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choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy

It’s very common for people to use different explanatory and evaluative ideas to describe the same concrete situation, whether it’s the Israel/Palestine conflict, or bias in law enforcement, or almost anything else.

We should navigate between two obstacles, I think. One mistake to view rival ideas as simply subjective, because they are often value-laden, and to view politics as a mere clash among people with different subjective views. The other is to imagine that empirical research can settle such disputes by validating one model or (at least) refuting some of them. We can deliberate about competing models, but the discussion requires more than data.

It is often assumed that a model generates hypotheses, and we can test the model by testing its hypotheses. Nancy Cartwright disputes this assumption. She suggests that models are not like vending machines that yield hypotheses, but more like “fables” that present vivid scenarios and “morals”—suggestions for behavior—that we should look for in the world (Cartwright 1999, 185-6; Cartwright 2010).

Similarly, Max Weber understood an “ideal-type,” such as feudalism or the state, not as a hypothesis but as a “conceptual construct” that “offers guidance in the construction of hypotheses” (Weber 1905/1949, 93, 90). This means that disproving a hypothesis suggested by a model does not disprove the model, although repeated failures to suggest valid hypotheses might encourage us look for alternative models.

The fable of the tortoise and the hare does not pose an inference about reptiles and rabbits, or even a ceteris paribus hypothesis that moving slower yields better outcomes. Rather, it defines two personality types that may be worth looking for in the world; it cautions against arrogance; and it may suggest hypotheses, e.g., that making decisions more rapidly reduces the quality of information (Rae, Heathcote, Donkin, Averell & Brown 2014). Similarly, the model of the Prisoner’s Dilemma suggests that we should look for problems and form empirical hypotheses that involve individuals choosing independently. The model also makes a conceptual contribution by sharply defining cooperation and defection (Johnson 2020). Choosing any such model is a matter of judgment or practical wisdom, not a question of deciding which model is true

Forming and selecting an explanation for a specific situation is the logic of abduction. Deduction means drawing inferences from known premises; induction means generalizing from cases; but abduction involves connecting a single case to a relevant general idea. Charles Sanders Pierce coined the word (Douven 2021). Pierce was a pragmatist, and abduction is a pragmatic necessity, even in the natural sciences.

I would add that it is appropriate to apply normative principles when forming and selecting models of a society. First, the point is to improve situations, not only explain them. Second, any given model incorporates normative elements, even if it pretends to be strictly explanatory, and it should be assessed as such.

For Weber, an ideal-type is “an attempt to analyze historically unique configurations or their individual components by means of genetic concepts” (Weber 1905, 93). An ideal-type cannot be the basis of deductive conclusions about reality, because “a description of even the smallest slice off reality can never be exhaustive”; the “number and type of causes which have influenced any given event are always infinite”; and “there is nothing in the things themselves to set some of them apart as alone meriting attention” (Weber 1905, 78). Instead, we rightly choose our concepts to address aspects of specific situations that provide insights about our own problems, as we see them from “particular points of view” (Weber 1905, 81, italics in the original). Ideal-types are “model types which … contain what, from the point of view of the expositor, should be and what to him is ‘essential’ … because it is enduringly valuable” (Weber 1905, 97).

Weber objects to the assumption that we study phenomena to derive general laws that we can then apply deductively, as if a concrete investigation were the means to the end of general knowledge. He claims that the reverse is true; ideal-types are means to understanding the unique constellations of events that rightly concern us (Weber 1905, 79).

In the article that originated the concept (now almost a cliché) of “wicked problems,” Rittel and Webber posit that often solutions to social problems “are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.” They write, “Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions,” and “their judgments are likely to differ widely in accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 162-3).

They mention that “‘Crime on the streets’ can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, phrenological aberrations, etc.” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166). In fact, evidence has overwhelmed phrenological explanations for crime, while other explanations have become more persuasive since Rittel and Webber wrote. But they are right that reasonable people may choose different explanatory models and frameworks for the same phenomena. Like Weber, they argue that data cannot settle such choices, but “attitudinal criteria guide” rightly us. People choose explanations that are “plausible” and useful for their “intentions” and “action prospects” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166).

