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Incomplete Information, Inference, Truth and the Human Condition – Part 2

Incomplete Information, Inference, Truth and the Human Condition – Part 2

By Dennis Loo (2/4/14)

I began this series’ first installment by pointing out that contrary to Obama’s Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind’s view that education consists of conveying a body of knowledge, education’s essence is not a discrete packet of information; it is learning how to think.

Life, after all, does not come with an answer key.

There are those who think – or hope - that there is an answer key. They tend to be drawn to fundamentalist beliefs such as fundamentalist Christianity or fundamentalist Islam, both of which believe that the answer key to life resides in a sacred text. Who better an authority, after all, than the literal words of God or Allah?

Yet even those who adhere to such beliefs cannot escape the need for interpretation and the need therefore to rely on authorities that claim the ability to correctly interpret the putatively literal words of God or Allah – with each authority convinced that the other fundamentalist religion's authorities are absolutely wrong, despite the fact that both religions are Abrahamic.

In contrast to fundamentalist true believers, however, complexity and incomplete knowledge are the norm in life. This is not to say that truth is unknowable, but to point to the fact that anyone who claims that the answers are simple, and/or that they know all the answers and that all you have to do is follow them unquestioningly, is lying to you. Truth cannot be found without difficulty and struggle and it cannot be simply handed to individuals or groups. Thinking cannot be handed to people the way that fast foods deliver food to customers. Those who say that an education consists of memorizing set answers to questions are misleading you badly.

Life is complex not only for individuals in their own lives, but all the more so for society and nature as a whole. Knowing the right answer for all circumstances is impossible since situations change. Thus the pronounced trend towards “teaching students to the test” actually runs counter to what you would do if you were trying to prepare people for the real world.

As Friedrich Engels points out in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:

To the metaphysician, things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. His communication is 'yea, yea; nay, nay'; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." For him, a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis, one to the other.

At first sight, this mode of thinking seems to us very luminous, because it is that of so-called sound commonsense. Only sound commonsense, respectable fellow that he is, in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research. And the metaphysical mode of thought, justifiable and necessary as it is in a number of domains whose extent varies according to the nature of the particular object of investigation, sooner or later reaches a limit, beyond which it becomes one-sided, restricted, abstract, lost in insoluble contradictions. In the contemplation of individual things, it forgets the connection between them; in the contemplation of their existence, it forgets the beginning and end of that existence; of their repose, it forgets their motion. It cannot see the woods for the trees.

For everyday purposes, we know and can say, e.g., whether an animal is alive or not. But, upon closer inquiry, we find that his is, in many cases, a very complex question, as the jurists know very well. They have cudgelled their brains in vain to discover a rational limit beyond which the killing of the child in its mother's womb is murder. It is just as impossible to determine absolutely the moment of death, for physiology proves that death is not an instantaneous, momentary phenomenon, but a very protracted process.

In like manner, every organized being is every moment the same and not the same; every moment, it assimilates matter supplied from without, and gets rid of other matter; every moment, some cells of its body die and others build themselves anew; in a longer or shorter time, the matter of its body is completely renewed, and is replaced by other molecules of matter, so that every organized being is always itself, and yet something other than itself.

Further, we find upon closer investigation that the two poles of an antithesis, positive and negative, e.g., are as inseparable as they are opposed, and that despite all their opposition, they mutually interpenetrate. And we find, in like manner, that cause and effect are conceptions which only hold good in their application to individual cases; but as soon as we consider the individual cases in their general connection with the universe as a whole, they run into each other, and they become confounded when we contemplate that universal action and reaction in which causes and effects are eternally changing places, so that what is effect here and now will be cause there and then, and vice versa.

None of these processes and modes of thought enters into the framework of metaphysical reasoning. Dialectics, on the other hand, comprehends things and their representations, ideas, in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin and ending. Such processes as those mentioned above are, therefore, so many corroborations of its own method of procedure.

The mantra that some school administrators’ operate by - “no surprises” for students so that they know exactly what to expect on tests - could not be more inappropriate for preparing people to function independently. What you are doing as an educator by adhering to this “no surprises” approach is producing adults who cannot function without others telling them what to think because they have not learned how to think on their own.

To explain why this is so requires some exposition. To lay the groundwork for that, I’m reproducing a handout here that I give students so they can understand what they and I will be doing in my classes. Benjamin Bloom, whose work regarding the purposes of education my handout is based upon, laid out the different stages of intellectual development in his taxonomy.[1]


Benjamin Bloom has described two basic stages to cognitive development. The first and lower stage consists of recognition and recall, comprehension and application. The second, and higher, stage consists of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Higher education should be designed to ensure that students achieve this higher stage.

