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Sunday, August 18, 2013

How do you swagger? The almost tu quoque trick question

[Note:  this is the second of a series on being a jerk in academe.  For the introduction to the series, click here.]

Now I'm going to explain how philosophers sometimes "swagger."  But to do that, I'm going to provide a little background here.

When I was a freshman in college, I took an introduction to biology class that had three components.  The first was the regular three-day-a-week lecture.  The second was the one-day-a-week lab.  The third was a philosophy component.  For that philosophy component, we met one hour a week in a class taught by a professor who specialized in bioethics and in particular, the question of animal cruelty.  All three components worked together very well, and collectively they constituted one of the best classes I ever had.  The lectures were done well, and the biology professor, in addition to introducing us to the nuts and bolts of the science, also asked us to engage some of the more fundamental questions about why scientists believe what they do and whatnot.  (He also occasionally made strawman arguments about what Christians believe, and I found those arguments and the bully-pulpit style in which he delivered them to be rather disconcerting, but that's a discussion for another post.)

Even the lab was good, helped (in my opinion) by the fact that neither the biology professor or philosopher really cared for dissecting, on the (again, in my opinion) very reasonable grounds that what one learns from dissecting in a freshman-level biology class is not going to be of much use even to those who go on to become doctors and veterinarians.

The philosophy of science component was particularly stimulating.  The course itself and the readings we did challenged my perception of what science was and could be.  For the first time I read (and probably misinterpreted) Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions.*  In particular, we were challenged to interrogate the claim that "science is value free."  For the first semester, we had to write a paper on that topic, and although I forget the exact parameters of that paper, the question was more or less "discuss critically the idea that science is value free."

Although every one of the small handful of philosophy classes I've taken have insisted that there are no right answers, there always has been one, and in this case, one element of the "right answer," so to speak, was to point out that the statement "science is value free" is itself a value statement, not only a statement about what science is, but about what it is supposed to be, on the ground that even discussing the value-freeness of science is to engage in a discussion of values and to assign values to science.

This "right answer" irked me.  One reason its irked me was that I didn't come up with it and received a lower grade than I might have (lower by a few points....I still got a pretty good grade).  Another reason is that it seemed like an unfair rigging of the game.  A hapless science researcher, doing his or her research, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and complaining about young earth creationists, is confronted with the question "is science value free," and simply by answering, he or she concedes the point.  It seemed to me that the question was posed in bad faith, and the gotcha was that nothing is value free.  Quod erat demonstratum.

At least, that's how I interpreted the "right answer" at the time.  In fact, I believe a more charitable way to look at the point is not to think of it as rigging the rules of the game, but rather as a way to demonstrate that value assumptions are not so easily got rid of by saying, for example, that scientists are only trying to find "the truth." Not only is "truth" definitely a value, but one might plausibly have to subordinate other values to get there.

One of the examples the professor gave was what was (and probably is) known as "stage 2" testing for some lifesaving medications.  In this type of testing (which I presume was double blind), some terminally ill patients were given potentially lifesaving, but so far not FDA approved, medications, while others were given placebos.  This was done in the name of trying to figure out how effective, if effective at all, a proposed medication was.  The professor's point was that at least some terminally ill patients were being denied potentially lifesaving treatment all in the name of finding out "the truth" (and, he might have added, in the name of getting a government agency to sign off on the treatment).  In this situation, he argued, a researcher couldn't just plead off by saying "science is value free."  In some cases, perhaps, such an overriding of values is called for, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.**

Pointing out these kinds of basic assumptions is what philosophers are supposed to do.  And if any circumstances are appropriate for such pointing out of basic assumptions, a philosophy class is one of those circumstances.  But there's a certain gotcha'ness that almost, though admittedly not quite, can venture into what seems like tu quoque territory, tu quoque being the argument by which person A tries to refute person B's argument by pointing out that person B is a hypocrite or at least not personally representative of what person B is arguing for.   There's a sense in which once one points out that another person relies on assumptions he or she is arguing against, that person's overall point has been refuted.

