Monday, August 20, 2007

Bigotry and inquiry

Suppose there is a valid case that an "Israel Lobby" dictates US policy. Some say yes, some say no, and as someone who is not a political scientist, I cannot give a political-science critique of the Walt-Mearsheimer argument. But once this case becomes a subject of popular discussion, not a paper only read by a few academics, who, other than its author, is responsible for things like this comment to a post on Matthew Yglesias's site?

The wealth and power of Jews, as expressed through AIPAC, transformed the infrastructure transition costs of the Sinai giveback agreed to at Camp David - expected to be a few billion over two years - into a permanent welfare check of 5 billion a year over 28 years. 140 billion.

Jews. Not a group of people, some of whom are Jewish, with money and political power and certain opinions regarding Israel, but Jews, plain and simple. All the precision in the world, all the insistence on "Israel lobby," will not stop responses that blur the line and then just cross it altogether.

Whether it was their intention or not, Walt and Mearsheimer have given a respectable voice to the idea that 'the Jews,' generally, control the world. This brings up a broader question that goes beyond the 'are Jews sacred?' angle of the Walt-Mearsheimer debate. If your research just 'happens' to confirm that Jews control the world, or that gays rape little boys, or that Africans are not as smart as Asians, or anything else that bigots have 'always known' to be true, do you have any responsibility for the outcome of your research? Should such 'discoveries' just be praised as flouting PC and as 'telling it like it is'? That is the irritating, and insufficient, answer many are giving to Walt-Mearsheimer. Should researchers who present such ideas be held to a higher standard than those doing less touchy research and only get published if what they find is beyond a doubt true? Should such papers come with a disclaimer--'While the vast majority of gays are not pedophiles, gays are overrepresented among pedophiles'--to remind bigots that they are still in the wrong? The answer cannot be that research should only be presented if it is politically correct. However, the fact that a certain number of stereotypes do exist and are floating around is bound to impact which questions researchers even think to ask. How much of a place should confirmation (or negation) of racist or homophobic views have in determining the direction of inquiry?


Blogs! said...

Read Kitcher's Science, Truth, and Democracy, it's in your bookcase!!

Phoebe said...

Who is this?

blogs! said...

Just a male model passing by...

Phoebe said...

I figured as much. So should we get a subscription to FQ?

blogs! said...

I think Craig's Fall edition should arrive any day now.

Jacob T. Levy said...

As I've said before: academics do need to be free to explore ideas that might be compatible with bigotry... but they have a corresponding obligation to make extra sure that they are behaving like researchers and not like pundits while doing so. This requires operating within the area of one's substantive and methodological expertise; submitting to peer review; and giving fair examination of rival hypotheses. Mearsheimer and Walt have done none of these. Larry Summers is a brilliant economist, but was talking through his hat when he speculated about women's scientific and mathematical ability, and M&W are talking through their hats in this case.

But, *if* they were being careful researchers (and there have been careful researchers who've argued that AIPAC drives US policy, and others who have argued that it doesn't), then no, I don't think we could hold them responsible for the bigoted morons to whom they might give inadvertent aid and comfort.

Phoebe said...

Good to have a real political-science take on this. I still am not sure what to think re: professors who, within all the guidelines you mention, happen to "give inadvertent aid" to bigots. There's inadvertent, but then there's unforeseen, and these seem to have different implications. If researchers are aware that their findings coincide perfectly with ideas, still held by many, that have in the not-so-distant past led to genocide (this could refer to Jews, but also gays and others), they may not exactly be responsible for the ensuing bigotry, as in, they did not set out to cause it, but should they really just say, this is how it is, and leave it at that? Is anything less blunt, any sort of disclaimer, a breach of freedom to conduct research?

Nick said...

I think I have to echo Levy's comments, at least with regard to the ability to be able to publish what one thinks is accurate.

That said, I think there's an important distinction to be drawn between data and its uses--and it's somewhat akin to the relationship between correlation and causation.

