Saturday, November 30, 2013

We've Gone Too Far to Turn Back Now

I finished reading Deborah Meier's The Power of Their Ideas last night, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  This bit, for example:
In demonizing the Right, or the Left, we avoid seeing our overlapping fears and our overlapping hopes.  There are plenty of liberal-minded citizens who are uncomfortable with Central Park East's stress on open intellectual inquiry and would have us leave young minds free of uncertainties and openness until "later on" when they are "more prepared to face complexity."  First, some argue, "fill the vessel" with neutral information and easily remembered and uplifting stories.  But such compromises will neither satisfy the Right nor prepare our children's minds for "later" [81].
At various places in the book Meier describes the five "habits of mind" she and her colleagues developed for Central Park East Secondary School, always adding that they were constantly being revised and reformulated: "We never write them out the exact same way, and over the years we've realized they are constantly evolving in their meaning."  (That seems to me a good thing.)
They are: the question of evidence, or "How do we know what we know?"; the question of viewpoint, in all its multiplicity, or "Who's speaking?"; the search for connections and patterns, or "What causes what?"; supposition, or "How might things have been different?"; and finally, why any of it matters, or "Who cares?"

Lawyers tell us these "habits" are very lawyerly, but journalists and scientists tell us they are basic to what they do as well.  As a historian I recognize them as being at the heart of my field.  As a principal I find them useful when "naughty" kids are sent to my office.  I ask them to put their version of the story on one side and that of whoever sent them to me on the other, then we consider evidence that corroborates either version, discuss whether what's happened is part of a pattern, how else it might have been dealt with, and, finally, why it matters [50].
I really like this, though I question whether all five questions are basic to science, where viewpoint and "why any of it matters" are not on the menu.  I especially like Meier's recognition that many important questions are never resolved, but we still have to bumble along and act anyway.  I first encountered this insight in the psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp's Eschatological Laundry List, published in 1974 but already circulating before that and now frequently posted on the Web.  Items 33 and 34 are
33. All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
34. Yet we are responsible for everything we do.
These basic facts should be remembered whenever anyone declares his or her knowledge overconfidently, whether that person is a scientist or a preacher, a politician or a CEO.  (The two categories aren't mutually exclusive, of course.)  For right now, I want to point out two typical responses to these basic facts.

One goes something like: "But if you have to wait until you have perfect information, you'll never be able to do anything!"  That's not true.  You still have to act, but anyone who claims to have sufficient data for important, major decisions is either lying to you or deceiving themselves.  It might be that having to acknowledge the limits of one's knowledge might prevent people from making some bad decisions with destructive consequences, either because they admit they don't know enough to be sure their course of action is the right one, or because others will work harder to keep the decision-maker from rushing ahead recklessly. (Going to war is one such bad decision with destructive consequences, but there are others.)  It might make the public more wary of the "But we've got to do something!" that's used to justify just about any bad course of action.  Anything which puts the brakes on such behavior is a good thing.  At the national and international levels especially, it should always be asked, "Do you have enough information to justify killing large numbers of people, or crashing the world economy?"

People have been making important decisions on the basis of insufficient data all along, which they will usually admit by trying to evade responsibility for the bad ones with another popular excuse, that Nobody could have foreseen that doing X would lead to Y!  This is generally a lie, because even a quick investigation will find that plenty of people predicted that X would lead to Y.  The trouble is that those successful prophets are the wrong people, motivated by "reflexive opposition" to our wise leaders and institutions.  (Oddly, reflexive obedience isn't regarded as discrediting.)  They were right, but for the wrong reasons.  Those seeking to excuse themselves will also protest that none of these fine critics bothered to barge into their offices and make them listen.  Of course institutions are set up to keep such people away.  This excuse is bipartisan; Democratic apologists use it as readily as Republicans.

Another popular, and related evasion is that there isn't time to think about every possibility!  Which is technically true, which is why important decisions have to be made without sufficient data.  But in the real world, the problem isn't a lack of time.  One reason for insisting that there's no time is that it enables people to push through bad courses of action that aren't really urgent, but calls for debate can be brushed aside as distractions by those who favor the enemy.  There wasn't really any rush for the US to invade Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria, or to strangle Iran; the only real danger was that more delay and more debate might make it more obvious that military action was a bad idea and, worse, that diplomacy might succeed.  (Our Presidents always pay lip service to diplomacy, but they really hate it, as a totally unexciting and inadequate substitute for killing people.)

Very often debate can continue while action is taken.  Action tends to reveal flaws in the plan as adopted, which can then be corrected if those involved haven't cut off the possibility of thought and modification.  In Central Park East, many issues are discussed by faculty, parents, and students on an ongoing basis.  Traditionalists would find this annoying, of course, since they regard the intractability of many problems as a good reason to throw out change and return to the good old ways.  If there are still problems after that, it's not the administration's fault; it's always the other guys.