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February 26, 2010

university-community partnerships for research

Tufts President Larry Bacow holds an annual symposium for Tufts faculty, students, and staff and various nonprofit leaders, government officials, and residents of the communities in which we work (Somerville and Medford, Massachusetts, plus Boston's Chinatown neighborhood). Today's symposium attracted more than 100 participants and was focused on research.

I like Bacow's framing: The University has two "products": educated graduates and knowledge. Some of the knowledge we can and should produce can be generated privately: he mentioned pure philosophy. as an example. But some faculty must create knowledge in partnerships with communities, because of the nature of their research. For example, one cannot envision, develop, and implement an experimental "treatment" to address a social problem without serious input from people in the communities affected.

Mixed groups worked at small tables to discuss fictional scenarios involving research. (For full disclosure: I had written those scenarios.) At our table, the fictional story began with a nonprofit service agency that had done no evaluation before it approached Tufts for help. Colleagues at my table rejected this premise. They argued that community organizations inevitably evaluate; it's just that their evaluations may not be formal or explicit. That was interesting feedback for me, because we are approached at least once a month by nonprofits that say, "We have never done any evaluation; can CIRCLE help us?" I'm thinking that a good response may often be, "You have evaluated, and we should start with what you have learned already."

Two important practical challenges emerged. 1) Universities tend to capture the lion's share of funds, especially overhead, from joint grants. And 2) it is very hard to get tenure for the kind of patient work that community partnerships require.

On that second point, I think the best advice comes from Imagining America's report, Scholarship in Public. These are some key points in that report: 1) There is a huge range of quality in community research, and by no means all of it should be rewarded; we need standards of excellence. 2) Community research often takes the form of multi-part projects or programs. Tenure committees should evaluate whole projects, not publications. 3) The issue of promotion is especially sensitive because faculty from minority backgrounds are the most likely to do community-based research.

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February 25, 2010

idea for a moral philosophy survey

I suspect that people make moral judgments based on a mix of principles, rules, virtues, moral exemplars, and stories. My own philosophical position is that these factors are on a single plane. Principles need not underlie stories, for example. There can be a web of influence or implication that connects all these different kinds of factors. It can be legitimate for a story to imply a principle, a principle to imply respect for an exemplar, the exemplar to suggest respect for a virtue, which implies a different principle. None is necessarily primary or foundational.

As an empirical matter, people differ (I assume) in how their moral thought is organized. If you envision each moral factor as a node, and each implication from one factor to another as a network tie, then we each have a moral network map in our mind. But for some, the map will look like an organizational chart, with a few very broad principles at the bottom, which imply narrower principles, which imply specific judgments. For others, a single story (like the Gospels, or one's own traumatic experience) lies at the center, and everything else radiates out. Some may have a random-looking network map, with lots of nodes and connections but no order. And some--whether by chance or not--will have what's called a "scale-free" network, in which 20% of the nodes are responsible for 80% of the ties. That kind of network is robust and coherent, but not ordered like a flow chart. The 20% of "power nodes" may be a mix of stories, exemplars, principles, and virtues.

I would further hypothesize that people of similar cultures have similar moral network maps.

How to find out? I wonder if you could give people an online survey that led with a fairly realistic but fictional moral situation.* It would be something close to lived experience, not a scenario like a trolley problem that is contrived to bring abstract principles to the surface.

Respondents could then be asked:

1. What principles (if any) influence you when you think about what you should do?
2. Whom would you imitate (if anyone) when you're deciding what to do?
3. What virtues (if any) would you try to embody when you're deciding what to do?
4. What stories (if any) come to mind when you're deciding what to do?

All of a respondent's answers could then be displayed on a screen, randomly scattered across the plane. The respondent could be given a drawing tool and asked to draw arrows (one- or two-directional) between factors that seem to influence or support other ones. Those data would generate a moral network map for the individual, and we would see how much the structure of people's maps differ.

*It would be very challenging to write a scenario that didn't bias responses toward one kind of moral factor. It would also be difficult to create a fictional scenario that had salience for different people. But the general idea would be to create a nuanced, complex, realistic situation demanding a moral response. For me personally, the kind of fictional story that would resonate would be something like this: "Your child attends a local public school. She's doing well academically and learning some academic material in classes, although not as much as she could. The school is racially and culturally diverse, and she benefits from learning about people who are demographically different. White, middle-class students perform better on standardized tests within this school than their peers who are children of color. The principal is caring and concerned with equity but does not seem to have a vision. The teacher is not especially nice but does seem effective at raising all children's test scores. Options for you include moving your kid to a different school, becoming more involved in the school's governance, or advocating for a policy change. What do you feel you should do?"