In the case of the scientist, it seems quite clear to me that the researcher would admit that seeking "truth" is a value, but that the researcher did not mean that when he or she said science is value free.  In other words, insisting on the starting value-claim seems to miss at least part of the point.  Pointing out the starting assumption is indeed important and needs to be done, and I personally experience a pretty high level of Schadenfreude whenever scientists are knocked down a few pegs by being reminded that they, too, belong to the human race and engage in value-begging and question-begging assumptions.  Still, scientists should be given their due after the quality of their founding assumptions has been pointed out.

Now, I say that this is a way that "philosophers" swagger.  Maybe that's wrong, although the few explicitly philosophy-inclined persons I know do that kind of assumption-calling occasionally.  Maybe it's more accurate to say it's a philosophy-lite swagger, in which people who have maybe taken a philosophy course or two, or who style themselves as particularly perceptive, use this assumption-calling as a way to refute arguments.

I know I do that sometimes.  One libertarian commenter at the League (now called "Ordinary Times") occasionally calls out liberal commenters on their moralism.  In particular, he calls out those who might say, (to use a made up, but within the pale example), that derivatives trading is "immoral" and ought to be abolished.  In one case, I tried to remind that person that calling out other persons' moralism is in its own way a "moral" claim, and that the libertarian principles that person believes in are in some ways reducible to moral claims about the rightness of certain forms of regulation or about creating a just society.  I think I was right, and I think anyone who calls out moralism in others does well to place his or her own moralism into context, if only to provide a fuller picture of what he/she is objecting to.

Still, my calling out elided an important point.  This commenter wasn't claiming that he was free of moral assumptions so much as he was pointing out a certain type of lazy argument, an argument that assumes because a certain situation is undesirable, it is therefore so wrong that anyone who engages in it is morally suspect, and that the right remedy is, in this case, some sort of law declaring the wrong thing wrong without even addressing why people engage in the "wrong" thing to begin with.  (I submit that another problem with poseur philosophers is that they write in long convoluted sentences whose meaning is hard to decipher.  Even so, I hope the last pre-parenthetical sentence of this paragraph is clear.)

*Pointing out other people's alleged misinterpretations of Kuhn seems to have become a cottage industry among those who "truly understand what Kuhn was saying" almost as if Kuhn wrote the Bible, and proper interpretation of the Bible is the way to find the good life in this world.  My own take is that (some of) the misinterpretations of Kuhn might be useful.

**I've since come to realize, by the way, that my professor's example was a bit too neat.  The problem of some being denied potentially lifesaving medications in order to test the effectiveness of a product is not nonexistent.  See, for example, protests in the 1980s over such testing schemes for anti-HIV medications.  However, I suspect that in a lot of cases, the difference is not always between potentially lifesaving treatments and placebos, but between treatments that might have some effect (say on a patient's protein production or whatnot) and no effect.  As a friend of mine, who had a relative who suffered from pancreatic cancer and agreed to participate in a study, said, there was really no possibility offered that his relative would improve at all, and the researchers were very upfront about this reality.  Still, the attitude has existed.  Paul de Kruif, in his book Microbe Hunters, also demonstrates the attitude that at least some people place a value on finding a control group in order to gauge the effectiveness of potentially lifesaving treatments.  The book is his account of how early twentieth-century scientists combated what were then very serious diseases by isolating the microbes responsible and issuing treatments.  For one such disease (I forget which), he notes a unique situation in which doctors with a prospective treatment for a particular disease were confronted with a ward-full of sufferers.  Instead of cordoning off half of the sufferers to receive placebos and giving the treatment to the other half, they decided to treat everyone.  De Kruif says this move was understandable, but he laments the decision, portraying it as a lost opportunity to discover the truth about that treatment's effectiveness.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

How do you swagger? Addenda to my post on economists

In the last post in my series on being a jerk in academe, I talked about what I interpret as the argumentative style pursued by some economists.  I feel I need to clarify a few things.

By implication I suggested in that post that this style might have something to do with economists as a class, that when they talk to non-economists, they tend to adopt a certain posture that does little to encourage people to listen to them.