Stage I:

Recognition and recall is what you are being tested for when you are asked on a test, for example, to repeat a definition for a term. Rote memorization is an example of this process. When you know a second language enough to understand some words and phrases, you are using recognition and recall. To actually speak well in that second language, you need to understand the language better, using stage II skills (see below).

Comprehension means that you understand what you are reading, hearing or seeing on the level of “it makes sense to me.” This is the level at which students often stop in their studying. Comprehension is not yet at the level at which you can fully explain a concept to someone else.

Application means taking a concept and using that concept in a specific and concrete way. This goes beyond being able to recite a definition for a concept since in application one is actually using the concept. When you are given a question that cites a hypothetical or real situation, and you are asked which concept best explains that situation, you are being asked to apply your knowledge.

Stage II:

Analysis means taking something apart, and understanding its component parts and their inter-relationships. For example, analysis of a car might involve taking that car apart, and being able to explain what each part does. Analysis of a language could involve looking at sentence structure and the rules for forming sentences. Analysis of a movie would be movie criticism.

Synthesis means being able to create something new from disparate parts. Synthesis occurs on the basis of analysis, but is a higher stage in that it involves the creation of something that did not exist before. For example, synthesis would be to take certain parts of a car and by using some other parts put together a tractor or some other machine. When you take words and write a new poem, you have done synthesis. If instead of simply analyzing a movie or play, you wrote a screenplay or play, this would be synthesis.

Evaluation is the highest stage of cognitive development in Bloom's taxonomy. It builds upon all of the preceding. It is the ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of an argument and compare and contrast different arguments. It is Meta-Analysis. Without this, you would be unable to reach a true independent judgment. Instead, you would have to accept the opinions of others. A plethora of information is available today, and information is, of course, important. But what is even more important is the ability to sift through the information and sources and the ability to figure out what’s valid and what is not.

Bloom argues that if college classes do not call for undergraduates to develop the higher-level cognitive skills, then the student has not received a higher education. Course expectations that require you to use higher level cognitive skills are of course more difficult, but if you are only being tested for recognition and recall then you may never develop higher order intellectual skills. Thus, for example, a professor who tells you beforehand exactly what you should know (for example, for a test) is in effect telling you what you can afford to ignore in what he/she was trying to teach you. This would be the equivalent of going to someone to teach you how to hit a baseball who told you ahead of each pitch exactly what kind of pitch he was going to give you. You’d think that you were a really great hitter based on this until you got into an actual game where the pitcher didn’t tell you beforehand what he was going to send your way. Life is a little bit like that pitcher, sending curves, sliders, fastballs and even screwballs your way. A proper higher education will help you deal with all of those pitches and situations. This is what you can expect in my class. You have a right to expect nothing less.


About the Necessity for Evaluation

Much of education today is aimed at the lower stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy. That is problem number one. Problem number two is that the highest stage of his taxonomy, Evaluation, is not well or fully understood in terms of its importance. To illustrate this I am going to use two examples. The first one has to do with what happens when you are either unable or unaware that you need to examine the underlying value judgments that reside within various framings of issues. Everything we know is subject to interpretation, not in the sense that reality is dependent upon social construction, but in the sense that we cannot ever escape from interpretation.

Facts are facts, as the saying goes. And as far as it goes, the saying is true. Facts are facts. But what facts mean is a contested matter, and debates go on constantly about which particular facts are most meaningful. Facts can only be properly understood and perceived through the lens of theory. In fact, only through paradigms can particular phenomena even become known to exist and therefore become classified as facts. Before the invention of the optical microscope bacteria were not known to exist. Bacteria did exist, just as “date rape” existed before the term was invented in the early 1970s, but neither bacteria nor date rape was known to exist and/ or was not seen as problematic before it was named. It took the development of a paradigm for the transmission of pathogens (initially involving bacteria, later on, viruses, which are much smaller and not visible via optical microscopes) before bacteria could be seen as a relevant fact. Similarly, it took the emergence of feminism as a powerful social movement for the occurrence of rape during a date to be seen as worthy of note and for it to be given a name.

To further illustrate the importance of contextualizing and interpreting facts, it is common for analysts to cite per capita income data to compare the living standards among countries. Assuming that the figures used are reliable, per capita income data are facts. A country with higher income per capita is commonly assumed to have a better standard of living than a country with lower income per capita. Other indicators besides per capita income are used, but most analysts rely heavily upon per capita income as the key indicator of living standards.