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February 24, 2010

going deeper on gay marriage

At a meeting last week, we discussed whether gay marriage makes a good topic for discussion in a philosophy or civics course at the high school or college level. Some participants argued that there are no good secular, public reasons against gay marriage. Students (at any level) may have personal convictions against it, but they can only disclose those convictions (if they dare). They will not be able to make arguments relevant to fellow students who hold different convictions. All the neutral arguments favor gay marriage. And that makes it a poor choice for a discussion topic.

I'm not certain that's correct, but I do think that gay marriage is nested in broader issues that make better discussion topics. IF we should live in a liberal, democratic state that is neutral about religion, AND IF that state should give special legal recognition and benefits to "marriage," defined as a very specific contract between pairs of consenting adults, THEN that recognition and those benefits should be available to gay citizens as well as straight ones. That argument seems very straightforward to me and virtually impossible to refute on its own terms. But ...

Should we live in a liberal, democratic state that is neutral about religion? That's a good, complicated, heavily-discussed topic. It raises thorny cases. For example, Martin Luther King was a Christian minister and theologian who made brilliant, "faith-based" arguments against segregation. Those arguments influenced policymakers and voters in our liberal democracy. Was his influence appropriate? If so, why?

Second, should the state recognize and provide benefits for only certain kinds of contracts, defined as "marriages?" Today, in some states, gays may marry legally. But everyone who marries enters into a contract that has certain features. It is designed to be permanent, although there is an intentionally difficult escape hatch in the form of divorce. It combines in one package monogamous sexual intimacy, economic unity, parenting and adoption rights, cohabitation, tax benefits, inheritance, and other legal privileges. Clearly, these elements could be unpacked and offered a la carte.

In practice, marriages do differ. Some people who marry are never sexual partners nor plan to be. Some couples do not expect or value monogamy. Prenuptial agreements may override the principle of economic unity or common property. Yet it remains important that the state -- and social custom -- favors one model of marriage (even when gay marriage is permitted).

I think this second issue (standardized legal marriages versus a la carte contracts) is pretty interesting. If legal marriage became very flexible, it would be like forcing everyone to negotiate their own prenuptial agreements. I would personally hate that idea. It seems extremely stressful to have to invent one's own model of marriage as a couple and then write it all down in legal terms. I would much rather buy into an existing legal and social norm. But this seems like a worthy topic of discussion.

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February 23, 2010

complaint choirs

According to the folks at complaintchoir.org,

Thanks to their work, there have been complaint choirs around the world. Here's an example from Chicago:

In a serious mode, I would complain about these complaints--where are the solutions? But I'm happy to lighten up and enjoy the show, in particular the natural juxtaposition of the merely personal with the grandly political: "Our president is a cowboy / I hate my homeowners association." It's the lifeworld and the public sphere all mashed together and set to music. A democratic art.

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February 22, 2010

stop problematizing--say something

In the humanities today, a pervasive rhetorical style is to raise questions or "problematize." A humanist will describe his or her work as "putting into question" technology, or marriage, or Jane Austen. I think this style is problematic (irony intended) for the following reasons ...

It's usually a way of expressing an opinion. You put technology in question (for instance) because you're against some aspect of it. But vague question-raising allows you to duck accountability for your own views. If you said, "Technology is harmful," people would be able to test your thesis, cite difficult examples, and put alternative opinions on the table. If all you say is that you want to raise questions about technology, the accountability falls on your interlocutors and you avoid having to defend your position (even to yourself).

This style also allows you to avoid specifying the degree of certainty or generality of your views. Are you just vaguely uncomfortable about a popular enthusiasm, or do you have reasons and evidence in favor of a critical view? If all you do is "problematize," you don't have to say.

Perhaps scholars adopt this style in modesty, but it comes across as insufferably arrogant. Picture a literary critic or a philosopher who is talking to students or other citizens who have marriages in their families. The humanist says that he or she wishes to "problematize" marriage. Well, marriage is subject to criticism. But the style of simply raising questions implies that you're smart and sophisticated because you see problems with other people's deep commitments. Yet you don't have solutions or alternatives. The clear implication is that other people are stupid. In contrast, if you said that there were reasons to scrap marriage in favor of free contracts between consenting adults, you'd be putting your own views on the line, subjecting them to debate. That would come across as much less arrogant, because you would risk losing the argument. (If all you do is raise questions, you can't lose.)