In that post, I wrote:
Again, I'm not trying to bait economics by the argumentation style of two people, Landsburg and the blogger I mention.  They all have valuable points. But I'm at a lost [sic!] to understand how the tone is designed to make it easier to listen to what they have to say.
Well, I'm no wholly at a loss.  In fact, I'm partially at a gain. I realize making provocative, outlandish claims,can, from time to time, goad someone to think differently or engage old topics in a new way.  It worked with me, or I wouldn't have written about them.

And it's not just the economists who do this.  I do it, too.  My insistence that the American Revolution wasn't a just war is, in addition to being a defensible statement in my opinion, is something I offer too often as a gadfly as a sneaky way to shock people.

My point about this type of talk being about economists as a class comes from what I observe to be their tendency to talk as if they assume everyone already shares their values and as if their values are not in some ways choices about what to value, sometimes universalizing their values to be some sort of objective truth.

This was part of the point I was trying to make about the letter Landsburg wrote to his daughter's preschool teacher.  In part, that point got lost in my poor writing.  I should clarify what the situation was and what I wanted the takeaway to be:

Landsburg has a strong distrust of some elements of the environmentalist movement, especially those near-religious elements that suggest we have an almost spiritual duty or obligation to take steps to preserve the environment.  Under this view, if we don't take those steps, if we "sin," then we face an assured destruction not unlike the calamities invoked in Revelations.  (That's not wholly Landsburg's point.  Robert H. Nelson has noted this aspect of some forms of the environmentalist movement, but I think Landsburg would probably find Nelson's interpretation congenial, at least insofar as it applies to environmentalists.  He has another point about economists.  See his The New Holy Wars:  Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in America).  This environmentalist worldview is sometimes used to impose obligations, via shaming or more direly, via government policy, that compels Landsburg to live in a way he doesn't want to live.  There's also an implicit claim by Landsburg that many of the policies and obligations imposed, such as recycling programs, might not work as well as their proponents think they do, and might come with their own externalities.

Now, Landsburg saw his daughter's preschool give an assembly where the preschoolers recited many of the mantras of the environmentalist movement.  Landsburg sees this as the equivalent of a school giving religious instruction to his daughter, and without his consent or approval.  Instead of talking with his daughter's teacher, however, he writes the teacher a letter in which he assumes that the teacher ought to have known that environmentalism is like a religion and that he feels so strongly about the issue that he finds the assembly as imposition of her (the teacher's) religion on his daughter.

My criticism of Landsburg is twofold. First, the snide tone of the letter was unnecessary.  There were simply nicer ways to explain his objections when she asked why he didn't like the assembly than to say, in a letter, "I reject you right to ask that question."

Second, he shouldn't assume the teacher or anybody else sees the environmentalist movement as obviously a religious-like movement.  Even today (about 20 years after Landsburg wrote his book), I imagine if you polled most people in the U.S., they would not think environmentalism is a "religion" in the same way that Christianity, Judaism, or Islam are.  Therefore, someone can believe in the separation of church and state or church and school (I believe this was a private school his daughter attended) and yet out of ignorance or out of having a different definition of religion, simply not recognize that teaching envrionmentalist-centric obligations is like teaching a religion.  To be fair, I do think Landsburg has an argument here.  A lot is done in the name of helping the environment that seems questionable and based on apocalyptic assumptions about what will happen if we don't.  But when people think about secularism in our schools, their (understandable, in my view) default assumption is usually that it's about what formal religions (with their clerisies and thou-shalt-not's) to inculcate or avoid inculcating, and not about claims that at least on the surface are grounded in scientific (and much that is said in support of evironmentalism at least claims to be scientifically backed) notions of the good.  If Landsburg actually discussed this with the teacher, then maybe she would have been receptive to some of his ideas.  (As a side note, I'm bothered by the assumption that once we have shown something is like a religion, we have therefore discredited it.)

