Saturday, December 20, 2014

When data verifies impressions

There is a new paper out which appears interesting, Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science by Jonathan Haidt, Philip E. Tetlock, et al. Leafing through it, this graph caught my eye on page 53.

The population being measured is academic psychologists.

In researching the pervasiveness of Gramscian memes it has become apparent to me that the spread of postmodernism and critical theory seems to have reached some sort of tipping point in the late 1980s. I graduated in 1982 and completed my masters in 1985. Some of the implications and ideas couched in postmodernism and critical theory were already circulating but they were by no means common or in the mainstream. Judging by the Group of 88 in the Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax (from my post, The imbalance cannot last) by 2006 postmodernism and critical theory had taken over the following departments (their percentages being the percentage of professors in each department being willing to condemn and punish students without due process, merely based on their class and their race).
80% African and African-American Studies
72% Women's Studies
60% Cultural Anthropology
45% Romance Studies
42% Literature
32% English
31% Art & Art History
25% History
0% Biological Anthropology and Anatomy
0% Biology
0% Chemistry
0% Computer Science
0% Economics
0% Engineering, all departments in the entire school
0% Genetics
0% Germanic Languages/Literature
0% Psychology and Neuroscience
0% Religion
0% Slavic and Eurasian Studies
Other sources seem to indicate a prevalence of postmodernism and critical theory among the psychology, sociology, communication and education departments as well.

The chart from Haidt's paper covers only psychology and is in terms of conservative/liberal or party affiliation but it provides a trend line which matches my experience. Gramscian memes are far more prevalent on the liberal end of the scales such that they can be taken as close substitutes. These Gramscian schools of thought, so contrary to American culture, did indeed reach their critical mass in select departments only in the late 1980s or early 1990s and beyond. It explains a lot. President Sullivan (Sociology) of UVA's instinctive inclination towards group punishment based on no evidence (in the recent UVA Gang Rape Hoax), Professor Susan J. Douglas (Communications) in her recent It's Okay to Hate Republicans screed, Sabrina Rubin Erdely (author of the UVA Gang Rape Hoax article) was class of 1994 with a major in English.

These purveyors of Gramscian memes seem to be the product of a relatively recent self-destructive turn in academia. Between MOOCs, reduction in education loans, declining university revenues, tough economic environments for graduates, (particularly those with low value degrees such as studies or sociology or communications), it is likely that the education system will purge itself of much of this cognitive pollution over the next couple of decades. The faster it happens, the better and the less damage done to the lives of young people led astray by naive enthusiasm for poisonous totalitarian utopias.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Modern helots?

From All Net Jobs Growth Since 2007 Has Gone to Immigrants by Ryan Lovelace.

This is interesting and helps address a seeming paradox of the past year or so. Many headline economic indicators have been improving over the past year but clearly in terms of both measured public sentiment and in terms of just anecdotal experience the broader public isn't believing it. This paradox is captured in an article today, WH Hails Economic Gains But Poll Finds Few Concur by Alexis Simendinger.

I have set this paradox down to three possible causes: 1) That much of the headline numbers that were improving were differentially beneficial, i.e. the benefits were going to a small subsection of the public while the middle class economic experience continued to worsen, 2) aside from class disparate impact, there is also geographical disparate impact with Washington, D.C., San Francisco and a few other cities doing very well while large swaths of the rest of the country continued to struggle, and 3) cherry picking of statistics - yes the unemployment rate has improved in the past year but the labor force participation rate has plunged and not recovered. But the above Lovelace article sheds some additional light on the mismatch between the numbers and the public sentiment.
All of the net gains in in jobs since 2007 have gone to immigrants — both legal and illegal — according to a new report from the Center for Immigration Studies, meaning that fewer native-born Americans are working today than were at the end of 2007.

From November 2007 through November 2014, the number of employed native-born Americans has decreased more than 1.45 million, while the number of employed immigrants has risen by more than 2 million (as the immigrant population grew rapidly, too), according to data compiled by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Native employment has still not returned to pre-recession levels, while immigrant employment already exceeds pre-recession levels,” the report says. “Furthermore, even with recent job growth, the number of natives not in the labor force (neither working nor looking for work) continues to increase.”

