Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Epistemic Isolation

Life is busy happening as I make other plans, so alas I cannae blog as much as I should like nowadays. But some thoughts on the Trump regime's recent bald faced lies regarding the inauguration crowd and reasons they lost the popular vote. (The former stands out because it is directly, indeed easily, falsifiable -- it is easily seen to be false by anyone with access to google.) These tendencies have already prompted reply from philosophers, so see Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa's piece on `facts', or this interview with Jason Stanley and Kathleen Higgins on the `post-truth era'. As much as anything I just want to have my own initial thoughts set down and organised in some place. I summarise conversations and readings with a lot of people here so don't have time to credit all the many sources that go into this -- but just to note, I claim no great originality for what follows!

Kevin Zollman -- ``I am Liam's advisor
and that's why I get this vaguely model
shot esque picture on his blog. Maybe
he can have a Phd now?''
One of the things we in social epistemology study is the consequences and desirability of some subset of inquirers refraining from communicating with the rest. For instance, (my advisor) Kevin Zollman has a paper ``The Epistemic Benefits of Transient Diversity''. Without going into detail: the basic idea is that if there are multiple approaches to studying some problem, and we should eventually like to find which of them is most reliable in some sense or another, we may want to prevent researchers communicating to each other the outcome of their respective inquiries. The reason is that an initial string of bad luck, in which the actually more reliable method doesn't perform as well as competitors, may lead scientists to be over hasty in converging on some less reliable method, and thereby halting their investigations into the more reliable method. Whereas if we ensure that some scientists continue to investigate initially unpromising approaches, we have insured ourselves against this possibility, and may as a community be more reliable in discovering which method is most effective. (If you read the paper not only is a simulation model presented but also a historical case study which really illuminates the phenomenon in question -- check it out!) One way of ensuring as much is during some early stage of communal research literally just preventing scientists from knowing how their peers investigations with rival approaches are doing, so they are unable to see which method is apparently doing best, and thus unable to hastily converge on a misleading winner. Hence: in order to ascertain which approach to studying a problem is most reliable, we may in some circumstances wish to prevent scientists communicating with each other.

This is just an instance of a much broader set of projects. Think, for instance, of the arguments that may be put forward or against ensuring that juries do not know certain things that lawyers and judges do know, or the complicated relationship between the desirability of independence of opinion among voters  and their right to freely communicate ideas with each other. Call the state of having ensured that some set of inquirers are unable to learn of the results of other people's investigations `epistemic isolation'. Whether and when we should foster epistemic isolation is a serious, and seriously interesting, question for us social epistemologists.

There are occasions, though, where we think epistemic isolation has been fostered but are widely agreed to be harmful for epistemic or wider social reasons. First, there are cases in which a dominant group renders itself unable to learn about the true basis of its rule and the suffering this causes. Second there are cases where a subordinate group finds that, not being viewed as credible, they are unable to communicate facts about their own situations in a way that will gain any uptake from others. Presumably there is some relationship between these scenarios, and that indeed has been studied.

Ok, so far so good. We in social epistemology have noticed this interesting thing, epistemic isolation. We've noticed that it's not always bad, and thought about when and how one might want to foster it in cases where it's desirable. But nor have we developed rose tinted glasses, and as a community we've also been studying its darker side, and the negative social consequences that can accrue from epistemic isolation.

Han Fei -- ``You like Machiavelli?
That's cute, I guess. Me? I'm really
more into the hardcore stuff.''
A few days into the Trump administration, however, I still think it's not enough, and I think that to rectify what is missing we would do well to revive thinkers from the political realist tradition. I think if we want to understand what Trump is up to we need to start thinking about epistemic isolation from the point of view of people who seek to foster it in others, in a group they do not consider themselves a member of. The deliberate conscious centralised planning of epistemic isolation must become an object of study, because I think it will have some distinctive and interesting features. In particular, I have in mind the work of Han Fei (who should really have his own SEP page -- so here's an encyclopedia entry on him, and an SEP on the school of thought he was associated with). Han Fei writes often and insightfully on esoteric government, ways in which the head of state can benefit from keeping those beneath them in ignorance about their true purposes. Being somewhat of a tyrannical chap, he is all in favour of esoteric government. But even those of us who do not wish to advocate for esoteric government can learn from studying what its proponents are up to and why, that we may better identify and resist it as it occurs.

For, exactly what Trump seems to me to be up to is creating the conditions for esoteric government by means of fostering epistemic isolation. He is trying to get about, say, a third of the country (a disproportionately well armed and represented on police forces third of the country, and enough support to govern with), in the following situation. Committed as they are to Trump and his regime, as the lies come thick and fast, to maintain their self-image and their loyalty to this group, they must disbelieve all other news sources outside of Trump and surrogates. And I really do mean `all'. It's Trump over the media, Trump over the schools, Trump over the scientists; Trump over their own lying eyes. His base are being epistemically quarantined such that they become entirely dependent on information sources favourable to Trump's regime. `Quarantined' sounds a bit too benign, mind you, that is how one might put it from the point of view of an advocate of Trump's regime -- those of us more cynical may say they are being subject to epistemic apartheid, kept apart from the better quality of epistemic facilities the rest of us have access too. (There is also something infelicitous about that terminology too; for although it is Trump's supporters who are subject to the epistemic apartheid, it is not just them but the rest of us who shall ultimately suffer for the full socio-political consequences of this.) They are epistemically isolated; and, as Han Fei points out, for that reason highly manipulable.

