Friday, November 10, 2017

Imperfect Knowledge

After wisdom and love, knowledge is perhaps the most sought after of human values. For such a precious thing, though, it is amazing what you can do without it. After all, most of what we do we do with imperfect knowledge. I'm not talking about ignorance of natural laws and phenomena which all proceed without any consideration from me whatsoever, but the deeds of daily life.

When I walk or drive down the street I don't have the positions of every other person constantly mapped with perfect accuracy. Rather, I have learned through trial and error how far apart everyone should be; what things look like when they are going as they should, and what things situations look like when they are dangerous.

When I shop, who can say what book will strike my fancy? When I eat, I don't really know what or how much I should consume before I sit down. I don't know just when I'll need to sleep or just how tired any given activity will make me. I do know all of these things, though, just well enough to get through the day.

Dealing with other people, of course, is a greater challenge. I know what kind of behavior most people will tolerate, so I smile, give thanks, hold doors, leave people their privacy, and so forth. Now some people need more or less of these things, and customs for observing such norms vary from time and place, but generally most of us can navigate society.

This sounds dreary, but perhaps ignorance is bliss, for who would want to know exactly how much he should eat, and just what book to read, and just how much a person does not really appreciate your gratitude or that you held the door for him? This is not so for intimates, though.

Habit fortunately fine tunes this heuristical, trial-and-error learning, and we know our loved ones well, so well do we read their signs. I can tell from the slightest look or intonation whether my wife or daughter are not themselves and, in the privacy of my home, I can scarcely camouflage my true feelings.

All of this is all well and good, then: we know how to interact with our friends and family very well and with strangers well enough, but what about when we have a lot of new variables we need to process quickly? Let us consider, for example, the seemingly daily onslaught of allegations of sexual misconduct in the news.

On the one hand, so many of these charges are so heinous that they trigger an immediate disgust response, bypassing our desire to evaluate the situation any further. One avoids anything associated with such matters as one does a contagious disease or poison. Is it legitimate to let our visceral reaction be the judge or are we obliged to use reason? If we are obliged to reason, then we have to consider the method. What should, for example, Alabama voters do in choosing between Doug Jones (D) and Roy Moore (R), the latter facing "an accusation that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with a minor years ago."  (Also via The Washington Post)

Generally we rely on a large system of established protocols, aka the criminal justice system, to navigate these complex issues. It is a great luxury to be able to declare someone innocent until proven guilty and to defer judgment to a legal system that will adjudicate the matter based on objective, or at least defined, premises and processes. This system takes time, however, and what if we ourselves need to choose?

In assessing an accusation it seems our judgment will be based on three things. The first and most ideal would be evidence, but evidence needs to scrupulously to be gathered, verified, and analyzed, a time-consuming process. That process would be an investigation and a fine thing, but absent it, we stitch together the evidence in our own way, a way which will usually be cursory and unsystematic since we rarely have the time, inclination, or ability to do better.

Usually, we simply try to piece together what type of person or incident, a process invariably based on our experiences. If the accused is a lawyer, our judgment will be based on our experience with lawyers. If the other is tall it will reflect our experiences with tall people, and so on. We all make such judgments, though they are far from scrupulous and unbiased. Such processes may help us cross the street, but are unreliable in dealing with situations with so many new variables. Yet such methods are not unreasonable if better options of inquiry and investigation are unavailable.

Consider a few variables based on recent news:
  1. Do multiple allegations make guilt more or less likely, or neither?
  2. Does the fact the press seeks out potential victims and not the other way around make either party more or less trustworthy?
  3. Does when the accusers come forward make them more or less trustworthy?
  4. Do a person's gender, look, occupations, etc. contribute to anything?
  5. Does denial make the accused look innocent, or admittance better?
  6. Are the witnesses, and witnesses in general, reliable?
  7. Do ridiculous defenses harm the defense?
  8. Is the reporting source more or less credible from particular sources?
That's a lot to evaluate systematically or heuristically, but Alabama voters, for example, are deciding. Considering that case: is it preferable to presume Moore is innocent and risk bringing the upset to governance that a trial against him as a sitting official would bring, and worse, a disgrace to the office, state, and people and offense to the victims, if he is guilty? Or do you rule Moore out, and risk setting a precedent that such an accusation is sufficiently grave that it can can be used as a weapon. The middle path is the toughest: wading through all the facts you can gather and judging as best you can. It is a necessary if imperfect task we usually leave to jurors, who fortunately have more time and guidance, and a difficulty whose price we rarely bear ourselves, both in terms of the responsibility of getting the verdict right and in terms of defending our judgment.

We evaluate complex matters casually all the time and such informs our sense of life, that is, our basic appraisal of things. Such is why trials that become public tend to provoke strong responses, because disagreement is not merely about the facts of the case, but about the facts of life. Indeed, my eight questions above probably seem biased. Disagreement here is as meaningful and acrimonious as debate about taste in art, which also reflects one's sense of life.

When a verdict comes, will we revisit the case and change our judgment? What if all these accusations of recent months fade away and we never examine them? We may find that we tune out accusations like noise, which has its benefits. Is it better to live in a society where all accusations and epithets were hurled with abandon, and thus are routine and discounted, or one where such accusations are rare, but then in need of great scrutiny?

We seem to be somewhere in between, which is usually the hardest place to navigate.

P.S. This article in the National Review is some of the worst writing I've seen in a long time, but I think it illustrates a number of my points.

No comments:

Post a Comment