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Decision-Making: A Primer

Decision-making – a primer

By Dennis Loo (6/2/17)

This is a slightly edited version of something Dennis Loo shared with a class recently.

Every day we make decisions. You cannot be alive and not do it all the time.

This is not mainly due to our current POTUS's stance, although his decisions especially affect us all. This is a commentary on that process.

To accomplish seeing the architecture of decision-making is different from what mostly you have been taught, where you are often presented with is a set of conclusions and you are expected to memorize and/or accept those conclusions.

Aka Appeal to Authority: “you should accept this because I or another authority tell(s) you so.” A variant of this perspective is where Republicans consider other Republican leaders more credible than others (such as Democrats) and Democrats correspondingly are more likely to buy or accept Democratic leaders' thoughts and behavior and reject what GOP leaders are saying. In other words, the public as a whole is not really examining whether a conclusion is a) sound in its premise, b) the chain of reasoning is sensible and reasonable, and c) the rigor of the evidence is persuasive or even rises to the level of scientific or mathematical proof, but instead usually accept what they’ve been told by what their favorite authority tells them to think. As you can see, if “your truth” is their “truth” then whether you are consciously aware of it or not, you have accepted tacitly the main authorities defining what is acceptable to think about and what is not. You have accepted their terms to start with. Although it is terribly under-rated as a device usually used in governance, eliminating possible other paths and considerations from the agenda - what is considered "realistic" to consider, often described as "politics is the art of the possible" - actually is a version of determining power itself. 

There are times that this public tendency is broken, such as during the 60s when there was a “credibility gap.” This “credibility gap” was widely observed and even got its name from the phenomenon that when the government spokesman or the LBJ would say something, most of the people would not believe their government was being truthful with them. The “credibility gap” also opened up because anti-war activists told a very different story that many people eventually came to accept. As Henry Kissinger writes in his memoirs, a relatively small group of activists exerted a disproportionate influence, far greater than their actual numbers.

Aka an Ad Hominem argument: “I either trust or distrust the source and judge whether or not I accept someone else’s word based on who they are rather than what they are saying.”

One left-wing version of the latter is when someone says that white people can’t know and should not ever talk about matters such as discrimination because they can’t know what minorities go through. While that may be so in some or even many cases, it is not and should not be viewed as a rule.

That is because truth is truth, no matter who is saying it and no matter what their motive might be. I want for you to base yourself in the bedrock of what IS true, whether it is popular or not. That is the standard we need to set and popularize more rather than truth handed down by authority or who we find more credible. I realize that to some extent this goes against ordinary social behavior. We exist, however, individually on a spectrum and while all of us do somethings to observe social rules and remain in people's good graces, there are times when some of us need to break with convention in order to advance humanity.

It is often – but not always – the case that the methods one chooses to investigate something already contains within it the conclusion or the nature of the conclusion.

If you choose per capita income as your criterion for national wealth that is different than selecting the Gini Index (a measure of the amount of income inequality) and you will end up with a different picture. Both are hard numbers and both are valid measures, but just because something is a hard number also means that interpretation and choice are always involved before the numbers are selected. Do not make the mistake, as often is the case, of mistaking a hard number for the “objectivity” or  precision of interpretation involved before the numbers are compiled. Numbers are real and should be taken seriously, but you never escape from interpretation, both of what those numbers mean and how they were chosen in the first place. Just because a set of numbers are real (assuming they are valid measures) does not necessarily mean those numbers are more precise and mean what you think they mean.

For instance, student evaluations of faculty (SEFs) are converted to numbers and half of the faculty are below (or at) the mean and half above (or at). Many faculty and administrators treat these numbers as a stand-in for teaching efficacy. One faculty member in the Faculty Senate seriously proposed – I am told - that we fire everybody who was below the department’s mean. But the mean (average) by definition means that half of the department must fall at and below that average, cumulative score. If you fired everyone below that mean what would be the result? Would teaching improve? The remaining people will have to then be half at our below the new mean. Do you then fire those people? What disparate factors go into one’s numbers and how which motives are involved when different students fill out those SEFs?

For example, if one frames the issue as saying that it’s a War on Terror then you already have decided that your answer to this problem is certain things and not other things. The War on Terror accepted as THE interpretive frame means that you have already ruled off the table acts such as state terror as okay and not a form of terror. Why is that? Because the assumption of the WOT formulation is that state violence does not count in that WOT, that only anti-state terrorism counts as terror and that any and all things done by my government to stem anti-state terror are okay and acceptable, including torture and killing innocent non-combatants and alleged terrorists. 

If you say the problem of poverty is that those who are impoverished are to blame for their own conditions, then you have already ruled out measures such as rooting out structural reasons why some must be poor under this system, for this system to operate.

