Thursday, January 22

THINKING ABOUT OBAMA

Sam Smith

Once again I'm in trouble and once again it has little to do with politics or ideology. I just don't think right about Obama.

Most people of power are inherently deductive thinkers. They have learned a set of respected principles by which those of power can continue to have power by applying these principles to the facts they find around them.

These principles change from time to time, which is why we have things like the op ed pages of the Washington Post that helpfully inform us, for example, when the age of the "free market" is over and it's okay to quote Keynes again.

Sometimes key principles have to be dispensed with in a less elegant manner, such as the "domino theory" of the Vietnam war or the "weapons of mass destruction" that took us into Iraq.

And sometimes key principles prove a bit shaky at which time it is fitting and proper to have them undergo thoughtful reexamination by approved theorists as is happening now with the "war on terror." These theories are typically either reconfirmed or replaced with others, preferably of three or less words.

In each instance, the key element is a theory that is presumed to be true, even if lacks empirical confirmation.

For example, in the case of Barack Obama, one theory is that he will be a great president because he is our first black president. Everyone is either too polite or too enthralled by the theory to ask such simple questions as: would this be true if our first black president were Clarence Thomas?

Another theory is that he will be a great president because he is a great man, a subset of the theory that history is the purview of great men [sic], which overlooks the role of chance, culture, the environment, and lesser souls such as those who created the decline in the birth rate or the anti-slavery, women's, labor and environmental movements.

Another theory, particular popular among the Washington elite, is that he will be a great president because he preaches centrism, even though there is no historical evidence that centrism produces anything much more than the status quo and even though, in America's case, most profound and progressive improvements have been the result of a raucous and irrepressible left.

I don't buy such theories. My learning disability is not that I'm of the wrong political persuasion, but that I think inductively. In other words, I move from evidence towards the theory rather than the other way around. While there are some academic fields where inductive reasoning gets respect - social history and anthropology, in which I majored, being among them - it is widely thought of as unprofessional empiricism at best, conspiracy theory at worst.

In fact, the term 'conspiracy theory' was invented by elite media and politicians to denigrate questions or critical presumptions about events about which important facts remain unrevealed.

The intelligent response to such events is to remain agnostic, skeptical, and curious. Theories may be suggested - just as they are every day about less complex and more open matters on news broadcasts and op ed pages - but such theories should not stray too far from available evidence.

Conversely, as long as serious anomalies remain, dismissing questions and doubts as a "conspiracy theory" is a highly unintelligent response. It is also ironic as those ridiculing the questions and doubts typically consider themselves intellectually superior to the doubters. But they aren't because they stopped thinking the moment someone in power told them a superficially plausible answer.

There is the further irony that many who ridicule doubts about the official version of events were typically trained at elite colleges where, in political science and history, theories often take precedent over facts and in which substantive decisions affecting politics and history are presumed to be the work of a small number of wise men [sic]. They are trained, in effect, to trust in theories and benign confederacies. Most major media political coverage is based on the great man theory of history. This pattern can be found elsewhere in everything from Skull & Bones to the NY Times editorial board to the Council on Foreign Relations. You might even call them beneficent conspiracy theorists.

Homicide detectives and investigative reporters, among others, are inductive thinkers who start with evidence rather than with theories and aren't happy when the evidence is weak, conflicting or lacking. They keep working the case until a solid answer appears.

The inductive thinker considering Obama is naturally drawn to things like his record and his statements on various issues. I compiled these over the campaign and came up with around 30 issues with which progressives might disagree. However you might argue each case, one fact is indisputable: the media did not let the voters in on the secret. Thus, most of the one million plus enthusiasts on the Mall during the inaugural celebration were cheering a theory rather than facts, supported by the almost universal absence of the mention of actual issues when the fans were interviewed by roving TV crews.

In philosophical terms, Barack Obama might be called a beneficent conspiracy theory, a black helicopter come to save rather than endanger us.

The irony is that I suspect he knows this, because he has achieved his success in part by being an inductive reasoner in practice and a deductive one in rhetoric. Cleverly ignoring Mahalia Jackson's warning against being a "saint in church and a devil under cover," Obama is street smart in his walk and ethereal in his talk. And in the latter, he is blessed by being able to draw on the grand theories of both the white Ivy League and black theology. It is this combination of intellectual and Christian theory that appeals to those inclined to faithfulness.

I learned about the Ivy League approach when I attended Harvard. Later I would write:

"Whatever intelligence I possessed did not seem the sort required to excel at Harvard. Long afterwards I would figure out that much of what Harvard was about was a giant game of categories, in which real people, real events and real phenomena were assigned to fictitious groupings such as The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or the Freudian Tradition. To those immersed in this game, the imaginary assumed a substance of its own; as classics professor John Finley is said to have remarked, 'Sometimes, I fear my son thinks that life is real.'

