shaunterrywriter

These are my writings. Ideally, these are the most honest expressions of myself that I could give.

“Yes, And”: An Argument for an Inclusive Strategy of Representation for African-Americans

As in many aspects of African-American politics, the history of the United States Congress can be described as some number of steps backward, followed by some number of step forward, perpetually repeated. Important progresses have been made, only to be complicated by as-yet unresolved failings and inequities. Descriptive, symbolic, and substantive representations of African-Americans have come at different times, with material concerns and rights-based concerns being prioritized at different times, resulting in an uneven and incongruous set of outcomes on the national stage and in the lived experiences of African-Americans. While it cannot be said that African-Americans have been proportionally represented in Congress, it is also true that those in Congress—African-American and otherwise—have produced mixed results in relation to issues important to African-Americans.

Descriptive representation of African-Americans in Congress has had an inconsistent history and has failed in its representativeness. Between 1870 and 1891, there were six African-American people in Congress. In the next decade, there was one, and no African-Americans sat in Congress from that point until 1928. Congress has seen over 11,000 members, but only 139 have been African-American. There have been nine African-American Senators. While African-Americans make up 12% of the United States population, they make up only 2% of the Senate and 10% of the House of Representatives. How this has happened is complicated.

Reapportionment of representatives is automatically determined based on census statistics. It is known that minorities tend to be undercounted in relation to whites, but the Supreme Court has barred adjusting the census in order to properly account for underrepresentation of minorities. Redistricting is complicated by the fact that states draw districts, allowing states with a greater tendency to consider race in various way to adopt policies that disproportionately affect African-Americans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed redistricting on the basis of race, but problems of racial misrepresentation have persisted. To make matters worse, in Katherine Tate’s Black Faces in the Mirror: African Americans and Their Representatives in the U.S. Congress, she refers to research from Chandler Davidson’s and Bernard Grofman’s Quiet Revolution to show that representation has remained problematic in Congress partly because whites have rarely voted for African-American candidates.

Descriptive representation is important for several reasons. As Tate shows, “Black constituents believe that they are better represented in Congress when their representative is Black.” As such, descriptive representation can have positive effects for psychological and sociological effects for African-Americans. As it happens, the assessment that African-Americans make of their African-American representatives appears to be right. Tate states, “[W]hile U.S. legislators are capable of speaking for a ‘divergent rank’ of social groups, the overwhelming empirical evidence indicates that with respect to Blacks, at least, they normally don’t. Black members in Congress have been the most consistent spokespersons for and champions of Black interests.” But Carol Swain, in Black Faces, Black Interests, provides a counterargument: white members of Congress can sometimes represent African-Americans better than African-American representatives can. To that, Tate draws on Kenny Whitby’s The Color of Representation and David Cannon’s Race, Redistricting, and Representation to show that Swain’s proposition is not the general case. She says, “While the perception of Black legislators is that they are not very successful in winning passage of the bills that they sponsor, [Tate] establish[es] …that the opposite is true.” In this sense, descriptive representation helps to ensure substantive representation. But achieving descriptive and symbolic representations can be difficult.

Committee appointments can best measure African-American power in the House of Representatives, and African-Americans have gained more committee appointments when Democrats have been in control than when Republicans have been in control. However, thanks to concerted efforts by African-Americans and their allies, African-Americans have generally gained more power as time has passed, as can be demonstrated by the fact that 109th Congress saw African-Americans stand on nearly every committee, despite that Republicans controlled the Executive, along with both houses of Congress. Also perhaps counterintuitive, when the Congressional Black Caucus, established in 1969 to represent African-American interests, has grown, African-Americans in Congress have lost power. This may help to support the fact that different forms of representation can, at times, appear to be at odds.

In Mary Frances Bacon’s Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich, she demonstrates part of why the descriptive, symbolic, and substantive can be at odds. Her analysis shows how African-Americans have been, and continue to be, manipulated for political gains. While this can be problematic in descriptive terms, it also has the effect of disconnecting elected officials from their constituencies, resulting in losses to symbolic and substantive representations.

African-Americans in Congress gain politically by passing symbolic legislation, even if the material benefits to African-Americans can seem unclear. Tate states, “[S]ymbolic policies are a cheap way to distribute some nonmaterial public good to constituents,” especially as the “symbolic resolution is exceptionally easy to pass.” These symbolic bills can divert attention and effort away from more substantive bills, but they are not merely hollow gestures. It is important to have African-Americans representing in Congress and passing legislation. It can give something in the way of investment and a reflection of one’s own opportunity to Americans in general and to members of the African-American community, in particular. Also, some of those symbolic bills are important to society, as in making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday and divesting from apartheid South Africa. Having African-American interests represented and creating feeling that someone is fighting for the African-American community is important. Tate points out the necessity of symbolic representation: “[F]or Blacks to be fully represented, their interests must be understood as symbolic as well as substantive.” While symbolic gains can appear to complicate substantive gains, they do not preclude them.

Substantive gains for African-Americans have come from Congress whether or not African-Americans have been members, but those gains have been greater when African-Americans have been included in the membership. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance Act banned slavery in the Northwest Territory, and in 1808, Congress passed legislation to end the slave trade. Congress abolished slavery completely in the District of Columbia in 1862, and passed six Civil Rights bills between 1866 and 1875, including three Civil Rights enforcement acts. By the mid-20th century, African-American membership had begun to grow and has since increased. Between 1957 and 1968, five Civil Rights bills were passed, and another was passed in 1991. 1985 saw the passage of a Civil Rights enforcement act, and the Voting Rights Act was renewed in 2007, despite opposition by some Southern Republicans. Following the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire case from 2007, President Obama passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, making it easier for people to sue on the basis of discrimination in pay. But the Ledbetter case was a complicated one because the legislation was written in order to make up for the Ledbetter loss in Supreme Court. While the successes listed here were significant, Congress has often failed to address the needs of the African-American community.

In 1866, Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, followed Lincoln by vetoing a Freedmen’s Bureau Bill that would have helped African-Americans; Congress failed to override the veto. 1963 saw the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but it remains that African-Americans are generally unemployed at a rate double that of whites. In 1978, the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, which would have helped African-Americans reach full employment, became the more watered-down and symbolic Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. In 2008, John Lewis introduced a bill to reverse Alexander v. Sandoval and restore the right to sue in cases of discrimination, but the bill did not make it out of committee. It remains that substantive gains face significant challenges in the white supremacist culture of the United States.

It may be tempting to say that substantive representation is the most important, and that seems logical enough to say. If one brings to bear policies that advance relevant policies, then this seems like the most tangible kind of possible progress. Some people might argue that this is the only kind of progress that actually matters. However, substantive representation without descriptive and symbolic representations still leaves much to be asked for and can lead to significant problems.

If substantive gains are being made without descriptive and symbolic representations, the potential for low trust and high tension can seem obvious. If people feel that they are not being given fair access to opportunities to be heard and to opportunities to take part in power, they would seem to have legitimate cause for dissatisfaction. Social trust and social cohesion are important for people’s capacities. If people do not feel that society is accepting of them, then they may not set their sights as high as they otherwise would. Also, exclusions can lead to social bifurcations and conflicts, which can be costly in a number of ways.

That said, Fredrick Harris might argue something different. He might be inclined to remind us that, as things stand, there sometimes is a price to descriptive and symbolic representations. Harris might argue that one might only need observe the Obama Presidency to come to understand “the price of the ticket.” That is to say that those things that drive politicians and help them stay in office are complicated by racist cultural realities that make it difficult for politicians to pass substantive legislation for African-Americans. As an example of how descriptive gains can complicate substantive matters, Harris shows, in his 2005 book, Countervailing Forces in African-American Civic Activism, 1973-1994, that African-Americans engage in non-voting civic activism at a decreasing rate as more African-Americans take office. Tate makes similar points about how symbolic representation can make substantive representation more difficult. Perhaps they would both agree, though, that all three types of representation are necessary for achieving full realization of equality and freedom.

In the end, what seems to be clear is that African-American representatives have done a better job of representing African-Americans than have white officials. This is not to say that all African-American representatives have done a better job representing African-Americans than have all white representatives; it could be said that some white officials seem to have done more for African-Americans than have some African-American representatives, at least in some ways. Still, as Tate seems to attest, the best apparent strategy for representing the needs of African-Americans seems to be to ensure representation that is more reflective of the American populace in general, especially those groups that are underrepresented, as doing so could have multiple, even interacting, benefits.

Mixed Bag: How a Mostly Homogeneous Supreme Court has Treated African-Americans

The question of how the Supreme Court has related to African-American politics is one best asked of history. There may be persistent trends, but there also seem to be temporal shifts toward and away from more equitable treatments of African-Americans, depending on the makeup of the Court at any given time. On one hand, it is contingent; on the other, the Court has yet to do all in its power to help to free African-Americans from historical legacies of oppression and from discriminations of various sorts. At different times, the Court has provided for African-Americans’ material demands and/or rights-based demands, while at other times, it has denied both. In order to more fully address these issues, we should inspect the history.

If we start by considering the 1856 Dred Scott v. Sandford case, we notice that, as soon as the question of African-American rights was brought before the court, it was summarily dismissed. The Dred Scott case was taken up, but the question of African-American rights was deemed immaterial. What was to be at stake was whether Scott’s owner, Sandford, had physically assaulted Scott, Scott’s wife, and Scott’s children, but the Court deemed that Scott had no legal standing in court, as Scott was not a citizen. Chief Justice Roger Taney, an Andrew Jackson appointee speaking of African-Americans, wrote the majority opinion:

[T]hey are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.”

In essence, Taney asserted that the Constitution had been intended for whites and that African-Americans had never been intended to have rights protected under the Constitution, let alone citizenship. In fact, earlier in the opinion, Taney implies that African-Americans are not even “people of the United States.

The Court’s decision bears significance not only for its grotesqueness, but also for the precedent it set. Not only were African-Americans denied citizenship; the Missouri Compromise was deemed unconstitutional, as well, further complicating the matter of slavery, and further compounding the immiseration of African-Americans. This was a bold, harmful political act.

This case helps to illustrate how the Supreme Court has always had a political role. Taney was a close ally of President Andrew Jackson, a slave-owning Southerner, and he served as Jackson’s Secretary of War, Attorney General, and Treasury Secretary, before being appointed to the Court as Chief Justice. If one observes the political leanings of the Court, there is a pattern of ideological shifts that reflect the leanings of the Presidents who appointed the members of the Court. Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to form the Court more-or-less in his image, as Roosevelt served as President for longer than anyone else has been able to, while a one-term President would be unlikely to alter the ideological makeup of the Court very much. Who is President, then, becomes an important question to the Court’s ideological leanings and who the Court tends to represent in its work.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first President to have any African-American judge put in federal court, and Lyndon Baines Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to sit on the Supreme Court. While Ronald Reagan, a Republican and a racist, appointed the nation’s second African-American, Clarence Thomas (sorry, Dr. Williams), his record for appointing African-Americans to federal courts overall was abysmal. Only 1.9% of his appointees were African-American. To put that into context, 25% of President Obama’s appointees from his first 18 months in office were African-American. Representation on the Court and its ideological leanings can have dramatic effects on outcomes from the Court.