Say you looked at the UChicago NORC data and found that Jewish people in America have a higher average socio-economic status than most Americans. Say you also find that people who have high opinions of Jewish people also have a higher average socio-economic status than most Americans.

Is it somehow socially irresponsible to publish these findings? No. The NORC data is what it is. Is it socially responsible, though, to claim that from these data that Jews are disproportionately influential in the world, or that Jews and their supporters earn a "disproportionate share" (in its lay connotations) of the nation's income? Yes, because those aren't supported by the data. As Sagan said: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

I work in a field in which detrimental stereotypes about people are used to deny them basic civil rights. Our opponents do wave around experts to say awful things so as to maintain discriminatory status quo. I can tell you, though, that it's not the data that most easily fall apart under scrutiny: it's the characterization of the data in completely out of control ways, which is often pretty easy to pick apart. "Scientists" will extrapolate from a study that says, "all things being equal, children do better in a two-parent than one-parent household" to say something negative about the fitness of gay parents. At the end of the day, "that conclusion is homophobic" doesn't win in court, when the social legitimacy of homophobia is still at issue, and when the allure of objectivity and scientific authority still hold sway (this last issue is something I've been reading about which might interest you, but I think you'll find you don't like where the elimination of objectivity leads you). Like it or not, the ground on which we are able to attack these things is not their un-PC-ness, but ultimately, their inaccuracy, and I think (a) there are some good reasons for that, having to do with the validity of the pursuit of knowledge and the philosophies that undergird it, and (b) it wouldn't be hard to find some weaknesses in the thesis to poke (see below).

The above is the reason that good scientific papers are structured the way they are. They're structured so that the presentation of the data is separated from the presentation of the conclusions being drawn from it. Not sure if Walt and Mearsheimer do the same (not only does Social Science tend to be less robust (sorry social scientists), but I doubt they're writing the type of book made to withstand peer scrutiny), but let's assume that it is for the sake of our hypothetical. If it is, you should be able to clearly delineate data from conclusion, and see for yourself whether the conclusion is unwarranted. I think too often we see a process turn up something questionable, and reject the process (as I think you have) before asking if the process has a built-in correcting mechanism. In this case, the process does: I do not doubt that a slew of anti-Mearsheimer publications will soon emerge (you yourself noted the robustness of the field of French-Jewish-studies, which would seem to indicate that the forces exist to counteract Mearsheimer if he is promulgating innacuracy).

Now, you may argue that these responses will not pique public interest the same way Walt and Mearsheimer do, and there's something to that. But that's a shortcoming in our press and our public sphere, and not one of the processes of social science. The real questions we may want to explore deal with the social responsibility of the New York Times in giving column-inches to Walt and Mearsheimer.

Some other thoughts come to mind:

1. Perhaps even further in support of your point, people who do good technical writing use terms of art like "unremarkable" or "disproportionate" that have lay connotations that can be misinterpreted. I still think that this practice is necessary. Should these technical fields to better at translating their data for the lay public? Probably, but the world (and its resources) is so terribly finite. Should there be a robust literature where people are free to accurately describe their findings for the advancement of human knowledge? I think so.

2. I think there's too much emphasis being placed on this thesis in general. If you look at where Mearsheimer and Walt are coming from, I bet you'll find that a precondition to their theory is an anarchic, amoral, realist world. I sort of hinted this to you in one of our earlier conversations (and Levy can perhaps tell me if I'm right or oversimplifying), but I think it's important to remember that for Walt and Mearsheimer, morality is not really an option as far as forces in international politics go. For realists, while morality may be a cover story, at the end of the day, what matters most to realists is power. If you can't explain something as increasing external power (and you may disagree that supporting Israel comes at an external cost to the U.S., but I think you'll have to admit that's at least a tenable hypothesis), and you believe it must be about power and not morality, then it necessarily flows under the preconditions that you've set for yourself that the reason for the action is to consolidate internal power--i.e., bowing to popular internal opinion. (I'd have to drag out Tragedy of Great Power Politics to see if that's a valid reading of realism--I think it may lead to some weird corollaries with regard to the differences overall between democracies and dictatorships, but I suppose it's a colorable one.) In any case, the corollary (the "Israeli lobby theory") rises and falls with its preconditions (a realist world), and it's not as if Realism lacks heavy criticism.