Native-born Americans accounted for nearly 70 percent of the growth in the population aged 16 and older, the report notes, and yet fewer of them are working now than were in 2007.
There are some really interesting, and possibly disturbing, implications in those numbers. What are the barriers, personal, psychological, institutional, legal, cultural, etc., that could explain this differential in work rates? And more pertinently, what can or ought to be done about it?

Thursday, December 18, 2014


by Sir Henry Newbolt

In seventeen hundred and fifty-nine,
When Hawke came swooping from the West,
The French King's Admiral with twenty of the line,
Was sailing forth to sack us, out of Brest.
The ports of France were crowded, the quays of France a-hum
With thirty thousand soldiers marching to the drum,
For bragging time was over and fighting time was come
When Hawke came swooping from the West.

'Twas long past noon of a wild November day
When Hawke came swooping from the West;
He heard the breakers thundering in Quiberon Bay,
But he flew the flag for battle, line abreast.
Down upon the quicksands roaring out of sight
Fiercely beat the storm-wind, darkly fell the night,
But they took the foe for pilot and the cannon's glare for light
When Hawke came swooping from the West.

The Frenchmen turned like a covey down the wind
When Hawke came swooping from the West;
One he sank with all hands, one he caught and pinned,
And the shallows and the storm took the rest.
The guns that should have conquered us they rusted on the shore,
The men that would have mastered us they drummed and marched no more,
For England was England, and a mighty brood she bore
When Hawke came swooping from the West.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Confusing the goal of being more productive and effective with the goal of simply being better rewarded, regardless of contributions

A provocative piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day. Women at Work: A Guide for Men by Joanne Lipman. Her thesis:
I am convinced that women don’t need more advice. Men do.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love men. I’ve spent my career as a journalist at publications read primarily by men. All my mentors were men. And most professional men I’ve encountered truly believe that they are unbiased.

That said, they are often clueless about the myriad ways in which they misread women in the workplace every day. Not intentionally. But wow. They misunderstand us, they unwittingly belittle us, they do something that they think is nice that instead just makes us mad. And those are the good ones.
I love men, but they sure are stupid. Got it.

Then follows a long piece of cognitive pollution. It looks like a real argument with quotes and all but it is basically speculation based on prejudices. Don Surber initially focuses on the data aspect of the article.
Frankly, it read like a parody of a feminist piece. Its worst offense was its use of the long-discredited 77-cents-for-every-dollar-a-man-made nonsense. It was one of several faux statistics in the piece.

The point of her piece was that men have to understand the rules of women in the workplace, and not that women have to understand the rules of business. She uses a wifely logic:
I’ve been at countless meetings at various news organizations where a male editor, suggesting a story idea, loudly declares something like: “We need a piece on the drop in gas prices!” A woman, making the same point, might ask hesitantly: “Has anyone noticed that gas prices are falling? Do we know why?”

Both are saying exactly the same thing: Get me the damn story on gas prices, and get it now.
It's the old if-you-really-love-me-you'd-know-what-I-mean routine.

But actually they are not saying the same thing. One is giving an order (“We need a piece on the drop in gas prices!”), the other is asking pointless questions (“Has anyone noticed that gas prices are falling? Do we know why?”). The problem is the second speaker is not saying what she means, which means she is a poor communicator, which makes her a bad boss. The whole piece is that kind of passive-aggressive nonsense.
Helen Smith is even more direct.
Women have no idea what men in the workplace are dealing with when they work with women. And men, despite what the author thinks, are not there to babysit women by telling them to ask for raises, brushing away tears and “twisting” a woman’s arms to ask for her own promotion. If the author of the piece wants women to be respected, stop guiding men to do their work for them. If women want respect in the workplace, give them real tips on how to get it, don’t expect their bosses and co-workers to take time away from their own jobs to teach a woman how to do hers. And isn’t it sexist that the author thinks that all women need such babysitting? Most, I hope, are more capable than this author gives them credit for.
I focus on the communication aspect and the intersection between opinions and reality.