While the Court is said to be in place to interpret the law, cases like that of Dred Scott show that the Court can make decisions that have dramatic effects on the citizenry and how they are treated under the law. In effect, the Supreme Court can shape the law. Following the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court would follow similar illogic for seventy years. In fact, while the Dred Scott case established lack of standing in United States court for descendants of Africans who were brought to America as slaves, the Supreme Court would further restrict African-Americans.

In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Melville Fuller Supreme Court upheld, in 1896, that a person could be made to use separate facilities on the basis of race, alone. At the time, this meant that someone with any African descendancy was forced to use facilities intended for African-Americans, even if their descendancy were more Caucasian than African. Of course, this is both illogical on various grounds and racist both in intent and in outcome. However, the Court maintained that separate facilities could be equal and were justifiable under the law. Writing for the majority, Justice Henry B. Brown states, “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” This was not the only opinion, though. There was a lone dissenter who would be vindicated in later years. Justice John Marshall wrote a blistering opinion:

The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the constitution…

If evils will result from the commingling of the two races upon public highways established for the benefit of all, they will be infinitely less than those that will surely come from state legislation regulating the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis of race. …The thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done.

Again, the importance of Plessy v. Ferguson was that it established legal precedent and allowed for political—indeed, racist—concerns to trump those of constitutionality, reason, and humanity. While legal scholar Girardeau Spann asserts that the Court is destined to interpret the law in racist ways because the Constitution is essentially racist, there seems to be evidence that the Court is sometimes able to overcome this challenge.

The Court has advocated for various kinds of policies. In a class discussion, Ronald Williams described the Court’s decisions, as, at times, wildly inconsistent and “just weird.” In part, this may have to do with the fact that the court is appointed, that its members are not accountable to the public, and that they serve lifelong appointments. As previously stated, Roosevelt was nearly able to completely remake the Court. In his life, FDR appointed eight Justices. This makes for an interesting case study as the Court relates to the Constitution.

Initially during FDR’s administration, the Court found his New Deal programs to be unconstitutional. FDR threatened to add seats to the Supreme Court so that he could pack it with Justices who would be friendly to his programs, but he was eventually able to pass his agenda without having to do so. For African-Americans, this meant that, while the country’s institutions did not support all of African-Americans’ rights-based demands, material-based demands were more adequately met than they previously had been, although this comes with caveats.

New Deal programs were administered through more localized controls. In the South, this meant that poor whites were tended to before poor African-Americans. Thanks to FDR’s programs, many African-Americans came into the Democratic fold, even though their rights-based demands were still unmet, and there was still, at that time, little attempt to meet those demands. What is somewhat significant here, though, is that the Court’s position was malleable and that it contributed to different outcomes for African-Americans. Because the Constitution is open to interpretation and because contemporary understandings shift policy imperatives, the Supreme Court’s role is one that allows it to rule in wildly differing ways, depending on the makeup of the Court and the contemporary context. So while the Constitution is, indeed, racist, it is not the case that every decision by the Court has been racist.

Brown v. Board of Education pitted African-American children from Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware against the institutions that denied them the right to go to the only schools (as Harlan seemed to have rightly known) equal to white schools: the schools that white people in power had designed for their children to go to. Charles Hamilton Houston, with the help of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Houston’s cousin and future federal judge, William Hastie; and others, led a long crusade to establish precedents that would lead to the eventual unanimous decision by the Earl Warren Supreme Court to reverse the Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

Houston once said, “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” It seems clear which Houston decided to be. In 1929, he became Dean of Howard Law School, cultivating a young group of lawyers to help lead his crusade, which he fought from his post as the special counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, starting in 1935. They won Murray v. Maryland, leading to the integration of Maryland’s schools. They won several teachers’ salary cases, as they showed that some school districts were paying more to white teachers than to their African-American teachers. In Gaines v. Missouri, Houston won in the Charles E. Hughes Supreme Court, as the Court ruled that states providing schooling to whites must provide equivalent schooling to African-Americans. In Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma Regents, Houston further laid the groundwork for desegregation through wins in the Fred M. Vinson Supreme Court.

By establishing legal precedents in these landmark cases leading to Brown v. Board of Education, Houston forced the Court to acknowledge that separate necessarily precluded equal. They could no longer justify segregation under the framework that they had used previous to that point. In 1954, the Earl Warren Court ruled in the Brown case that the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment guaranteed the right to access to equal facilities to all people, and that race could not be a consideration for segregation. The Court would be forced in the next year, 1955, to put added pressure on schools to integrate, after schools, primarily in the South, delayed the policy.

This marked a significant victory for African-Americans and was one of many victories leading to, and taking place during, the Civil Rights Movement. But while the arc of moral progress may be long and just, that does not mean that it is, without exception, increasingly just all along the way. In fact, more recently, there is growing concern over the fact that segregation does not seem to be diminishing. Reactions to Brown v. Board of Education eventually culminated in a complex system of bussing children across cities in order to try and ensure the fairest possible treatment for historically oppressed people. That system has since been removed, and issues around educational attainment can seem impossibly intractable. An American web of institutions, culture, media representation, and power has failed to fully address problems associated with race. As a further example of the persistent inequity, despite African-Americans making up about 12% of the population, roughly 1.5% of elected officials in the US are African-American. Contemporary efforts are not all on the side of racial justice.

In 1978, the University of California Regents v. Bakke case presented interesting arguments regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause to the 14th Amendment. Until this point, cases before the Supreme Court having to do with race generally did not assert the preposterous notion that the racial group in power could be discriminated against by the institutions that the power-laden racial group had built for its own use and its own empowerment. UC Regents v. Bakke marks an apparent point of departure. In this case, it was asserted that Bakke, a prospective medical student had been discriminated against in the admissions process to the UC-Davis Medical School. The Warren E. Burger Court held that affirmative action policies were justifiable in order to account for historical oppressions that complicated contemporary race issues. Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote the majority opinion, finding that there was not a compelling interest for treating races differently to the point of establishing quotas, especially as UC-Davis Medical School had not shown a history of racially discriminatory admissions practices. In his view, not granting access to the positions designated to minorities was discriminatory against whites. William Rehnquist concluded unequivocally that consideration of race during admissions processes was discriminatory against whites.

Since the UC Regents case, which was decided in 1978, several cases have gone back-and-forth on issues of considerations of race in educational decisions as well as racial considerations in other contexts. The Michigan cases ruled that The University of Michigan could not consider race as a factor in its admissions in one case and could in another. These cases were on the same 2003 docket. The rulings are distinct enough that they could be viewed as not contradicting, assuming that you can hold them up at just the right angle, in just the right light. In all seriousness, the distinction to draw between the rulings is narrow. In 2007, the Meredith v. Jefferson City Board of Education and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District cases held that the facts of the Michigan cases could not be extrapolated to the high school level and that the considerations of race for drawing school district lines were unconstitutional. In North Carolina, similar redistricting concerns have come up.

In 1993, the Supreme Court found, in Shaw v. Reno, that redistricting in North Carolina had been unjust in its attempt to create an additional majority-minority district. The Court relied on precedents in 1961’s Baker v. Carr and 1963’s Wesberry v. Sanders, which helped to establish that each voter should have access to an equal voice in elections. North Carolina’s redistricting had been the result of the Department of Justice calling to form an additional majority-minority district, as the initial districting map had packed many African-American voters into one district to lessen their ability to influence the number of officials elected by African-Americans. The Court found that the standard set by the 1977 United Jewish Organizations v. Carey case, stating that racial consideration in redistricting could be just, did not apply. In 2001, the Court found, in Easley v. Cromartie, that the same redistricting in North Carolina had been based on racial grounds, not merely on political ones, making it unjustifiable. To be clear, the districts were drawn, the DOJ ordered them redrawn, the Court found the redrawing unconstitutional, so they were redrawn again, and the Court found the re-redrawing unconstitutional.

In the 1980 case, Fullilove v. Klutznick, the Supreme Court found that Congress could set aside funds to ensure provision of goods and services from minorities in order to account for the historical legacy of oppressions, but 1989’s J. A. Croson v. City of Richmond resulted in the Supreme Court ruling to disallow the use of strict quotas in the awarding of public contracts on the local level. In 1990, the Supreme Court took on Metro Broadcasting v. FCC, finding that the FCC could, in its policies, show preference to minorities as a way of attempting to remedy past discriminations. In 1995, the Metro Broadcasting case was overruled by the Court’s decision in Adarand Constructors v. Peña: race could not be considered in the awarding of contracts on the federal level. The decision in a 1989 case, Ward’s Cove v. Antonio, contradicted the 1971 decision in Griggs, et al. v. Duke Power, in which the Supreme Court had found that standardized testing in hiring could be discriminatory against nonwhites. In the Ward’s Cove case, the Court determined that a company that hired nonwhites for some jobs and whites for other jobs was not necessarily discriminating on the basis of race and needed not provide evidence that the disparity was justified. In 1999, the decision in Ricci v. DeStefano determined that hiring could not, for the sake of avoiding racial disparity, ignore aptitude testing. Again, to summarize, the Court initially said that standardized testing could be discriminatory against nonwhites; then, the Court decided that companies did not need to prove whether or not they were discriminating; then, the Court decided that not using the scores on standardized tests could be discriminatory against whites. Weird, indeed.

The Supreme Court has played a major role in interpreting key questions essential to African-American politics. At times, the Supreme Court has been the single factor leading to greater oppression of African-Americans, while at other times, the Court has been the single factor leading to greater freedom for African-Americans.

Icaran Feathers: A Trail of Scientific Problems

Note: Upon review, if I had it to do over again, I might have mentioned something in the title about a proposed affective turn

I. Introduction

In this paper, I will define what I view as important concepts for considering what I see as especially troublesome problems in science.

II. Do intentions matter?

One might conclude that intentionality is generally not as important as outcomes are. It is not necessarily helpful if someone does not intend harm. If someone hits us in the head, apologies alone will not help to diminish the size of the welt. But some cases are more complicated.

If someone is viewed as having intended to hurt someone, the intention in itself might be harmful. If someone intentionally hits us in the head, it might upset us that someone wanted to harm us. By demonstrating intent to harm, the person succeeds, leaving us with at least two kinds of injury.

More related to science, though, intentions can have a way of influencing the understood role of science. If science were presumed to have the intention of discovering things about the world, then some people might claim to know particular things about the world and, in some cases, people might claim to know what some of the things are that they know. Perhaps they would be wrong for thinking as much, but regardless of that, the idea can make a difference in how science is performed and how science is interpreted.

III. Rhetoric matters because context matters

Popper claims that Marx’s work is unfalsifiable. He might base his claim on the idea that any attempt to falsify Marxism could be met with the claim that the falsifier fell victim to False Consciousness. Popper’s point is one that has been taken seriously and is a contested point. But Popper’s point tells us that the framework that we use to observe a phenomenon influences our interpretation of the phenomenon.