Our diverse starting points do not guarantee that we must reach divergent conclusions. We can learn from one another, and to do so, we should collect and share evidence. For instance, imagine that my initial model presumes a root cause, such as structural racism. Someone demonstrates that it is possible to disrupt a cycle of inequality by adopting a policy, such as reforming employment contracts for police, that does not address the root cause. My initial model was not refuted, but the evidence may persuade me that I could achieve more with a cyclical model that has no “root.” I have learned and shifted my view, but I have not refuted the root-cause model, which I might even use again on another day.

This is a pragmatist conception of the relationship between evidence and models (cf. Aligica 2014, 166-199). Note that in this conception, evidence is not merely instrumental to an outcome, because it may also persuade us to change the outcome that we think is best to pursue.

See also: what must we believe?; making our models explicit; social education as learning to improve models. Sources: Cartwright, N. (1999). The dappled world: A study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University Press; Cartwright, N. (2010). Models: Parables v fables. In R. Frigg & M.C. Hunter, Beyond mimesis and convention: Representation in art and science (pp. 19-31). Springer Netherlands; Weber, M. 1905/1949. “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press, 50- 112); Rae, B., Heathcote, A., Donkin, C., Averell, L., & Brown, S. (2014). The hare and the tortoise: Emphasizing speed can change the evidence used to make decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(5), 1226–1243; Rittel W.J. & Webber, M.M., (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4, 155-69; Douven, Igor, “Abduction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Aligica, P. (2014) Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press

Max Weber on institutional neutrality

In a recent open letter, the Academic Freedom Alliance, Heterodox Academy, and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression say:

In recent years, colleges and universities have increasingly weighed in on social and political issues. This has led our institutions of higher education to become politicized and has created an untenable situation whereby they are expected to weigh in on all social and political issues.

Most critically, these stances risk establishing an orthodox view on campus, threatening the pursuit of knowledge for which higher education exists.

Their recommendation: “if an academic institution is not required to adopt a position in order to fulfill its mission of intellectual freedom or operational capacity, it is required not to adopt a position.” They advise universities to enact versions of the 1967 University of Chicago Kelven report, and many institutions are doing so.

My own views on this matter are complex and conflicted. I am rarely impressed by universities’ statements on political issues. These pronouncements don’t model good participation in the public sphere, and they might chill dissent. However, I doubt that many people have really thought through what it would mean for an institution to refrain from stating or implying views on contested issues. Also, I am a proponent of institutional diversity and can imagine that we should want universities to adopt diverse missions and relationships to the society.

But I am not writing to adopt a stance. Instead, I want to recommend a close reading of Max Weber’s “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality’ in Sociology and Economics,” which Weber drafted during the First World War, when German universities were being called to support one side in a total war (Weber 1917/1949). In many ways, it sounds like a commentary on our moment–and Weber is a deep thinker.

His conclusion is rather like that of the Kelven Report. He would endorse the report’s view that the “great and unique role” of the university is “the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge”–not criticism or advocacy.

To get there, Weber explicitly cites philosophical premises that don’t seem sustainable to me, above all a “complete distinction” between facts and values (“the evaluative sphere and the empirical sphere,” p. 32), and an assumption that value conflicts “are entirely a matter of choice or compromise” that cannot be settled by any “scientific procedure of any kind” (19). Weber assumes that ethical maxims are “in eternal conflict” (16). I agree that there will always be debate about values, but Weber dismisses the scholarly consideration of them, e.g., in philosophy.

However, Weber complicates his premises in interesting ways. He notes that in order to understand and interpret culture, one must have the “capacity for evaluating” it (33). People create culture to advance values, and an inability to think evaluatively would make human choices unintelligible. I would ask: what does that mean about the education of scholars? Might there be room for the cultivation of ethical and aesthetic judgment?

