Monday, September 12, 2011

Expertise, Politics, and Problem Solving

The passage  below is an excerpt from Paul Goodman's "Applied Science and Superstition," written in 1951. It is both quaint and prescient. He gets the problem quite right, but sixty years later, the scale of the problem has been incredibly transformed:

In the century-old debate between Science and the Humanities, the humanities are now a weak opponent. They are not sure of what they are and they do not seem to have much of use to offer; whereas science looms in the fullness of success, it has made new advances in theory, and its technological applications have transformed the modern world. Yet sadly, perhaps just because our humanities are so weak, we have been losing the basic humane values of science itself. Having lost our firm credulity about what man 'is' and what society is 'for,' we have become confused about what is relevant, useful, or efficient. Thomas Huxley and Thorstein Veblen were thinking of a 'scientific society' where people were critical and modest, accurate and objective; where they shared in an international community of inquiry; where they lived 'naturally' without superstitions or taboos; and they hoped to make this come to be for every child. Is anybody saying anything like this? With us the idea of a 'scientific society' seems to have degenerated to applying the latest findings of professional experts to solve problems for an ignorant mass, problems often created by the ignorance of the mass, including the scientists. This is neither noble, nor very practical. To give the tone of it (at its worst), let me quote from the pitch of an International Business Machines [IBM] demonstrator:
The demands that will be placed on us [to sell our machines] can be met, for one must never forget that we are the masters. We alone have that great instrument called the human mind. It weighs 2 pounds. It only takes this much space. It can store 15 billion bits of information. It can be fed on less than 1/2 and apple a day. If man were to build this mighty instrument, it would take all the power supplied in the city of Rome and require a space as large as the Palazzo dei Congressi. All of us have such a machine. We are the masters and not the servants. We can keep pace. Yes, and ahead of the pace if we wish.
*  *  *

IBM's world view and general way of advertising continues to frame social problems as ones that ought to be solved for the mass by a small group of professional (and obviously not 'everyman') experts. Here's one of many "I'm an IBMer" commercials. Note that the solutions that are offered are expressed in ways that are intentionally intellectually obscure and for the "few" not the "many."

This way of thinking seems have also influenced our way of talking about economic problems. Instead of framing them in terms of concepts like power and justice, our economic problems are conceived technically. In order to be taken seriously in an economic debate, it is not enough to talk about the common good, greed, or power-interests. One has to use the Beltway vocabulary of "debt-ceilings" and "stimulus packages." Ordinary folks who don't have the time for a PhD in economics still feel like they should have an opinion on whether Keynes or Friedman had the correct economic theory in order for their voice to be heard. Your man on the street now talks about mortgage-backed securities, capital gains taxes, and studies pie charts on wealth distributions, as if our problems weren't abundantly clear and had to be demonstrated "technically" through a kind of rough and Googled expertise. (I am guilty of just this sort of behavior.)

Education has also fallen prey to this sort of technical view of problem solving, both in terms of its means and ends. Means: more and more we are reliant on the testimony of education professors who study schools to solve the problems of schools, instead of inviting the people who live in schools--students, teachers, and parents--to articulate their concerns. Ends: again and again, we theorize the proper ends of education in terms of creating technical experts in math and science instead of the humane and scientific ideals of Huxley, Veblen, and Goodman. These ideals do not apply science to human problems. They see science as a humane attitude and practical method of working out human problems. The goal is not to create a class of experts, but a community of people who can live together and work on their problems without superstition or taboo.

It seems too simple for our whiz-kid age: The proper end of education is the good life. The proper end of economics is the good life. The proper end of politics is the good life. This was Aristotle's answer 2400 years ago.

It is an ancient and classic view, simply expressed. 

We should remind ourselves of this as we enter a new political cycle: simple answers are not always easy to achieve, and complex answers are not always right.


  1. Boom. That post sums up my thoughts on things quite eloquently.

    As someone who works in IT, I am astounded by the view that somehow technology is a silver bullet. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I've told business users that technology won't fix your business problems, it will just allow those problems to happen faster.

    I am reminded of a scene from the movie "Real Genius", where Val Kilmer is talking about a former student. To paraphrase the scene, this former student was all about solving problems, finding answers, with no thought given to what the answers actually meant. He was all science, no philosophy. Until one day someone told him that his stuff was being used to build weapons. And he snapped.

    Education is not business, and we cannot run schools with a balanced scorecard approach.

  2. Dude, Watson will solve all our problems.

  3. Now all I can think of is the Borg... Thanks.

  4. Hey guys thanks for the reflections. We need more humanists working in IT. And more IT guys working in the humanities.


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