Cartwright, on pg. 138 of “Ceteris Paribus Laws and the Socio-economic Machine,” gives us a framework to try to understand science:

We aim in science to discover the natures of things; we try to find out what capacities they have and in what circumstances and in what ways these capacities can be harnessed to produce predictable behaviours.

Science, in Cartwright’s view, seems to make ontological claims: “Something1 is” or “Something2 is not.” One might (rightly or wrongly) view experiments in science as different from experiments in everyday life in that everyday discoveries simply serve to tell us how we might achieve personal goals. The standard could be said to be different because the goal seems to be different.

In our daily lives, we try to establish how to produce particular outcomes, often leading to the expectation that what has produced preferable outcomes in the past will continue to do so in the future. Generally, we do not need to feel the need to know why a method might work; at some point, we simply accept that it does. Science is different.

I claim that science has, as a primary aim, to tell us what the world is. Achieving this goal seems to require conceiving of a means to prove what is in the world. To achieve this, science must be able to do more than to tell us anecdotally that something can produce a particular outcome. If that were the aim of science, it would not be of discrete use to us. Instead, science tries to do the seemingly impossible: to make predictions in the world. How we do this is complicated.

Popper views the means by which we make predictions to be an unimportant consideration, but let us inspect that. We sometimes use OLS regressions to help explain the world. If one variable moves, then we expect another to move. However, we sometimes observe correlations that seem lacking in explanatory power. In some cases, we assert some understanding of how things could and could not work in order to suppose that some of these correlations are meaningless. In order to understand what is in the world, we find it important to try to demonstrate how things work as they do. Otherwise, predictions do not tell us much. It may be that correlations reflect causations, reverse causations, or effects of other underlying causes.

Some people may claim that science is like everyday life: we know that we might or might not be wrong, but as long as it is the most effective way we know of to accomplish our goals, then it is sufficient until it begins to fail in a significant way. I would argue that this instrumentalist approach has problems, though.

In our daily lives, we do not generally presume that our method for doing something is necessarily the best method; we often leave a good amount of room for doubt, and people observing us do not assume that we must be doing things by the best method. Some scientists may have doubts, but what we can be more certain of is that policymakers and the general public have different views of science’s methods and conclusions than they have of everyday behaviors of people. This can complicate things.

When someone effectively crosses the street, they are not held to broad scrutiny; they are not accountable to the public. What scientists do can be fraught with broad political and ethical questions.

Views on science likely affect how science is done. A young student may be drawn to science by the claim that science helps to tell us what the world is and is not. It may be that science is the most effective means of proving ontological claims, but perhaps such bold claims should require equally bold scrutiny. Because science is viewed as having ontological implications, it is sometimes viewed as using superior methods. If some among the scientific community feels that science can tell us unequivocally what is in the world, then they may feel inclined to believe its claims and to protect its methods.

As such, the methods that science has used all seem to have run into the inductive problem, but we keep trying to find new ways to redeem science’s methods.

If someone who was familiar with induction and with popular methods in science, but who was not familiar with the debate over science’s methods, one might describe science’s methods as inductive. Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and many others have tried to address concerns over science’s methods——not by suggesting changes——but by changing how we view science’s methods. Why?

IV. The Inductive Problem

In our daily lives, we are often skeptical of change, especially when proposed changes mean possible changes to outcomes that are important to us. If someone says to stop farming the old way and to use new technology, we are likely to want some amount of evidence that this is a good idea before we make the change. Different people may require different amounts and kinds of evidence, but the person who is quick to make changes can seem hasty and reckless, while the person who waits to take a full account of the outcome is often viewed as wise. One might think of the old Chinese proverb about the farmer who runs into a seemingly bad situation, followed by a seemingly good one, followed by a bad one, and so on, all the while saying, “We’ll see” to every claim to his change of fortune. Consistency and reliability are often valorized at the expense of inconsistency and volatility.

If wrongly making a change to try to improve the situation could be viewed as a Type I error and failing to make a change that could improve the situation could be viewed as a Type II error, then the Type II error has advantages in the short term. If one commits a Type II error, they can still be confident in the short-term outcome. If one commits a Type I error, they might lose the farm.

Put another way, if someone needs to provide food to their family, then farming in the proven way seems like a responsible thing to do. If they become convinced that there is a better way to farm, then they should adopt the change, but maybe not until sufficient accounting for possible risks. The longer one waits, the more information one is likely to gain.

This seems to me like the best possible explanation for our seeming obsession with reframing the scientific method, despite that our basic ways of thinking of how to perform science tend to follow long-established patterns. While most scientists are not farmers, and certainly science does not seem to be very like farming, humans often seem to operate on the basis that Type II errors are generally more acceptable than Type I errors and scientists are humans. Some aspects of human psychology seem to be universal, as we have discussed. While scientists are aware of both kinds of errors, it seems reasonable that scientists’ humanness may still leave them vulnerable to bias against Type I errors. After all, not all scientists are philosophers of science.

Falsificationism tries to diminish concerns by saying that we design experiments for the sake of trying to negate theses, but the virtue in this seems only to be that we pay more attention to proposed black swans than we otherwise might. What Falsificationism tells us to do is to exhaust all means to find a falsification to a thesis in order to test it, but when do we decide that a falsification is a falsification? When we find what looks like a falsification, we want to verify it. We might run experiments to try to reproduce what appear to be falsifications. We might try experiments to find similar results in different contexts, hoping to accrue a sufficient number of what look like falsifications. While every case might not look this way, exactly, does this not present the same kind of problem that we encounter in induction?

The problem with induction seems to be that the information that we have is incomplete, so we cannot rely on it. The problem with Falsificationism seems to be that we cannot be sure that a falsification counts as falsification. In other words, the information we have is incomplete, so we cannot rely on it. In either case, our thesis is always vulnerable to negation by unknown information, and this is the problem of the black swan.

I believe that there is no reason to assume that a falsification is reliable other than for the sake of convenience, just as the information we get through induction only seems to be treated as reliable for the sake of convenience. One attempts to falsify based on the convenient assumption that Falsificationism works, much like one induces based on the faulty, but convenient, assumption that induction works. In either case, it seems that one assumes to be able to generalize for no real reason other than to be able to generalize.

In what we have read, the problem seems to remain unsolved. Someone might claim that science is only instrumentalistic, but the problem remains: science plays a role in all our lives, so mistakes in science are important enough that if we treat science as though it is infallible, the implications can be grave.

I see value in valorizing the everyday wise man who says “We’ll see,” for some time, making himself more susceptible to Type II errors than to Type I errors. But treating science as though it can avoid the problems with induction seems to produce the risk of giving license to people to conduct science without properly problematizing it. Instead, we might recognize that there is an inductive problem in the way we do science, consider what should be the necessary threshold for making dramatic changes, and assume that science owes more to the public than individuals owe to one another. Perhaps, at every step, we ought to be as clear as possible about what we are and are not accomplishing in science.

V. Trouble with the Positive-Normative distinction

Hume thinks that what we ought to do comes from our sentiments. As I demonstrated in an earlier paper, our decisions are often made subconsciously, leaving our conscious minds to later rationalize our decisions. We sometimes seem to be fooled into thinking that we have more agency than we sometimes do. Thus, we can notice that decision-making is at least sometimes governed by the reality that we rightly or wrongly perceive around us more than it is governed by our conscious minds.

When our accepted reality changes, it can change the decisions made by our subconscious minds from the decisions that would have been made based on the previously accepted version of reality. The new decision outcome is not one that is chosen consciously, but one that is determined by the shift in perceived reality. This does not address why Hume wanted to separate is from ought——or positive from normative——which appears to be an important point.

Hume thought that perceptible reality should be considered separate from deductive logic. His point for saying so was to argue against the use of induction. However, in some sense, the separation of the sensorial world from deductive logic is merely an application of the mind-body problem, and it does not take into account contemporary understandings of human minds.

The mind seems to conceive both of the sensorial world and of logic, even if conceptions of reality are nearly universally accepted as reflections of ontological truths. On the other hand, Hume argued that logical reasoning was separate from reality as Hume perceived it. However, it is worth noting that both kinds of thinking are constructed by our minds; every observation of reality and every logical argument comes to existence through our minds, leaving each kind of thought subject to the mind’s possible distortions. The point here is not to claim that observations of what we think of as reality are equivalent to logical reasoning——that would appear to me absurd. Instead, what I mean to point out is that the two share something: what people perceive to be reality is not necessarily what reality is and people do not necessarily make logical decisions about what they ought to do by the means people sometimes think that they do. Put another way, our perceptions and our decision-making both seem to be contingent, subject to more than external realities and conscious decision-making. This can complicate the positive-normative distinction.

We often seem to be confused about what constitutes the positive; we might never fully understand it. The normative seems to be governed, at least to some degree, by subconscious thinking. If what we ought to do is not always determined by conscious decision-making——and if changes in our accepted reality affect our subconscious minds——then the effect of shifts to our understanding of the world can necessarily imply changes in what we decide we ought to do. Further, it seems that we do not always have the sort of agency that might keep this perceptual shift from influencing our decisions.

I do not believe this to imply that induction is like deduction, nor do I necessarily believe that there is a logically deductive argument for what ought to be done. What I argue is that the positive and the normative are not necessarily what we think they are. It seems reasonable to suggest that changes in what we perceive the world to be (what is) could necessarily imply changes in what we think we ought to do. In other words, perhaps the is implies the ought.

Earlier, I claimed that intentions sometimes seem to matter more than at other times. Intention might not matter when determining whether is sometimes implies ought. That is to say that it might not matter if an implication is intended and it might not matter why the is question arises. What matters here seems only to be whether the results of experiments sometimes tell us what we ought to do. The mechanism by which this happens does not seem to uncomplicate matters. If what we find to be true somehow——but necessarily——leads to different choices than we would otherwise make, then the positive has implications for the normative, regardless of intention.

It is not simply a matter of people being able to assimilate new information and apply values to situations in ways that account for new information. Instead, new information changes how we act, regardless of conscious thoughts. We have no control. Is seems to imply ought.

VI. Conclusion

What if there is bias in science, if the inductive problem is persistent, and if the positive-normative distinction is problematic? I doubt that I agree with Hume on everything, but insofar as Hume pushed back against some Enlightenment trends, I support much of his message. The reason that I bring this up is that I think it helps to consider how to react to these problems.

If we think it problematic that science and reason are viewed as virtuous where sentimentality is not, then perhaps we miss something that we are continuing to learn in cognitive sciences: decision-making may not always be as logical, or as conscious, as some people might believe. If that is the case, then perhaps there is value in cultivating healthy understanding of our sentiments in order to avoid some problems.

It seems reasonable enough to imagine that someone could go into science wanting to explain the world, thinking of science as especially fruitful for unequivocally answering important questions. This might lead someone to protect science, despite its problems. If someone’s methods run into the inductive problem, they might not be inclined to hedge against their findings; after all, these methods are normal and we know that they work. Scientific findings might, then, be overstated. We might base faith in science on the fact that we accept some scientific findings as facts, shifting our accepted reality. This, then, might necessarily lead to changes in behaviors. What a mess.