Complex enterprises are heavily dependent on effective communication. That can be accomplished by everyone sharing a common culture or by creating a common culture or by fostering direct communication or by fostering critical thinking. I posted three years ago about the efficiency of communication when you have a common culture at It contained the three words “but if not … ”

There is a place for politeness and consideration but ultimately a complex system depends on clarity and transparency. If any class of employee is more timorous than required (and it is a revealing assumption on the part of Lipman that she assumes women are so), then the action is not to accommodate temerity but to foster clarity.

Lipman has fallen into the same uncomfortable position as Anne Marie Slaughter (Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter) and Claudia Goldin (A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter by Claudia Goldin) who both have come to the conclusion that companies and professional men are doing everything they need to do in terms of being fair and yet women are still not able to have families and achieve everything that professionals without family obligations achieve. Goldin and Slaughter and now Lipman want businesses to shift their focus from serving customers with maximum efficiency and effectiveness and instead focus on making professional women as successful (regardless of their behaviors and productivity) as men by changing the business in a fashion that is less efficient and effective.

I have argued that this is not a gender issue, it is a family structure issue.

Slaughter and Goldin and Lipman are focused on how to make upper class, educated women more successful in the workplace. I think that it is unfortunate that they have ended up not focusing on how women can become more successful, but rather have ended up focusing on how businesses and others can change themselves in order to reward those women better. The first goal I believe to be valuable and admirable. I think the second goal is destructive and devaluing of women.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

RIP Merlin December 15, 2014

He was a handsome Boxer dog, with us for ten years.

He was a boon friend to the children.

Always mischievous.

A wonderful vocalist.

Always up for adventure.

Good friend and big brother to all the other animals, especially his good buddy Jinx.

He is forever in our hearts.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Productive arguments

From Bill Otis on ‘George Will, missing the mark on overcriminalization’ by Paul Cassell.

An interesting discussion. Often, policy debates are across the political spectrum, left and right. There can be so many embedded prejudices and assumptions that it is quite difficult to address the logic and evidence of the argument. Much of the debate frequently devolves immediately into ad hominem attacks and tearing down strawmen arguments rather than an actual engagement with the substance of the argument.

I find this post interesting because it is essentially within one end of the spectrum, in this case, the right. George Will makes an argument about overcriminalization and I think he is broadly correct. All laws are backed, ultimately, by the threat of sanctioned coercion up to and including the use of force which causes death. Not every law is likely to result in such an outcome but it is a feasible outcome with some degree of possibility, whether low or high. The question has to be, are we willing to use force to back up this law? If we are not willing to use force, then we probably should not pass the law because it either will not be enforced, or it will be enforced selectively. Either outcome undermines the rule of law. If we are willing to see deadly force used to uphold the law, even if a low probability, then that has to be a potential cost that has to be acknowledged.

Another conservative, Bill Otis, however, has some material disagreements with George Will and presents them in a logical and compelling fashion. All the arguments are proceeding from evidence and logic with few strawmen or ad hominem attacks. Suddenly this is both an enlightening and productive argument.

Then the commenters leap in and point out that while Otis's comments are pertinent in terms of logic and the law, they ignore both context and economics. They then address a number of Otis's arguments with Will by taking an economic perspective on the issue.

For example, Will makes the argument that the death of Eric Garner is a tragedy because it is a logically necessary consequence of the premise that the State has the authority to enforce its laws, including laws relating to taxes. Eric Garner is selling cigarettes and depriving the State of its tax revenues and reducing the market for legitimate store owners selling cigarettes. The State enforces the law with deadly force and Eric Garner dies. Doesn't matter what legislatures intended. All laws are backed with deadly force used by the State.

Otis raises numerous logical questions. Among them:
First, it might strike some that a tax on cigarettes, and criminal penalties for not paying it, are illustrations of criminalization run wild, but … are they really? Is the sales tax on furniture, tires, lemonade or a thousand other items likewise the emblem of overreach? Why would that be? Why is the taxation of cigarettes categorically different?

