The Sting of Science

Some interesting things going on in the world of guilty, not guilty, and innocent, what with its consequences: the accused goes free, or the accused is imprisoned. As far as I understand it, prison, between Johnny Cash concerts, is a rather unpleasant existence, a place which not only punishes evildoers for the purposes of hindering evil being done in the midst of well-doers, but it also dehumanizes.

Convictions based on DNA evidence are being overturned. Another one bites the dust. Throw DNA evidence onto the pile of other courtroom incontrovertibles, along with fingerprints and lie detector tests. Perhaps the ancients were on to something when they said, “Do not establish a charge except by two or three witnesses.” Besides which, all the truly great courtroom dramas are based on the accounts of the witnesses and whose testimony might be trustworthy or how one might piece together the circumstances surrounding the crime: in other words, narrative. These forensic science TV shows, as cool as they might be in their first run, are intolerable in repeats. Columbo endures.

Ah, but science has determined that the science was insecure, susceptible to abuse! We are hereby one step closer to establishing the scientifically failsafe forensic method in criminal justice! A house divided, yada yada yada…

Jurisprudence took a turn, from this layman’s perspective, in those heady days when we were convinced that we could serve justice coldly, removing the fallible human element from murder trials. As public morality splintered (and now that it has disintegrated), triangulating became truly difficult for juries. How can a jury of peers even be established when we are all islands unto ourselves? Thus the task of weighing testimony was sublimated to the task of weighing the evidence.

Evidence is not unimportant, of course, but artifacts have been elevated in the public mind above hot-blooded accounting of hot blood. It’s all so icky, the tears, the blood-curdling descriptions, the hatred, rage, all there on display in a nice, sterile society. For a jury to pass moral judgment in the case of law is asking an awful lot. Juries, then, are witnesses themselves, offering testimony to the jury of editorials and the twitterverse concerning the wherewithal of a society to commit moral judgment. Who is the presiding judge?

More than that, perspective has been polarized, meaning, a witness is either telling the truth or is telling a lie, and only a chasm exists around those two pillars. The TV tells me that good lawyers know how to destroy witness accounts on this basis: if a reliable witness flutters in one detail, then the whole account is invalidated. Alas for measuring and sifting, for dividing and discerning, a lost art in the age of certainty!

Now that science has once again been disbarred from the courtroom, apprehended murderers might get away with murder! Indeed, they probably will for a short time, but we will establish a new evidentiary process to which to sublimate testimony. In the meantime, it will remain true that our prisoners, nearly all of whom are surely guilty, are stacked in cells reaching from beneath the earth up to the sky, and stretching in lines which converge around the compass on every horizon. Look, we say, our prisons are full, and crime is consequently minimized. See how we have hindered evildoing! We are approaching that day when we shall become a completely just society.




Hunting with Rafe

My buddy Rafe and I hunt on the same property. It’s almost that time of year, so we go scouting together, checking the usual places for bed-downs and trails, and keeping our eyes open for new trails, setting trail cameras. You know: the usual. I always bring a compass.

Rafe teases me, but he knows, like I do, that in the excitement of pursuing a mortally wounded animal, your mind will tell you it’s noting landmarks, but after the adrenaline dissipates, your mind will laugh hysterically at the cool practical joke it just played on you while the woods close in on you like so many strangers in Penn Station. Besides, it’s still summer here. During hunting season, after the leaves fall and the sun falls, the landscape becomes alien. It’s best to take the occasional compass reading. My Oma gave me a military-style compass when I was a little boy, and I still carry it with me (she was in the Hitlerjugend, but that’s a whole ‘nother glass of schnapps). I have it right here, in fact, not an arm’s length from me.

“North is totally arbitrary,” Rafe said to me while I was taking a reading.

“No, it’s not,” I said.

“Haven’t you ever seen those globes where the lettering is all upside down, like as if it was Australians who made it?”

“Who made what?” I asked.

“The globe,” he said.

“But they didn’t make that globe, because Australians know that they’re in the Southern Hemisphere. The world would look just as ridiculous upside down to them as it does to us.”

“Nuh uh,” he said.

“Yeah huh,” I retorted. “A bunch of academic types made that globe, as an exercise, not as an alternative to a real globe.”