This might all seem highly contingent, and I would argue that it is, but then, I would argue that everything else might be, as well.

Squaring the Circle: A Response to Fredrick Harris’s The Price of the Ticket

“[I]f the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. …And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Fredrick Harris is a professor of political science at Columbia University, where he also directs the Center on African-American Politics and Society. He has written a good deal on African-American politics and seems to be well-respected in his field. In previous writing, Harris has often taken a more quantitative approach to trying to answer political science questions, while The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics uses historical accounts to contextualize the important issues raised in the book.

The Price of the Ticket concerns the implications of the election of Barack Obama. In the book, Harris addresses questions of what was gained and what was lost for the African-American community by way of Obama’s election. In this essay, I will contend that the price of the ticket, in Harris’s Baldwinian sense, was perhaps more complicated than Harris realized at the time. In a twist of irony, Obama faced incredible challenges largely brought on by fellow Democrat Bill Clinton’s policies in the 1990s, and I intend to try to illuminate some of these. Further, some of these complications may have helped to resurrect manifestations of racism that could have seemed unlikely to reappear. Unfair though it may have been, the strategy that might have worked best might have been to have addressed some of the legitimate concerns that poor, rural whites had that led to the especially onerous environment that Obama had to contend with. That is to say that, while there is a legitimate question over what and whom deserved the most consideration, Obama may have been well-served to have considered the particular wants and needs of poor whites while addressing issues of race and poverty in general. Before I get to that, we might consider where the idea of “the price of the ticket” comes from.

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan explains to his younger brother, Alexei, or “Alyosha,” that he believes in God, but that he has less faith in the world that God has created for us. The injustices and cruelties of the world seem too much for someone like Ivan to bear, and therefore, he wishes to return to God the ticket to God’s world; for Ivan, the price of the ticket is too high. Harris makes a similar case, albeit using a more direct metaphor: perhaps Obama’s winning electoral ticket in 2008 bore too heavy a political cost. As Harris puts it, on pg. xv, “For black America—and its leaders—the dispiriting silence to this reality is the price paid for the election of the nation’s first black president.”

Harris makes his case in six chapters. The first two chapters provide the historical account of the tension between coalition politics and “independent black politics.” The middle two chapters look at divisions within African-American politics. Specifically, Harris develops ideas of a “black liberation theology” and a “prosperity gospel” to draw out a division in African-American socio-political life. He goes on to address ideas on respectability politics and Obama’s relationship to the concept. The penultimate chapter lays bare how “race-neutral campaigning” has played out in African-American electoral politics, while the last chapter describes Obama’s particular case and what it has meant for African-Americans.

Harris begins by providing a point of symmetry: Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign serves as a starting point for Harris’s story regarding America’s imagined first African-American presidency. Harris walks us through the empowerment of the 1960s Civil Rights movement and conceptions of African-American politics that followed, including rivaling independent and coalition movements. Harris provides a compelling account of how Chisholm and Jesse Jackson helped to solve problems so that Obama later avoided them. Put simply, Harris states on pg. 34, “In 2008, [Jackson’s past presidential run] helped pave the road to victory.” After having set the broad African-American political landscape on which Obama’s rise to the presidency came, Harris illuminates a more specific political incubator, in the form of late-20th and early-21st centuries Chicago.

In Harris’s second chapter, he describes Chicago’s unique role as “the mecca of black politics.” If we accept Harris’s position, it seems that it is no mistake that Obama chose Chicago over other options, such as Harlem, as the launching point for his political career. Chicago was not merely a backdrop for the rise of Obama. In fact, Chicago seems to have long been where the cutting edge of African-American electoral politics was put to the test. Diverging opinions on who should ally, and to what ends, led to a refined niche that a pragmatic Obama was able to take advantage of in order to tend to his ascendency. Harris explains how this complicated Obama’s political career: once a stalwart voice for African-American issues, Obama’s message increasingly changed as he stepped from state politics to the national stage. But Obama was not fully able to escape his Chicago legacy.

President Obama was made to answer for Reverend Jeremiah Wright having given a sermon in the long tradition of black liberation theology. Black liberation theology had historically preached that the United States was worth criticizing on moral grounds, and that it was righteous for African-Americans to fight for their own empowerment. Harris draws a tension between black liberation theology and the prosperity gospel, by which churches and preachers assert that individuals can be rewarded on Earth with things like “wealth, good health, and positive relationships.” Lessons in this emerging gospel give greater responsibility to its followers, marking a change in terms of how inequalities are dealt with within the African-American community. While Harris finds Obama to have remained true to black liberation theology, Harris notes that Obama has moderated some, even going as far as saying that there are “too many daddies not acting like daddies.” This serves to segue into talking about respectability politics.

By 2008, Obama was two years removed from his post in the Illinois Senate and two years further removed from having been a more vocal advocate for racial issues. Harris uses the next chapter to explain how Barack Obama plays a role in a kind of intraracial dispute: that of social norms. Harris addresses how different members of the African-American community treat respectability, and how, upon the Obama family’s residence in the White House, the nature of this argument changes. Harris tells us, on pg. 135:

“What is different about the twenty-first-century adaptation of the politics of respectability is that black politicians—particularly Barack Obama—have joined community leaders as the guardians of respectability and have cultivated the politics of respectability as a public philosophy aimed at managing and governing the black poor.”

In the end, the “talented tenth” can be seen as adversarial to poorer African-Americans, only that now, Barack Obama relies on the votes of all African-Americans and is made to balance conflicting imperatives within the African-American community.

Harris seems to recognize some of the complexities of the problem. Perhaps most people would agree that President Obama could not be the sole source of all of the problems raised by Harris. To this point, African-Americans have been made, according to Harris, a “captured constituency,” meaning that African-Americans have little choice in electoral politics. They can vote to help Democrats win or do nothing that might be helpful to African-American causes. In fact, Harris seems to have been interested in some of these questions for quite some time. Harris’s 2005 book, Countervailing Forces in African-American Civic Activism, 1973-1994, shows that, as more African-American officials were voted into office, poorer African-Americans seem to have engaged in non-voting civic activism at a lower rate; put another way, there was a negative relationship between this kind of activism and the rate at which we have elected African-Americans into office. This might bear special significance in Obama’s case as the environment within which Obama has operated has been different from what it was in decades past and has continued to evolve as he has been in office.

President Obama has, in Harris’s view, done little to help African-Americans and he has done even less for the explicit and specific reason of helping African-Americans. Obama seems to have constantly felt the need to explain that economic measures are intended for universal benefit and not targeted at African-Americans. Harris compares Obama’s attitude toward African-Americans with treatment of groups such as the LGBT community, who have seen more intentional engagement on behalf of their concerns. In the end, Harris leaves us to consider exactly what the price of the ticket really is. Harris demonstrates that the election of Obama may have appeared to have been a victory, and perhaps in many ways, it was one. Still, considering Obama’s treatment of race issues, it may be that a good deal of what African-Americans were really wanting and needing was lost.

I find Harris’s book effective. It is impressive, especially considering that Harris more often works by a different mode: by way of statistical analysis. Harris’s book seems somewhat light on references (perhaps it is just that his book is short in general). He relies a good deal on logical arguments in order to build a case, occasionally using relevant quotations from figures important to his narrative, along with scattered assistance from other relevant scholars and media figures. For example, Harris begins chapter three by recalling an important speech by Reverend Wright. Harris uses the quotation to make the point that the speech by Wright had both been an example of how African-American church leaders can sometimes take America’s history to task for its misdeeds and how the speech became troublesome to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. Later, on pg. 156, Harris draws on Lani Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Majority in order to help make the argument that symbolic representation and substantive policy action should perhaps not be conflated.

That said, I would like to complicate the situation some. I do not expect that Harris could have predicted what could have happened, so to be clear, I recognize that my position outlined here comes with a great advantage in terms of available information. But I would like to argue that President Obama had a perhaps unobvious opportunity.

The birth of the Tea Party movement may have clearly taken place on Koch Brothers’ Astroturf™, but in the end, that would not matter. What I mean is that the problematic Tea Party movement appears to have been something fabricated by the Power Elite in order to pass a neoconservative and to insulate the government from leftist forces. It did not matter because Bill Clinton was largely responsible for decent jobs having been sent overseas, Wall Street having been given license to play with Main Street’s money, and for welfare checks having been slowed down, which led to a troublesome mass of disgruntled poor white people. In some ways, the situation was made apparently more challenging by mass incarceration and liberalization of immigration policy, at least from the perspective of these poor, rural whites, in particular.

Should we care about the plights of poor, rural whites? After all, are these not the willful bigots trying to hold back the United States in so many ways? It hardly seems fair that those maybe most responsible for the immiseration of so many in the African-American community should get special positive attention from President Obama. I would argue that it is not exactly fair, but the situation in front of us is a complicated one that may require counterintuitive and ahistorical consideration in order to fully accomplish agreed-upon goals. Then again, to consider recent history, rural whites have, in recent decades, lost a good deal at least in terms of their material welfare. Conservative rhetoric about where jobs were going, who was leeching off of the government, and other dog whistle messages seemed to give targets for many of these suddenly disempowered whites to misguidedly attack. Instead of recognizing that they had been sold out by politicians and the Power Elite, they directed their frustrations toward people of color and other underprivileged groups. Perhaps there is no good justification for policies and rhetoric that might benefit poor whites, but it may be that such policies and rhetoric represent the most practical solution, anyway. With that said, the situation inherited by Obama seems to have been especially challenging.

The symbolic victory of having the Obamas reside in the White House may be important in some respects, but its importance seems to have precipitated what might have been the inevitable, deeply troubling backlash of white supremacy percolating to the surface of American society. Without a staunch advocate for African-American concerns, is the value of an African-American not severely undermined? The response to Obama was characterized by unprecedentedly disrespectful characterizations of the American president and his family. The seething rage on the right seems to have culminated (or so one hopes) in the cooption of unvarnished white supremacist support for a thinly veiled racist and misogynist in Donald Trump.

I claim that Barack Obama had an opportunity to address race relations and possibly to transform the relationship with poor, rural whites who have mostly not considered voting for Democrats since the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency. Perhaps helping to repair eternally broken race relations and racial inequality was an implicit mandate, fairly or unfairly, thrust upon Obama by leaders in the African-American community and others on the left. However, fundamental to accomplishing that may have been the requirement that Barack Obama do something for long-forgotten poor, rural whites. It would seem unreasonable to claim that Barack Obama went out of his way to help either African-Americans or poor, rural whites, though.