One of the problems with per capita income data is that since the data average out national income over the entire population, they do not and cannot take into account vast differences of income. A nation with a small number of extremely rich people living among a large number of very poor people would appear on a per capita basis to be a prosperous country. But most of the people would obviously not be living materially rich lives.

Occasionally, analysts use a different index as their key indicator, the Gini Index. The Gini Index is a measure of the gap between the richest and the poorest in a country. It is therefore a measure of income inequality. When the Gini Index is used and compared to per capita income, living standards look very different. Both per capita income and the Gini Index are hard numbers, but they reveal disparate pictures of reality. When people debate one another citing dueling facts, what is generally at stake are not the facts themselves but fundamentally different assessments of reality founded in differing and competing paradigmatic perspectives. The basic incompatibility of those competing perspectives usually produces an impasse between the debaters. This incompatibility grows out of the premises and the value judgments that make up the foundation of each paradigm. If your premise, for example, is that the existing system is fundamentally sound and right, then no matter how much evidence you are exposed to that contradicts this premise, as long as you do not decide that your premise is wrong and substitute it with a different premise, you will continue to see events from the prism of your existing premise. The form this takes in general is that any evidence contrary to one’s paradigm is dismissed as untrue, exaggerated, taken out of context, or insignificant. In extreme cases the messengers bringing the news of contrary evidence are suppressed by ridicule, exclusion, or, in the most extreme cases, murder or execution. (GDS, Pp. 17-19)

Value comes into play invariably and inevitably because as human beings we are unable to reach conclusions without value choices, even when our reasoning abilities are intact.

In every paradigm there are unstated premises that involve value judgments.

Value judgments are, by definition, not refutable. You cannot prove that someone’s values are wrong. Declaring someone who delights in torturing animals and people to be wrong is a value judgment. The fact that most people agree with that value judgment still does not make it the same thing as proving the person wrong. People who have lost the ability to determine right from wrong due to a brain injury but who retain the ability to reason have been found to be unable to reach conclusions, even though their reasoning capacity is intact. Vulcans of the Star Trek saga, who supposedly are purely rational and unemotional, in other words, could not exist.

You cannot reason absent value judgments. We make value judgments all the time. Those who claim not to make value judgments are simply arriving at judgments unaware (or are unwilling to fess up to the fact) that they are making value-based decisions; their decisions are hidden under the mask of “neutrality.” This is not, however, the same as declaring that there is no such thing as objective reality and that there are only differing interpretations. The stance that I am arguing for here is called “postpositivism” or “empiricism.” Objective reality exists outside of my consciousness. Facts exist. The world outside of my head is measurable with objective instruments such as a thermometer and scale. Is a temperature of 93°F hot and uncomfortable? Most people think so, but some people like hot weather and find that temperature comfortable. Is two hundred pounds too heavy for a 5’2” person? That depends upon what culture we live in. Weight is a fact. What that fact means is subject to interpretation. For an NFL running back this might be a very good weight. A female of this weight in ancient Hawaiian society was considered sexy because she had access to a lot of food and was therefore privileged.

We can declare with certainty that people need clean water to live and that if they do not have access to clean water that they will surely die. We can further say that more than twenty-five thousand children die every day in the world due to diarrhea and related conditions caused by the lack of access to clean water. Some people—such as myself—would consider this fact criminal, given the state of technology today. Other people regard the more than twenty-five thousand daily deaths as perhaps unfortunate, but no cause for alarm. Better those children than their own children, they think. Still others would regard this fact as the product of karma—these children did something bad in a previous life that is now causing them to die this way. The meaning of that factoid, in other words, varies widely. The objective world, as the existentialists argue, does not contain meaning. Meaning is something that human beings impose upon the objective world. (GDS, Pp. 24-25)

To elaborate on this further:

To illustrate framing’s importance, some examples: if we frame poverty as the result of poor people making bad decisions, then the solution to poverty would be to get poor people to make better decisions; if poverty persists, that just means that there are still too many people making poor decisions. If we frame poverty, on the other hand, as the result of poor people not having enough skills, then our solution to poverty might be to expand job training programs. If we frame poverty, alternatively, as due to capitalism’s structural character in which a section of the people must remain unemployed so that wages can be kept down—the equivalent of a very large game of musical chairs—then the solution to poverty would be structural, systemic changes.

