, especially in economics): the distinction between everyday confirmation bias and real, Truth-based stems from the use of the “scientific method.”

The problem, of course, is there are different scientific methods, different ways of producing knowledge—whether in economics or cognitive neuroscience, political science or physics, anthropology or chemistry. All of those forms of knowledge production are just as conditioned and conditional as the way nonscientists produce (and consume and disseminate) knowledges about other aspects of the world.

As for me, I can’t wait for this period of fake interest in capital-t Truth to pass. Maybe then we can return to the much more interesting discussion of the conditionality of all forms of knowledge production.

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It’s now official, Truth is dead.

Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year, after seeing a spike in frequency this year in the context of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.*

Many of us are neither surprised nor dismayed by the realization that Big-T Truth—in relation to politics, the media, and much else—is being called into question. We’re not surprised because telling the truth was never a mainstay of political discourse or newspaper reporting. Remember the lies that served as the basis for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 order to launch retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam and his request for a joint resolution of Congress—the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—which gave him authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia? Or the New York Times in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, especially Judith Miller’s now thoroughly discredited reporting about Iraq’s supposedly brimming stockpile of weapons of mass destruction?

Nor are we dismayed, since we’ve long understood that different sets of “facts” and “truths” are produced within different theoretical frameworks and that there’s no Archimedean standpoint—independent and outside of those frameworks—to decide that one or another corresponds to reality. The idea that there’s a set of bedrock facts or a single truth about reality is a holdover from positivism and other foundationalist theories of knowledge that have long been contested.

What we do need to be aware of is how those different facts and truths are constructed (the discursive and social conditions under which they are produced), and of course how they lead to different consequences (on the theories and the wider society). It’s a stance concerning knowledge that is often referred to as “partisan relativism”—relativist in the sense that validity criteria are diverse and internal to theoretical frameworks, partisan because producing knowledges always involves taking a stance, in favor of one set of facts and truths and against others.

To be clear, then, “post-truth”doesn’t mean (as if often presumed) that theoretical and empirical analysis grinds to a halt or that analysts—in whatever field, humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences—are unable to make pronouncements about the world. On the contrary. It makes discussion and debate, amongst and between those who use different theoretical frameworks, even more important—because, of course, the stakes for the world in which we live are so high.

Julia Shaw, a forensic psychologist, adopts much the same perspective

They say that we have found ourselves in a world lost to emotion, irrationality, and a weakening grasp on reality. That lies don’t faze us, and knowledge doesn’t impress us. That we are post-truth, post-fact. But, is this actually a bad thing?

I’m a factual relativist. I abandoned the idea of facts and “the truth” some time last year. I wrote a whole science book, The Memory Illusion, almost never mentioning the terms fact and truth. Why? Because much like Santa Claus and unicorns, facts don’t actually exist. At least not in the way we commonly think of them.

We think of a fact as an irrefutable truth. According to the Oxford dictionary, a fact is “a thing that is known or proved to be true.” And where does proof come from? Science?

Well, let me tell you a secret about science; scientists don’t prove anything. What we do is collect evidence that supports or does not support our predictions. Sometimes we do things over and over again, in meaningfully different ways, and we get the same results, and then we call these findings facts. And, when we have lots and lots of replications and variations that all say the same thing, then we talk about theories or laws. Like evolution. Or gravity. But at no point have we proved anything.

Still, we need to contend with the fact that so many liberals—especially liberal politicians, pundits, and political economists—are bemoaning what they consider to be the descent into a post-truth world. They’re worried that non-liberal political candidates and voters increasingly deny facts, manipulate the truth, and prefer emotion to expertise. And so they rush to defend “the facts” and Truth.

Rune Møller Stahl and Bue Rübner Hansen, I think, get it right:

liberals’ nostalgia for factual politics seems designed to mask their own fraught relationship with the truth. The supposedly honest technocrats and managers—who enacted neoliberal measures with the same ferocity as their right-wing counterparts—relied on a certain set of facts to displace the material truths they refused to acknowledge. . .

As liberals took over facts, they pushed social conflict to the non-factual realm, to the domain of values. Instead of struggles over domination and exploitation, we got the culture wars. There, progressive values held no sway; they were sold with a sense of moral superiority then betrayed by the spinelessness of triangulation and by policies that undermined the welfare state and organized labor.