Now, I criticized this example as a sneaky way to suggest an objective truth that might be more contestable than the claim of objectivity.  I think that's a type of approach we all can be and often are guilty of, whether we're economists or not.  But economics is given such deference in policy discussions (although perhaps not in actual policies), that economists are wont to talk as if they believe that theirs are the only values.  They have a podium from which to speak, and they are speaking as if the choir and only the choir are before them.

That's not to say they're wrong about any given policy or argument.  While I'm not sure I understand fully how economists define "wealth," I suspect their definition ought to be part of the equation at least for public policy and for one's own personal sense of how wealthy one is.  And  I, for one, buy the argument that freer trade increases aggregate wealth, the argument that voluntary exchange is a good thing (although I find it hard to distill purely voluntary exchange from coercive networks that I feel are embedded in our society), and the assumption that it's usually better to have more choices than fewer.  And for what it's worth, for all my talk about economists' "values" and the non-objectivity of those values, I believe that a majority of people in the western world have already drunk that particular flavor of kool aid.  For good or for ill, most of us like our things, and we like the fact that many of those things are cheaper and more available than before.  Even a nontrivial number of the dissenters seem to base their objections on the claim that some people (i.e., the less affluent) are denied a fair portion of the pie that they want to grow bigger.  (Of course, others, like some environmentalists, offer more fundamental objections.) But these are points that economists either need to be make and defend, or need to show that their interlocutors already agree with them.

Perhaps I was too quick to suggest that economists are peculiarly susceptible to the type of swagger where, so confident of the truth of their religion, they must proselytize it as if there be none others.  After all, I based my illustrations on only two examples, Landsburg and the blogger who discussed sweatshops and the sex trade.  I cannot claim to have been systematic in my "review" of the literature.  In fact, I cannot claim to have reviewed the literature because, well, I haven't.

But I do ask my economist and economics-trained friends to ask themselves whether they do at least sometimes adopt that type of swagger, and then to ask themselves if they are creating more noise than converts.  In fact, this whole "series" of blog posts is much more a call for introspection than it is an attempt at condemnation.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

How do you swagger? Truths, damned truths, and economists

[Note:  this is the first of a series on being a jerk in academe.  For the introduction to the series, click here.]

Economists and those academics whose training is steeped in the study of economics (by which usually is meant something like a combination of classical economics, plus marginalism, plus "Keynes and his critics"),  swagger by positioning themselves as the ultimate truth-tellers.

And in doing so, they challenge us to rethink our approaches to notions of "value" and to notions of choice.  They compel us to answer questions we don't always think of:  why do we choose what we choose?  what do we give up when we choose to do (or buy) something?  how do the policies we claim to want actually affect how people act?  Usually, the chief lessons that economists want us to take away from what they say is something like a paean to the aggregation of wealth, where wealth seems (to me as a non-economist) to be something relating to choices.  The more choices available, the more wealthy "we as a society" are.  The approximation of this wealth might be things and services produced or perhaps the money one earns through the process of producing these goods and services.

My framing here of what economics offers is, again, from my non-economist's point of view.  And other than having read (and probably not fully understanding) Wealth of Nations, having taken Economics 101 in college, and read a smattering of others' work, I don't even have an elementary education in economics.

Moreover, I am taking a deliberately narrow(er) view of the profession.  I am focusing on the libertarian-leaning economists whose comments I read on the blogs I frequent.  In other words, I'm not looking at the Paul Krugmans, or the "radical economists," like Barry Bluestone, Benjamin Harrison, David Gordon, Richard Edwards, or Michael Reich.  Those people undoubtedly swagger in their own way, and perhaps they even swagger like the libertarian-leaning ones.  But they're not my focus.

Sometimes economists style themselves as intrepid tellers of uncomfortable truths.  They are probably not alone in this regard (there's a certain former vice president who has so styled himself, for example).  And woe unto the person who doesn't quite see that truth.

