Who is the Social Scientist?

Featured image is Saint Jerome in His Study, by Marinus van Reymerswaele.

It is easy to think that a paper or a conversation, or even an academic convention, happen in relative isolation. After all, if a paper gets hundreds of citations, it is considered wildly successful. Meanwhile, the biggest websites measure their link counts in the tens or hundreds of millions. An academic field provides a relatively small audience even for its rockstars, and specialized sub-fields are yet smaller.

But the consensus of these fields has implications for all of us. We have nuclear power but also nuclear weapons, vaccines and antibiotics but also chemical and biological weapons, sophisticated tools for financing businesses and college educations and home buying…but also the volatile and bewilderingly complex financial system. Academic conversation played a role, to varying degrees, in each of these cases.

In the human sciences, the academic conversation concerns the very question of what it means to be human. And the conclusions which are drawn there, again, do not occur in a vacuum. The approach that a legislator or an agency rule-maker takes depends to no small degree on just what sort of animal they—or their social scientist advisers—believe human beings to be.

The architects of the American administrative state believed that individual humans were nothing more than organs or cells which added up to a body politic, with the state as the head. They believed that individual rights were a relic of historic superstitions, and in any case were articulated before the Industrial Revolution, which changed everything. All that mattered was the health of the body politic—and so undesirable individuals became mere polluting elements, threatening the short or long term health of the body. These illiberal reformers thus set to work drafting immigration restrictions, as well as forcible sterilization laws, to name but two of the legacy of their honored stewardship of the American project.

Continue reading “Who is the Social Scientist?”

Stirred, Not Shaken

The history of the British crown is a history of revolt, usurpation, connivance, thrall, and intrigue. In that respect, it is akin to most other monarchies. It parts ways with its Continental cousins in its persistent acrimony towards subjects. Consider King Cerdic. Widely considered to be the first proper king of the Saxons in Wessex, this interloping swine slaughtered the Briton incumbent Natanleod, effectively incinerating the remnants of the bitter near-victory of the Iceni over the Roman occupation five hundred years earlier. Cerdic’s brutal line lasted until Danish boggart Sweyn Forkbeard, husband of Sigrid the Haughty, swept on with threshing oar to spank poor, feckless Æthelred the Unready right off the throne. At least for a few months. Back and forth these two fetid dynasties waged their petty contests for dominance over a squalid archipelago populated by illiterate mud-squatting peasants. Back and forth for fifty years and change these doomed lineages wrangled. Back and forth until French fop William the Bastard settled their hash but good. In 1066, this flaccid pirate king handed Harald the Flatulent his baggy ass at Hastings. By the conventions of the primitive Whig hagiography that once passed for the history of Great Britain as taught in the United States, the Norman Invasion of 1066 marked the beginning of proper British history. The Celtic, Jute, Saxon, Briton, Anglo, and other assorted tribes, clans, and proto-nations were but prelude to the glories of the houses of Blois, Anjou, Plantagenet, Lancaster, York, Tudor, Stuart, and after the Acts of Union, Hanover, and finally Windsor (nee Saxe-Coburg). A great deal of fuss here in the forlorn colonies attends key moments in that squalid potted history. Certain provisions in a Manorial accord from 1215 allegedly provide the underpinnings of what eventually became the English rule of property law. The impious sacrilege of pudgy Tudors severing ties with Rome not over the corruption of simony and the decadence of the Pope, but rather that the head of state could dip his quill in a fresh pot of ink helped justify the fissiparous tendencies of Protestantism abroad. The surly ouster of James II and the sallow capitulation of William the Orange to the Exchequer upon his restoration gave the English-speaking world the basis for parliamentary government, in which the former locus of power became little more than a gelded, gilt symbol for the adoration of the stinking public rather than the hard kernel of bloodthirsty tyranny it had been for so long.  Continue reading “Stirred, Not Shaken”

Against Temper Tantrums

Featured image is Argument Over A Card Game, by Jan Steen.

Remember South Park Conservatives?