Barack Obama is exceptional in that, at least at by the time that Harris wrote The Price of the Ticket, Obama had spoken less of race issues than any Democratic president since 1961. In State of the Union addresses, Obama had spoken less about poverty than any president since 1940. Poor whites often seem to have seen poverty as an issue related to people of color, perhaps preferring to see themselves as part of a displaced middle class, so it is easy to see why Obama may have avoided discussing poverty, considering his general policy of swerving hard to his right in order to maneuver around the subject of race altogether. However, that whites, especially, have conflated poverty with minority status does not seem to have necessitated the avoidance of poverty as an issue, especially as economists have for quite some time now been pealing the bell of income and wealth inequality. Instead, what Obama could have done was to have spoken clearly and directly on the issues facing poor Americans of every race and ethnicity, forming a sympathetic narrative and a set of radically progressive policy prescriptions that would have been true to the Democrats’ historical legacy, especially of the 20th century. Such policies might have helped to bring poor, rural whites back into the Democratic fold. Simultaneously such policies could have brought significant progress for many African-Americans whose material outlooks had been egregiously, perpetually impinged upon by the white supremacism emanating into the ether from the long-dry ink of the United States Constitution.

Despite that Harris may have missed an opportunity to have made a more nuanced argument that might have provided more effective policy prescriptions, I found his book compelling. The questions raised in his book are powerful and important ones; after all, it does not seem easy to completely, definitively answer what the price of the ticket has been. For anyone concerned with the direction of race relations and of African-American politics, this book might serve as an important guide to developing an understanding of the recent state of affairs.

Guala’s “Philosophical Arrogance” in Science

In the past, I have been criticized for being uncharitable to philosophers, but I contend that this might whitewash what is often my point: so long as we aim to use language to convey facts, the language that we choose seems to bear importance.

To help illustrate my point, let us consider something said by Guala, on pg. 607:

“The correct reading is that deductive logic is an insufficient tool for scientific inference, and hence we need to complement it by means of a theory of induction. The Duhem-Quine problem does not imply, as sometimes suggested, the impossibility of justifiably drawing any inference from an experimental result. Scientists in fact do draw such inferences all the time, and it takes a good dose of philosophical arrogance to question the possibility of doing that in principle. What we need is an explication of why some such inferences are considered more warranted than others. If, as pointed out by Duhem and Quine, deductive logic is insufficient, this must be a task for a theory of induction.”

This quote gives several examples of exactly what I mean. Guala starts by telling us——perhaps from his Ivory Tower, smoking a wide cigar, maybe wearing a platinum monocle (or thick glasses to deal with what might be an extreme case of myopia)——what the “correct” way is to read the Duhem-Quine problem. Well, maybe he is correct, but he sure seems confident! Is Guala privy to superior information or superior logic to that of Hume, Popper, and others? Despite what seems to be a respectable, albeit divergent to my own, opinion, I find this issue to be important. If we treat the concept of knowledge as though we can assert that we know that we know things, and if we allow this to be reflected in our language, then I suppose that we risk poisoning the well. What do I mean by that?

If we do not always have in mind that we may be wrong, it could be easy to be confused about what can be known or what is known. This seems to have led to many disasters. Firemaster 550, leaded gas, asbestos, tobacco, marijuana, the shape of the Earth come to mind as problematic cases of having overstated our knowledge. Some cases have led to mass destruction.

Later in the same line about Guala’s “correct” reading, he tells us that we need to use “a theory of induction” to make up for the Duhem-Quine problem. We have gone to great length to describe problems with induction, so although Guala seems, throughout the paper, to treat induction as valid, I find it unnecessary to rehash now obvious points.

The next sentence is more interesting: “The Duhem-Quine problem does not imply, as sometimes suggested, the impossibility of justifiably drawing any inference from an experimental result.” I think it is important to recognize that it seems that we probably do know some things, but it seems that we cannot be certain about that, and it seems even less likely that we can be certain about exactly what it is that we know, so Guala’s point only seems to be important insofar as we can say that there is probably a good reason to do science: within some margin of error, we are probably sometimes correct.

Next, Guala, out of concern for validating statements that seem impossible to make, seems to aim for tragic irony. He says, “Scientists in fact do draw such inferences all the time, and it takes a good dose of philosophical arrogance to question the possibility of doing that in principle.” That scientists draw inferences does not seem to present evidence that they are right to draw such inferences. Perhaps what he means is that it seems that science probably sometimes works, and sometimes, scientists make these sloppy inferences, so maybe the sloppy inferences happen to sometimes work, and that validates the inference-making process. If this is his point, I find it extremely problematic for reasons that I have stated and that I will further develop, not to mention that it seems illogical.

“Arrogance” is a term to describe people who think that they are more skillful or important than they are, correct? I argue that we might say that someone would be arrogant if they assumed that they were correct when they were not. Here, Guala seems to be gaslighting by projection. What I mean is that he seems to intend to get the cautious, prudent skeptic to doubt their wisdom by asserting that they overstate their case, but this seems rife with contradiction. It is as though he is saying that he knows that people can know things and that he and others can know when they know things and that people who say otherwise are not only wrong; they must have a defect to even question Guala’s position. It seems silly, but I will step away from my purely defensive posture now.

The rest of the quote seems to be more of the same (arrogant) overstatement of Guala’s position, so I will desist from breaking all of it down. However, to speak more to my point, I do not think that the most important problems in these texts are always the content of what is being said. It is my view that the presentation plays a key role in the shaping of science and of the culture in which science (or any other human phenomenon) takes place.

Guala seems to gloss over problems and oversimplify ideas to the point of vanquishing contingency. This kind of approach is reflective of problems I have been bringing up all semester. It is not that the content is so objectionable; it is that the presentation normalizes faulty thinking. I would prefer that someone use a socially responsible form to present a bad idea than to use a reckless form to present the right idea. At least in this case, there is the virtue of reinforcing a culture that would seem better equipped to deal with the complications of an elite few producing science. If we constantly state things as absolute facts, myriad problems seem to arise.

On pg. 609, Guala states:

“In a mediating model theoretical principles are combined with substantive information from the real world, to create a tool that can be used to investigate both realms: the theoretical realm by deriving interesting implications that were not obvious from an examination of the theory itself, and the real world by deriving testable predictions about observable phenomena.”

Is this not highly contingent? This week’s other reading, from Nelson, is far more palatable for me, much as most of the reading this semester has been. He seems more interested in acknowledging the apparent contingency in what is being stated.

If we want to prevent tragic mistakes and injustices, it seems wise to assume that we cannot be completely sure of anything. Guala’s absolute statements remind me of Paul Mccartney’s Beatles’ tune: “Here, There, and Everywhere.” I am sure that I will probably eventually make up the sleep I have been losing after having read Guala’

Economists as Incidental Ethicists

I want to argue that economics, perhaps unwittingly, makes moral claims. What, then, could I mean by “moral claim?” When contemplating possible behaviors, we consider that which seems “good,” “right,” and “natural,” among other considerations. Economics often seems to tell us what we should value and why, even if this is not economics’s true aim. Wilber’s article helps to outline much of this, but I believe that he makes some mistakes, and I aim to clarify what I find to be the most compelling points.

I will start with what I think is a minor point. On pg. 138, Wilber refers to Kuhn’s position, which says that we cannot be objective because our sense of the world relies on theoretical understandings. I think that this is an important point, but Kuhn’s framework seems a bit abstract. I am inclined to take a position that compares our sense observation to a distorted image of the world. I think it is important to recognize that value judgments seem to be necessary in order to make any sense of the world. We do not wander aimlessly through life without common sense of values. As such, economists, just as everyone else, have human aims in mind, whether they are always privy to this fact or not. To this point, Wilber alludes to Blaug’s conception of how some of this works in economics.

On pg. 139, Wilber refers to Blaug: “Blaug concedes that both ‘factual’, and ‘moral’ arguments rest ‘at bottom’ ‘on certain definite techniques of persuasion, which in turn depend for their effectiveness on shared values of one kind or another’ (Blaug, 1992: 115)” If there is an objective truth, humans might be convinced that they know what it is, but there does not seem to be a sufficient means of verifying it. To some degree, we seem to rely on faith. Moreover, and to Smith’s point that Wilber alludes to just below his quote from Blaug (and as I have argued in previous papers), humans seem to agree on a number of moral questions, despite that the positions required by these moral stances often require disregard for what would appear to be the most self-interested outcome.

Later, in Wilber’s section on ethical outcomes, I would argue that he makes some mistakes but that his overall message is correct: economics seems to take a moralistic position despite not fully accounting for moral considerations. The moral claim in economics may come in somewhat unfamiliar terms, but indeed, I would argue that many economists put so much faith in the market and in economics understandings that they often put these above moral considerations that come from other sources: “Markets don’t lie,” “People have insatiable wants,” and “Competition is good” are often taken as prescriptions for behavior, regardless of whether this is the willful intent of economists. Wilber may oversimplify some of his examples (I would argue that he seems to), but if he means to point out that common thinking in economics sometimes makes inflexible claims that contradict our shared moral codes (I would argue that he seems to), then it seems that he is right to say so. Some people may not find the ethical stances of economics to be important, but they can inform that which seems to be most important to us: health and happiness.

I find important Wilber’s point, on pg. 139, about social trust. If we observe countries with greater social trust (as in the Scandinavian countries and Japan), they tend to be (if we believe the research) more egalitarian, more altruistic, and healthier than countries with lower social trust. Happier people are generally found to be healthier, although there could be exceptions to that. What could be more important to economic actors than health and happiness? Indeed, the notion that self-interest is people’s main driver seems too simple. If one were to assert that self-interest were more important to people than altruism is, we could get into a long discussion on where self-interest begins and where altruism ends; what seems clear is that people often find it important to consider others. An argument could also be made that, to some point, greater altruism improves health and happiness.

Near to Wilber’s point on pg. 139, if we look at the Norwegian case, their society seems to depend a good deal on social trust. This social trust seems to help the economy and Norway’s institutions to run efficiently. In fact, the efficiency of Norway’s institutions seems to help to create social trust, which appears to improve conditions overall for Norwegians. To some degree, there appears to be cyclicality. Perhaps cultivating social trust would be advisable to all communities, and perhaps John Neville Keynes could help in that.

I like John Neville Keynes’s idea, referred to on pg. 138 of Wilber, of separating economics three ways. As things stand, all economists seem to be charged with practicing positive economics. As such, if someone who does not practice positive economics aims to use economists’ findings, they are subject to scrutiny; nevermind that economists are a self-selected group who necessarily mostly buy into certain assumptions that the rest of society might not. If we undermine those outside economics’s small, self-selected circle who criticize economics methods, we narrow the narrative on the value of contemporary economics. It may be that economists are, in some ways, the experts on what economists do, but doctors’ methods are refined by public health experts and new methods are developed by scientists and technologists, just as there are externally formed regulations that govern auto mechanics, and engineers and new technologies determine emerging techniques. Why should economics be so different?

Surely, it is not the case that only economists can figure out what economists do, just as expert observers, for various reasons, explain how doctors and auto mechanics perform their work. It is important that outside experts do so. It allows for considerations of ethics, best practices, and broad implications from the kinds of work that they do, allowing them to be impartial in their analyses. If we can take good care to elucidate economists’ practices, whatever work economists do that informs our behaviors might fully consider that which is best for people.

