Friday, March 25, 2016

Empiricism, Rationalism, Ghomeshi, and our Worldview. . .

Many political scientists insist that we live in a democracy. After all, there are multiple parties, we all have a right to vote how we choose, and no one holds a gun to our head in the voting booth. Furthermore, we have significant regulations about how political parties can function, act, and discourse in the public sphere. These political scientists will tell us that though the system isn’t perfect, it is still properly so-called a ‘democracy.’ Be we don’t have to be experts of any sort to understand that something is desperately wrong. If this is really a democracy, why do we keep getting government which de facto function in the interests of the richest ten percent of the population? Why is it that in a country like the US, for example, where an overwhelming majority seem to favour a single-payer healthcare system of some sort, do successive governments fail utterly to deliver on such generalized desires?

In another, but similar, vein, many experts say that the police aren’t really systematically racist, but that they are just “enforcing the law” the way that they are supposed to. Again, we don’t have to be experts to understand that something is wrong here. Racialized people are brutalized and killed in shocking numbers in North America. They are brutalized in numbers that far outweigh the percentage of the population that they represent and even in numbers greater than the percentage of crime in which they are involved. In Canada, in particular, indigenous people make up a huge percentage of the prison population. And even if someone were to argue that this high prison population simply reflects a high crime rate among natives, we don’t have to experts to understand that this number is a reflection of a systemic racism. Furthermore, we have to ask ourselves why wealthy white people are so significantly less likely to be convicted of a crime once they are indicted.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking example of this thinking is the one in which legal experts tell us that we have the fairest legal system that we can make. These experts point to various factors such the ‘burden of proof’ and the ‘presumption of innocence,’ to make their point. And these principles are important, but when we think about the fact that if a man commits a sexual assault, there is less than one percent chance that he will ever be convicted of a crime, we know something is deeply and desperately wrong. And the problem isn’t just with men’s actions, though god knows this is very problematic. There is something wrong with how we treat women when they make allegations of sexual assault. Though there is no way to be certain what percentage of allegations are false, even studies undertaken in the deeply misogynist context of our society have suggested that the numbers of false accusations are very low. And studies have further found that even when a false accusation is made, the accuser has been assaulted in some way, even if it is not the exact way in which they describe. Again, one needn’t be an expert to understand that given these facts, in cases in which multiple accusers tell similar stories, the chances that no assault has taken place is astronomically low. Yet, again, the number of convictions is also shockingly low.

There is no question that experts play an important role in our society. But the question that we have to ask ourselves is – when does expertise become ideology? This is actually a deeply philosophical question. The nature of the question is not one in which one could simply create some sort of objective scale by which we determine when someone who is supposed to be rational and objective is tainted by some ideological bias or bigotry. Rather, the question is a paradigmatic one. When we realize that we have a problem with the experts’ thoughts as outlined above it really means that we are operating is a slightly different paradigm than those experts. This is complex argument with a long history, but what I am essentially pointing to is the deep divide between the rationalist and the empiricist paradigms. Many political scientists (a least in relation to the issue of democracy) and many legal experts examine these problems with with a very strict empiricist methodology. To put it simply, in the operation of this paradigm, the empiricist limits himself to ‘the facts at hand.’ Thus, when examining a question of, say, sexual assault, the empiricist looks at the facts of the case and doesn’t explore potential operational or systemic influences on the matter. So they don’t ask, given the wider social context of an unbelievably low number of indictments and convictions in cases of sexual assault, maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with our legal system? The empiricist might not even ask more basic and prosaic questions such as ‘could it be that how we allow assault victims to be questioned in court or treated by the police might be contributing to a systemic bias?”

This notion of an empiricist paradigm is indicative of how the Harper Government reacted to calls for a national inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women. Harper and his ilk had no interest in uncovering potential systemic or operational biases of our system. Like true empiricists they only wanted to see the facts in each individual case. It was a similar case when Harper and his crowd reacted to Trudeau’s call to understand the root causes of terrorism. But there was an irony in the fact that Harper said that we shouldn’t “commit sociology.” Because sociology is not the opposite of empiricism, rationalism is. The rational paradigm investigates in a different way. The rationalist argues that there are contexts and cases in which our concepts or knowledge outstrips the immediate sense experience or the “facts at hand.” Furthermore, the rationalist looks to construct a picture with a wider experience of the world around and consider and how issues that may seem unrelated to the immediate events might play a significant part in a process.

One of the primary ideological problems with empiricism is that it can allow people to hide their biases behind of supposed veneer of “facts.” Instead of looking for operational flaws or systemic biases in a system an empiricist will utilize an in-put/out-put model of operational efficiency. To put it in a more literary vein, the empiricist will mistake the facts for the truth. Thus, the empiricist is unlikely to ask whether there is a problem with how a crime is investigated, the potential biases of the investigators, the biases of the prosecutors, or the operational flaws and biases that might occur in the court itself. But a rationalist will be very likely to ask these questions. *

 Few readers, and I am sure there are only a few readers, have missed the fact that this exposition is, in part, a veiled attack on the Ghomeshi verdict. But, as sympathetic as I am to Ghomeshi’s victims, I know that there is something much bigger at stake here. There is an irony in the classic sexist view that women are somehow less “rational” than men. Because in my experience it is men who are more likely to push the empiricist view and women who are more likely to embrace the rationalist paradigm. This is because it is easy to hide behind empiricism, and people who have status and power to protect are often in need of a good conceptual hiding place. Thus, in the Ghomeshi case, for example, it seems that men are much less likely to see the obvious biases not only of Justice William Horkins but of the police and court operations that not only allow dubious attacks on witness credibility but utterly fail to take into consideration the wider social issue of how victims of sexual assault might act in legally problematic ways because of particular kinds of trauma. Women, on the other hand, who have historically been overwhelming victims of systemic and operational bias are more likely to understand right away the rationalist paradigm that examines and comprehends the wider socioeconomic prejudices in the system.

And in my experience this kind of bias runs throughout the system. Men are much more likely, for example, to see their success in an empiricist way. They figure “I put in the work and now I am successful.” It is a simple matter of facts. It is shocking how seldom men understand their systemic advantages on the road to success, to say nothing of the fact that even their desire for and expectation of ‘success’ has been trained into them from the day of their birth. If the Ghomeshi trial has done anything it has reminded me of just how deeply not only sexism runs in our court system, but how deeply it runs in the very patterns of our thoughts.

People who use an empiricist paradigm tend to be cocky (no pun intended) and confident in their understanding of the world and society. But one only has to look around to know that there are very deep problems with our prevailing worldview.

* Ironically, it is the rationalist paradigm itself which led, in philosophical circles, to the breakdown of classical rationalism in the strict sense and led to a so-called post-modern paradigm.  

Post Script - For those of you with a particularly philosophical turn of mind, what I am really point toward when I talk of rationalism this way is 'critical theory' in the continental sense of that concept. But for clarity and simplicity I think it is better in the limited context of a blogpost to pare down to more basic concepts. 


Anonymous said...

Strange that you would construct a dichotomy of rationalism vs empiricism, despite the fact the latter is obviously an element of the former...

Kirby Evans said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Evans said...

@ Anonymous - Rationalism and Empiricism are two different kinds of investigation. You are conflating reason or simple rational thought with rationalism proper. It's like confusing science with what Kant referred to as "scientism."