"I had come to Harvard full of passion for phenomena I could see, feel and touch; now it was implicitly suggested that these were childish things to be put away. The educated man concerned himself primarily with what they meant, with which other phenomena they belonged, and what theories could best explain their existence in the first place. I didn't want to spend my life putting things into little boxes; I wanted to take them out, turn them over, examine them closely, do something with them, and tell others what I had found.

"If you were brazen enough to think inductively, that is to say to examine evidence and consider what it might all mean -- in short to use one's innate capacity to imagine, to dream and to create -- you risked being regarded ignorant, or at least odd. You were, after all, being educated to digest grand principles, major paradigms and random certainties and then to sort and file all of life's phenomena by these convenient categories.

"In such a cataloging system, the accidental, the chaotic, the imagined, the malevolent, the culturally unfamiliar, and the unique often got misplaced. I had come to Harvard with some vague notion that it would teach me how to use my own intelligence better, that I would learn how to educate myself. I didn't understand then, and wouldn't until many decades later, that the American establishment wasn't really all that interested in that sort of thing.

"From the intellectual epicenter of Cambridge to the political apex of Washington, education was something one received, rehearsed, and regurgitated. You didn't play with it, experiment with it, and you certainly didn't make it your own -- even if, like the shape of Harvard Square, it turned out not to be as officially described. Life at Harvard was thus several steps removed from life as I knew and hoped it to be."

The dean of freshman, F. Skiddy von Stade Jr, once said to me, "You people from Germantown Friends School look so good on paper. Why do you do so badly here?" It was a fair question; a number of GFS graduates were on probation and one had dropped out.

It took me decades to understand and appreciate the difference in two systems of learning, for at my Quaker high school I had been given few grand theories. Instead, in the 1950s I had been introduced to how the world really worked - for example, an 8th grade English course that included a segment on the secrets of advertising, a 9th grade course in anthropology and a 12 grade math course that explained the Boolean calculations of computers I wouldn't see for 20 years. The Quakers themselves were refreshingly devoid of grand theories - once a debate in Friends meeting over the divinity of Christ, for example, was gently diverted by one of the elders - but the respect and encouragement of critical thought and examination was far greater than I would find at Harvard or in the media I would late join.

Part of the problem with the grand theory approach to politics is that politics isn't a science. The deductive premises of science can be constantly tested, reviewed and dumped if necessary. In politics, these theories are not sanctified by the confirmation of experimentation and analysis, but primarily by the effectiveness of the propaganda those projecting them.

Besides, as Benjamin Franklin noted, you don't need to know the law of gravity to realize that a plate will likely break if you drop it on the floor.

The problem with inductive reasoning in politics is that you seldom come up with definitively accurate answers. But the same is true of deductive reasoning. The difference is that with the latter, it is easier to pretend that it is true. With inductive reasoning you are constantly reminded of the weakness of thought; with deductive reasoning it is too easy to become a prisoner of myth.

Evan Heit, in the Cambridge Handbook Of Computational Psychology describes the process well:

"How do you make a prediction about the unpredictable? Inductive reasoning is about drawing conclusions that are not certain or logically valid, but still likely. Let's say you are buying a new CD for your friend. It's impossible to know with certainty what she will like, and it doesn't seem that the rules of logic will tell you which CD to buy. There's no correct answer. Nonetheless, you can make an informed guess, and indeed she will probably like the CD that you buy. The more you know about her taste in music, and which categories of music she likes and does not like, the more likely it is that your prediction will be correct. Our everyday experiences are filled with predictions of this nature - we use inductive reasoning to make likely but not certain predictions about how people will act and about things we have not seen, e.g., that when we open a door to a room, the room will have a floor and ceiling. In spite of the uncertainty, we manage to be fairly successful in our predictions - we can buy gifts that our friends will enjoy and avoid walking into rooms without floors. When it comes to making predictions about the unpredictable, computational models are in a similar position to people. Because the judgments being modeled are themselves uncertain, it's unlikely that models of inductive reasoning will be perfectly correct. Any computational model of inductive reasoning could probably be improved by taking account of more knowledge or more principles of prediction. Nonetheless, current models of inductive reasoning already do a fairly good job."

So if I do not react to Barack Obama the way you would like, do not consider me cynical. It's just that where others see a god, I see a politician; where others feast on adjectives, I dine on facts and where some find faith sufficient, I prefer the Missouri motto that some say stems from an 1899 speech by Congressman Willard Vandiver, when he declared, "I come from a country that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I'm from Missouri, and you have got to show me."

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