As I see it, the defeats mainstream liberals suffered under the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election don’t prove that voters hate facts or truths. Those events (and we can expect more to come in the years ahead) merely show that enough regular citizens are fed-up with business as usual—with increasingly unconvincing liberal facts and truths, which deny the severe losses and dislocations under the existing rules and institutions—to revoke their trust in the so-called experts and, swayed by a different set of facts and truths, to throw in their lot with the only available alternatives.

The battle over facts, truths, and expertise hasn’t ended. But the idea that there’s only one—one set of facts, one truth, one group of experts—has. Which means the critique of the existing order After Truth has only just begun.

 

*According to Oxford Dictionaries, the first time the term post-truth was used was in a 1992 essay by the late playwright Steve Tesich in the Nation magazine. Tesich, writing about the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf war, said that “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.” The term “post-truth politics” was coined by David Roberts in a blog post for Grist on 1 April 2010, where it was defined as “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation).”

Note: yes, that is Schrödinger’s cat at the top of the post.

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David Wojnarowicz, Untitled from Ant Series (time/money), 1988

Tom Chatfield [ht: ja] makes a compelling case that, in the era of “big data,” we often suffer from what is called a recency bias, the “tendency to assume that future events will closely resemble recent experience.”

It’s a version of what is also known as the availability heuristic: the tendency to base your thinking disproportionately on whatever comes most easily to mind. It’s also a universal psychological attribute. If the last few years have seen exceptionally cold summers where you live, for example, you might be tempted to state that summers are getting colder – or that your local climate may be cooling. In fact, you shouldn’t read anything whatsoever into the data. You would need to take a far, far longer view to learn anything meaningful about climate trends. In the short term, you’d be best not speculating at all – but who among us can manage that?

The same tends to be true of most complex phenomena in real life: stock markets, economies, the success or failure of companies, war and peace, relationships, the rise and fall of empires. Short-term analyses aren’t only invalid – they’re actively unhelpful and misleading. Just look at the legions of economists who lined up to pronounce events like the 2009 financial crisis unthinkable right until it happened. The very notion that valid predictions could be made on that kind of scale was itself part of the problem.

And the solution?

What’s needed is something that I like to think of as “intelligent forgetting”: teaching our tools to become better at letting go of the immediate past in order to keep its larger continuities in view.

Now, if only we could intelligently forget mainstream economics—and spend more time studying history, including of course the history of capitalism. Then, we’d be in better shape to understand the recurring boom-and-bust-cycles that regularly throw millions of people out of work and subject them to the kinds of crises they’ve been forced to endure for the past nine years, while those at the top once again benefit from the way the game is rigged.

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Leicester City was not going to win the Premiership—not by a long shot. Nor was the Republican nomination supposed to be handed to Donald Trump. And Bernie Sanders, well, there was no chance he was going to give Hillary Clinton a serious run for her money (and machine) in the Democratic primaries.

And yet here we are.

Leicester City Football Club, as anyone who has even a fleeting interest in sports (or reads one or another major newspaper or news outlet) knows, were just crowned champions of the Premiership, the highest tier of British football, after starting the season at 5000-1 odds. There really is no parallel in the world of sports—any sport, in any country. (By way of comparison, Donerail, with odds of 91-1 in 1913, is the longest odds winner in Kentucky Derby history.) And the bookies are now being forced to pay up.

silver-cohen-liveblog-debrief-nomination-odds

Similarly, Donald Trump was not supposed to win the Republican nomination. Instead, it was going to go to Jeb Bush and, if he failed, to Marco Rubio. (And certainly Ted Cruz, the candidate most reviled by other members of the GOP, was not supposed to be there at the end.)

enten-datalab-demdebateslackchat

Finally, Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic nomination was written off almost as soon as it was launched. And yet here is—winning the Indiana contest by 5 points (when it was predicted he would lose by the same number of points) and accumulating enough pledged delegates to be him within a couple of hundred of the presumptive nominee.

What’s going on?

In all three cases, the presumption was that the “system” would prevent such an unlikely occurrence, and that the pundits and prognosticators “knew” from early on the likely outcome.

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So, for example, the winner of the Premiership was supposed to come from one of the perennial top four (Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City)—not a club that were only promoted from the second division of British football in 2014 and last April were battling relegation (they finished the season 14th).

Pretty much the same is true in the political arena: neither Trump nor Sanders was taken particularly seriously at the start, and along the way the prevailing common sense was that their campaigns would simply implode or wither away. The idea was that the Republican and Democratic parties and nominating contests were structured so that their preferred nominees would inexorably come out on top.