State sales taxes have been with us for a very long time. Did they get to be the menace of Criminalization Run Amok just last week? Are they the menace of Criminalization Run Amok at all? Will does not directly assert, and he certainly does not demonstrate, any such thing, but his thesis depends on it.

I don’t like sales taxes better than anyone else, but if state governments are to be funded, they seem like as good an idea as any. Neither such taxes nor criminal penalties for evading them had previously been thought to be the hallmark of despotism; indeed, conservatives generally prefer sales taxes to income taxes, on the theory that it’s better to tax consumption than production.
These are good questions that have to be addressed.

Which the commenters then begin to do. They point out that the opposition is not to consumption taxes per se but the distorting effects of taxes (such as sin taxes for cigarettes) and the associated opportunities for rent seeking and regulatory capture which so often run in parallel with high taxes. They point out that in economic terms, the State is trying to enforce a monopoly on cigarettes sales that directly benefits the State through high tax revenues. Eric Garner's crime, in economic terms, can be recast as the crime of encroaching on the State's self-interest in maintaining tax revenues. We are once again back to Will's point of overcriminalization from a slightly different angle.

It goes back and forth between Will and Otis and the commenters, focusing on facts and logic and context. There is some snarkiness but the ad hominem attacks and strawman arguments are reduced. Now that is a productive conversation.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The naive but clueless optimism of the academic

Cass Sunstein, the author of Nudge has a new paper out. In Nudge Sunstein argues that smart people in government ought to frame things in a way to trick people (nudge them) into making decisions that the clerisy thinks is good for them.

He's back.
“Partyism” is a form of hostility and prejudice that operates across political lines. For example, some Republicans have an immediate aversive reaction to Democrats, so much so that they would discriminate against them in hiring or promotion decisions, or in imposing punishment. If elected officials suffer from partyism - perhaps because their constituents do - they will devalue proposals from the opposing party and refuse to enter into agreements with its members, even if their independent assessment, freed from partyism, would be favorably disposed toward those proposals or agreements. In the United States, partyism has been rapidly growing, and it is quite pronounced - in some ways, more so than racism. It also has a series of adverse effects on governance itself, above all by making it difficult to enact desirable legislation and thus disrupting the system of separation of powers. Under circumstances of severe partyism, relatively broad delegations of authority to the executive branch, and a suitably receptive approach to the Chevron principle, have considerable appeal as ways of allowing significant social problems to be addressed. This conclusion bears on both domestic issues and foreign affairs.
I am beginning to think that Sunstein is not the smart but naive fellow I have long considered him to be. He's getting to sound downright dangerous.

There's that tell in the abstract. Sunstein's diagnosis is that there is more extreme partyism than in the past and that is "making it difficult to enact desirable legislation." But desirable to whom? Our system makes it very hard to pass legislation which does not have a broad base of support (though notoriously some do slip through even with all the safeguards). If legislation is not broadly supported, that must mean it is not desirable to most people. What Sunstein, who perhaps is Jonathan Gruber's soulmate, appears to be suggesting is that the Constitution is rather a nuisance because it prevents passage of legislation which he considers to be desirable.

His solution to this diagnosis is "broad delegations of authority to the executive branch" and adoption of the Chevron principle. What is the Chevron principle you ask? So did I. It's basic meaning is that courts should defer to technocrats in interpreting and applying the law except where that application is blatantly illegal. So Sunstein's solution to legislative inaction (owing to fundamental disagreements among the citizenry) is to hand over power to the executive and to the experts. That has worked out so well in the past. Its nice to see progressive academics dipping back into the classics. What would Aristotle call this form of government advocated by Sunstein? A dictatorship? An oligarchy? An aristocracy of the intellectual elite? Not an Aristotelian term, but perhaps a technocracy?

Sunstein as a postmodernist, critical theorist doesn't sound quite right. However, abandonment of: rule of law, consent of the governed, natural rights, checks and balances, personal agency, etc. are all hallmarks of those stepchildren theories of Marxism.