Weber acknowledges that the comparative, empirical study of ethical (or religious) views can undermine students’ faith in all such views. In that sense, sociology is not neutral and may be a corrosive force (14). He also suggests that–“ultimately”–individuals must choose their own “meaning,” which sounds to me like a liberal, individualistic, and secular view, not a neutral one (18).

Weber recognizes that the selection of problems and topics in the social sciences depends on values, and “cultural (i.e. evaluative) interests give purely empirical scientific work its direction” (21-22). However, he gives this issue little attention, even though it seems fundamental to me and he does discuss it elsewhere (Weber 1905). A university could decide not to publish statements in response to major news events yet drastically expand its research on business applications of Artificial Intelligence while closing its classics department. That hardly seems neutral to me.

In his 1905 essay, Weber had acknowledged that a given intellectual institution–in that case, a major journal that he edited–might strive for neutrality and expressly invite “all political standpoints,” yet it could manifest a certain “character” due to the group of people who gravitate to it. For instance, his journal had mainly attracted non-revolutionary economic progressives (Weber 1905, 62). One could argue that modern American universities also have “characters” (one or more per institution) that are not the result of intentional policies but that diverge from neutrality, for better or worse.

Weber’s situation differs from ours because all German universities in his time were state institutions. In a footnote, he considers the Dutch model, which allowed anyone to create a university as long as it met basic standards. This sounds rather like our policy today. He objects that “it gives the advantage to those with large sums of money and groups which are already in power” (7).

That sounds familiar, and so do Weber’s other targets in the essay. He devotes several pages (35-40) to economists who smuggle strong normative assumptions into their ostensibly scientific models. He is annoyed by obvious partisans who define their positions as the ethically neutral ones (6) and by those who claim that a moderate position or a “‘statesman-like’ compromise” is neutral, when it is just another view that may even be harder than other positions to analyze critically (10). In the earlier essay (Weber 1905, 57), he had written that a centrist stance “is not truer even by a hair’s breadth, than the most extreme party ideals of the right and left.”

Weber alludes critically to colleagues who feel that asking professors to separate their political roles outside the classroom from their teaching duties injures their personalities (5). A central Weberian idea is that modernity requires increasing segmentation into roles.

Weber criticizes the kind of academic who uses data to demonstrate that certain political ideas are unrealistic, as if this were a scientific finding. “The possible is often reached only by striving to attain the impossible that lies beyond it” (24).

He acknowledges that students tend to prefer professors who express opinions in the classroom, and that universities need to hire popular teachers to compete for students, but he maintains that the teacher’s proper job is to inspire “a taste for sober empirical analysis” (9).

When he calls for “the professional thinker” to “keep a cool head” and “swim against the stream” of public opinion (47), Weber is targeting German nationalists and revolutionary socialists.

Weber also objects that academics opine on certain contested issues even though other questions–such as the German monarchy–are officially off limits. He says that the dignified response to partial censorship would be silence (8).

He finds a certain kind of (unnamed) colleague “altogether repugnant.”

An unprecedented situation exists when a large number of officially accredited prophets do not do their preaching on the streets, or in churches or other public places or in sectarian conventicles, but rather feel themselves competent to enunciate their evaluations on ultimate questions “in the name of science” in govenmentally privileged lecture halls in which they are neither controlled, checked by discussion nor subject to contradiction (4).

I suppose that many of us today would recognize this description yet would disagree about whom it describes.

Sources: Weber, M. (1917/1949). The Meaning of “Ethical Neutrality” in Sociology and Economics. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences (pp. 1–49). Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press; and Weber (1905/1949), “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy, in ibid (pp. 50- 112). See also: Activism and Objectivity in Political Research; The Democratic Mission of Higher Education; when does a narrower range of opinions reflect learning?; right and left on campus today; academic freedom for individuals and for groupsvaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; values of a university; etc.

youth views of Israel/Palestine

CIRCLE has published detailed data on young people’s views of the current war in the Middle East. I’ll share two graphs, but I recommend their whole document.

