Friday, February 6, 2015

it's straight description, but take it how you will

As soon as you start reciting well-established facts about American history using plain English, you're going to come across all sorts of resistance. You can take out all the rhetoric that people tend to use when talking about ingroup member victimization like "atrocities" and "sickening." Just use terms like "kill," "war," and so on, along with some names and numbers. Purely descriptive statements cause outrage. The statement "the U.S. killed X million civilians in aggressive war Y" is an affront to decency just as the video of Eric Garner's murder, not the murder itself, was an affront to decency.

Apologetics vary in sophistication, depending on the believer (potential unbeliever). For most, simple moral condemnation will probably do. One potential unbeliever hints, merely hints, at "well, we did kind of invade them and I can understand why they'd want to kill members of an invading army..." and a true believer responds with something that amounts to "traitor!" and, realizing that that anger is the anger of the tribe, the potential unbeliever mutters "just saying," and doesn't bring it up again. There are more sophisticated apologetics for more sophisticated unbelievers. Get far enough outside and they stop trying. "You win," they say, "but there are only, like, 10 of you." Which isn't to say it's hopeless so much as it's been hopeless. Predictively, oh shit! Prescriptively, act as if the opposite?

Some very sophisticated apologetics have served to thwart some very smart potential unbelievers. These include leveraging an equivocation on the terms descriptive and normative. My solution is a doctor analogy...

It's perfectly possible to make descriptive statements without any further commitments to them. A doctor has the "right" diagnosis of cancer, for example, but does she tell her patient? Is she glad about this diagnosis or upset? Is she numbed to such things after years of experience? The diagnosis is the description. The doctor's assessment of the diagnosis and subsequent actions stand independently. If the doctor dies, the patient still has cancer. To suggest otherwise is tu quoque.

But why would the doctor care enough to tell the patient the accurate diagnosis? Maybe because extending the patient's life with expensive treatments is good for business. Maybe the doctor didn't mean to tell the patient but the patient overheard it. Etc. Doesn't matter. Tu quoque.

If the doctor also cares about helping patients, though, doesn't that poison the purely descriptive well? Well, bias is a factor in everyday life, in politics, in science. Bias is at work in any description of anything. Imagine if we ask: "If a scientist cares about being right, doesn't that poison the purely descriptive well?"

There are ways to check for bias and those ways should mainly involve analyzing results. Same in politics as in science. "But everyone who talks politics has an agenda." Same as everyone who talks science. Perhaps a person who's talking politics has an agenda to make an accurate description, which would be like having an agenda to do solid science (make accurate scientific descriptions). In both cases, the results should tell the story.

Recently, I made the doctor analogy and had my claims to an accurate political description (diagnosis) taken as claims to have described the way things actually are. But saying a description is accurate needn't involve any such commitments. It can simply mean "by the typical standards one uses when talking about flowers and data." The descriptive/normative distinction here is not metaphysical or epistemological, it's logical. So watch out for that.

Imagine the doctor says "You have cancer. The best course of action is to get chemo." Built in to this statement is the idea that the patient being healthy would be a good outcome. If the patient undergoes chemo, she'll have a better chance at good health. Normativity is all over the place here. Even the word "healthy" comes with a built-in normative meaning. Where health is a noun, one can distinguish between good health and poor health (normative). Where healthy is an adjective, it's assumed to be good, while its outside (e.g., unhealthy, death) is taken as bad. One can try to get around this by saying "a smart person acts in such a way that she'll increase her chances of living a long life with such and such body chemistry (and so on)," but here the normativity is simply shifted to the word "smart."

On the other hand, simply using conditional statements can work. "If you want to live a long time, get chemo. If not, don't." Alternatively, consider "getting chemo would extend your life." Most people don't want to die young, so it might be said these statements are normative. Well most people don't want to die, so if you suggest they won't live forever, is that normative? Yes and no. All statements have normative implications, insofar as they're interpreted by creatures with agendas (like living). Not wanting to die young gets particularly strong reactions. Along the same lines, saying "the U.S. regularly kills children in their own neighborhoods" is perfectly descriptive. That most people are troubled by the thought of killing children where they live is what lends that sentence its normativity.

There's all sorts of wiggle room, though, because we mix the two all the time, and it's unavoidable. If I tell the wife, "I washed the dishes," maybe I mean "I know you were thinking you had to wash the dishes which would impact your plans but now you can do something different." Agenda free. Or maybe I mean "so don't complain about how little housework I do." Agenda. The statement itself is descriptive. By any meaningful interpretation, it also has normative implications. But it may or may not have an agenda.

(More on this topic to follow, for better or worse.)

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