Friday, May 16, 2014

Chutes 'n' Ladders of Understanding; or, Which Way is Up?

Ani's a Spaceman (or is Spacewoman used?) by Scott Altmann, via How to Carve Roast Unicorn.
This is your intergalactic correspondent David Brooks reporting from a little-known corner near the Andromeda Cluster where he's been trying to get the skinny on the inhabitants of this curious little blue planet, but it hasn't been easy.
Let’s say you wanted to move from a dry, statistical understanding of a problem to a rich, humane one. How would you do it? What steps would you take on your climb toward understanding?
I think I'd ask why I was starting with a dry, statistical understanding in the first place. I'd want to start someplace at least moderately humane so I'd have a clue what the data were about, you know what I'm saying?
Well, obviously, first you’d start with the data.
No, I really wouldn't. I'd—
Let’s say, for example, you were studying teenage pregnancy. You’d want to understand the basic facts and trends. You’d discover from a recent Brookings Institution report that annual teenage childbearing rates have declined by an astonishing 52 percent since 1991.

But wait, if all I had was the data how would I know it was astonishing? What does "teenage" mean? What is pregnancy?

And if I do have some prior experience of human existence that I'm allowed to bring to the table here, why that particular data point? Would I also know that the birth rate (I'm assuming that has to have some direct relation to the pregnancy rate, for which I'm not finding as many numbers) is still three times and more as high as in most developed countries?
2006 birth rate numbers from Wikipedia.
Asking for a friend.
Next you’d want to get some grasp of the general causes for this phenomenon. At this stage, you would consult the academic research.
Wait a minute, where did you think the data came from, Sparky? It's sort of like speaking in prose, you know; you've been looking at the academic research all along. It's just that you didn't notice all those nasty little words sprinkled around the charts.
This research casts doubt on some possible explanations for the amazing decline. Teenage pregnancy rates are not falling because abortion is on the rise. As far as we can tell, abortion rates are falling, too. Better sexual education must have had some role, but that doesn’t explain the trend either. Teen pregnancy is declining just as much in states like Texas without comprehensive sex ed as it is in states like New Jersey with it.
Would I also know that it's typically two or three times higher in red states than in blue states?  (Centers for Disease Control)
As a matter of fact, the teen birth rate in New Jersey fell 55% from 1991 to 2011 (to 18.7 per 1000), but in Texas only 33% from 1991 to 2010 (to 52.2 per 1000, which is, like, quite a lot more than 18.7). Who knew? Wonder if there's something to that sex ed after all? Or is sex ed caused by falling teen birth rates? Or do they just travel together within some other key factor we haven't measured, like income and property tax rates or funding of public libraries?
This academic research offers a look at general tendencies within groups. The research helps you to make informed generalizations about how categories of people are behaving. If you use it correctly, you can even make snappy generalizations about classes of people that are fun and useful up to a point.
Or if you use it incorrectly, it can be even more fun, and if you have a gig at Heritage or AEI or gods help us the motherfucking New York Times even profitable.
But this work is insufficient for anyone seeking deep understanding. Unlike minnows, human beings don’t exist just as members of groups. We all know people whose lives are breathtakingly unpredictable: a Mormon leader who came out of the closet and became a gay dad; an investment banker who became a nun; a child with a wandering anthropologist mom who became president.
Ooh! Ooh! I know number 3 (though the syntax makes it look like it's the anthropologist who became president, not the kid—he knew a man with a wooden leg called Smith, and what do you suppose he called the other leg?). But who's the Mormon, and was he a straight dad before he came out or just childless?
To move the next rung up the ladder of understanding you have to dive into the tangle of individual lives. You have to enter the realm of fiction, biography and journalism. My academic colleagues sometimes disparage journalism, but, when done right, it offers a higher form of knowing than social science research.
"My academic colleagues, harrumph harrumph harrumph. My fellow dons, you know." He really has no idea that the world of social science research extends anywhere beyond the purview of Stuart Dodd. His academic colleagues, in any case, are obviously telling him to go away and leave them with the last of the Port. That they call him a journalist is an unnecessary courtesy. That they allow him on the campus pretending to know what it is scholars do is really a kind of scandal. If I thought Yale was making some real money out of it I'm sure I could be sympathetic, but as it is I'm baffled. Unless it's like that movie—remember?—and they just have him around as a butt for their erudite gags, to brighten up their dreary, envy-poisoned lives.
A pregnancy, for example, isn’t just a piece of data in a set.
No way, really?
It came about after a unique blend of longings and experiences. Maybe a young woman just wanted to feel like an adult; maybe she had some desire for arduous love, maybe she was just absent-minded, or loved danger, or couldn’t resist her boyfriend, or saw no possible upside for her future anyway. In each case the ingredients will be different. Only careful case-by-case storytelling can uncover and respect the delirious iconoclasm of how life is actually lived.
Maybe the love was more arduous than she bargained for, too. Almost as arduous, perhaps, as uncovering a particularly delirious iconoclasm at the same time as you're respecting it.
But even this isn’t the highest rung on the ladder of understanding. Statisticians, academics and journalists all adopt a dispassionate pose. Academics rely on formal methodology and jargon. Journalists observe from behind the wall of their notebooks.
So what's higher than the dispassionate, formal, and notebook-immured? You'll never guess, and I'm honestly still pretty shocked myself, but it turns out it's Saint Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church:
As he aged, Augustine came to reject those who thought they could understand others from some detached objective stance. He came to believe that it take selfless love to truly know another person. Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad. Love impels you not just to observe, but to seek union — to think as another thinks and feel as another feels.
I beg your pardon? This is coming from where?