That inclination to hand over decision-making to the "elite", whether by IQ or birth or social standing, has always been a tendency in Europe. In the US there has long been an observable inclination to disavow that there are betters. There are only citizens and there is a system of government that ensures that everyone's voice is heard and that the rights of minorities are protected from the elites and the mobs. It is these differences that underpin Jean-Fran├žois Revel's observation "that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”

Consent of the governed holds those with fascist inclinations in check. It probably helps that those who are governed, in the US, are also well armed courtesy of the Second Amendment, a probably underacknowledged form of check and balance.

I try and make sure that I read a range of opinions, but the abstract put me off. None-the-less, I downloaded the pdf. It follows the abstract pretty closely, fleshing it out with some bits and pieces of data. But it is pretty easy to pinpoint the weakness in Sunstein's argument. There are two critical passages that undermine his argument.
What I am urging here is that many disagreements are not really about values or partisan commitments, but about facts, and when facts are sufficiently engaged, disagreements across party lines will often melt away.
This is simply nonsense. There is a pretty broad and deep pool of research that suggests that it is very hard, and very rare to get people to change their minds about an issue, policy, or course of action simply by providing them with more and better information. Sunstein has to be aware of this body of research. If aware, though, he can't make the above assertion.

I think Sunstein also glosses over the issue of values. It is not, in my experience, the values that create problems, so much as the relative weightings in an environment of constraints. We can, and usually do, all agree that security, education, economic growth, health, liberty, freedom of speech, etc. are all good things. It is not the goals on which people usually disagree, it is the relative prioritization and the associated trade-offs. Some people value security above all else and are quite comfortable trading off liberty and rights for more security. Others value security, but are quite willing to accept greater risk in order to have more freedom of speech. Facts won't make much difference on the prioritizations and even less on the acceptable trade-offs between multiple good goals. Sunstein is simply wrong in making this assertion.

The second assertion that highlights the weakness of Sunstein's assertion is this:
Broad delegations to the executive branch make a great deal of sense, at least (and this is an important proviso) if officials within that branch can be trusted to make decisions with careful reference to the facts. In my view, institutional characteristics of the executive branch justify a degree of trust, at least as a general rule. The reason is that the executive branch – again as a general rule – tends both to have a great deal of technical expertise and to treat technical issues as they should be treated. Ironically, it has a degree of insulation from day-to-day politics, enabling it to focus on questions as specialists do. To the extent that this is so, there are significant advantages in allowing the specialists to do their work, subject of course to ultimate legislative control, but not to the day-to-day conflict made inevitable by partyism.
IF "officials within that branch can be trusted to make decisions with careful reference to the facts." That's a mighty big IF.

We know Sunstein trusts the Executive and the experts to make the right decisions. That makes sense. He is part of the body of experts and is occasionally also part of the Executive. What about the public? According to Pew Research, only 19% of the public trusts government to always or most of the time do the right thing.

After the NSA disclosures, Lois Lerner scandal, Gibson Guitars, IRS sharing of personal information with the White House, etc., is it any wonder that there is such a high level of mistrust? And given those scandals, why would Sunstein believe that the future behavior of government will be better? If you accept Sunstein's condition that his argument is predicated on the trustworthiness of government, then you have to accept that that condition is not met and therefore this argument is simply anemic speculation with no substance. Even by the apparently lax standards of the The Rolling Stone, this argument wouldn't pass muster in most publications.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny

From Reflections on a Ravaged Century by Robert Conquest. Page 30.
The first questioning of the existing state by the pre-Socratics and the eventual rise of a variety of Greek regimes which gave Aristotle the material for his empirically comparative work - all this is deep in our background; but it had little directly to do with the emergence of the pluralistic order in the West, with which we are here concerned, where "democracy" in principle opposes the rights of a majority to, in Madison's words, act in a way "adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Other founders or refounders of the American system, like Jefferson, were equally clear about the danger of the "tyranny of the majority."