As a pedagogy or as a way of intervening in public debates, merely raising questions seems to imply that our problem is credulity, or prejudice, or a failure to grasp difficulties. In fact, when it comes to moral matters, I think skepticism comes all too quickly and conveniently, justifying self-interest and complacency. As Bernard Williams wrote, "Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our major problem now is actually that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can." (More on that here.)

I suspect that the questioning style reflects a deep skepticism about normative judgments. The reasons for this skepticism include cultural relativism and a cult of expertise (which implies that scholars should only address what they are trained to address; and no one but a moral philosopher is trained to make moral claims.) If such skepticism is appropriate, then there really isn't much social value to the humanities, and it's not surprising that those disciplines are under-funded and under-appreciated. But if we can make valid ethical/normative statements, we should do so.

Note that you can make an explicit moral claim with due humility. You can propose it for argument, noting that there are valid alternatives and that even you aren't sold on it. But I think responsible participation in the public sphere requires making explicit statements about what you value, and why. As long as the prevailing style is to problematize, the humanities will continue to hold a marginal role in public life.

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February 12, 2010

on the road

We are leaving today for Madrid and Toledo, Spain. That's pure vacation. Next Thursday, I will be in Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, for a mix of business and fun. I am looking forward to a rest from the Internet and its constant flow of news and information, so I won't be writing or reading blogs for a week.

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February 11, 2010

be true to your school

I spent this morning at a training/discussion for administrators at Tufts. One topic was the need to strengthen collaborations within our university, especially ones that combine several departments or schools. Collaboration has evident value, whether for research, social impact, or teaching. But often the best collaborators are not colleagues within your own institution. Tufts happens to be a relatively small research university in a metropolitan area with a remarkable array of other universities. Even on a direct journey from our own medical school to our own school of arts and sciences, one must pass by or under Harvard, MIT, Lesley, Emerson, and Suffolk universities. This means that collaborating with colleagues at other institutions is especially tempting for Tufts faculty. But the same opportunities are really available to scholars anywhere. Even if you teach at a relatively large and remote university (like Penn State), you can easily collaborate with colleagues around the world.

Collaboration across a single university is good for the institution. Collaboration among several universities is sometimes better for the actual research or service, because it allows the strongest and most coherent group to form.

I think we should care about our own universities. They pay us, after all. And Tufts is a good community, worthy of loyalty. The world is better off when Tufts is stronger as an institution.

That does not mean that collaborating within a university is better than working across institutions. The tradeoff is undeniable. I simply believe that there is value to intra-university collaborations, and they deserve deliberate attention and resources.

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February 10, 2010

Super Bowl Sunday at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum

Half an hour before the concert starts, I watch the audience file in. The average age is well above seventy; the husbands look slight and bleached beside their wives. A few grandchildren wearing bows and shiny shoes sit between the couples. In the hangings of the Tapestry Room, Renaissance grandees display their courtly manners. Behind me, someone says, "We used to see Archie Cox there all the time."

I try to read Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, her farm-girl narrator describing a commuter flight to Green Bay: "Then suddenly we were taking off, racing down the runway and lifting into the air like a carnival ride, the plane with a seabird's wobble." It's her first time in an airplane. Near me, a voice asks, "Did you go to any concerts in Paris?" Answer: "We heard the St. John's Passion, of which we are very fond." Apparently, we are not so fond of dangling prepositions.

Moore's leisurely, descriptive style encourages observation. I remember the tiled floor in this very room from when I first saw it, on a trip with my Dad, at age 17. The Bach-lover behind me is recommending the "film version of Cyrano with Depardieu." Each French noun is perfectly pronounced, like an excerpt from a language tape. His mouth is capable of switching from Boston Brahmin to gallic r's and back without slowing appreciably.

My misanthropy now covers the whole audience except maybe the grandchildren. The first piece of music is supposed to rebuke such attitudes. It is a Masonic cantata by Mozart, with German lyrics that recommend: "Love thyselves and thy brothers! Bodily strength and beauty be thy ornament!" I find this advice hard to take, even with Mozart's sugar-coating.