So I've been spending my off-minutes all day, actually, trying to figure it out. Augustine is not my favorite theologian or anything, but I do have a kind of TV knowledge to go by ("I'll take Doctors of the Church for $200, Alex"), and I had never heard that Augustine had any interest in knowing anybody, including his long-suffering girlfriend (I bet she was a teen mom, come to think of it; the future saint was only 17 himself when their son Adeodatus was born), his mother, or his friend Ambrose of Milan. (Ambrose should probably be my favorite Doctor, as the first systematizer of the chant, which was Ambrosian for centuries before it became Gregorian, but I have a soft spot for St. Jerome, who loved Latin prose so much that the Lord once castigated him, "You're not a Christian, you're a Ciceronian.")

I did learn that Hannah Arendt did her dissertation under Karl Jaspers on Augustine and love (Liebesbegriff bei Augustin, 1929) and that it got Englished and published by the University of Chicago Press in 1996, making it a very likely ornament for Brooks's vast spaces for book shelving, but I can't find any evidence that the book contains any picture of the aging bishop being a kind of proto-Malinowski of the life-forms surrounding him, or trying to understand any human other than himself, in the agonized self-analysis of the Confessions.

If anything, quite the opposite; Augustine, for Arendt, can love his neighbor only as a "creature" of God, not as an individual in his own right—the "concrete worldly existence" of the neighbor just disappears in the abstraction of his relationship to God, and it seems our relationships with each other are blind, unreciprocated, and strictly through our several relationships with God:
"neighborly love leaves the lover himself in absolute isolation, and the world remains a desert to this isolated existence." (Quoting from Ronald Beiner in Larry May and Jerome Cohn, eds., 1997, Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later).
So it's as if Brooks has been making up all this stuff on his own, which is really not his style (he lies freely, but virtually never invents except by pasting words together that he feels belong together, like "Applebee's Salad Bar" or "gay Mormon dad"), and all in all I really don't get it, and it's kind of spooky; normally if I want to know what Brooksy's been reading, Dr. Google and I can figure it out to a remarkable degree of precision, but in this case we're completely at a loss—if anybody out there has a thought drop it in the comments. I'd love if it was some kind of Ratzingerian fascist interpretation and Brooks is leaving off being a Bad Jew to become one of those Bad Catholics.

I'm pretty clear, on the other hand, where he's coming from as a social scientist, which is Mars, or Uranus, or maybe Zones Three, Four, and Five. After his years of pretending to be an intellectual on the approved model of cherry-picking the Talcott Parsons numbers for Old Mr. Buckley's agenda, the bloodlessness of the pursuit alongside the fact that he's never quite understood what all those numbers mean has finally gotten to him, and it's wearing him down. Perhaps he's managed to impregnate a teenager himself, although I certainly hope not, or otherwise stumbled into an awareness of the fact that other people, including teen moms, exist.

But his concept of how to go about understanding humans is exactly upside down, based on his own upside-down experience. You have to begin by understanding yourself in the dialectic with the others, the parents, pals, lovers, and them in the dialectic with you; you have to become in this way a crazy, heartbroken human, and then you must hear stories without especially distinguishing fiction from journalism from science—novels, profiles, thick ethnographic descriptions. Then and only then will you be ready to look at the old-school sociological and economics literature without confusing those numbers with reality (because they're extremely useful as long as you remember that, but a lot worse than useless if you don't). As you become a social scientist in this way, you can begin to gather data on your own and interpret it. But unless you have that background of human experience, you will never be able to interpret it right.

And do not forget the Driftiest!

Update: Speaking of Driftglass, nice to see you, Electricos! Make yourselves at home.

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