Wednesday, February 6, 2013

what I mean when I talk about empiricism and self-determination


In my Bloggingheads appearance, I mentioned to Conor my prediction that the empirical case against the notion that you are mostly responsible for your life will grow to be inarguable. In that, I was thinking largely of essentially the entire field of developmental psychology, which for several decades now has undermined the notion that the human brain is an endless mutable organ and established the great power of early-life conditioning to determine later-life educational and intellectual success. But there are certainly many other metrics of social mobility, genetic constraints, structural inequality, and the power of chance that contribute to this phenomenon. The point is never to claim that one's own decisions or actions has no impact on the outcome of his or her life. The point is to define how much of the variance is attributable to factors that are within the control of the individual. My belief is that the answer is not much, and that this will become more clearly the case as our research becomes more sophisticated. 

I am, of course, referring to an argument that actually has to be prosecuted. In large measure that argument will happen as it already is, through the steady accumulation of empirical research. I have at many points wanted to assemble and synthesize the extant research-- including, of course, the research that contradicts my thesis-- but I have come to the conclusion that in order to present the argument in a responsible way, the project would have to be book-length. Writing a book just isn't in the cards for me in the near future. Within the next few years? Maybe. So, for now, I can't make the argument. I'm not ready, and I don't have the opportunity to be ready. Yet.

What I do want to advance at this point, though, is that it is an empirical question. The degree to which an individual is responsible for the outcomes of his or her own life is a question that subject to empirical investigation. We have the tools to assess the impact of parentage, of inheritance, of demographics, of economic mobility.... In the future, if you want to talk about these issues responsibly, you'll have to recognize that they are not a matter of ideology or theory. They are subject to empirical review.

So take this essay by Jamelle Bouie, and the attendant pushback in the community he is critiquing. Bouie is saying that there are structural inequalities in play that limit the number of minority journalists covering technology. Jason Calacanis argues, with considerable certainty, that technology journalism is a "pure meritocracy," that anyone can succeed if they are smart and hardworking. Leaving aside the question of external factors that condition intelligence and work ethic, it's unclear whether Calacanis has considered the possibility that these questions are material and thus subject to empirical investigation. His argument will be familiar to anyone who has heard some version of bootstraps mythology. He says that outcomes are based on "the resolve of the individual." If that's true, it has to be proven, not asserted through reference to national character.

Calacanis, like so many others arguing for the meritocracy-- almost always those themselves that have been served by it-- seems to think that it's sufficient merely to address broad principles. The next stage of this conversation must be made through reference to evidence, and not through waxing on about abstruse philosophical commitments. I expect that the argument about the percentage of variance in an individual's material outcomes that are under that individual's control will be quite heated. I welcome that controversy, looking forward. But for them to be useful and responsible, they must be conducted through reference to evidence. That's the precondition for the argument that we have to get to first: an acknowledgement of what we're arguing about, and in what terms it must be argued.

8 comments:

JdB said...

I think, and this is probably a testable empirical question, that in order for this to be accepted the terminology is going to have to be very specific. "Material outcomes" in your last paragraph is OK, but when I read that I am not responsible for my own life, I instinctively think that "my own life" means my ability to love, to have good conversations with people, to be kind and charitable, to tell jokes, to appreciate sunsets, to make art, etc. A lot of things which I assume are not at all part of the question or the argument. So even though I completely agree with you, I feel a bit defensive from the get-go, until I read on and understand what you're saying.

Freddie said...

That is a very good point. The degree to which you are responsible for the material and economic conditions of your own life is what I'm talking about, not the philosophical/moral/aesthetic/emotional conditions.

Josh said...

"What I do want to advance at this point, though, is that it is an empirical question. The degree to which an individual is responsible for the outcomes of his or her own life is a question that subject to empirical investigation."

I think we can gather a lot of useful information about this empirically. But, just to play science-fiction fan/devil's advocate, aren't we limited by the fact that there's no way to compare two or more separate versions of a single individual's life? I don't mean to sound ridiculous or high; again, I certainly agree that what we know about someone's early life, genetic heritage, and so on, can allow us to predict fairly reliably where they'll end up. But it seems important not to forget the impact that serendipity or blind luck might have. (It seems important not to overstate that impact, either -- which I think is what people who argue for meritocracy are actually doing.)

Jonathan said...

What makes you say it stops at the philosophical/moral/aesthetic/emotional conditions? Isn't there evidence that things like psychopathy and criminal behavior, even political attitudes and social openness -- which I'd think all fall under moral/emotional conditions -- are heritable?

Jeffrey S. said...

Let's hope your reading is informed by the limits of social science research in general:

http://www.manhattan-institute.org/uncontrolled/

In other words, when you confidently say that "an individual is responsible for the outcomes of his or her own life is a question that [sic] subject to empirical investigation"; well, I wouldn't be so confident.

Freddie said...

In other words, when you confidently say that "an individual is responsible for the outcomes of his or her own life is a question that [sic] subject to empirical investigation"; well, I wouldn't be so confident.

Since we are apparently in the business of correcting each other's grammar (sic), I'm afraid I must inform you that a semicolon can only join two independent clauses. The text preceding yours doesn't qualify.

Since we're being pedantic, I mean.

PrajK said...

My, my. This seems like a quite a change for someone who once wrote "fact-value problems exist for both the commission of empirical projects and the evaluation of empirical results":-)

While I see what you're saying, I think you state your conclusions much too strongly. The question you're asking is too caught up in our beliefs about equality and self-determination to even pose objectively, much less answer.

What does the phrase "mostly responsible for your life" mean? I can imagine at least 5 PhD dissertations just on that 1 question! I think you're guilty of something you once accused TNC of: "having a semantic argument that pays too little attention to semantics."

I would argue that whether someone is "mostly" responsible for their lives is trans-scientific. It has a (large?) empirical component. But let's not pretend it's so cut-and-dry to be wholly empirical. Even questions such as "What is a safe radiation level" is not entirely empirical even though we often know the precise physical, chemical and biological mechanisms. However sophisticated social science research methods get, they're still pretty far from that standard.

Rather than insisting this question is empirical, we should accept (embrace?) its political and philosophical dimensions. Not doing so leaves us imitating the Ezra Klein mentality you've so ably criticized elsewhere.

Freddie said...

Good points as always, PrajK.

I am hearing arguments of the sort, "this is bad, not good." To which I can only say, "that is irrelevant to the question of whether it is true!"