Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Authority of Science

In Conservatives Without Conscience, John Dean relates a description of Authoritarian Followers, who form the greatest mass of authoritarian psychology. There are three basic underpinnings of authoritarian psychology:

Submission to Authority
Aggressive Support for Authority

It's easy to go deeper, of course, to fear of the unknown, a desire for stability, and an intolerance for ambiguity, all related, all consistent. Similarly, it's easy to find traits that the three basic traits can lead to. Sara Robinson on Orcinus blog has done some heavy lifting in condensing Dean's arguments to clarify the case, especially in her "Cracks in the Wall" series, that begins here.

We tend to speak disparagingly of authoritarians; the word itself is pejorative, as evidenced by the fact that people whom you or I would call authoritarian will simultaneously point the finger at us.

To some extent, they would have a point, in that Rightful Authority does exist, insofar as there are rules and laws of both man and the natural world, and there are networks of people (lawmakers, courts, and lawyers on the one hand, scientists, engineers, and technicians on the other), whose authority within their own domain matters. Courts can send you to jail, and your plumber can clear the water line.

Some of the examples of rightful authority are trivial, and some are deeply held, supported aggressively by their constituents. If you are visiting a construction site you damn well do what the site manager tells you to do. If you don't, someone could get hurt. And if someone you are with doesn't follow the rules, you help keep him in line.

The fact is that most conventional wisdom is, in fact, wisdom, just as each of us makes a thousand decisions every day, almost every one of them right, and almost every one of the wrong ones gets immediately corrected. We don't fall down the stairs, and we don't turn left when we should have turned right on the way to work.

I doubt that anyone who has read even a small fraction of what I've written who would take me as a servant of conventionality, and I score very, very low on tests that measure authoritarian tendencies. But I seldom break rules for the sake of breaking rules (well, okay, sometimes I break a rule just to see what will happen, but come on now, we've got to have a little fun). I do believe in process, and I do believe in rigor.

So I want it understood that my intention here is descriptive more than it is proscriptive. It's part of a fight I've been having (or so I come to understand) for a long time now. I've come to understand that it's a necessary fight, a perpetual fight, and a fair fight.

When I was starting out in the then bright shiny new field of computer simulation modeling, I quickly came to believe that the models we were using were complicated machines that needed an experienced and talented operator. There were a lot of moving parts, and a lot of things that could screw up. Moreover, you needed to have a feel for what you were doing; the sort of pattern recognition that we call "intuition" mattered.

You could not, as the saying goes, "Just turn the crank."

In fact, the people who were paying the bills wanted exactly that. They wanted something with a crank that could be turned to grind out the right answers. I've come to understand that there is a good reason for wanting that, incidentally. If you just turn the crank, if you don't know exactly what's going on, and what buttons to push to twist the results, then it looks like it's less likely that someone will cheat and deliberately give results to advance a particular cause.

But just because there is a good reason for wanting something doesn't make it ultimately work out that way. If you have several groups doing the work and you pick and choose whichever one accidentally gives you what you are looking for, then you've accomplished essentially the same thing as if you had someone twisting the knobs. If there is an accepted protocol, you use whatever flexibility exists in the protocol to give the results closest to what you want. You "game the system," to use the current phrasing.

And there you have the argument for the most inflexible possible system. It is less likely to be gamed.

Science (and scholarship, and the law, and tradition) exists in a constant tension between protocol and choice, between methodology and judgment. Some people, because of whatever combination of their experience and natural tendencies, wind up being strong adherents to, and defenders of, protocol and methodology. Others emphasize insight and judgment. As a strong proponent of insight and judgment, let me stipulate the importance of protocol and methodology. The methodology and protocols of science represent a tradition of judgment and a condensation of insight that cannot be replaced by a single individual, no matter how smart and clever.

Still, we must use judgment and insight to examine methodology and protocol, on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, the process of science becomes stagnant, at best in an endless loop of endlessly reinventing the wheel, just maybe this year in a different color.

All of this is basically an epilog and an introduction. There is a very interesting debate that has flared up in statistical economics, about the phrase "statistically significant" what it means as a descriptor and as a protocol. There is also an element of another phenomenon that I've remarked upon before: the use of a technical term that is substantively different from its meaning in ordinary speech, which means that it can have a pernicious effect on thought.

And, of course, I had an argument about it. But I'll write about that in a later essay.


Anonymous said...

The art, science, and business of computer programming offers a microcosmic instance of dynamics of this argument. (Plus, it is openly binary!!) My experience, management and programming both crave a strictly delineated structure; reality tends to disagree, convincingly.

James Killus said...

It's pretty much a phenomenon in tech generally, and the "reality tends to disagree" part is where things get interesting, isn't it?

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