At some point, the whole political and social spectrum bought into the cult of authenticity. The sloppy and spontaneous, the vulgar and unrestrained, are more truly human, have more integrity, than the polished, disciplined, and polite. Or so the story goes.

That the elites who believe this still feel the social pressure to be somewhat polished and polite is no object here—if anything, it merely heightens their admiration for those able to break the chains of decorum.

This is one of the great imbecilities of our age. For one thing, it mistakes mere childishness for some higher virtue, some deeper connection with nature. For another, it merely substitutes one script for another, and pretends to have done away with artifice as a result.

Continue reading “Against Temper Tantrums”

Dial D for Despair

For a skinny, maladjusted kid growing up itinerant amid the stifling fens of American public school systems, portable refuges of stability were rare, cherished things. I had my dog-eared copy of The Hobbit. I had my pocket knife, favored by the alpine fighting forces of the Republic of Switzerland. And most reliable of all, I had the periodic table of elements. Books can be left out in the rain, or accidentally dropped into a campfire. Pocket knives can be lost or stolen. But the very elements of nature themselves? I never worried about losing a copy of the table once I had taught myself to recreate it from memory. Wherever I might wander, the halogens were and shall always be fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and (theoretically) astatine. The alkali metals are lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium, now and evermore. No matter how many friends I had to say goodbye to for the last time, no matter how many piles of boxes I would have to pack and unpack, no matter how many miles of lonesome highway I rumbled over entombed in heavy Detroit steel, molybdenum boasted an atomic number of 42, then and in all the days to come. Some kids have a security blanket or a favorite stuffed animal. I had the periodic table of elements. Continue reading “Dial D for Despair”

An Aggressive Argument for More Aggressive Argument

The comment and contribution guidelines for this blog open with an observation, “internet discussions frequently are neither respectful nor enjoyable, nor really conversations.”  That is a point that is difficult to contest. Everyone knows the internet is an intellectual and political shithole.  Thus the instructions continue: “Conversation here is respectful.  That means it is not insulting and it gives the benefit of the doubt.” These are laudable goals.  We would like folks to be good and charitable listeners.  But it is not clear that saying, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all,” is the best way to get more—and more open—discussion.

Elites, in my view, want to have it both ways.  We want to cherish and protect the rights of the screaming plebes . . . but keep them out of our back yard.  I will argue here that without more fully embracing screaming plebeianism, the otherwise sophisticated and correct academic prescriptions for more rhetoric, more debate, more interdisciplinarity, more ideological diversity, will stay unrealized.  Academic culture varies between a self help group, kindergarten sharing circle, and a buttoned-up sixteenth century court.  These performances of dispassion and emotional empathy are well intentioned, but they frustrate real intellectual confrontation.  Should we give up the game completely and just scream at each other?  No.  But probably more screaming is good for us.

Sharp argument, barbed snark, one liners, insults, can and often do lead to sweet talk and understanding.  It is not the case that in an argument (any more than an actual fight) if one party pulls a gun, the other will pull a nuke.  There is an intuition we have that if person A gives offense, person B will up the ante, and both will end up in a prisoner’s dilemma.  In this view, anything nasty starts a race to the bottom of the shithole.  That strikes me as a cynical view that forgets that there is more than one way to fight.

One can respond to aggression with ever nastier aggression, sure.  Or one can respond with passive aggression.  For every British imperialist there is a line of Gandhi salt marchers.  It is important to embrace and invite British imperialists to the table.  Violent comments are often the first sputters of something that has not been broached before. Transgressing commonly held beliefs is like a breakup.  There is no good way to do it.  It is uncomfortable, but people are not cowards who cannot handle being dumped.

We generally recognize the the benefits of resolving issues—even issues that are being spat at us—and the value of defending our reputations at an insult.  Screaming matches are exhausting and no one can keep them up forever.  So screaming matches often evolve into passive aggressive battles to gain the moral high ground.  We cannot have passive aggressive argument—sweet talk—to the exclusion of shit-giving direct aggression.  They rely on one another.  Without journalists and television pundits, scientists and humanists have no claim to superiority.  Without coddled and cotton mouthed academics, journalists and television pundits have no claim to keepin’-it-real superiority.