The form of argument I sometimes see is the following:
X, which you thought was bad, is actually good.  As long as we accept my definition of X, and as long X isn't something I currently suffer from.
My source for this style of argumentation is Steven E. Landsburg's The Armchair Economist:  Economics & Everyday Life (New York:  The Free Pres, 1993).  This book, as far as I can tell, is meant as an introduction to economics for the benefit of non-economists.  In particular, Landsburg appears to want to demonstrate how economics is as much of an approach to understanding ourselves and our world (and our choices and others' choices) as it is a "dismal science."  I'll just state that although I have read the chapters I'm discussing in this post, I haven't read the whole book (it's so nice to be out of grad school and to be able to admit I've read only part of a book and not have to pretend I've read the whole thing).

"X" is usually some claim that is designed to evoke outrage in others, until we find out that the definition of X he uses is so narrowly tailored to his purposes that his conclusions follow almost inevitably from the definition he has assigned.

In some cases, this formulation offers pretty good food for thought.  Take his chapter, "The Power of Incentives:  How Seat Belts Kill."  His argument is an interesting and enlightening one.  Seat belts enable car drivers and passengers to better survive accidents.  But because drivers know they are now better able to survive, they tend therefore to drive more recklessly, putting themselves but also others, especially pedestrians, at greater risk.  He uses that argument as a springboard to a broader point about how we structure incentives can often have an effect that's not wanted or not obviously intended.  Sometimes his facts are a little too neat.  One study he cites cites (p. 4) finds that the number of auto-caused deaths in one period were, in Landsburg's paraphrase, exactly the same with seat belts as without, but with different victims.  I'm suspicious of claims that the tradeoff is exactly the same.  However, I haven't read the study in question (and if I had, I wouldn't have the expertise to assess it), so it might be right.  And at any rate, the principal point is made clearly that people respond to incentives.

So far so good.  But sometimes that formulation can get tiresome and leave unaddressed some very important considerations.  Take the chapter entitled "How Statistics Lie:  Unemployment Can Be Good for You."  I'll start with a confession.  I don't think I understand what his argument is here, and my lack of understanding might say more about my unwillingness to engage the chapter rather than give it a quick read.  His argument seems to be that we have to be very very careful about what conclusions we draw from statistics.  Fair enough, and he makes some good points (as in, informative points I hadn't thought of before).  For example, he explores ways in which the alleged increase in the income gap during the 1980s might have been illusory [132-134].  To be sure, he doesn't insist the increase in the income gap was illusory, only that it might have been.

That's a good thing to keep in mind.  But he seems rather glib in some of his asides about unemployment.  Part of his point is that working fewer hours, which is how he seems to define underemployment ("We are all grossly underemployed compared with our ancestors of 100 years ago" [130]) or not having a job at all comes with leisure as a tradeoff.  (Another part of his point is that by getting the current unemployment rate, we don't have a clear view of people's lifetime earnings.)  He seems to almost completely discount the anxiety and fear that unemployment can bring.  He comes close--"[o]f course, unemployment can be accompanied by bad things, such as diminution of income...." [129, emphasis his]--but there is a cost to not having work, and the "leisure" might be hard to enjoy when a new job is not in the offing.

He also seems too eager, in my opinion, to neglect the consideration that certain "choices" regarding employment are constrained [130]:
When Peter chooses to work 80 hours a week an get rich while Paul chooses to work 3 hours a week and get comfortable in other ways, who is to say which choice is the wiser?  I can find nothing in economics, morality, or for that matter my personal instincts that says we should approve more of one than the other.
I don't, either, but judging others' choices is not the only question, is it?  Peter's "choice" to work 80 hours per week might be to a non-trivial degree informed by his needs and the wages he can command, and Paul's "choice" to work 3 hours might be to a non-trivial degree formed by the paucity of available work.  Landsburg goes on to say "Unemployment, or a low level of employment, can be a voluntary choice and a good one."  Yes, but it can be other things, or it can be some messy mixture of voluntary choice and circumstances that channel and limit the available choices.

Don't get me wrong.  I think Landsburg has some important points here.  We shouldn't assume even severe reverses to be unrelentingly, pathetically, bad things, with no upsides.  When I was laid off from my job as a loan processor in 2008, that quickly proved an opportunity to take an emergency adjuncting job that advanced my employment prospects (and a few months later, I met the woman who eventually agreed to marry me).  And although I have to remember that I had no dependents to support and as a student I had access to certain employment networks (hence, my adjuncting job) and other resources, I can say that losing that job was in many ways had corresponding benefits.  (There was also a sense of relief when it finally happened, because rumors of layoffs had been in the office air for at least a couple weeks.)