First, compared to older generations, young Americans are much more likely to perceive genocide in Palestine (almost 50% agree that it’s happening) and to support an immediate ceasefire.

Second, young Americans are split on whether to sympathize more with Palestinians or Israelis and are divided about US support for Israel. There are differences by race and ethnicity: white youth are least critical of Israel; Asian/Pacific Islander youth are most critical. To my eye, these differences are not very large–particularly between white and African American youth–and the disagreements within each demographic group are more notable.

(By the way, not being sure what to think of this issue seems understandable–for anyone, and especially for someone who is young.)

Whether and how young people will vote in the 2024 election is certainly not the only relevant or important question. That said, political scientists generally doubt that Americans vote on foreign policy issues; and in 2022, according to CIRCLE, just 4% of young Americans named foreign affairs among their top three issues. But in this cycle, as many as 82% of young people are naming foreign policy. I agree with CIRCLE that many young Americans may be “viewing this conflict through a different lens” and, in particular, seeing it as continuous with domestic US issues regarding race.

a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon, you’re talking real money

In class yesterday, we discussed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which funds green technologies and jobs in disadvantaged communities. I tried to present the Act neutrally, with lots of room for criticism from several directions, but I also conveyed its magnitude and significance as a change of direction for America.

I think the strategy of the IRA was new to these students, which is not a criticism of them–the Act receives extraordinarily little attention and debate. However, its projected price-tag is above $800 billion, and Goldman Sachs estimates that it generated about $282 billion in investment and roughly 175,000 jobs in its first year alone. It’s also closely related to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $280+ billion CHIPS Act. In other words–like it or hate it–it is big.

In July 2023, a Washington Post survey found that most Americans had not heard of the main provisions of the IRA. In that survey, 39% favored and 39% opposed the law, yet majorities expressed support for each of its main provisions. For instance, 65% favored tax credits for solar panels, although just 24% had heard of that provision in the law.

We discussed why this significant policy gets so little public attention. Some of my students’ astute explanations were about the general flaws of our media landscape and public attention. I have previously noted the odd politics of this particular issue, which dissuades both Democrats and Republicans from talking about it much. Even the name of the “Inflation Reduction Act” is so misleading that it distracts attention.

The students also made a good point that hadn’t been clearly on my mind before. They said that the numbers in the bill fail to capture attention because it’s hard to know what counts as a large amount. Politicians and reporters are always talking about billions for this and billions for that, and these numbers just wash over us.

So some comparisons might be useful. …

The IRA is projected to cost over $800 billion by 2033. In the United States, we spend $795 billion per year on K-12 education: teacher’ and administrators’ salaries, facilities, school lunches, equipment, buses, and everything else. So one year’s spending on all of US schooling equals the projected cost of the IRA.

The IRA has many provisions, and I am primarily interested in support for green manufacturing, which represents about $369 billion. This means that if we could take about half the money that it costs to operate all our schools for a year and spend it on green manufacturing, that would be the size of the IRA.

Another comparison: the US federal prison system is allocated about $7.8 billion in the president’s latest budget request. Therefore, the annual amount of new subsidies for green manufacturing will be about the same as the cost of all federal prisons each year for ten years, due to the IRA.

A third comparison: the GDP of Taiwan is about $790 billion, so all the goods and services sold by that country in one year are worth about as much as the IRA over ten years. Belgium is also a pretty close comparison. If you want to focus only the support for green manufacturing, then the IRA’s provisions are worth about as much as all the goods and services sold in the Czech Republic in a given year.

See also: a different way in which the 2024 election is a failure for democracy; federal spending for both climate and democracy; the major shift in climate strategy

Pagels, the Gnostic Gospels

Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels (1979) hardly needs a review from me. It won the National Book Award and has been listed among the 100 most influential works of the 20th century. However, I hadn’t read it until lately, and I can recommend it with the following summary.