Mr. Wilby

James opened the door to greet Thomas Wilby. James needed help and had gone to his local Priest in order to try and get an answer. Father Thomas had called “a few Parishioners” and had Mr. Wilby suggested to him.

As Mr. Wilby’s appearance materialized in James’s mind, white stripes of reflected light shone off the black patent leather shoes as he stepped into the room. Mr. Wilby’s face exposed nothing worthy of note.

“Hi, there. Mr. Wilby, right?”

“Yessir.”

“Won’t you come in?”

“Thank you.”

Mr. Wilby’s thin lips barely moved. His voice was like store-brand orange juice pouring into the room, neither thick nor thin, neither sweet nor bitter. One could easily forget every feature of Mr. Wilby. His eyes were small and round, like those of a rat, but they were so dark that one couldn’t find the pupils. He wore a tan trenchcoat over his tailored suit. He had a medium build.

Each day, Mr. Wilby went to the local coffeeshop and ordered a tall breve. The baristas there secretly called him “The Accountant.” He didn’t say “Thank you.” He didn’t say “Hello” or “Goodbye.”

“Here it is. This is the room,” James said. He waited for a response, but the man just stared into the room. James thought of turning on the light, but he just stood there with the man, instead, doing nothing, waiting.

Mr. Wilby’s face was stiff and thick, as he scanned the room. The black, withering vine, which crawled from the powder blue antique painted lamp, down the cracking, ancient plaster, disappeared into a mauve electrical socket. The lamp was older than the 1960s suburban home. In the corner, was an old color television set. It looked soft and peppered, thanks to a network of dust, cobwebs, and old, dried out dead insects.

Mr. Wilby had noted that it was a Craftsman home, like a lot of homes on the block. It’d probably been built between 1964 and 1966. The outside was painted hunter green with cream-colored columns. It wasn’t yet falling apart, like some homes in other parts of the city, but it wasn’t as well maintained as most of the houses on its block. The bronze number plate on the front of the house had turned brown over the years, and it was now hard to make out the 206 it was meant to convey.

Mr. Wilby had walked up to the front entry at a moderate pace, and he took in the rows of hedges, the wooden front porch swing on the wooden porch. It had probably been a cute house at some point. The doorbell worked well, thought it made no difference to Mr. Wilby, except that he didn’t have to swing open the screen door in order to knock.

Mr. Wilby observed the pair of matching blue recliners, with the zig-zag lighter and darker material forming the pattern on the chairs’ upholstery. He crouched down and watched the burgundy leather briefcase leave his black leather gloves to land on the floor, before he opened the briefcase.

Humanistic Realism in Science: A Defense of the Irrational

“Our motives and even our purely scientific ideals, including the ideal of a disinterested search for truth, are deeply anchored in extra-scientific and, in part, in religious evaluations. Thus the ‘objective’ or the ‘value-free’ scientist is hardly the ideal scientist. Without passion we can achieve nothing – certainly not in pure science. The phrase ‘the passion for the truth’ is no mere metaphor.” – Karl Popper, “The Logic of the Social Sciences” (p. 97)

“And thus in the last analysis Economics does depend, if not for its existence, at least for its significance, on an ultimate valuation – the affirmation that rationality and the ability to choose with knowledge is desirable. If irrationality, if the surrender to the blind force of external stimuli and uncoordinated impulse at every moment is a good to be preferred above all others, then it is true the raison d’être of Economics disappears. . .The revolt against reason is essentially a revolt against life itself.” – Lionel Robbins, The Nature and Significance of Economic Science (pp. 157-158)

 

Karl Popper and Lionel Robbins want science to be very sciencey. Science, in their view, should be about cold calculations of what the world around us is. It would seem that an objective view of the world could help us to make good decisions.

However, I do not believe that any objective view of anything can be grasped by humans; I do not believe that humans are rational in any meaningful way (except to say that humans can sometimes be more rational than some humans sometimes are); and I believe that the distinction between the positive and the normative is basically a false one. I will explain all of this throughout this paper.

Essentially, Popper defines science as those behaviors that test theories. Scientific theories, in Popper’s view, are those that are falsifiable, so theories that do not seem to be at all falsifiable do not qualify as science. According to Popper, behaviors that do not aim to test, for the sake of falsification, are not scientific.

Robbins defines economic science as that which positively describes behaviors that result from scarcity. In Robbins’s view, economic science should concern itself only with providing an account of any such behavior. His view of science, here, is to quantify the relevant information and do nothing more, i.e. economic science is a positive, as opposed to a normative, endeavor.

What they seem to share is their Humean devotion to separating the normative from the positive. Robbins is more explicit on the subject, while I believe Popper’s position depends on some implication. When Popper points out cases of pseudoscience (Freud, Marx), what Popper seems to be taking issue with is the advocacy for theories in spite of the empirical realities that they face. These pseudosciences seem to be interested in defending their theories out of normative concerns instead of being interested in allowing falsification to lead us to better theories. Positive science may be brutal, but perhaps we must simply allow it to run its course.

I think that Popper would agree that science, being purely about falsifying theories, is to be kept separate from policy decisions and other normative concerns, even if those normative questions can use science to help them make their decisions. Pseudoscience is the exceptional case. Pseudoscience can run into problems because pseudoscience often allows the normative to corrupt concerns for the positive. Robbins seems to be a bit clearer on the subject: positive economics does not deal with normative questions, except to provide data with which to make decisions.

In the quote by Robbins, using a logic that seems to be falling more and more out of fashion, he rationalizes the importance of economics as an academic field. It seems that academia is growing increasingly sensitive to the lived experiences of various people, especially the experiences of those among historically underrepresented and misrepresented groups, but Robbins is from an earlier time. Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking has put a good deal of focus on the positive virtues of rationality, but as we have learned more about the possible dangers that can come from ignoring the irrational, along with the virtues of our cognitive processes that are not consciously performed, academia seems to have largely shifted toward greater respect for our irrational selves. For this reason and others, what Robbins said may strike at least some of us as problematic.

Robbins may have defined as rational any act which helps us to achieve our aims, but a look at this definition finds problems. If we act in a way that is incidentally helpful to us, is that rational? For an extreme example, if someone attempts suicide, only to become famous in doing so, leading them to incredible wealth and to getting all the mental health care that they need, and if this results in their happiness and improved health, is that rational or irrational? Someone might argue that the definition, then, would be improved by having it speak to intentionality.

Rationality is often viewed as being a conscious process — one that speaks to people’s intentions. But humans do many things that solve immediate problems and ignore more lasting ones. Often, immediate problems are not as important as more lasting problems, but we often sacrifice the long-term for the short-term, anyway. In this way, people often cause predictable problems by not fully considering the consequences of what they do. That is to say that they are not always fully intentional. To that point, it is also true that we may misunderstand problems or misunderstand our broader situations. This can come from distortions that arise from psychological traumas, socializations, and other effects on our brains that alter our judgements. This all speaks to part of the very problem in defining “rational.”

The way the word “rational” is often used takes Robbins’s definition and accounts for a good deal more. We could argue over what Robbins means by “uncoordinated impulse,” but I do not think it would do any good. Simply, no creature could survive were its thoughts and actions uncoordinated. Any distinction between rational and irrational needs for “rationality” to incorporate something more than the fact that the actions coordinate and assist in survival. Otherwise, the distinction is arbitrary, as such a conception of irrationality essentially ensures death, and thus, no rationality or irrationality. This irrationality does not occur by virtue of the fact that it ensures its own demise. Therefore, such a distinction is false in that one exists and the other does not. If “rational” is to be a word, it must mean more than what Robbins suggests.

The interesting point, then, is that we can assume that Robbins submits his argument to admit that there actually is an irrational basis for economics: the value judgement that allows us to determine that rationality is good. Of course Robbins contradicts himself here, but I sense that he is basically admitting as much and that he is okay with it.

The problem appears significant, though. The decision to value rationality is necessarily an irrational one. What makes anything better than anything else? We might presume that it is simply what has been evolutionarily advantageous to us, and in some senses, logical processes seem to have served us well.

If we can tentatively accept that rationality should be defined as intentional thought, and if we can believe in any science at all, then humans are mostly irrational. Prefrontal (or meta-) cognition seems to make up very little of what we do and this kind of thinking is what we might think of as being rational. Popper’s rationality principle faces similar issues to Robbins’s definition of rationality.

The quote from Popper suggests an understanding of something that seems clear to me: there is no reason to test anything at all if the results are not important to us, and such import relies on irrational valuations. Humans basically agree on the most fundamental moral questions: violence is wrong, theft is wrong, dishonesty is wrong, playing dubstep in public is wrong, etc., but why? What makes violence, theft, or dishonesty (or dubstep) wrong? Frankly, I can see two ways to view moral codes upon which we universally agree: 1) we simply feel it; 2) it can be explained as that which has most effectively led to the survival of humans.

Essentially, at least some of our universal sense of morality — that is, that to which we more surely seem to agree — seems to be a function of pro-social, and otherwise adaptive, behavioral patternings. These ethical matters may become complicated based on a number of factors, but we seem to have evolved in such a way as to instinctively agree on some questions of how we should behave.

Humans generally have common goals and desires, including that we should try to help one another survive and that we should try to help one another obtain what is needed in order to survive. Our happinesses or unhappinesses can have serious implications on our own individual survivals, and generally, we instinctively tend to aim to be happy and to help one another be happy as a means of our own survivals.

I believe that Popper’s quote speaks to this understanding. We recognize common goals and attitudes, so we work toward achieving those things. There must be things that motivate us to do science, and if we did not agree on what many of those things were, then I do not believe that science would get done, especially not in the highly effective ways it often seems to get done.

The fact that some things motivate us necessarily requires that we make distinctions; otherwise, we would simply wander around doing random things at random times in random ways. However, and to repeat, it seems that these motivations could only ever be based on irrational value judgements. To whatever degree humans can be “rational,” it is likely only: 1) in relation to other human and non-human beings; 2) in terms of fulfilling irrational desires, which is what Robbins’s conception of economics speaks to.

This seems to be the basic problem that Popper and Robbins share here. They both argue that something irrational must drive scientific thinking, but they both seem to prefer a hard line between positive and normative concerns. These thoughts seem incongruous. Positive science aims to describe what the world is, and if we are to distinguish between positive and normative, then it seems reasonable enough that we should be able to do so along the lines of whether the statement or question in question is or is not imbued with irrational thought matter. Positive science is that which sees the world clearly with no concern for anything other than the visible truth. Normative science — or art, if you prefer — concerns itself with irrational human ideals. This brings up several possible problems that I can see.

First, if irrational concerns motivate our scientific endeavors, then we are likely to only ever conduct scientific behaviors that reflect irrational concerns. How do we make a positive account of the world if we limit our scope? This may seem like a minor point, but the kinds of problems that science aims to solve are often complicated ones. If we systematically limit our understanding of the world, then we are likely to miss a lot of answers and to misunderstand a good deal of the world. Here, normative concerns inform the methodology of positive science as to distort the positive scientific picture in particular ways.