Allow me propose a hypothesis: all argument is a fight and that the goal is to win, but it is a fight more like economic competition than a street fight.  Like market exchanges, one party may win more handsomely than the other, but both get ahead.  We seem to have characterized some arguments as non-aggressive not-fights because we are terrified that aggressive argument is zero sum, a street fight.  We are (maybe reasonably) scared that aggressive arguments lead to fists, or to taking our ball and going back home to our epistemic camp.  But that is not the case! Argument, even the “you’re acting just like your mother” kind, is for the most part prosocial and positive sum.

George Lakoff points out in Metaphors We Live By, that a foundational metaphor in America is that Argument Is War.  Take these examples:

  • “His criticisms were right on target.”
  • “You disagree? Okay, shoot!

We all seem to intuitively agree that argument is a fight.  The question then becomes why rational agents would continue to fight, to argue, if argument a zero sum assurance of mutual destruction.  The answer seems pretty simple: it’s not. And so we ought to be less afraid of argument.

Both sides of an exchange, even an aggressive exchange, in the marketplace of ideas inevitably concede points in order to gain others.  Sometimes people concede points in more humble and direct ways, “I take your point, and…”  But even the interlocutor who is too freshly disabused to admit error takes the lessons home.  Poignant phrases haunt him until he reasons them through.  He leaves behind arguments he’ll never make again, and gives his opponent bits that she will digest later.

Not every argument can or should be polite and disinterested.  In fact if we take the metaphor of market exchange seriously, when we put people to debate who have no interest in the outcome, and who want to avoid high stakes exchange, we impoverish everyone.  We elites ought to not just ensure and protect a society where Donald Trump can sound off like a racist sack of dicks, or where Larry Flynt can show up to the Supreme Court with his balls wrapped in an American flag.  We ought to accept, welcome, embrace, and encourage it.  Even and especially on the internet and more so on campus.

Such is my purpose in making this point, again, to academics on the internet.  I once argued on a different blog that, “no one was ever persuaded that slavery was inhumane without a conversation that started with a lot of profanity.”   I stole the point from Jonathan Rauch, who argues (as a homosexual Jew pleased with the outcome of debates over homosexuality and Jewry) that bias and bigotry are not a hindrance but the foundation of enlightening discussion.   Gay kisses on church steps carried as much semiotic significance in the liberation of homosexuals (if not more) than did smoking-coat debates about sexual history.

Offending people is a skill and an important one.

Our most cherished beliefs are precognitive.  They go unaddressed and unannounced because we are already on the same page as our friends.  These priors live in the nerve complex in the gut and spinal cord.  Attacking them makes us feel sick to our stomachs. They arouse anger and stumbling-over-our-words disbelief.  We are often at a loss to justify or articulate these deepest beliefs.  That is precisely why we must offend one another into justifying and articulating them.  We cannot achieve an intelligent and empathetic society without stomping on nerves.  We need to be badgered and insulted and zinged into accounting for ourselves.  From insult there results understanding.

That means welcoming profanity and offense—in all of its glorious and mischievous fuckery—into polite society.

Questions remain here.  How much fuckery is optimal?  Relentless fuckery does in fact produce a screaming match or ultimately a fist fight.  How much empathic listening in the mode of National Public Radio’s Terry Gross or your high-school guidance counselor is necessary to thin the salt in the intellectual soup?  Can we effectively toggle between being aggressive and charitable, between being insulting and polite?  These are questions worth arguing over, aggressively.  A world of, “dignified sweet talk or shut up,” is both impossible to achieve and anyway undesirable for people who are interested in empathy and learning.

A Game of You

I love JRPGs. I was one of those kids who felt it almost a matter of duty to wander around the area maps, fighting minor enemies in order to grind out experience points and level up.

In such games, you often get money when you defeat an enemy. You can use that money to buy armor for defense, or weapons for offense.

Say you are playing such a game and decide to save up all your money to buy the most powerful weapon in the game, which is only possible if you don’t buy any armor. You wager that you’ll be able to defeat the last boss faster than he will be able to exploit your weak defense.