“A ‘real’ globe?” he mocked.

“Lookit,” I said, pointing to my compass. “Put a Z there, and it still points thataway.”

“But a Z is just a sideways N.”

“Fine,” I said. “Put Gandalf’s rune there, and it still points thataway.”

“It’s still relative,” he said. “It’s totally arbitrary that we call it ‘north.'”

“No, it’s not,” I repeated. “This thing behaves relative to a real thing up near the north pole. More than that, the fact that magnetic north moves a little bit, and that you have to do the left-add-right-subtract rule proves the point: it might be relative, but it’s relative to something there.”

“It’s right-add-left-subtract, dummy,” he said.

I rolled my eyes. Then I said, “If I was a slave in the South in the 1800s, the one thing I’d steal from my master before I made for freedom is a compass.” I was conceding to him that the the North Star is not visible.

“That’s totally proving my point,” he said. “North is completely relative. What if the North had slavery, and the South was where freedom was?”

“You’d still take a compass and bear south relative to a fixed north pole.”

“See?” Rafe said, leaning against a tree in exultation. “It’s all relative.”

The Branch Davidians, Revisited

Waco, Texas, 1993.

David Koresh, a self-proclaimed fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the Jewish Messiah, and who also had great hair, gathered up some people and some guns and beckoned the Apocalypse. The Federal Government, led by a lady named Janet Reno, mounted her steed, sending forth her armies as a plague against the compound.

Ah! Here’s a helpful note: the feds also instructed the press media, constitutionally protected in the Bill of Rights, not to conduct any more interviews with David Koresh, a U.S. Citizen. The well-meaning Attorney General heard that there were children possibly maybe could be sexually abused, so she burned the joint down. Plus, the FBI was tired. The Branch Davidians, of course, set the fires and accelerated them with Coleman kerosene fuel. The guns were turned inward. It was a bloodbath. Seventy-six people died. Broadcast live on TV.

The Federal Government was frustrated, and understandably so, that its will was not being done, that there were threats against innocents, and that people were beginning to see the government as a failing institution. Potency is a premium attribute, nay, a premium morality. Potency means you can get things done; moreover, potency means that people can see that you can get things done. If people see that you can get things done, they will trust you. No, not trust, the other word. If people see your potency, they will…

Blast this mental block!

The president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod issued a statement on June 19, 2015, which includes the following paragraph:

As the world devolves around us from insanity to insanity, I’m reminded of the statement of John Adams that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the Second Amendment. As both religion and morality are on steep decline among us, we can only expect more of this insanity by individuals unhinged from the safety of families and a society normed by natural law and influenced by the genuine teaching of the Bible. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

This marks the first attack on the second amendment I have ever considered with any seriousness, a view that I might want to adopt. Then again, morality tends to descend softly from the top down.

Elian GonzalezMonkey see, monkey do.

Experimentation and Taboo

We live in a golden age of experimentation. Experimentation in technology, in business models, in ideas, in lifestyles; the long tail of each has grown very long indeed and continues to grow. If Deirdre McCloskey is right, it was the very fact that we were inspired to tinker, that old taboos were beaten back for a time, which is responsible for our present enrichment.

There is no denying, however, that experimentation has risks. Marie Curie ended up giving her life for the knowledge she was willing to acquire first-hand. The sexual revolution forced many to learn hard lessons about sexually transmitted diseases. The 20th century experiments in vast social engineering projects gave us the greatest mass murderers and mass famines in history.

Nassim Taleb is among those who believes that public morality, especially the very old and institutionalized sort, developed as a kind of risk management mechanism. In a nonlinear system, very small changes can make the difference between stability and catastrophe, just as the one last step over the edge of a cliff results in a sudden and drastic change in velocity. By Taleb’s reckoning, taboos develop to warn people away from the proverbial cliffs—cliffs which, in social and biological areas, are not visible to the naked eye the way actual cliffs are.

Some taboos categorically should not be crossed because there really are cliffs on the other side. Others can be approached, and even crossed somewhat, in exchange for a bit of knowledge—a peek into what makes them wise. Still others deserve the progressive’s scorn as mere superstition, perhaps relevant in some earlier era when the topography was different, but either way best done away with.