This concern can lead to asymmetrical effects, in terms of whom it affects and how. So long as scientists need be motivated by irrational concerns, scientists must be driven by the concerns that scientists or funders have, rather than the concerns that all humans have. This can make a difference because some kinds of people may be over — or underrepresented among the scientific community. We might not be surprised if solutions arrived at through science might be more helpful to wealthy, Western, white, male people, if they make up a greater proportion of scientists or funders than do non-wealthy, non-Western, non-white, non-male people. It is likely true that relevant questions go unasked by scientists and this can be quite problematic. In this case, the normative concerns of scientists are not necessarily consistent with the normative concerns of non-scientists.

Science is not a singular, fixed, transparent, static, easily assessed thing. I bring this up because scientific processes can be vulnerable to criticism. Some experiments do not work and theories generally run into problems. We do not necessarily have a means which allows us to make the most useful choice in deciding how to resolve these things. There are longstanding practices in which we are fairly confident and there are cutting edge practices that might be riskier. When trying to solve reasonable scientific questions, there may be scientific endeavors that produce results that depend on operational choices. Their resolutions can be arbitrary and can be vulnerable to personal biases. The ways by which we conduct science rely on choices and not all of those choices need be the most rational choices, so here, normative concerns affect positive outcomes. But even at the point of interpreting findings, there could be problems.

When reporting research, there is often an interpretive phase of what we might describe as the “positive scientific” findings. In my view, this phase can be crucial. Even if the person reading the interpretation is an expert in the field, they may be affected by the interpretation given by the interpreter. For those who are not relevant experts, they would seem to be subject to even greater influence by the interpretation given. The interpretation is both important and sensitive. If we all have irrational concerns, then we can expect that, outside the view of our conscious minds, our irrational concerns are likely to affect much of what we do. In fact, this is basically what the term “bias” means, does it not? Here, the normative concerns of the interpreter of the data affect the understanding of positive results, possibly leading to differences in how future positive scientific endeavors are undertaken.

The reporting of scientific findings can have implications for how we behave. In class, we have talked about the commodity options market, and we have talked about Sorosian reflexivity. In science, we could think of clear, simple examples, as in when scientists tell us what makes us healthy and happy. If scientists find that exercise, meditation, or undertaking the Communist Revolution™ makes us healthiest and/or happiest, then it would seem wise to do those things. In such a case, it would seem clear that the positive becomes the normative. If a scientist tells us that eating meat causes global warming that will eventually kill us, it would be wise to stop eating as much meat; there is here a blurring of lines. Why would the scientist choose to study whether or not meat production causes global warming? And do the findings not tell me what I should do?

In the purest sense, scientific findings do not always explicitly dictate suggested behaviors, but clearly, the subject matter is chosen with irrational human concerns in mind; simply, the whole point of the scientific endeavor is often to suggest human behaviors. Other cases are less clear on the matter, but still, I would argue that the problem tends to persist.

If we think of a less clear example, it may help to better illustrate how problematic the distinction between positive and normative can be. If someone were to study some basic question in chemistry or astrophysics, each of these still can tell us a good deal about how humans should behave, if we can assume that humans mean to optimize their health and happiness. How chemicals are composed or how they react with one another can be very useful information for humans. How stars behave could also have a dramatic impact on the decisions that humans make.

With that in mind, is there ever really a distinction between positive and normative? Why learn about the world? We have to have reasons for doing what we do, but contrary to what the word “reason” might imply, this word very often speaks to feelings, evolutionary impulses, irrational motivations.

In this way, perhaps it is a bit ironic that earlier philosophers referred to the normative as “art.” After all, when scientists do their work for the least normative reasons, it may be due to some aesthetic concerns: “I find Math’s potential elegance exciting,” “I chose marine biology because fish are so beautiful,” etc.

Moreover, the more we learn about the world, the more we think about the implications of those things. It is hard to imagine a scientific question that would not tell us something about how we might behave. Perhaps this is at least partly because the questions we tend to ask can also tell us about who we are and what is important to us. To combine this point about the blurry line that distinguishes positive from normative with the point I made earlier about who scientists are, if our understanding of what makes humans healthiest is influenced by the biases of scientists and/or funders, then could we perhaps create conditions that would make happiest and healthiest the groups from which scientists and/or funders come and not necessarily all humans? I see this as potentially a big problem, and in this light, the question of why the treatments of some diseases and not others, and whom those diseases affect, takes on new potential meaning.

In the end, what scientists say about what the world is might tell us something about how we should behave, but this is a complicated thing. Scientists do important work and make important discoveries, but it is not so simple as to describe scientists as objective observers telling us what the world is and making things better for us. In fact, scientists have feelings and biases, too, and for some people, scientists actually make the world worse. Further, unmitigated valorization of cold, rational treatments of the world around us does a good amount of damage. This could be redeemed if it were the case that people could ever be truly rational and that it would be good if people could ever be truly rational. I am not sure that either is true, and I suggest that if we could acknowledge this, we could do science in a more honest and, perhaps, more productive way.

To Search for Bearings: A Response to Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen

Melissa Harris-Perry is a writer, professor of political science, and important intellectual, especially for her work on African-American politics and intersectional feminism. She has published two books, written for The Nation, hosted a political editorial show, and she now works as editor-at-large for Elle.com.

In Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry describes the historical legacy of intersectional discrimination. She quotes the Combahee River Collective: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” The point seems intuitive. If we accept empirical evidence that demonstrates that African-Americans and women are discriminated against, in unique ways and for unique reasons, then it stands to reason that African-American women face at least double jeopardy (I say “at least” because there may be an interaction to account for, which might suggest that the discrimination is greater than the sum of its parts).

The book is organized into five sections: the introduction; the crooked room; shame; the “strong black woman;” and Michelle Obama/the conclusion. Each section begins by borrowing a piece of literature to create affect that permeates its section. Excepting the introduction and conclusion, each section follows the borrowed literature with a chapter framing its important central concept and a chapter that supports the concept with empirical evidence and case studies.

To begin, Harris-Perry introduces the book’s theme: African-American women face unique challenges rooted in historical depictions of African-American women that are society, including African-American women themselves, internalize. After taking us through the complicated journey of Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie, from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Harris-Perry gives a prescription for what we might do with Sister Citizen. In referring to the treatment of Janie’s story by Janie’s friend, Harris-Perry says, “Phoeby’s task is to hear Janie’s story, be made taller by it, and use it to demand changes in the systems of racism and patriarchy that circumscribe American life,” before describing how we might do something similar.

The next section starts with a favorite quote of mine, from Audre Lord: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” When considering disparate outcomes, it seems important to consider where power lies and what the tools of power are. The safest attempts to address inequities seem to necessarily require cooption of systems that create the imbalances. Perhaps, when dealing with oppressions, reconceptions of institutions and systems are appropriate for preventing reconcentrations of power among the historically privileged few.

Perhaps with something similar in mind, Harris-Perry describes one of the master’s primary tools for creating inequities that benefit the master and the master’s house: the crooked room. To define this idea central to her book, Harris-Perry refers to studies in cognitive science that observe how people attempt to reconcile up and down in rooms that are configured so as to confuse the issue. This serves as an analogue for experiences of African-American women. Society tells us that African-American women are people whom they are not, forcing African-American women to learn to blindly adjust, trying to avoid overcompensating or otherwise falling prey to misconceptions thrust upon them.

Harris-Perry defines three mythologies of African-American women: Jezebel, Mammy, and Sapphire. Jezebel is the overly sexualized African-American woman, Mammy is simultaneously the asexual African-American woman and white women’s unwaveringly loyal helper, and Sapphire is the angry and masculine African-American woman. Harris-Perry uses historical analysis, case studies, focus panels, and secondary sources to help define and locate these caricatures among American social understandings. She expresses the political importance in these problematic characterizations: “Although none of these stereotypes captures the complexity of black women’s lives, they have been powerfully and regularly reproduced in American political discourse and popular culture since the Civil War.” These stereotypes play an important role in how African-Americans hold “fictive kin” accountable.

Harris-Perry asserts that shame can play an important role in African-American women are viewed. She draws on Michael Dawson’s Behind the Mule and others to point out that African-Americans share a linked fate, albeit a nuanced one, and the psychological literature illustrates how shame relates society’s treatment of African-Americans to African-Americans’ lived experiences. W. E. B. DuBois assists: “How does it feel to be a problem?” But Harris-Perry does not altogether reject shame.

Harris-Perry makes a distinction between reintegrative stigmatizing shames, which has the possible redemptive virtue of reinforcing social values and cohesion, and stigmatizing shame, which is responsible for alienation and brutal forms of oppression. Harris-Perry posits that a society that shames a category of people distorts the experience of those people.

Harris-Perry describes how Hurricane Katrina and the Duke Lacrosse Case show that treatment of African-American women by society has been influenced by misrecognition. Endless coverage of Hurricane Katrina “offered many opportunities for recognition and misrecognition. Issues of race, gender, and politics were literally framed by what Americans saw.” Harris-Perry shows a racial difference in reactions to images of African-Americans from Hurricane Katrina; African-Americans were more likely to experience certain negative emotions than were whites, and these differences in emotional responses may have affected views on relevant policies. Whites were less likely than African-Americans to support, through whatever necessary means, the rebuilding of New Orleans and the repatriation of displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors. In a similar vein, African-American women experienced greater stress when receiving the news that Crystal Mangum seemed to have lied about the Duke Lacrosse Case. One of the tragedies is that the Duke case may have contributed to the perpetuation of unfair biases, despite that, among millions of people, any subgroup of people will surely contain some people who are sometimes dishonest and who sometimes make bad choices. But Harris-Perry shares how African-American women have constructed an alternative image of themselves.

Harris-Perry offers, “The strong black woman serves as a constructive role model because black women draw encouragement and self-assurance from an icon able to overcome great obstacles. She offers hope to people who often face difficult circumstances.” Indeed, throughout the book, Harris-Perry illustrates a compelling case for the “strong black woman” overcoming myriad obstacles represented by the crooked room. But she also cautions that “there are dangers to allowing this symbol to remain unchallenged at the center of African American understandings of womanhood. When black women are expected to be super-strong, they cannot be simply human.” She suggests that the self-defined archetype forms a prison that charges African-American women with being many things to many people, leaving very little of themselves for themselves and to themselves, leading many African-American women to heavily depend on God’s support.

Harris-Perry defines “womanism” as a theological term to describe African-American women who gracefully endure intersectional oppressions and survive—through God’s distant assistance—unthinkable obstacles, while others depend on them. African-American women are resilient in the face of oppression, as they wait to be properly recognized, even by the churches that they selflessly serve. In some ways, this is counterintuitive, as the church participates in the abuse and neglect of African-American women. Despite that, religion may represent the source of some African-American women’s strength, as some African-American women look to their roles in the church, and to their relationships with God, to help straighten their crooked room.