In your comments on the readings I would like to see more focus on the process by which certain conclusions are arrived at, and your retracing the key steps in that process. For example, Alexander does not confine her book to just saying “the system is racist” but uses example after example of why she came to that conclusion. You will note that in the book’s first few pages she says that she went from thinking that the problem was continuing the gains secured by the Civil Rights Movement to later recognizing an entirely different paradigm in which anti-black procedures were being used to turn the CJS situation into a new Jim Crow. Many of the same facts she saw still but it was now adding up with this new paradigm to a very different conclusion.

You want to be aware that the values imbedded in the different readings for this course, especially mine, are radically different to what you are used to and that you don’t want to judge those conclusions based on a wholly taken-for-granted set of customary values. What you are striving for is this: that you can faithfully and accurately restate someone’s argument without necessarily agreeing with it in whole or in part or any of it at all. To do this successfully, you have to suspend any judgment of that argument. You don’t have to suspend judgment indefinitely, but you need to accurately convey someone else’s views first before anything else is done. In order to do this properly, you need to figure out what this person’s value system is, upon which her or his argument rests. Usually a person does not speak explicitly of their true values (this mostly operates unconsciously) and so you have to work this out yourself and make those values explicit.

For example, if we were to talk about [Victor] Hassine’s [author of To Live and Die in Prison] value system, what could we say? We might say that he thinks it better for people to cooperate, then individualism that eschews the common good. That persecution should not be occurring against prisoners. That his training beforehand allowed him to be more articulate than the average prisoner. And so on.

If we spoke of [Michelle] Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow] we could say that she is an advocate of a social movement and not just some legal action being necessary for what needs to be done, most Americans are misinformed of what is being done in their name, and so on.

If we spoke of where [Dennis] Loo [author of various articles and books] is coming from, you might say that he sees cooperation in groups like society itself is overall more important than competition (the two both exist but with one usually primary), that he sees system logic as more important than the individuals within the system overall, that he distinguishes primary from secondary factors, rather than just either/or, and so on.

One of the tensions that you see throughout all of this is between social rules (which are usually implicit and are not written down anywhere) which MOST people abide by and whether something is morally fair or right.

Note in this regard the last stage according to Benjamin Bloom that makes up the last page of your syllabus: that in order to carry out EVALUATION requires that you ferret out different, competing paradigms or value systems, as fundamental to doing Evaluation correctly. You remember my saying early on in the course’s first lecture that there are basically two kinds of people in the world depending on what they place foremost, themselves or others? Go back to that if you need to review it.

I am saying that one’s value system is very relevant in what you see as the most important facts, but I am also saying that facts are facts. They are both important but why what one values most of all is in and of itself not subject to proof.

Another way of saying this is that you and someone you know may not agree on certain things because you both see the world differently and value things differently than each other, but that doesn’t mean that facts are just the same as opinions, because they are not. (Something to take into account here is the difference between absolute and relative facts.)

In the ultimate analysis, whether one takes facts seriously, or either distorts or dismisses those facts, does depend in part on what you value most. Another way of saying this is that facts are taken more seriously by those who favor rules as applying to everyone: not a set of rules for some, and a different set for others. Again, note that I said that facts still rule but whether one accepts those facts and which facts are most important in the overall scheme of different facts is dependent on whether you value your self interest most or not.

Let me quote from Globalization and the Demolition of Society regarding this: 

Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. (GDS, Pp. 326-7)

I know that this passage is also in another of your assigned readings. I want to call your attention to a different set of points in it than you may have noticed in the other reading. That is, I am putting forth a standard here where one is consistent as much as possible. One should respect and take seriously empirical data, not just what one may like, and ignoring the rest. One should act with regard to rich and poor countries, different races or ethnicities, different genders and sexual orientations, with equality for all, and not treat them in a divisive hierarchy. One should be open and fully appreciative when we err to have mistakes pointed out to us and we should correct our ways that are found wanting with sincerely voiced self-criticism because pursuing the truth is more important than anything and certainly is more important than ego. One should take the merits of an idea whether they are our idea or someone else’s and it should not matter who or where it comes from. (I plan on explaining that further later). Ideas and philosophy and including methods of warfare et al do matter in this regard and are not irrelevant.

I am not so naïve as to think that this standard is something everyone is equally or even necessarily in agreement on. Most people will have some or even a lot of trouble with this standard as the societal leading norm and there will be and there should be lots of ongoing debate about it, in part and in whole. Despite many people’s first reaction to this paragraph being something like “It will never happen,” isn’t this passage what most people in the world want and can behind as the leading societal standard, not in the sense that most people can right away live up to that standard, or anywhere close. Cutting edge normative standards are by their nature going to be what most people aspire to rather than meet already. We have as the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, for example, that permits freedom of assembly and speech, even though very many Americans if they had their druthers, would rather not give this right to those they disagree with. If the above-cited paragraph was what we aspire to and held to as a norm, isn’t the kind of society you would like to see and would come to support? 

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Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12