If we in social epistemology want to study epistemic isolation in its full ramifications we need to study not just situations in which it is imposed for the sakes of satisfying shared communal goals, nor where it arises organically in hierarchical social structures, but also those situations where the powerful impose it on some group of subordinates, for the good of the former and the detriment of the latter.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Criteria of Personal Art

My friend maintains a poetry blog, and he recently produced and commented upon his own translation of a classic poem by Su Tung-p’o:

Spring night, one moment worth a thousand gold coins;
faint scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Flute song from the high tower: sound soft, soft;
Swing in the courtyard, night heavy, heavy.

I had read this poem a long time ago, but I had forgot about it until recently. It has me thinking about what I think makes for good writing, and in particular what kind of aesthetic standards I should uphold through my work in philosophy.

I am not sure what I think the significance of philosophy being a humanistic discipline should be; but a consequence of it is that we can be very open about consciously striving for aesthetic goals, in a way that might be uncomfortable for a scientist outside of pure mathematics or high theoretical physics. As such, I have never made any secret to my friends and colleagues that I take the aesthetic element of writing very seriously; but I am always somewhat embarrassed about this, because it has to be admitted that I simply do not have a very refined aesthetic sensibility. By my own standards, I produce work that is very subpar. I guess I mean to publicly reflect on why that is here.

Su Tung-p’o's poem very well encapsulates what I take to be the aesthetic goal of my own writing. I really think I cannot do much better in explaining it than point at the poem and say: whatever ideals it is fulfilling, I think my writing should be like that. But a few more explicit attempts. I want writing that conveys very clearly a certain mood or emotional moment, without explicitly evocative language or heavy handed evaluation. There should clearly be something existentially significant at issue, but the audience or readership should be shown, never ever told, what is at stake emotionally. I like writing to be stark, minimal, and moving. To make it apparent that there is a vast sea of emotion underneath, while having the surface appearance of a calm pool.

(I also have a kind of anti-exemplar. Both in practice and in theory, Du Bois has almost precisely the opposite aesthetic sensibility. From my vantage point much of Du Bois' writing is overwrought and overbearing; attempting to rhetorically bludgeon its readership into having the emotional reaction Du Bois has decided they must have in order to advance history's dialectic.)

But I always fall short of this! I think for three reasons. First, there is a tension at the heart of this aesthetic ideal. I both want clarity -- which is a pressure towards saying more -- and minimalism -- which is a pressure towards saying less. As it stands, in my writing I tend to sacrifice the minimalism for the sake of the clarity. This is probably professionally wise, but aesthetically I am not sure this is the best choice. Second, even though this aesthetic sensibility is very important to me -- it guides my choice of research topic, what I say thereon, and how I say it; it is even significant to my sense of identity, as I self conceive as a humanist trying to make this ideal manifest -- it is also somewhat vague and inchoate. The nearest thing I have seen to it being spelled out explicitly is the idea of wabi, `simple, austere beauty', from Japanese aesthetics. This lack of explicitness about precisely what I want makes me never confident I have achieved my goal in any piece of writing, and so I am always tempted to tinker with every element so as to better move it towards this -- and the result of this micromanaging and worrying turns out to be incoherent, as different modifications made at different times do not maintain a consistent vision. The final work, then, is not as good as had I just had the courage of my initial convictions. Third, I am honestly just not very good at this. For all these difficulties, the example of the poem shows that at least some people do manage to achieve the ideal some of the time. I try; I fail. I try again; I fail again. I am not even sure I am failing better.

This is something I am only now thinking through. I do not know if I will maintain this analysis of my own aesthetic shortcomings. But since this is a somewhat personal post in any case, I end with an example of my own failure. I once tried, as a self-set summer art project, to write an art manifesto, encapsulating the style I liked. The result was, I am sorry to say, a failure. It is too embarrassingly wide of the mark for me to be willing to share the whole thing (and in any case would probably require some introduction to the genre of art manifestos), but I think the final paragraph is illustrative. I ended it as such:
There is beauty in polished and functional clockwork. Each oiled and intricate subpart of the mechanism does exactly what it needs to in service of the whole, as the machine silently performs some valuable task. We strive to recreate that beauty in our own work. This should apply internally; each element of the work we produce should support the textual whole. It should also apply externally. Each text we produce should form one tiny cog in the great machine of science, itself one of the great engines of the democratic society to come. 
The sentences are short -- but rather than being stark, they seem curt or dry. The underlying feeling I mean to evoke is unclear, and I am confident that having the context of the rest of the manifesto would not much help you. It is slightly too long, and is repetitious in ways that do not add emphasis so much as suggest lack of imagination. Simple, austere, beauty continues to elude me.