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.