Here’s the trillion-dollar question: how do you tell which is which?

Take David’s latest musings for example:

On the one hand, on the free market of exchange, we learn very quickly what is prudent and what is not prudent. On the other hand, the expense for learning prudence can be very high for the individuals who become teaching moments for the rest of us, that is, contracting diseases, dying accidentally, unwanted pregnancy, etc., to speak nothing of the vast emotional world opened up in sexual activity.

I see this post as being about the middle scenario—taboos that have to be wrestled with to a certain extent before you can internalize their wisdom.

Virtue itself is like this. All of us have to find it for ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent. This unavoidably involves trial and error in the choices we make and the moral frames we operate within. Trial and error within certain parameters is almost guaranteed to be fruitful. Taboo places bounds on that process, or is supposed to. The middle-type taboos are softer bounds than the more categorical ones.

Softer because breaching them involves risk, but not certain catastrophe. Most people do not travel very far into these boundaries. As David says, some fraction of our fellow travelers into the forests of taboo are damaged by it, taking the scars with them for the rest of their lives, their bad luck serving as “teaching moments” for the rest of us.

Some venture too deep into the forest and are much less likely to come back again.

And yet others become prophets for us, blazing a trail towards real moral or material progress.

But since taboo is what provides the boundaries, it is very hard—perhaps impossible—to tell beforehand who is the prophet and who the fool or madman, who is in the funhouse and who is confronting “the historically given moral ideals of your community” in order to “wrestle with them honestly, without selfishness, in the context” of a life and the lives of those around them. Where should we seek to find wisdom and where are we likely to encounter nothing but trash?

Answering those questions, and making the answers your own, is the responsibility that comes with moral adulthood. The great virtue of an open society is that it allows more people to seek moral adulthood in their own way, a discovery process from which all of us can benefit. The great pitfall is that it leaves us vulnerable to far more cliffs.

Which side of that risk-reward equation you focus on, and whether you see both sides at all, goes a long way towards determining your political and moral predilections.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

Where Two Or Three Are Gathered

Where two or three are gathered together, there is public morality. It was an interesting assertion, which I will hereby declare to be a tacit fact, when, over at Euvoluntary Exchange, Samuel Wilson wrote concerning the amateur practice of BDSM (with relation to 50 Shades of Grey, of course), “…expert spanking advice for consenting adults” [emphasis added].

Our laws have not caught up to our public morality, such as it is. There are still swaths of our society fighting to maintain certain moral institutions, especially those governing human sexuality, but the writing is on the wall. We get it: morality is a social construct, and you can’t impose your morality on me. Never truer words, etc.

Let’s draw some lines, shall we, just to stretch a little bit. Let’s say the age of consent is 25 years old; artificially high, I know, but even so, with respect to sex, are we willing to give over public morality entirely to them who are merely old enough to consent with each other that the exchange which is about to occur between the two or three of them is approaching euvoluntary? In practice, yes, we most certainly are; is it wise to do so? Those who are a little older, and a little worse for the wear, might chafe a little, rubbing some callused sores which might be useful toward the instruction of the young. That is, one might be exchanging enduring personal happiness in the long run for a brief, hot blast of happiness in the moment. Risks, rewards.

On the one hand, on the free market of exchange, we learn very quickly what is prudent and what is not prudent. On the other hand, the expense for learning prudence can be very high for the individuals who become teaching moments for the rest of us, that is, contracting diseases, dying accidentally, unwanted pregnancy, etc., to speak nothing of the vast emotional world opened up in sexual activity.

I’ll make an assertion, then quickly back away from it: public morality, though discriminatory, is intended to be for the public good. I suppose that the overseers of public morality have a habit of not only discriminating against classes of human beings, but also robbing them of dignity in the process of doing so.

Perhaps public morality is best left to private institutions, as long as they are allowed to participate in the agora, calling out wisdom in the marketplace with sweet talk, beckoning market-goers in an invitation to find rest and comfort in age-old wisdom behind their doors, coddled by discipline, instructed by canon toward the goal of long-lasting happiness and bliss.

Otherwise, let freedom spank.