It's the Bartok that snaps me out of it, the string quartet exchanging spiky, stochastic phrases, snatches of folk melody, tragic outbursts. The musicians are young, diverse, and intent, interacting with their bodies and faces as well as the sounds they make. The music was new when the audience first heard it and feels new still. It puts up green shoots.

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February 9, 2010

upcoming talks

Please consider marking your calendars for the following:

"From Freedom Summer to Teach for America: Understanding the Impact of
Youth Activism"
A conversation with Tisch Civic Engagement Research Prize winner Professor Doug McAdam (and me).
March 17, 2010, 3:30-5:30 pm
Rabb Room, Lincoln Filene Hall, Tufts University

"Reforming the Humanities"
Lunchtime talk (by me)
Tufts University's Center for the Humanities, 48 Professors Row
Tuesday, February 23, 12pm

"The Obama Administration's Civic Agenda"
University of Wisconsin Philosophy and Education Lecture (by me)
Feb. 19, 2010, noon
267 Teacher Education Building, Madison

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February 8, 2010

in defense of Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin's letters from the years 1946-1960 have been published, and A.N. Wilson reads them as the record of a man who was smoothly diplomatic and glitteringly successful in public, but malicious behind people's backs and never a profound author. I haven't yet read these letters, but Wilson's judgment that Berlin was "nothing but a witty talker" seems flatly wrong on the evidence of his great political essays.

Here is an example from Wilson's review: "The 800 pages [of Berlin's letters] are peppered with malice about poor A. L. Rowse (a more interesting man than Berlin and ultimately more intellectually distinguished)." While Berlin was writing his "tedious, infelicitous, prolix letters"-- Wilson writes--Rowse was "producing those readable, well-researched volumes The England of Elizabeth, Ralegh and the Throckmortons, The Early Churchills, The Later Churchills, etc."

I happen to have read The England of Elizabeth recently (well, most of its 592 dense pages). It contains a lot of interesting information, some vivid imaginative prose, and strong, idiosyncratic opinions. It is worth something, but it is far from profound or reliable. The author is so strongly committed to his politics (secular, mercantile, hierarchical, nationalist) that he makes all kinds of implausible claims--for instance, that Elizabeth I was privately not religious.

Christopher Haigh's introduction to Rowse's book (the text chosen to accompany and advertise the 2003 edition) says:

Imagine that you were trapped with this person in the tiny, static community of an Oxford college, where all the inmates have life tenure. You are diplomatic to him in person but complain about him behind his back, writing (for example) that he "grows more and more impossible and awful daily." Should anyone blame you?

Berlin never wrote a magnum opus. His historical work was not deeply sourced enough for professional historians, and he gave up the rigors of analytic philosophy. Most of his ideas were unoriginal; he hastened to show that he had found them in previous authors. But he had the huge gift of being right (something that one can hardly say of A.L. Rowse). I think he was right because his thought was grounded in worldly experience.

A.N. Wilson writes: Berlin "settled down to be a 'historian of ideas', but the great book never got written. He accepted the role of being a sort of Samgrass from Brideshead Revisited, the don at the rich man’s table, the brilliant chatterer, who moved among bright worldly people who had not read as much as he had, so were impressed by the idea of someone who had heard of, let alone read, Maistre:

That quotation from Berlin's letters makes him seem too social and glamorous to be taken seriously. In fact, I wouldn't enjoy reading a lot of pages about dinners with H.R.H. the Queen Mum. But Berlin's gift was to learn about politics--and life--from diverse people. He could enjoy an evening with royalty, but he could also seek out the tragically persecuted Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad, or guide an American student though her dissertation. He talked incredibly fast and with great self-assurance, but he also listened. For him, sociability was a form of research. Since his topic was people, his method was apt, and he was superb at it.

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February 5, 2010

the Tea Party Movement and youth

On NPR's Morning Edition, Don Gonyea reports on the efforts of the Tea Party conservative movement to recruit young voters and activists. He quotes me to the effect that young people much preferred Barack Obama in 2008, but they are still forming their opinions about government. They are suffering badly from the economic crisis, and--rightly or not--could decide that their hopes for a Democratic administration were misplaced. Especially if the Tea Party right seems libertarian rather than authoritarian and intolerant, it has a lot of potential to draw young voters. Young conservatives almost certainly stayed home in 2008, contributing to Obama's 2:1 margin among people under 30. It would not be surprising if that ratio shifted a great deal in 2010 and beyond.