Here is another example: If we frame crime as due to evil individuals, then the solution to crime is to do whatever is necessary to isolate the evil ones from the rest of the society through incarceration, sterilization, or execution. If instead we frame crime as due to the lack of legitimate opportunities, then the solution to crime would be to expand educational and job opportunities and training. If, finally, we frame crime as the inevitable outcome of a profit-driven and highly unequal society in which resources are structurally lopsided in their distribution and where material wealth is celebrated as the goal, then addressing crime would have to involve altering the structural characteristics of the society and economy and the corresponding ideology of profit-making and self-centeredness.

Frames not only suggest a value system; once you adopt the language and logic of a given frame, your options are also predetermined. The diagnosis determines the prescription. If, for example, the “War on Terror” is the dominant frame in the society, then the protagonists are “Us” and “Them (those terrorists).” If “support the troops” is the dominant frame, then anyone who opposes the war(s) is consigned automatically to being against the American troops. If you protest that you are not against the troops but are against the war, you are still hemmed in by the logic of “support the troops,” and the frame vitiates your opposition to the war: how can you be for the soldiers but against what they are doing? This may not be an impossible position to adopt on a logical level (it is somewhat like saying you are against the sin, not the sinner), but it is a politically vulnerable stance nonetheless. Funding the war(s) is justified automatically from the “support the troops” frame unless and until “victory” can be declared. (There can be no end to a war against a tactic such as terrorism, because you cannot eliminate a tactic anymore than you can eliminate verbs from language.) Opposing the war effectively means that you have to reject the frameworks of “support the troops” and “War on Terror” and substitute other frames such as “unjust wars” and “war of terror.

Frames are so powerful that every single public officeholder in the country could be from the Socialist Party, USA, but if the dominant frame for public policy on social problems were conservative, the socialists in office would be hemmed in by the constraints that those frames dictated and be unable to implement a socialist public policy. To put this succinctly: those whose frame dominates, govern. (GDS, Pp. 98-99)

If you don’t receive training – and this does require training as it doesn’t happen to people spontaneously – in how to recognize and evaluate the underlying assumptions and value judgments of framing, then you are vulnerable to being roped into accepting something that you would otherwise not have accepted. That is why you cannot really think on your own and draw your own conclusions if you aren't schooled in how to pierce the surface appearances of things and examine their value-laden assumptions. As an illustration of this, around 240 students went to our campus program Close Guantanamo Now! on January 17, 2014, and were shocked to learn that what they had been told was going on and therefore thought was going on – that Guantanamo housed the “worst of the worst” of terrorists, known and proven to be terrorists - was untrue.

As Erin Frame states in her paper that she wrote in response to the “Close Guantanamo Now!” program:

[M]ost of the information I was given by Dr. Loo and Andy Worthington was content that I had not come across before. Before I attended the event, my knowledge of the prison at Guantanamo Bay was extremely limited. The only thing I had heard about this place was that its prisoners consisted of dangerous terrorists. I had no idea that the majority of these people were innocent, captured and detained with no substantial evidence, and tortured. I was not aware that the families of these people were not even notified where they were or why they had been taken. The mainstream media was responsible for all of the information I received on the prison, and it was hardly sufficient. The mystery and false information surrounding Guantanamo Bay compares to that which surrounded the invasion of Iraq. Both instances involve breaking laws and hurting innocent people and in both situations, the American public was poorly informed. When the Bush administration broke international law and committed the supreme war crime by invading a nation that had not threatened it, me and millions of Americans were not aware that this was illegal. I remember being confused as to why the U.S. was at war, but believed at least that it was to fight terrorists just like I believed terrorists were being held at Guantanamo Bay. In both instances, I was wrong. Now that I have been enlightened to some of the truths behind Guantanamo Bay, I am aware that I now belong to a small minority of other informed people while the rest of the American citizenry remain shrouded in lies. I am aware that in order to take sufficient steps towards closing Guantanamo Bay, a much larger proportion of the population needs to be adequately informed about its illegality. Perhaps then, U.S. citizens can put enough pressure on President Obama to leave him no choice but to shut down the establishment.

This student’s self-description of having “extremely limited” knowledge about Guantanamo (and about Iraq before taking her current class with me) matches the situation for the vast majority of Americans who are “shrouded in lies.”

End of Part 2. To be continued. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here


[1] Subsequent to Bloom’s death, some of his followers revised the highest stage of his taxonomy to substitute “Create” for “Evaluate.” The rationales given for this substitution do not seem to reflect a deep understanding of the underlying rationale for the taxonomy and in particular the difference between “Evaluate” and “Create.” One can, for example, be creative without being able to identify the essence of the difference between different paradigms which is what “Evaluate” includes. Consequently I am using Bloom’s Taxonomy in its original form.

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