Sunday, April 11, 2010

Statistics, Damn Lies and Statistics

There are many issues that I've slammed my head against for years about verification, fact, and truth. I have already put a lot of time and effort into trying to synthesize the elements of this relevant to myth in some of the early sections of the Immanence of Myth. (For the final form of that, you'll have to wait until publication.)

I will use the work I've been doing there as an entrance point into just how difficult these things can become. Whenever I pen a single line, it is clear to me that there are tens if not hundreds or thousands of silent assumptions lurking behind that line, which support it, bring me to say it, and which, submerged under the surface, contain the actual inter-mixture of truth and fallacy which our statements generally contain. There is no means of gaining a statistical analysis of most of the sweeping generalizations that are required to perform any kind of philosophical investigation of myth, culture, or psychology. Even when there is, the results are dubious.

For example, how does one really remove the cultural bias from a study on social cognition done in the United States? Pushing this one question and refusing to back down is the reason why I began college a psych major and finished in another department. You cannot! And the fact that you cannot is not something that should be pushed under the carpet. This would sidetrack my main point here but there was a recent article in the NY Times that made the case I've been making for years:
...This unnerving possibility springs from recent research by a loose group of anthropologists and cross-cultural psychiatrists. Swimming against the biomedical currents of the time, they have argued that mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories. These researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places. (Article here.)
The fact that this surprises anyone, or that it is something that has just dawned on professionals in this field, is both hilarious and terrifying. However, I'm not here to poke fun at the massive and curiously lucrative blind-spots of psychiatry, (although I could do that all day), but rather to point out my own. I am aware that most of the work I'm doing falls down to anecdotal and personal experience, "written large" as a means of exploring myth. There is no time nor means to statistically verify the statements I am making. This is the formula of artistic and creative work: one must dive inwards, be honest to that, and hope that the experiences that spring from within will resonate with the inner lives of others. The idea of a creative process born and verified on statistical analysis is both curious and nauseating. (I'm looking at you, Hollywood.)

But we are still left in the cloud of unknowing. Non-fiction, analytical writing has the aura of science to it. We are taught to support our arguments, to verify, verify, verify. But what this actually means is we are taught to lie, lie, lie: as no true verification is possible. All that we can do is "philosophical due diligence."
And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies. Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West. Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined. The historical missteps of Western researchers, in other words, have been the predictable consequences of the WEIRD mind doing the thinking. (Article here.) 
James Lincke
My solution for this book thusfar has been to do that due diligence, and to front-load the introduction with a sort of gauntlet that includes many (though not all!) of the presuppositions that must be made when trying to responsibly explore the psychological and cultural territory.

Let me be clear at the extent of this: I'm not even convinced that there is such a thing as "culture." A footnote from my introduction on this,
A note about characterization, and the usage of terms such as "capitalist society." It should be obvious that, within the contexts we are beginning to explore, "capitalist society," "existential philosophy," "corporate culture," and so on are all myth-structures that we're essentially presupposing. Like any other myth they may or may not relate to a series of facts, but more important the effects of the characterization is real. In other words, there are sufficient people that believe in such a thing as "capitalist society" as to make it worth talking about, even if, speaking very strictly, there may be no such thing. Even "culture" can be considered a myth in this sense, as Manuel De Landa explains in 1000 Years of Nonlinear History. This applies equally to phrases like "world-view," a term which has become fairly commonly even outside anthropological writing. Terms like this sometimes create more questions than they answer. What exactly does it mean? Is it a passive or active process? Can it be willfully changed, or is it provided fully-formed? We will attempt to engage with as many of these terms as possible, but there must be a level of approximation in using such terms, or else we would be footnoting every couple words, and the book in front of you would be thousands of pages long. Let us say that it could be either of these things, in different contexts, and move forward. (Immanence of Myth)
"Culture" is... a useful fiction. But you can't observe it like a table, and it operates on a scale such that the trends we observe that we think of as proof that there "is" culture could be any number of other things.

Like most of what I'm working on in this project, this is not "merely academic." I don't struggle with these things just because it's a fun game. (Sometimes it isn't fun at all, and sometimes it is.) These are things I find myself smacking up against on a daily, if not moment-to-moment, basis. In my life, this comes out more frequently than I'd like. How often am I in the dark, working to gather some facts to help inform a decision- only to find that the information that I gathered was appropriate more to a different context, that they changed, that I changed, or that I had some false assumption lying under the very question? That's rhetorical. The answer is: "really fucking often."

The extent to which we're stumbling around in the dark amazes me, mostly due to the fact that so many seem to have this deluded sense of certainty. It is not some philosophically rhetorical reduction to say: I know that I don't know. I depend increasingly on intuition for this very reason: because it seems to draw a holistic image which, though also fallible, is often a great deal more informed than the conscious processes I might otherwise attempt. The challenge there lies more in unifying the intuition which might say "YOU MUST GET ACROSS THAT RIVER," and the actual process of somehow doing it. Intuition does not provide that, it only provides the direction. The mechanics are up to us. Should I build a raft? Should I try to swim? Should I see if I can circumvent it by foot? How strong is the current, and how deep does it get? Intuition doesn't help us with any of those things. It just screams in your ear, with no explanation, GET ACROSS THAT RIVER. And you'd best pray that the intuition is right, that it isn't a desire posing as your intuition, and that halfway across, another impulse will suddenly scream into your ear WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS RIVER, YOU FOOL? CLIMB THAT MOUNTAIN OVER THERE!

Faith for the faithless is a tricky proposition. But else do we have?

I'm going to start working on that raft...


  1. very glad you recommended this post, james. you make some excellent points that i whole-heartedly agree with, especially pertaining to the assumptions and things taken for granted in every word we say and think. so much of our thought-process is informed without our conscious knowledge, put there by parents, teachers, and the "culture" around us. i had a conversation recently about that, regarding desires for marriage/kids/etc. people carry these ideas around about "what they truly want" and don't take the time to examine WHY they want those things. is it because it's just what one does? is it because everyone else in the family has done it? how often are our desires really truly our own and not implanted by those around us? excellent work, my friend. a life unexamined is indeed a life unlived.

  2. when one is unable to construct a proper lab setting, to establish sufficient controls for statistical validation - one is not working with real stuff

    this is not to say there is no significance to statistical validation but rather in order to find something worthy of of constructing said controls one must look to our experience of "the wild"

    that is all we really ever have to build models from

    in cognitive engineering we take an approach more akin to anthropology than psychology in which we first build plausible accounts of events in the world and then try them out either by sharing them with people from the domain we are modeling or by creating staged worlds which are semi controlled situations that are either acted out or are to some degree constructed by the practitioner

    my sense is that this is exactly what you are doing with this work

    so keep it up and don't feel bad about not being statistically valid...

  3. @23sirius glad to be of service. ;)

    @aron i don't think my concern is that my work in particular is "statistically invalid" but rather that statistics provide a very precise tool that is easily misused, and which simply can't be brought to bear for many tasks- including a lot of the tasks the "social sciences" attempt to use them for in an attempt at being "scientific."

    anyway, onward--

  4. Just wanted to strengthen you resolve with regards to science (read as pursuit of knowledge rather than proof) as an observational art - there was science before stats



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