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February 4, 2010

why Spain fell

In preparation for a trip to Spain, I just read J. H. Elliot's Imperial Spain: 1469-1716. This book is nearly 50 years old, and I don't know whether Elliot himself or his many students have changed the story profoundly. But the arc is epic and very well told. In 1540, the ruler of Spain also governed the Holy Roman Empire, the low countries (which were the most dynamic economies of Europe), half of Italy, and the Americas from Texas to Argentina. The culture of Spain itself was profound and influential. One century later, his successor could hardly keep Spain itself together, he had declared bankruptcy, and Spanish culture was sinking into a mediocrity from which it would take at least a century to recover.

The various explanations for Spain's decline are resonant today, and each would appeal to different modern ideological movements.

I suspect that all these explanations are valid, and the decline was overdetermined. It still represents one of history's great cautionary examples.

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February 3, 2010

the budget supports broadening education

The president's budget proposal includes increased support for education outside of reading, math, and science. We and others have documented a narrowing of the US curriculum, especially in elementary schools. We found that the reason for the narrowing trend was not No Child Left Behind. But the decline of civics, history, art, and foreign languages is still a problem that deserves a federal response.

The Administration proposes a new funding area called "Teaching and Learning for a Well Rounded Education," with $265 million in appropriations. They propose moving civic education out of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools (whose main focus is safety and good behavior--a deadly heading under which to place active citizenship and democracy). The $265 million appropriation is roughly on par with the administration's request for science, technology, engineering, and math.

(By the way, I support the so-called STEM subjects, and we're not in a competition to get the most money. I only make the comparison to demonstrate that the president wants real money for the topics that make kids "well-rounded.")

If this plan goes forward, there will be struggles over how to allocate the money among fields such as history, art, languages, and civics; whether to fund states, local education agencies, and/or nonprofits (or for-profit firms); and what to do with the various special programs that were historically funded to support specific topics, such as American history and civics. Those are tough calls, but there is significant promise in the president's proposal.

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February 2, 2010

a critique of expertise, part 2

Yesterday's post was Part 1 of a critique of expertise in public policy. Part 2 focuses on the issue of generalization.

Experts generalize. An important aspect of almost all professional training is the identification of general concepts or categories that trigger appropriate responses. Told a story about specific people interacting in a particular context, any professional will look for abstractions. For instance, in medical school, one learns the signs and definitions of diseases, and when a disease is present, a physician knows which treatments to offer. When more than one condition is involved, or when the diagnosis is uncertain, the decision becomes complex, and good physicians fully understand the roles of judgment and luck. Doctors could never be replaced by machines that simply took in data and spat out treatment plans. But diseases and other general health conditions remain central to physicians' analysis. They look for the necessary and sufficient conditions that define conditions, and then apply general causal theories that say: this medicine reduces that illness.

Lawyers, meanwhile, try to apply general rules from statutes, constitutions, and court rulings. Their advice may be controversial or uncertain if no single, definitive legal rule covers the situation--and they understand that--but their professional thinking involves rules. For engineers, economists, psychologists, and virtually all other professionals, the important abstractions may be different, but the basic habits of mind are alike. Professionals have achieved monumental advances (and prestige) by discovering generalizations that apply widely. For example, the polio vaccine reliably prevents polio, and that is extremely valuable to know.

You can also hear ordinary people generalize if you listen in public spaces. They say things like, "Of course Amtrak is always late, it's a government monopoly." Or, "You're getting a cold; you should take vitamin C." Research and data disprove these assertions, and a trained professional would not make them. Even an economist who was hostile to monopolies would not draw a direct line from Amtrak's monopoly status to the tardiness of its trains. (Other countries have monopolistic railroads that run on time.) Instead of being too quick and bold with generalizations, a good professional is fully aware of complexities and nuances.

Even so, there are drawbacks to using general concepts as the main units of analysis. A person, a situation, an institution, or a community can be apprehended as a whole object. We can assess it, judge it, and form opinions about how the entity should change. Evaluating a whole situation need not be any harder or less reliable than analyzing general categories abstracted from such situations. If we can say something valid and useful about a generality (like diabetes, tax incentives, or free speech), we can talk just as sensibly about this patient, this school, or this conversation. The particular object or situation is not just an aggregate of definable components. It has distinctive features as a whole, and we human beings are just as good at understanding those as we are at generalizing abstractly.