The book concludes by offering Michelle Obama as the most visible African-American woman in contemporary society and as one of the most successful in straightening her crooked room. Obama confronts the three stereotypes at different times, as well as typical sexist reactions by some elements within the media and some elements in society more broadly. Despite this, Obama seems to have defined herself on her own terms, managing to avoid some possible pitfalls to which society subjects African-American women. Instead, Obama perseveres through unfair mischaracterizations and willful hatred directed at her. There is, however, an obversal image to Harris-Perry’s monumental depiction of Obama’s resilience and grace in the face of the challenges with which Obama is confronted: Shirley Sherrod.

Sherrod’s case is significant for its juxtaposition against the hopefulness with which one might think of Michelle Obama. In fact, Barack Obama’s White House was complicit in the misrecognition and mistreatment of Shirley Sherrod. Harris-Perry explains, “Such cavalier disdain is hard to attribute to anything other than very deep, persistent assumptions about black women as unsavory and ultimately disposable.” As Michelle Obama worked to straighten the crooked room, her husband’s administration reminded us just how crooked the room can be.

We might classify Harris-Perry’s book as dealing with intersectional political complications that African-American women face. She attempts to answer whether socio-political treatment of African-American women is uniquely oppressive and limiting. Beneath this consideration lies questions of whether the contemporary political paradigm allows African-American women to achieve full citizenship and rights, how African-American women’s race and gender make them politically unique, and what factors have contributed to African-American women’s problematic situation.

Harris-Perry’s book ends without offering a new solution; instead, Harris-Perry suggests more of previously tried methods. Does the answer lie in more of this kind of effort? Perhaps, but should we conclude that there is no more helpful option? Harris-Perry offers, “African American women too often hesitate to demand resources to meet their individual needs,” before closing with a Shirley Chisholm quote about Chisholm’s desire to be viewed as authentic.

However, I feel that there could be helpful changes. My point is not that I oppose efforts to properly diagnose the problems. I find that kind of work important, but it might have been better for Harris-Perry to not imply a solution, and to simply give a compelling account of the reality. Instead, Harris-Perry’s book sometimes suffers from going partway in some of its efforts.

Harris-Perry’s book occupies an interesting space, if partly for her methodological approach. She uses the kind of Ordinary Least Squares linear regression models that pervade quantitative approaches to political science, along with focus panels, detailed historicizations, references to psychological research, and literary references that help to illustrate her points.

Sometimes, it seems that Harris-Perry compromises between not fully telling a narrative and not fully justifying her arguments. It feels like she is squeezing at least two books into one and that they require more space. The empirical story is often compelling, but she does not always take us fully from idea to empirical proof. She often requires us to make leaps of faith.

I find it important to acknowledge the limits of empiricism, but Harris-Perry comes up short in this concession, which counterintuitively seems to weaken her argument. She states, “I cannot tell a clear causal story, drawing neat arrows from stereotypes to black women’s emotional lives to their political choices.” She goes on to assert that there is value in her empirical work. That said, there does not seem to be a way for anyone to fully demonstrate causality, regardless of the academic field, so Harris-Perry may have been better served to have pointed that out instead of limiting the criticism to her writing.

Despite Harris-Perry’s concession that she cannot prove causality, she sometimes states things in absolute terms—for example: “That desperate survivors were portrayed as dangerous criminals was largely a result of the racialized nature of the Katrina disaster. Americans have long connected urban African American communities with crime.” While her logic here makes sense to me, it seems that she undermines her argument by stating it as though the association she draws must hold. To be clear, she immediately follows this with evidence to support her claim, but if she cannot make absolute claims to causation, then how can she make statements as above?

Harris-Perry’s book leaves me with other questions. Are the differences in whites’ and African-Americans’ opinions on policies after Katrina due to misrecognition of African-American women, as Harris-Perry suggests, or is it maybe due to differences in attitudes about government interventions in general? Despite her implication of the former, she does not fully convince. Also, is shame sometimes good? She asserts that it might be, but the empirical evidence that she provides seems to all line up on the other side of the argument. While Harris-Perry’s book came before the reification of Black Lives Matter in the minds of most Americans, it occurs to me that the Hurricane Katrina tragedy may have been a catalyst for sublating an understanding and perhaps even an ethos on which BLM may have been built.

Those issues aside, Harris-Perry stumbles upon a point that I find interesting. She alludes to political correctness on both sides of the Duke Lacrosse issue. Referring to an article by Charlotte Allen, Harris-Perry writes, “This rhetorical move casts into doubt the entire history of black women’s physical and sexual subjugation simply because Crystal Mangum lied about the assault in March 2006. The image of Jezebel is used to shame both contemporary black feminist scholars and the historical women whose lives are their source material.”

In note 48, on page 348, Harris-Perry refers to a response by Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt, in a paper titled, “In the Afterlife of the Duke Case.” Near the end, their response says,

“If this new trend increases its foothold among universities as the means to judge scholarly and teaching competence, the university hands over the regulation of research, individual faculty expression, student life, and teaching autonomy to the vigilantism of outsiders, including members of other university faculties who have used ‘Duke lacrosse’ for their own political gain. Universities will also concede the content of the terrain of social justice that was opened by the social movements to what might be termed the therapeutic logics of student services, whose hailing of specific minoritized groups within the increasing class homogeneity of the research institution will enable it to become ever more blind to the multiple publics that continue to vie for recognition, access, and legibility.”

I take this issue as a serious, timely one. Conceptions of political correctness sometimes conflate what seem to be two meanings: 1) the attempt, through language, to recognize historically marginalized groups; 2) the censorship of offending points of view. The reason to point this out in particular is that Harris-Perry’s rigid statements could have a possible chilling effect, discouraging discourse. If what she asserts are true facts, then there is no reason to quibble over them, despite that it could turn out that they would not hold.

In the end, these contentions would not lead me to dissuade anyone from reading Harris-Perry’s book. While I would prefer a more rigorous and precise treatment of the arguments, Harris-Perry draws from a wealth of interdisciplinary evidence to help undermine and criticize common ideas about race and gender, as well as helping to expose the apparent sources of many of these problematic ideas. I find her writing style highly readable and her interdisciplinary approach interesting and enriching, helpful to dismantle problematic ideas about race, gender, and particularly fraught questions regarding African-American women in particular. Especially, the use of psychological evidence—and even more particularly, the cortisol studies—formed bases for very interesting arguments.

I would recommend this book to anyone. The subject matter is too important and Harris-Perry’s argument is too cogent to be ignored. Her unique approach provides a refreshing departure from more predictable fare, even as these questions seem to be undervalued as research imperatives.

Immaterial Models: How Models in Economics might Fail

Boumans aims to assuage concerns over the appropriateness of models. He wants to draw a clear distinction between theories and models, and that seems appropriate enough to me. However, I have questions that I am not sure he answers here.

First off, on pg. 265, Boumans informs us: “The relation of a dynamical model to the system of which it is regarded as the model, is precisely the same as the relation of the images which our mind forms of things to the things themselves.” It may be similar in some sense to how our eyes form images to represent reality, but there are surely many differences. Notably, we generally do not have to concern ourselves with whether or not we can rely on the images we see. Of course there are exceptions, but there is generally no need to continually test the abilities of healthy eyes to produce reliable images. This seems generally different from the case of models.

On pg. 262, Boumans explains that models are meant to provide us with a mathematical middle ground between oversimplifying to the point of losing track of the reality we aim to explain and overcomplicating the model to the point of discouraging critical inquiry into the accuracy of the model. I think that this is a mistake.

Here is the problem that I see: if a theorist can be convinced that they need not concern themselves with accurately explaining the reality of phenomena, this discourages possible progress, i.e. why move forward if we can be satisfied with apparently close approximations? If the point is not to get closer to realism, then why persist?

Then, on pg. 263, Boumans states, “In other words, to the extent that two physical systems obey laws with the same mathematical form, the behavior of one system can be understood by studying the behavior of the other, better known, system. Moreover, this can be done without making any hypothesis about the real nature of the system under investigation.” I see a few problems with what Boumans has to say here. First off, he assumes that some physical systems might obey laws with certain mathematical forms. He may be right, but his assertion here depends on that and he does not seem to prove the assumption true. Worse, when he describes how we can understand one system by virtue of understanding the other, in what way does he mean for us to understand the yet unexplained system? If he means anything beyond the fact that they appear to produce outcomes that are predictable by the same formula, he does not seem to show us how. If he does not mean anything beyond that the formula is predictive of outcomes, then what is his point? Is he saying that we should assume that the systems share commonalities because they produce the same patterns? If he is, then why? Finally, Boumans seems to assert that we can understand the behavior of the system being explained without making a hypothesis about the nature of the system, but how? If he means to say that we can predict the outcomes, then this merely seems to be a tautology: If we observe a pattern in outcomes, we can model the pattern to predict the pattern of outcomes. If, by “behavior,” he means something more essential to the system, then I do not see how he explains this.

On pg. 266, Boumans quotes Boltzmann (1892 [1974] pg. 9): “It seemed that nature had built the most various things on exactly the same pattern; or, in the dry words of the analyst, the same differential equations hold for the most various phenomena.” What does Boltzmann mean here, when he says that nature “seems” to do this? Does he mean that nature might or might not? Or are we right to read that Boltzmann thinks that the systems built on the exact same patterns seem “most various?” When Boltzmann attributes the second half of his statement to the dry analyst, what he says stands on firmer ground, and I find this part to be more egregious.

How do we know that these equations hold for the most various phenomena? How do we know that any equation holds for any phenomena? The theorist may be tempted to assert something like, “Well, very many phenomena seem to be consistent with equations that we attribute to them, so surely some of those appearances must reflect actual reality,” but is this not simply the makings of Popper’s infinite regress? Of course I am not so naïve as to suggest that nothing we discover could ever count as progress or knowledge, but I think it important that we take steps to acknowledge the limitations in our ability to discern any such thing.

Later, on pgs. 272 and 273, Boumans explains that mathematical models in economics are meant to help see reality, but I would argue that these models are limited. One problem arises as economists suppose to better understand economic behavior by closely inspecting the model. If we concede that the model need not be able to explain the mechanics in order to make predictions, then the economist who looks at the model in order to try to understand economic behavior can only do so in a particular arrangement of conditions. To repeat, if Boumans means that models somehow explain the mechanics of the system and can, therefore, predict behaviors in various conditions, I do not find his explanation here.

It seems to me that the recognition of patterns from one area to another can create distortion——it may be too tempting to stand pat, even if only temporarily, with a “close enough” approximation that seems apparent. It seems to me that this could lead to confirmation biases separate of the confirmation biases that are already likely. In this sense, there may be an advantage in developing a theory or model from observing the phenomena directly, even if there might be less efficiency in doing so. That is to say that there is a tension between rigor/potential precision and ease of exposition.

Also, as before, I take issue with the idea that trying to make predictions, without explaining why the predictions might work as they do, should be a wise thing. For example, if we do not try to explain the mechanisms underlying a phenomenon as best we can, then I believe that we are less likely to be able to predict what might happen given a shock to the system.

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