Phoebe said...


What I commented before still holds. All findings could potentially be taken out of proportion, but if you'd have to do still more research even to find out in what way this was likely to happen, then it's fair to say you couldn't foresee the abundant misuse. A finding about one-parent versus two-parent families has many potential interpretations, the minority of which probably have anything to do with gay parents. So unless the scientists were in fact "scientists," employed to find this out specifically because they wanted to promote a homophobic agenda and believed this would help, there's nothing obviously provocative about it. W-M, on the other hand, was clearly going to lead to the interpretation I cite. I say this not because I think Jews matter more than gays, but because I think the 'we found that gays are pedophiles' example is more equivalent. I still don't think allowing data to speak for itself and leaving it at that is sufficient, since the misinterpretation can occur on the level of blog-comments at MY's site, but also within the research itself.

As for "the robustness of the field of French-Jewish-studies," I'm not sure if this is true--much has been written, but recently? Hard to say. What I do know about this subject, which is not nearly enough, does not tell me whether W-M are on the mark or not scientifically, but I probably do see this differently because I am familiar with the history of the idea that Jews control the world, which has been promoted not by raving bigots but by 'experts' since at least the late-19th century. In other words, I would be more inclined to think this was another case of shoddy work than I would about something another subject, all things being equal.

Nick said...

I think you've slipped into a dangerous ground, and one that I'm not so sure you'll like if you carry it out a little further.

You seem to think that more socially aware "scientists" (in quotes because we're grouping W&M in with biologists) will produce more socially responsible science.
But socially irresponsible scientists, who are ready to ruffle feathers, are vital, and can be vital in progressive ways: it was just as revolutionary in 1948 for Kinsey to publish his data about how common homosexual behavior was, without any social commentary, and many people thought the societal consequences would be dire. Today we recognize both the limitations of Kinsey's work from a data standpoint and its vital importance in allowing people to think of homosexual behavior as normal.

We should be far more afraid about mores promoting "socially responsible" science that does not challenge, for example, the "culture of life" than we should the exposure of raw data without care for the consequences.

I think the heart of the issue is that you're trying to "genocide-proof" science--you're trying to make it so that this process won't support bigotry--and that's an understandable impulse. But like law, science--social, hard, and otherwise--can be and is occasionally a tool of oppression. Just as the constitution is no guarantee of a society free of discrimination, no "social responsibility" checklist will ever ensure that science doesn't support the "wrong causes."

A disclaimer would be nice, though.

Phoebe said...

I don't see the point of telling me I've slipped into dangerous territory. In every direction there is dangerous territory, including the one that would have us respect and take seriously all speech with a professor's name behind it. I am not asking that we stifle the freedom to write about controversial matters, but am pointing out that proving/disproving what violent bigots have always known is not necessarily the best way to form a research topic. It's letting bigotry dictate what's examined.

W-M is not about "raw data," and I'm not even sure what "raw" data would be. Someone has to come up with the questions--they are not tossed down from Rufus Above--and these questions, in the case of W-M, are part of a long, ongoing historical narrative. They did not just happen to stumble upon the idea that a nefarious network of Jews just might be behind all the problems of Christian Country X. Edouard Drumont was on the case with a book that received far more attention and respect back in the 1880s. Of all the possible angles to take on Israel, and even on AIPAC, choosing one that is the classical, 19th C anti-Semitic default is, I would argue, more dangerous than whatever it is I'm trying to do here.

Nick said...