But there's a certain glibness to his statement of the truths here that turn off, at least me, and probably others who might need to hear what he says.

I'm reminded of a blogger whose site I read regularly and who although not an economist, has a lot of training in economics.  In one post, he wanted to demonstrate, in the context of discussion of sweatshops in developing countries, that sweatshops could mean more choices and therefore made better off those for whom the choice to work at a sweatshop.  In order to illustrate his point that more choices make people better off, he posited the following hypothetical (I paraphrase):
Suppose the only employment available to someone is low wages in a sweatshop.  Suppose also that another propositions that someone to provide sex for money.  That worker is now better off because she has more choices.
Now, I want to be clear about two things.  First, the person who advanced this hypothetical does not in any way think that situation is a good state of affairs.  He doesn't endorse exploiting people sexually, although he might support laws that enable people to do sex work on the (very reasonable) grounds that laws which forbid sex work tend to hurt the sex workers more than anyone (and I might support such laws, too).  Second, the conclusion he draws from his hypothetical is, in my opinion, correct.  The worker in that scenario is (slightly) better off than before because now she has a choice.

But a lot has to be assumed away and some costs have to be discounted for that hypothetical to permit that conclusion (and the blogger I refer to acknowledges that there is a lot of assuming away).  Here are some of the discounted costs that come to mind:
  • The worker in this case faces no opprobrium for agreeing to this "choice."  Rightly or wrongly, people judge others by their sexual choices.  And I'm not an expert the sociology of any developing country, but the stereotype, at least, is that most of these areas are supposedly traditional societies.  "Traditional" is a loaded term, but at least some of these societies might attach a certain opprobrium to sex work that can, again in some cases, lead to ostracization, or worse.
  • STD transmission is a real threat.  The "choice" in this hypothetical relies on a short time horizon.  The worker might be better off now, but if she contracts a fatal or debilitating disease, the cost will grow in the medium and long term horizon.
  • This is just speculation on my part, but I imagine the class of people who offer sex for money has a disproportionate number of people who would take it by force if they can't get it by payment.  I'm not saying all john's are like that, but I suspect that some of them might be like that.  And the person so propositioned might, with very good reason, not be fully confident that the "choice" is really a choice at all.
But let's assume away all those costs and anything else on heaven and earth we can dream of.  And let's acknowledge the worker is indeed better off.  I, for one, am not going to book a plane to that developing country and tell the person how much better off she is now.  She is indeed better off (again, granting the assumptions), but it's not quite my place to tell her that.

To be clear, there is indeed room for discussing the better-off-ness of others, and valid points aren't invalidated just because the point-maker is not likely to be in the position to be "better off" in just that way.  But there's a certain stridency in such invocations that, well, makes the truth harder to swallow or even acknowledge, especially when it's addressed to someone who doesn't already agree with the argument and who needs to be convinced.

Now back to Landsburg.  In his last chapter, we see what in my opinion is a pretty fresh represntation of the type of swagger I'm talking about here.  Entitled, "Why I Am Not an Environmentalist:  The Science of Economics Versus the Religion of Ecology," this chapter takes aim the preachiness of the environmental movement.  As someone who resists the sorts of obligations that are claimed upon me in the name of "protecting the environment," I have a lot of sympathy for his basic point here.

He recounts going to some sort of assembly put on by his daughter's pre-school that, he says, reflects a "naive environmentalism...a force-fed potpourri of myth, superstition, and ritual that has much in comon with the least reputable varieties of religious fundamentalism." [223-4].  In particular, the assembly, a graduation ceremony for the pre-schoolers, required the pre-schoolers to repeat phrases like "'With privilege comes responsibility,'" which, he suggests, functions principally as a way to inculcate the passive acceptance of a certain value, one possible outcome of which is to permit restrictions on our liberty simply by invoking the notion "it's good for the environment, and we do have a responsibility."

