03 January 2008

fake debates (vs. sincere questions)

first a brief note (finally, if half-heartedly, fulfilling my recent mandate) about the useful persistence of fake debates. these are all over the place: global warming. intelligent design. universal health care. most pertinently for me lately: do we "believe in"/"agree with" multiple systems estimation?

i've been beating my head on these fake debates with some regularity in the course of my work, and i've decided that all the "debates" persist for a couple of reasons, neither of which is "it's still an open question." one: maintaining that the question is still open serves lots of people. it serves the people who are on the wrong side of the right answer for political reasons; it serves the people whose lot in life would change for the worse if the implications of the right answer were implemented. two: in most of these cases (although i'm thinking particularly of the MSE "debate" here), the right answer is complex or even technical, and the wrong answer is more intuitive.

i know we all love occam's razor, but i'm tired of being informed that if fully "getting it" requires several steps and/or expert knowledge, it can't possibly be right. no, it is absolutely *not* the case that the true number of [insert violation here] in [insert location here] falls somewhere between the upper bound and the lower bound of reported cases. no, it is absolutely *not* the case that press data will usually give you a pretty ok idea of the patterns of violence. and no, you are not allowed to "disagree" with the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence by pointing out some anecdote that you recently heard.

(of course, this is as much the technician's problem as the audience's: we should be allowed to require patience and diligence, but we should reciprocally require of ourselves a willingness to work as hard as is required to explain complexity that might seem obvious to us.)

ok, rant complete. now the real questions.

my colleague ryan, who just completed field work there, has been following the situation in kenya with much greater diligence than the US media. (i know: shocking.) also contemplating kenya news: chris blattman, a new assistant professor in our department. i'm intrigued by the media accounts of disorganized violence and organized resistance (in a few areas), since i've been musing recently about the organization of violence more generally, thinking about how armed groups control (or don't control) excessive or counterproductive violence by combatants. makes me wonder: how does the opportunistic violence of a place without either previously organized armed groups or enforceable laws ("mob violence"; rioting) compare to the opportunistic violence of an occupying army? i'm re-reading antony beevor on the soviet march through germany at the same time as i'm reading the news from kenya (and, last week, pakistan); it's not that kenya 2008 and germany 1945 are useful cases for academic comparison -- but if you're looking for sub-types of opportunistic violence i suppose you could do worse.

on a meta/personal note: the prospectus project feels back on track after a couple of long hard thinks and a reassuring phone conference. in retrospect, i'm impressed with my learning curve here: impostor phenomenon reigns -- fixing that is a long-term project for me -- but i'm impressed with the difference between my reaction to earlier bouts of painful criticism and my reaction to this one, namely, that i've become very practiced at deflecting the initial inference, which is always "i'm not cut out for this, everyone knows it, and i should never have attempted it." so, good news, i guess.

last but not least: the "personal note" above is tied for me to the "fake debates" bit above, at a pedagogical level. my education consisted of a lot of gentle and generous conversation which (i think) led to a lot of creative thinking and a relatively high tolerance for not getting it the first time, which is one step away from a high tolerance for complexity. go swarthmore! what i've discovered in graduate school (and to an even greater extent during this fellowship year) is that this is just not the dominant mode of teaching and learning, either in graduate social science programs or in other research organizations...and, sadly for both types of organizations, that their more combative style (which is not without its benefits, of course) de-incentivizes patience, complexity, and patience for complexity. which, let me tell you: NOT GOOD FOR THE STUDY OF VIOLENCE, FRIENDS.