Above all, it is no part of its culture that a government elected by a bare majority, or even by a fairly large majority, is thereby empowered to totally reconstruct the social and political order by sacrificing the minority. That great political philosopher Michael Oakeshott notes that for some people government is "an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire." For others, which is to say, in general, for thos who have a traditional regard for the unity and continuity of a culture, the business of government is something different: "to restrain, to deflate, to pacify, and to reconcile, not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down," on the grounds that, as Oakeshott puts it, "the conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny." For it is a basic principle of true, as against despotic, politics that it is more important for the civic system as such to be unshaken than for particular measures to be opposed or insisted on to the limit. A democratic community enjoying political liberty is only possible when the attachment of the majority of the citizens to political liberty is stronger than their attachment to specific political doctrines. And this is to say that on many controversial issues a certain comparative apathy must prevail among a large part of the population. But apathy cannot appear avirtue to the man who has committed himself to an intellectually elaborated scheme or policy.

In a famous investigation of the politics of the small town of Elmira, New York, in the 1950s, the scholars concerned (Paul Lazarfield, Bernard Berelson, and William McPhee) were at first surprised by the results. The democratic processes had worked very satisfactorily in the town for a very long period. So, on theoretical principles, the researchers expected to find the citizenry well informed about political issues, with firm and clear-cut opinions. They found, on the contrary, that the majority were fairly ill informed and fairly apathetic. They concluded, after admirable heart-searching on their own part, that this was the condition for a working democracy. On the other hand, it may be urged that the instability of many of the Greek states was due to the devotion to politics of all concerned and that, to a lesser degree, this has been the cause of many of the difficulties met with in France in the last fifty years (though it has been suggested that the ideological enthusiasm of the French electorate was to some extent compensated for by the cynicism and apathy of the deputies themselves).

At any rate, all the major troubles the world has had in our era have been caused by people who have let politics become a mania. The politician should be servant and should play a limited role. For what our political culture has stood for (as against principles of total theorists and abstractionists) is the view of society as a developing and broadening of established liberties and responsibilities, and the belief, founded in experience, that in political and social matters long-term predictions, however exciting and visionary, seldom work out.

Reviewing James Scott's See Like a State in The New Republic of 18 May 1998, Cass R. Sunstein sums up one of Scott's main points: "States should take small steps rather than large ones. Policies are apt to be more successful if they can be reversed once they start to go awry, and so good panners ensure reversibility." The point, obvious enough but not available to many enthusiasts, is what one might have thought the well-established conclusion that actions have unexpected results. Or, to put it another way, that in the human context we cannot predict on the basis of theory.

Meanwhile, we can again stress that it is part of the heritage of sanity, or of political adulthood, to admit that any real order cannot be perfect. But this does not mean that we can ignore, or fail to combat, tendencies to degeneration of the civic order - in part due to penetration of its intellectual atmosphere by the direct, or dilute, effects of the totalitarian ideas.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Roman dodecahedra

I really love the mysteries of the world. Here is one of them. Roman Mystery Object by David Zincavage referencing Roman dodecahedra. Wikipedia's description:
No mention of them has been found in contemporary accounts or pictures of the time. Speculated uses include candlestick holders (wax was found inside one example); dice; survey instruments; devices for determining the optimal sowing date for winter grain; gauges to calibrate water pipes or army standard bases. Use as a measuring instrument of any kind seems to be prohibited by the fact that the dodacahedrons were not standardised and come in many sizes and arrangements of their openings. It has also been suggested that they may have been religious artifacts of some kind. This latter speculation is based on the fact that most of the examples have been found in Gallo-Roman sites. Several dodecahedrons were found in coin hoards, providing evidence that their owners considered them valuable objects.
Regarding the religious explanation - That might be right but it has been my experience that archaeologists and anthropologists, when faced with a material item they can't otherwise explain, always default to "a religious object" as an explanation.

This is, though far simpler, not dissimilar to the Antikythera mechanism. We have the object, and have been able to infer what it was used for, but there is no other extant evidence explaining how it was developed, why it was used, etc. It is a piece out of time. It is so complex and so sophisticated that it couldn't have just been conjured out of the air. There had to be all sorts of predicate technologies and capabilities in order to build such a device, but we have no evidence of those necessary predicate capabilities.