As I said, I have a lot of sympathy for Landsburg's point.  And perhaps it's a pity that he witnessed this example of the school's values on what was probably his daughter's last day at pre-school.  If he had learned of it earlier, he might haven't been denied the opportunity to conclude that another dollar spent for another day at her school wasn't worth the additional education, thus permitting him to pull her out of class.

My only real objection to his actual point is that any educational setting seeks to inculcate some values.  And given that he had just written a book expressing how his values are either superior to those of non-economists, or at least deserve a hearing from non-economists, one might think he'd be more reflective on that score.  (I'm also thinking of Robert H. Nelson's book counterposing the "religion" of environmentalism with the "religion" of economics.)

But I have another objection to Mr. Landsburg's "swagger" here.  In this chapter, he not only complains about the inane recourse to cliches as a way to justify all sorts of coercive action.  He also reprints a letter he wrote to his daughter's pre-school teacher.  He had already told the teacher he was dissatisfied with the assembly.  When she asked why, he, by his account, said (I'm quoting from the letter), "I reject your right to ask that question.  The entire program of environmentalism is as foreign to us as the doctrine of Christianity."  [231] Landsburg in a prior paragraph of the same letter noted that he and his family are Jewish and that on other occasions, when he had objected to a Christian-centric assembly at another school, the school's response was to respect the difference in religion.  He then proceeds in the letter to speak as if the teacher ought to have realized that her environmentalist language of obligation was, of course, a "religious" view and that she shouldn't have had even to wonder what anyone might possibly object to.  Here are some of his points [231]:
  • "I do not sense on your [the teacher's] part any acknowledgment that there may be people in the world who do not share your views."
  • "I am frankly a lot more worried about my daughter's becoming an environmentalist than about her becoming a Christian."
  • "[W]e face no current threat of having Christianity imposed on us by petty tyrants; the same cannot be said of environmentalism.  My county government never tried to send me a New Testament, but it did send me a recycling bin."
How dare the teacher not know this!  She displayed no acknowledgment that others might not share her views.  Well, she asked him his views, but other than that, she displayed no such acknowledgment.  "Everybody" knows and in fact starts from the assumption that environmentalism is a religion in exactly the same way that Christianity and Judaism are religions.  How dare she not realize that!  The enlightenment era struggles which resulted in America's secular institutions were waged against the clergy and state established churches.  And presumably environmentalism (but I don't recall learning that).  Even his own county is against him, although it's unclear from the letter whether he's required to recycle or is merely given the opportunity (in Chicago, for example, we have recycling bins in at least some neighborhoods, but (so far at least) the actual decision to recycle is voluntary, with due caveats being granted that we all pay taxes and that taxes fund the recycling service.)

I imagine the teacher, upon reading that letter, is to don a sackcloth and do penance, perhaps by reciting "[t]he government solution to a problem is usually as bad as a the problem," with every 10th recitation interrupted by "and in the long run, we're all dead," or writing 1,000 times on a chalkboard the statement, "a good or service should be consumed at a quantity at which the marginal utility is equal to the marginal cost."

Again, I'm not trying to bait economics by the argumentation style of two people, Landsburg and the blogger I mention.  They all have valuable points. But I'm at a lost to understand how the tone is designed to make it easier to listen to what they have to say.

How do you swagger?, or....being a jerk in academe

It is my firm belief that all of us are jerks at least some of the time but that we are jerks in our own specific ways, determined by such factors as the manner of our upbringing, inherited traits, avocation, and choice of occupation.  Academics, or those with training in academe, are no exception, and depending on the discipline in which we train, we can be jerks in largely discipline-specific ways.  I write this post as an introduction to a series of posts about how people in certain disciplines can be jerks to those they argue or enter conversations with.

