Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ethical knowledge is not ethical action

Claude Steele has stepped down as provost at Berkeley, and will return to the faculty. The administration at Berkeley has been under intense scrutiny over their handling of high-profile sexual harassment cases in the past year, and while the announcement of his resignation does not explicitly mention those controversies it is quite reasonable to guess that they were a factor.

I'm blogging about this because Steele is a famous psychologist, best known outside the field for his work on stereotype threat. I do not know enough about the details of those cases and the chain of events inside the administration to say for certain whether Steele deserves criticism, but the issue here is less about specific individual culpability and burdens, and more about assumptions that are "in the air" among academics.  Regardless of whether Steele himself made mistakes of sufficient gravity to merit losing his job according to whatever standard you might wish to apply, it seems clear that things could have been handled better than they were.  What matters here is that the handling was, at the least, sub-optimal, sitting somewhere along a spectrum that goes from "grossly negligent" to "typical bureaucratic response" to "probably well-intentioned but still not what we need."

In the modern zeitgeist there is a belief that raising awareness of research on bias--including but not limited to subconscious bias--will lead to better behavior, better decision-making, more sensitive people, etc.  Now, to my knowledge Steele himself does not explicitly study sexual harassment, but he does study stereotypes and their effects.  One can reasonably guess that he is thus more aware than the average academic about the wider literature on bias, sexism, etc.  If a raised consciousness were the key to getting people to respond promptly, appropriately, and effectively to acts of sexism, racism, etc. then putting a bias researcher into a position of power would be the surest path to reform.  Alas, it seems that bias researchers are as human as anyone else.  Having lots of "is" knowledge about how bias works does not lead them to act as they "ought" when faced with a professional challenge.

This should not be a surprise.  Jonathan Haidt noted in The Righteous Mind that academics who study ethics are no more ethical than anyone else.  I'm from a family full of health professionals, and some of them have all sorts of unhealthy habits.  I'm in a profession of educated people and some of them are anti-intellectual.

There's a separation between what we know intellectually and what we carry into practice.  That's certainly an indictment of my profession, including the traditionalists and the progressives alike, because studying something, even in-depth and for years, doesn't always transform people as you'd hope.  At the same time, I'd like to selfishly and shamelessly argue that it reflects even worse on the progressives than the traditionalists, because I think the traditionalists are more willing to treat problems as hard, whereas the progressives hold out hope for secret tricks and correct politics.  A traditionalist social scientist wants to understand people, while a reformer wants to fix them.  It's the difference between science and engineering. Most news articles about "According to a new study..." (including the one I linked to at the beginning of this post) are written to satisfy a curiosity about how to act, not merely to help the reader understand why people act as they do.

So, I don't claim to know anything about how things were handled (or mishandled) behind the scenes at Berkeley, but at the very least I am unsurprised that a bias researcher would not be any better than the rest of the world when it comes to responding to sexism.  All of the "is" statements in the world cannot change a person's "oughts."  Only "ought" statements can do that.  Social scientists cannot save us any more than priests can.  Only you can save your soul.  Priests and social scientists can advise you, but only you can decide your actions.

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