The form that our understanding takes is often narrative: we tell stories about particular people or institutions, and we project those stories into the future as predictions. We may find generic issues and categories embedded within a story: King Lear, for example, was a king and a father, and there are general truths to be said about both categories. But the story of King Lear is much more than an aggregate of such categories, which are not especially useful for understanding the play.

In public policy, non-professionals are often better at the assessment of whole objects than experts are. That is because ordinary members or clients of a school, a neighborhood, or a firm know its whole story better than an outsider who arrives to apply general rules.

Often, professionals have in the back of their mind an empirical finding that is valid in academic terms, but that should not tell us what to do. Even when results are statistically significant, effect sizes in the social sciences are usually small, meaning that only a small proportion of what we are interested in explaining is actually explained by the research. Statistical studies shed some light on why individuals differ, but can tell us nothing about why they are all alike. In research based on surveys or field observations, the sample may not resemble the population or situation that we face in our own communities. Experimental research is conducted with volunteers (often current undergraduate psychology majors) in artificial settings. Even if a particular finding is strong, and the sample does resemble our own, there is always a great deal of variation, and any particular case may differ from the mean. Measures are always problematic and imperfect, and some important factors are virtually impossible to measure. Unmeasured factors may be responsible for the relationships we think we see among the things we measure.

All of this is well known and may be thoughtfully presented in the "limitations" section of a published paper. When carefully and cautiously read, such a paper can be very helpful. But the professional's temptation is focus on a statistically significant, published result even if its practical import and relevance are low. Besides, it is rarely the author of a paper who tries to influence a practical discussion. Often professionals have not even read the original paper that influences them. They rely instead on their graduate training or abstracts and second-hand summaries of more recent research. The caveats in the original studies tend to be lost.

Of course, people with professional credentials can be excellent observers and assessors of whole objects like schools, neighborhoods, or firms. In some affluent communities, practically everyone holds an advanced degree and is therefore a "professional." But their judgments of whole objects and situations are best when they think as experienced laypeople, not as specialists. They should draw on professional expertise, but only as one source of insight (and should not rely on only one profession).

Arguments about the proper role of generalization take place within professions, not just between professionals and laypeople. Physicians, for example, are being pressed to adopt "evidence based medicine," which deprecates doctors' intuitions and personal experiences in favor of general scientific findings, especially those supported by randomized experiments. Some medical doctors are pushing back, arguing that experimental findings never yield reliable guidance for complex, particular cases. What matters is the whole story of the particular patient.

The same argument plays out in education. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 favors forms of instruction proven in "scientifically-based research," and the gold standard is a randomized experiment. (The frequently accepted second-best is a statistical model, which can be understood as an estimate of what would be found in a randomized experiment.) Like physicians, some educators resist this pressure, on the ground that an experienced teacher can and should make decisions about individual students and classrooms that are heavily influenced by context and only marginally guided by scientific findings.

This debate will never be fully resolved, but there is a logic to the idea that if we are going to train people in expensive graduate schools and rely on their guidance to shape general policies, they should be the bearers of "scientifically-based research." In other words, the most optimistic claims about the value of expertise rely on a notion of the expert as an abstract and general thinker. When professionals are seen instead as experienced and wise craftspeople, no one exaggerates their role in public life. The physician who is a seasoned healer is left to treat his or her patients; it is the medical researcher with general findings who is invited to influence policy. My claim is that we err when we give such research too much credence.

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February 1, 2010

a critique of expertise, part 1

We need expertise to make wise public decisions. You wouldn't ask just any fellow citizen to operate on your heart; you would find the best-trained and most experienced cardiologist. In the same way, if you want to fix public schools or the justice system, you need economists, psychologists, criminologists, and other experts to advise and perhaps decide.

Everyone finds some merit in this argument, but it can be grossly exaggerated. For example, my friend Harry Boyte often quotes a speech by Donna Shalala that can be found in full here. Shalala was president of the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s and went on to eight years as Secretary of Health and Human Services under Bill Clinton. She epitomized the policy expert who attains public influence. In her 1989 speech, she began by citing scientific discoveries that had "improved human life, prolonged human life, enriched and protected human life. The great plagues are basically behind us," she said, thanks to "scientific research done under the sheltering arms of research universities." She went on to defend the "idea of a distinterested technocratic elite" that arrived in America before 1900 and shaped both the modern research university and government:

Shalala ended her speech with a call for the university's experts to take on the pressing challenges of the late twentieth century, especially persistent poverty and educational failure, with "grand strategies" grounded in apolitical social science. Four years later, she was running a huge federal agency responsible for health care. The administration she served devised a complex health reform bill, described as the work of a "distinterested technocratic elite." It was quickly defeated; the major trends in public health remained basically unaffected.