Your pithiness doesn't hide the fact that you've totally warped my argument. Whether or not "disproving what violent bigots have always known is ... the best way to form a research topic" is a question for another day. And I'm not saying we ought to give anything credibility just because a professor attached his name to it (although it would be unwise to ignore that the title means something for the world at large--see earlier comments re: the allure of objectivity and authority). Just the opposite: I'm saying, if they did their job, we should be able to see if W&M's conclusions hold up from the evidence they've mustered to support their case.

What bothers me far more is that you've now shifted the argument from the presentation of questionable results to the choice of a questionable question. These are separate issues entirely, and I agree that there are instances when we ask questions of a field and don't understand the underlying biases or warrants of our question, although I'm not so sure those issues arise here (such intellectually unpacked questions are sometimes but not always socially irresponsible, and vice versa). But given that Israel is one of the largest recipients of American aid, and that our terrorist opponents (whether they mean it or not) continue to cite it as a major reason for anti-American animosity, I'm not sure the question, "why does the U.S. support Israel given the costs?" is an unfair one to ask.

Is it "dangerous" to look at differences in SAT scores among races, when the disparities might, if warped, give credence to the longstanding (though clearly racist) hypothesis that certain races are mentally inferior to others? Like it or not, a classification of interior designers by sexual orientation would probably give you a statistically significantly higher number of gay men than the population at large. At what point, in a characterization of U.S. foreign policy with reference to a diaspora, does one arrive at "dangerous" territory?

Jacob T. Levy said...

Nick wrote: but I think it's important to remember that for Walt and Mearsheimer, morality is not really an option as far as forces in international politics go. For realists, while morality may be a cover story, at the end of the day, what matters most to realists is power. If you can't explain something as increasing external power (and you may disagree that supporting Israel comes at an external cost to the U.S., but I think you'll have to admit that's at least a tenable hypothesis), and you believe it must be about power and not morality, then it necessarily flows under the preconditions that you've set for yourself that the reason for the action is to consolidate internal power--i.e., bowing to popular internal opinion.

I see what you mean but it doesn't fly. For the realists, domestic politics is also irrelevant. The analysis of power doesn't extend domestically like that. State behavior is explained by external power relations, not morality or domestic politics. What we have here is a magic "except for the Jews" wand that M&W are waving in defiance of the methodology they've spent their careers defending. They can't explain the U.S.' stubborn insistence on going to war in Iraq in the face of their own pronouncements that it would damage U.S. security, and so they need to import a one-time-only variable.

With respect to Phoebe's worries: have you read any of the recent stories about Robert Putnam's current research? He's done (real, solid, methodologically sophisticated) research that showed that increasing levels of diversity in a neighborhood devastated local social capital and social trust, intracommunally as well as intercommunally. And he sat on it for as long as was decent-- maybe a little longer-- because he was afraid of giving aid and comfort to anti-immigrant bigots. But the finding is a very important one, and one that probably has real policy implications. We'd have known less about how the world really works if he'd sat on it forever; now we can start trying to learn why that happens and how to try to avoid it.

Struggling with his own conscience is one thing; but I certainly wouldn't want us to tell him, "if you publish your research, you'll be morally responsible for every anti-immigrant bigot who ignorantly throws your name around in the middle of his rant." That would be too much disincentive, when we *do* want good social science research that tells us how the world works.

Nick said...

Hmm. I largely agree with Sir Jacob's reading of Mearsheimer, but the reason I included that comment is because I seem to recall that Mearsheimer explained America's largely quiet 19th century as the consolidation of power. Seems somewhat contradictory, but I'm sure there's a reconciliation somewhere in there. Oh, realism...I knew there was a reason I chose law...

Phoebe said...

Jacob Levy was knighted? The things you miss when trying to figure out exactly what 'Naturalism' is referring to, trying to come up with something better than, 'you know, like Zola'...

And all article/book recommendations, from professors, former classmates, and male model/physicists, are encouraged. Post-exam reading shall one day take place.