Monday, August 30, 2010

Prejudice and Metaphysics

I was really hoping not to discuss the "Park51" mosque, especially after Politico essentially ended my interest in the story by showing that building the mosque was a long-shot even before the bigoted backlash ignited a media frenzy.  But Stanley Fish has an interesting take on the issue, using the example of the Oklahoma City bombing to reveal insightful truths:

"In the brief period between the bombing and the emergence of McVeigh, speclation had centered on Arab terrorists and the culture of violence that was said to be woven into the fabric of the religion of Islam. 

But when it turned out that a white guy (with the help of a few friends) had done it, talk of "culture" suddenly ceased and was replaced by the vocabulary and mantras of individualism: each of us is a single, free agent; blaming something called "culture" was just a way of off-loading responsibility for the deeds we commit; in America, individuals, not groups, act; and individuals, not groups, should be held accountable." 

We tend to consider high-level philosophical beliefs (like whether human beings are possessed of free will) as relatively stable for individuals; deep-seated epistemological and ontological beliefs underpin our more mundane preferences (e.g. politics) and indeed even our identity.  Not so: the Oklahoma City example is startling because it reveals how transitory deep philosophical beliefs can be.  The abrupt shift from a structural to an agency explanation after Oklahoma City leads us to question how fundamental these questions really are. 

Social psychology and sociology have long provided compelling explanations for such behavior changes with concepts like the ingroup/outgroup bias.  The Oklahoma City example is scary because it utterly trivializes our beliefs and forces us to confront the harsh truth that much of our behavior is capricious and governed by unconscious structural factors.  Even metaphysics, the most cherished manifestation of objective, self-aware reasoning is apparently not beyond the reach of our animal spirits. 

The biological and evolutionary basis for prejudice is well known, but metaphysical beliefs are not normally viewed as a mechanism through which unconscious prejudice operates.  Perhaps we should all re-evaluate some things with that in mind.

Information Nexus

1. America's Ten Dead Cities
2. A Universe Not Made For Us
3. Earth's Resources: How Much Is Left?
4. Tony Judt (1948-2010)
5. Short Story: Architecture Sci-Fi

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Knowledge (With Cartoons)

Combining a lecture-style synthesis of what's currently hip in social science with cartoons and flow charts makes "21st Century Enlightenment" an wonderful short video.  The pace is quite frantic, but well worth the cognitive investment.  Caffeine recommended for viewing:

On second thought the title should have been "The Sum of All TED Talks (With Cartoons)".

Friday, August 27, 2010

Methods and Goals

Normative beliefs about public policy can usually be broken down into two components, goals and methods.  Goals focus on ends, or how the world should be in some hypothetical future, while methods deal with be best way to get there.  Ideological disputes are often confusing because this division is not at all clear.

Though counter-intuitive, it doesn't always work to simply jump immediately to the final goal.  If you raise your kid with the ethic of "do whatever you want, as long as it makes you happy," or "being happy is all that matters," the kid might not learn the value of delayed satisfaction and discipline.  A kid instilled with the ethic of "it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you give your best and try your hardest" will likely have happier outcomes overall.

When making predictions about a policy's future impact, one side often favors a more comprehensive perspective (accounting for methods), while the other side focuses only on final outcomes (goals).  For example, school busing opponents see racial equality as the final goal and see busing as directly opposed to that goal.  Conversely, proponents see that the method of school busing will result in a final outcome closer to the actual goal.

Both Republicans and Democrats hold dear positions that are overly goal-oriented and method-blind.  Republicans oppose aggressive anti-trust regulation, based on their goal of free-market capitalism.  They fail to see that the method of anti-trust regulation breaks up monopolies and results in more efficient free-markets overall.  Democrats, on the other hand, frequently oppose environmentalist policies such as nuclear energy and genetically modified foods on grounds that these policies are opposed to the final goal of a civilization in perfect harmony with nature.  In both cases the comprehensive policies are more pragmatic and tangibly beneficial; final-outcome policies obsess over transcendental ideals and frequently hold back improvements.

Generally it is better to support policies that include methods and process, because often adding nuance and complexity will result in more accurate predictions and outcomes closer to the stated goals.  However, complicated and counter-intuitive policies may be difficult to explain and promote.  Additionally, simple transcendental ideals can have an inspirational effect on social movements that could be greatly beneficial.