When Donna Shalala was studying for her doctorate in public affairs during the 1960s, the "moon-ghetto" metaphor was popular. This was the idea that engineers and other specialists had put human beings on the moon (and brought them safely home), so it should be possible to tackle the problems of the so-called "ghetto" in much the same way. It was all a matter of scientifically diagnosing the causes of poverty and efficiently deploying solutions.

Actually, the moon and the "ghetto" are very different. The moon is almost perfectly detached from all other human issues and contexts, because it is almost 240,000 miles away from our planet (although NASA's launch facilities in Florida and Houston might have some local impact). The goal of the Apollo Program--whether you endorse it or not--was clear and easily defined. The challenges were physical; thus Newtonian physics allowed engineers to predict the impact of their tools precisely in advance. The costs were also calculable--in fact, the Apollo Program was completed under budget. The astronauts and other participants were highly motivated volunteers, who had signed up for a fully developed concept that they understood in advance. The president and other national leaders had committed enough funds to make the Apollo Program a success, because its value to them exceeded the costs.

In contrast, a low-income urban neighborhood is enmeshed with other communities. Its challenges are multi-dimensional. Its strengths and weaknesses are open to debate. Defining success is a matter of values; even how to measure the basic facts is controversial. (For example, how should "race" be defined in a survey? What are the borders of a neighborhood?) Everyone involved--from the smallest child on the block to the most powerful official downtown--has distinct interests and motivations. Outsiders may not care enough to provide adequate funds, and residents may prefer to leave than to make their area better. When social scientists and policymakers implement rewards or punishments to affect people's behavior, the targets tend to realize what is happening and develop strategies to resist, subvert, or profit from the policies--a response that machines never manage. No wonder we could put a man on the moon but our poor urban neighborhoods persist.

Thanks to personal computers, spreadsheets, and the World Wide Web, the resources and skills necessary to analyze social data have fallen by orders of magnitude since Donna Shalala was first trained in social science. Now anyone with a computer and basic knowledge of statistics can copy columns of numbers from official websites and look for correlations or more complex statistical relationships. Yet, if anything, we feel less confident about our ability to diagnose and cure social problems than we did in 1970. Shalala's "grand strategies" have receded from view.

Although I acknowledge the value of expertise, we can identify several important general reasons why it is never enough and we always need citizens' participation to tackle social problems.

First, professions cannot be trusted to make decisions for the public, even when their tools and techniques are appropriate and effective. Professionals are human, and if people outside their group turn to them for guidance but do not closely scrutinize their work, they are sure to become lazy, biased, careless, or even corrupt. In 1913, George Bernard Shaw wrote about the reluctance of doctors to testify against one another in malpractice suits. "The effect of this state of things is to make the medical profession a conspiracy to hide its own shortcomings. No doubt the same may be said of all professions. They are all conspiracies against the laity." I think Shaw was joking, but there was a kernel of truth in his aphorism. Unless professionals are forced to justify their methods, assumptions, and conclusions in frequent, detailed, open discussions with laypeople, corruption is inevitable.

Second, social issues involve inescapable questions of value. It is not enough to know that A causes B. An engineer, an economist, or a biochemist might tell us that with some reliability. But we must also know whether B is desirable, whether A is an ethically acceptable means to B, and whether the cost is worthwhile. For example, you can often cause a low-income neighborhood to vanish by building a mass-transit station that links it to the downtown business core. Rents will rise around the station and poor people will move out. Crime will fall and investment will follow. Whether those changes count as "success" depends on your values, not on the data alone.

Third, experts are trained to think in terms of categories: to classify situations and then to recommend the rules, methods, solutions, or "best practices" that apply to each classification. There is value to thinking in categories, and experts do it better within their own fields than other people do. However, there are also serious limitations to categorical thinking, and laypeople often see a particular situation better than experts do. I believe this point has great significance for how we arrange our politics and will develop it tomorrow.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:04 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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