There are, I think, two lessons to take away from these bolts from the blue. First, the “system,” however defined, is much less complete and determined than people usually think. There are many fissures and spaces in such systems that make what are seemingly unlikely outcomes real possibilities. Second, our presumably certain “knowledges” are exactly that, knowledges, which are constructed—in the face of radical uncertainty—out of theories, presumptions, blind spots, and much else. The fact is, we simply don’t know, and no amount of probabilistic certainty can overcome that epistemological gap.

So—surprise, surprise—Leicester City and Trump won, while Sanders has put up a much more formidable challenge than anyone expected from a socialist presidential candidate in the United States.

 George Grosz, "Bürgerliche Welt/ World of the Bourgeoisie" (1922)


George Grosz, “Bürgerliche Welt/ World of the Bourgeoisie” (1922)

Back in 2011, I suggested we move from focusing on the pathologies of the poor to those of the rich. And that’s exactly what psychologists seem now to be doing. We’ve seen studies of “social class as culture,” “sharing the marbles,” and much more.*

The latest is Rael J. Dawtry, Robbie M. Sutton, and Chris G. Sibley on “social sampling”—that is, the idea that wealthier people may be less supportive of redistribution than poorer people because they infer society is wealthier than it actually is because they are surrounded by other wealthy people. And that’s exactly what the authors found:

wealthier (relative to poorer) Americans reported moving in wealthier social circles and extrapolated from them when estimating wealth levels across America as a whole. . . In turn, these estimates were associated with the perceived fairness of wealth distribution in America and with opposition to redistribution, a finding that is consistent with theory on normative-justice judgments.

These results suggest that the rich and poor do not simply have different views about how wealth should be distributed across society; rather, they subjectively experience living in societies that have subtle—but important—differences. Thus, in the relatively affluent America inhabited by wealthier Americans, there is less need to distribute wealth more equally.

Dawtry, Sutton, and Sibley are certainly on to something: we often arrive at social judgments based on anecdotal evidence—things we have either heard or seen—and many of our anecdotes are produced or disseminated within our particular social circles. Those circles are our “sample.”

But that’s not enough. Because we also have other knowledges of the world around us—knowledges that come from the news, novels, music, religious sermons, political speeches, and so on. We’re not just limited to what is said and repeated within our narrow social circles.

So, sure, wealthy people might think the rest of society looks like the worlds in which they live and work. But they also know, through other means, that it isn’t really like that. There are many more people earning far lower incomes than they might come across on a daily basis. Grotesque inequalities exist and they’re getting more and more extreme.

If the rich don’t know about those inequalities, given the other knowledges that are widely available, then they are engaged in practices of willful ignorance.

And that’s another pathology we need to take into account.

 

*Readers will note I find myself always turning to George Grosz to illustrate my discussions of these studies. There must be some other artists I can use. Any suggestions?

photo-market-crisis

I won’t attempt to take on Greg Mankiw’s latest defense of the 1 percent. Dean Baker and Paul Krugman have raised most of the relevant issues.

But, in his defense of his defense, Mankiw does make a curious admission: capitalism is fatally flawed.

The admission actually occurs in his textbook [pdf], where Mankiw sends us to read his explanation of who bears responsibility for the most recent financial crisis (hint: it’s half the fault of government, and half Wall Street). Then, he admits that financial crises “do occur from time to time.”

Finally, keep in mind that this financial crisis was not the first one in history. Such events, though fortunately rare, do occur from time to time. Rather than looking for a culprit to blame for this singular event, perhaps we should view speculative excess and its ramifications as an inherent feature of market economies. Policymakers can respond to financial crises as they happen, and they can take steps to reduce the likelihood and severity of such crises, but preventing them entirely may be too much to ask given our current knowledge.

Yes, indeed, “speculative excess and its ramifications” are in fact “an inherent feature” of capitalist economies.* But then, Mankiw adds, “preventing them entirely may be too much to ask given our current knowledge.”

What Mankiw sees as a problem of knowledge is what the rest of us see as a problem of economic institutions. It’s precisely because the economic system is arranged so that a tiny minority at the top is able to continue to capture the surplus that financial crises occur on a regular basis.

What the rest of us know is that defending the 1 percent is precisely what will guarantee more financial crises in the future.

 

*And, for Mankiw, they’re something we simply have to put up with because “for human welfare, growth swamps fluctuations.”