Pagels classifies early Christians into two large groups, each of whom based their beliefs on sayings of Jesus that we can plausibly date to the earliest Christian period.

One group called themselves catholic (universal) and orthodox (right-believing). They taught that God was omnipotent and perfectly good, which meant that creation must be good, yet distinct from the Creator. The whole story of creation was divinely planned and hinged on the Incarnation, when God and nature came together in the figure of Christ. Jesus experienced physical resurrection, which will also happen to all people, whether saved or damned. By participating in the actual, embodied, and universal church (with its emerging structure of bishops, priests, and deacons), any person could be saved. Salvation required faith in the core doctrines of the Church, which represented sufficient knowledge. Christians were obliged to profess their faith even in the face of persecution, and martyrdom was understood as a sacrifice for the church. Everyone who confessed and practiced the sacraments belonged to that one living body.

Pagels calls the other group gnostics, although few of them may have used that name. They saw nature as rife with suffering and confusion; hence no omnipotent and benign force could have created it. Instead, they told various stories that explained present reality as a mistake caused by at least one powerful force interposed between us and the true divine. Like everything physical, the body was a trap. However, the soul was a piece of the divine, and some people could discover this truth through introspection and meditation—even including the use of mantras. We were not saved by the divine but could rather discover that we had always been fully divine. This discovery or knowledge (gnosis) was liberating. Gnosis was essentially individual, not assisted by belonging to any church, which would attract misguided human beings. Courting martyrdom for an ill-advised church was certainly a waste. True knowledge might be ineffable, or it might require concealment, or it might be specific to each questing soul, but in any case, it went far beyond what one could read in an explicit statement of faith. And the process of discovering it might be more important than the result.

Pagels understands these two views as rival theologies (structures of ideas), but she emphasizes that living persons in social contexts experience ideas, and ideas can influence social institutions that then shape people. She argues that the orthodox or catholic view prevailed because it reflected people’s lived experience of embodiment—we love our own bodies—and because it organized individuals into a functioning institution, the church, that was able to sustain itself. Even today, after many schisms, denominations as different as Eastern Orthodoxy and Pentecostalism share the same anti-gnostic roots. Gnostics were too otherworldly and individualistic to prevail.

Gnostic ideas have sprung up regularly since classical times—for instance, Blake was in tune with the gnostics, whether he knew those authors or not—but gnosticism has inspired individuals rather than large movements.

Although it’s interesting to compare religious views, one should be careful. Highly abstract statements of ideas from different traditions can look similar, yet actual religions are networks of people who share experiences, practices, and concrete stories. For that reason, even if a 2nd-century gnostic sounds like William Blake—or like a Zen practitioner—their experiences were vastly different.

Buddhists and Brahminic Hindus had many actual contacts with gnostics during the Roman era. According to shared Christian tradition, Thomas ended his life in India. Pagels writes that his biography could suggest the influence of Indian ideas on gnosticism and its critics. Thomas is the biblical figure who has the most explicit relationship with Jesus’ embodiment after the resurrection. In the canonical Gospel of John, Thomas doubts that Jesus has returned in his physical body, and Jesus encourages him to touch him—as if to refute gnosticism (John 20:27). But there was also a whole gnostic Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus teaches the disciple that they are equals as fully divine and incorporeal souls.

It doesn’t seem that a huge amount has been written about gnosticism and the Dharmic religions since Pagels. She already cites Conze (1967), which still comes up as the main source on this topic today. I think that recent scholars have been skeptical of Pagels’ categories: they think that the gnostics were too diverse and they overlapped too much with the orthodox to qualify as a separate group. I cannot assess this trend, except to note that categories are always simplifications and subject to challenge, and Pagels seems pretty persuasive. Anyway, I suspect the gnostics would have found more success if they had accepted the Buddha’s Middle Way, but that idea might have struck them as a snare.

See also: notes on religion and cultural appropriation: the case of US Buddhism; are religions comprehensive doctrines?; a mistaken view of culture; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; and Zenobia of Palmyra.