No one has a good explanation for it.

I think what both of these illustrate is that there is a much larger gap in our knowledge of the past than we acknowledge. Likely less than a fraction of 1% of all written materials have come down to us. Sure much of the rest would be shopping lists, and scatalogical diatribes, and records of how Merkos stole a sheep but amongst all the detritus there would be some beautiful poems and transporting plays, and possibly, just possibly, some hints about technological capabilities of which we are completely unaware other than the existence of such items as the Antikythera mechanism and the Roman dodecahedra.

When disputes over facts are misconstrued as disputes over principles, the entire project of Enlightenment democracy it at risk.

Torture Report, Rolling Stone and False Dilemmas by Stephen L. Carter

Nowadays, narratives are all the rage, and inconvenient facts and testimony are generally left out of the story. This is exactly what got Rolling Stone magazine in trouble. Even back when I was a college journalist, we never ran a controversial story without seeking a response from the other side. But Rolling Stone, in its vivid account of a rape alleged to have occurred at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus, did exactly that. No comments from the accused; no comments from the fraternity; no comments from the accuser’s own friends. The accuser supposedly placed these limits as a condition of writing the story. Why on earth did the magazine go along?

Surely the same explanation applies. To do otherwise would have disturbed the narrative. Sexual assault is said to be rampant on campus, and Rolling Stone had a powerful story to tell. Adding even routine denials, to say nothing of the sort of widely varying accounts that a serious investigation would surely have unearthed, would have reduced the power of the tale.


Similarly, had the staff of the Senate committee decided to interview CIA officials with deep knowledge of the detainee program, the report might have had more trouble reaching the bald conclusion that no actionable intelligence was ever produced. Here the narrative was caught up in the need to avoid moral nuance. It’s a defensible position -- and, I think, a correct one -- to argue that the enhanced interrogation program was wrong whether or not it produced occasional results.

But that entirely sensible argument is difficult to present in a world of Twitter and television talk shows. Had the otherwise excellent report admitted so much as the smallest possibility that anything useful ever came from the programs, the headline would have been “Senate Committee: Torture Works!”

In this sense, the traps into which both the Senate staff and the Rolling Stone editors fell are a predictable and unhappy result of life in a swift and unreflective era. Slogans have always been easier to repeat than arguments; the danger now is that we have come to confuse the two.


But this reaction confuses the narrative with the reality. To this day, CIA veterans insist that this aspect of the film was accurate. Maybe they’re wrong. Because I think the detainee program was immoral and a grave mistake, I’d very much like them to be wrong. Still, I have no principled basis to insist that they’re wrong simply because it helps my argument. Put otherwise, offered a choice between those who say the programs helped and those who say the programs didn’t, I shouldn’t base my decision on which side I want to be right.

Alas, the narrative is constructed otherwise. Most of today's narratives are. Thus early critics of the Rolling Stone story were treated as doubting not the story, but the narrative. If they thought this particular exercise of journalist craft seemed full of errors and unlikelihoods, they were minimizing the problem of sexual assault itself. This approach is a classic example of the fallacy of the false dilemma: There is actually no inconsistency in believing simultaneously that sexual assault is a serious problem and that this particular account doesn’t hang together. Similarly, there is no inconsistency in simultaneously believing that the detainee program was wrong and accepting that it might occasionally have produced actionable intelligence. It’s only our own lack of moral seriousness that causes us to confuse the two.

When disputes over facts are misconstrued as disputes over principles, the entire project of Enlightenment democracy it at risk. The liberalism of the Enlightenment rested critically on the supposition that agreement on the facts was a separate process from agreement on the values to be applied to them. The social theorist Karl Mannheim, in “Ideology and Utopia,” argued that we would never be able to separate the two, that we would always wind up seeing the facts through the lens of our preformed ideologies. Thus liberal democracy, in the Enlightenment sense, was bound to fail.

Let me here avoid the false dilemma. As a believer in democracy, I want Mannheim to be wrong. But our increasing elevation of preformed narrative over hard-eyed pursuit of truth suggests that he may turn out to be right.