So far, I plan to write three posts.  The first two will be about disciplines to which I am an outsider:  economics and philosophy.  The third will be about one to which I am an insider:  history.  By writing these posts, I'm not suggesting that any of those three disciplines is "wrong" or "bad" or better or worse than others.  I'm also not too keen on making the argument that these jerky foibles are so peculiar to any discipline that there is absolutely no overlap with practitioners of other disciplines or even practitioners of non-disciplines.  (The thing I shall criticize philosophers for in my next post, for example, is something I'm often guilty of even though I'm no philosopher.)  In fact, I'm not basing these posts as critiques of those disciplines at all.

What I mean to do, rather, is to gently point out the pitfalls to which their practitioners seem disposed and to gently remind them that if thew want to be listened to and not to be, well, jerks, then they might want to take different approaches to talking with others who do not share their disciplinary assumptions.  I also meant these posts as a guide for how to read others' arguments more charitably than is often the case.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The weirdness of being considered an "expert"

In my last 4 years of grad school and in my current job, which is a temporary assignment, I've been working at an archive for a research library.  I love the job, and would like to sign on permanently if it's possible (it might not be possible--budget cuts, etc.--but I'm not saying this as a complaint, just as a statement of realism).  One thing that's been hard to get used to with this job is that in some ways, I'm considered and even deferred to as, an "expert" in history. 

This isn't all that surprising or even all that new.  When I got the job 4 years ago, I was on the dissertation-writing stage of grad school and had already had my MA.  Now, I'm done with the dissertation.  I suppose that in the several years in which I was a TA, and the three semesters in which I was an adjunct, I was also deferred to as "an expert," or if not an "expert," as someone whose basic competence for doing the job adequately was assumed.

But although my supposed "expertise" is not entirely new, my job in the archives has ratcheted up the way in which people seem to see me as an "expert."  This was clear my first day on the job.  I was taken to the library's warehouse to look at the collection I and other grad students would be processing.  Part of the collection we had been given was pounds and pounds (or thousands and thousands) of receipts for petty purchases and sales conducted by the organization that had donated its records.  My bosses were discussing what to do with them, and they edged toward just having them returned to the donor as material not of interest to researchers.  My suggestion was that we could keep them and they'd be valuable evidence of the donor's day-to-day activity.

I've since come to believe that I was wrong.  And in fact, we did return them to the organization, which as far as I know plans to have them destroyed.  It's not that these receipts were useless.  In some ways, the profession of history is renewed periodically by people who use disregarded or supposedly useless items to construct insight into a given subject.  But frankly, and this is especially the case with 20th-century U.S. history artifacts and documents, the problem is space, or the cost of maintaining all these items, and any archivist who is honest has to acknowledge that certain potentially useless items must be destroyed or not archived just because there's too much other stuff that's more obviously useful.

My point, though, isn't that I was wrong, it's that when I made the suggestion, my bosses actually listened to it seriously and took it into consideration.  And the only real reason they had to do so is that I had the credentials as an aspiring "historian."

I've had that type of treatment at least on a monthly (and often on a weekly) basis at my job since then.  My opinion is asked because it is wanted on a variety of matters, and whether my advice is followed or not (it usually is), it's pretty clear to me that the opinion asker weighs my answer in whatever they decide, because I "know history" and because I "understand what researchers want and look for."

It's also gotten to the point that I'm discouraged from doing the more menial tasks in my workplace, such as paging books or doing photocopying for patrons.  I also have little direct supervision.  If what I'm doing at the time requires me to read a book or to visit a website, I can do it and not be self-conscious that one of my bosses will see me reading and or surfing the net and wonder what I'm up to.  In part, this has to do with the fact that I work at a public institution, which has dedicated funding streams and does not have to earn a profit, so that the archives get money (or not) based largely on factors independent of what gets done (or not) onsite.  (There are exceptions to this, of course, but that's part of what's happening.)

But the weird thing is, I don't really feel like an expert.  I'm not just being falsely modest, but I think a large part of what I do could be done by a very studious undergraduate senior, or by a well-educated layperson.  True, I probably know more about history than those folks would, and more about professional research.  And their learning curve might be steeper than mine was (and is....there's a heckuva lot I still don't know).  But I think that they could learn the ropes without overweening difficulty.