Say things don’t play out that way, but instead you are swiftly defeated.

This happened because there is more to the game than your intentions or even your choices. The course of events is determined by the game as a whole, which includes but is much larger than your part of it.

Art and rhetoric are both fields of play. To create a work of art is to invite spectators into a meaning-game.

Jacques-Louis David invited us to see Napoleon as a romantic and heroic figure. The French, in general, continue to play the game more or less according to the rules set by that artist. These games have become a central part in how the meaning of Napoleon’s life and reign are understood.

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps
Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps

But the artist is not an absolute monarch of the game. His role is more like the JRPG player than the JRPG designer. Many kings have commissioned flattering portrayals that spectators have played against the intention of the artist or patron. When the aggrandizing was so far removed from their understanding of the subject matter, it only deepened or even created the image of a delusional and self-obsessed man where the image of a great man was intended.

We see this prominently in the never ending public struggle of American political rhetoric-games. A rhetorical flourish intended to invite a sympathetic response is ruthlessly played against its intentions by enemies. Thus Jeb Bush’s request to “please clap,” was intended to be played as self-effacing humor, but ended up being played in the larger narrative of patheticness that more successfully characterized his public image and his campaign.

Unlike a JRPG, these are not games you can opt out of. If you do not attend to the meaning-games of the subjects that matter to you, such as your own life, someone will.

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The Emperor is No Novelist

Featured image is a meaningless aesthetic experience put down on paper by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The emperor was sitting in his study one day, when he felt the stirring of the unconscious impulse of genius. Wasting no time, he dipped his quill in ink and moved it across the page, moving to a new page when the moment felt right. In short order, he had a stack of papers, filled with the work of his genius.

He called in his top adviser. “What do you make of this?” he asked, gesturing to the papers. His adviser looked through a few of the papers.

“Sir?” He replied, uncertain of what was expected of him.

“I have just completed this novel,” the emperor prompted, “I was wondering if I could get your honest opinion.”

The very last thing the adviser ever wanted to give was his honest opinion, least of all at that moment. “I’m not sure I understand…perhaps you could provide some more context?”

“Context!” The emperor snorted, “Of course you don’t have enough of that to share in my experience of creation. Would you like to go back and enter my mind, at the moment it occurred? Would you like to go through my life story as a whole, so that you can see how it might have resulted in such inspiration? But of course that is impossible.”


“But fear not! Your aesthetic experience need not depend on my unconscious creative process whatsoever! Simply gaze at the pages. Do you not feel their beauty?”

“Ah…yes. Yes, I think I see now. Yes, they are truly moving, sir.”

“You’re not just saying so?”

“Have you ever known me to engage in empty flattery, your majesty?”

The emperor showed more and more people his work, and found that their reactions were similar. So, encouraged, he set up an exhibit, in which all of the individuals were displayed encased in glass.

Many came from all over the land the indulge in the aesthetic experience of the emperor’s work.

The exhibit was set up in the throne room, so the emperor could enjoy the sight of his subjects experiencing his work.

One day, he was pleased to see a mother had brought her child. The boy could not have been more than seven or eight years old.

“What is this?” He asked his mother.

“It’s the emperor’s book,” she explained. The boy stared at one particular page for a very long time. The emperor’s heart swelled with pride at the sight of a child working so hard to appreciate his creation.

“No it isn’t,” the boy finally said.

“What’s that?” his mother stammered, casting a nervous glance towards the emperor.

“It isn’t a book at all,” he said, “it’s just scribbles.” Silence filled the room. Everyone was half-staring, half-attempting to appear nonchalant.

“I told you it was a book, and it’s a book,” his mother whispered sternly.

“But there aren’t any words at all! You can’t read it!” he shouted.

“Be. Quiet!” she hissed. She looked up and saw the emperor staring down at them. “I apologize for his rudeness, your majesty,” she stammered, “perhaps he is simply too young to appreciate anything more demanding than vulgar storytelling.”

“Yes…perhaps so,” the emperor replied quietly. “That must be it,” he said to himself, long after everyone had left, and he was alone.