Incomplete Information, Inference, Truth, and the Human Condition – Part 1
By Dennis Loo (2/1/14)
One of the central contradictions in this country’s educational system today is the gap between, on the one hand, the great stress on delivering information to students and, on the other hand, students developing the ability to actually think. Bush’s "No Child Left Behind" and its successor, Obama’s "Race to the Top," are based upon the premise that students need to demonstrate that they have learned a body of knowledge. Their emphasis on passing tests, however, has systematically undercut the importance of training young people to think holistically.
Knowledge and thinking are not entirely separate from each other because you cannot generally speaking think in the abstract without information or data with which to think. Even the most abstract of human endeavors, mathematics, is tied to the real world of concrete objects in motion, even if the specific development of pushing the envelope in math is not always immediately being applied to real world matters. Put another way, and perhaps more generally: problem-solving strategies cannot be employed unless you have an actual problem that you are trying to solve. Thinking, in other words, does not occur in thin air: it is tied to our desire to know and the need to know more about the world and to attempting to fit the pieces of a puzzle together without having a fully assembled picture to work from in order to guide us on where the individual pieces of that puzzle belong.
What has been left substantially out with this stress on high-stakes testing is teaching students how to make sense of and draw conclusions from different pieces of information. In the real world outside of the classroom, the general condition is that of incomplete information and of complexity. The world is not simple, despite Staples’ ads touting their EASY answers to everything, and when we act in that world most of the time we do not have complete information. We have to act based on partial information and most of the time we have to make decisions based on inference rather than direct and explicit knowledge.
Even the act of knowing cannot be separated from the ability to make judgments about the validity and relevance of what one “knows.” If you’re used to reaching conclusions based on what authorities tell you to conclude, then the matter of validity and relevance are collapsed into simply a question of which authority you choose to believe. For example, when it comes to politics, people who are Democrats generally speaking take as their authorities leaders in the Democratic Party and whatever news outlet(s) they favor or are exposed to. That might be The New York Times, CNN, and/or MSNBC, for example. Republicans take their authorities as leaders of the Republican Party, Fox News, and so on. If you’re a progressive, you might follow people like Chris Hedges or Noam Chomsky. And so on…
As a former student of mine wrote in one of her papers, if you hear someone whose political opinions you tend to follow say something that you might not immediately agree with or have any opinion about yourself, you are likely to think that the person who is saying it (e.g., that prisoners being held at Guantanamo are “the worst of the worst,” or that President Obama wants to close Guantanamo but Congress “won’t let him”) has given a lot of thought to this matter and must have some good reasons why they are saying this. Therefore you are not inclined to disagree with it, especially since you get your political bearings from this same person or political party or preferred news source. This is from “Why Politics Is More Than a Game”:
It's rather difficult to get people to think about politics at the level of the complexity that it warrants. Even sports fans will engage in much more nuanced, detailed, and sophisticated discussions about athletic factors such as game strategies and tactics, various moves and counter-moves on defense and offense, styles of coaching and playing, the history of the game, the specific strengths and weaknesses of different athletes and how they respond to specific situations, players and teams' records over time, and so on, than they will about politics. When it comes to politics all too many people, from both the right, left, and center, think in far too simplistic terms. The political arena is one in which to an almost unparalleled degree officials attempt to mislead people about what they are doing and why. By contrast, if one, for example, is trying to learn how to master a skill such as playing an instrument, the master practitioners of that instrument are not systematically trying to fool you about their professional techniques. Even in the absence of their attempts to mislead you, the way that public officials seek to mislead you, it is famously difficult to become a master of a musical instrument. How much harder must really understanding politics be if the ones doing it actively are not trying to teach you the ropes but deliberately trying to misinform you about critical aspects of the process?
“I’m not saying that people will believe everything being said but they believe that people in political power at the very least believe their own words. You may look at a controversial issue being discussed by someone in political power and think, well maybe I don’t completely agree with that, but if this person who must know a lot about it truly believes in what they are saying, then it must be somewhat true.”
One of the problems with learning about politics from political leaders and the mainstream media is that it is utterly unreliable. In fact, calling it unreliable is a gross understatement. It is a spectacularly bad source of information without being analyzed with an understanding that you have to subject what you are being told to translation and supplementation for you to begin to approach the truth. Public officials are all members of bureaucracies. Corporations and media outlets are also members of bureaucracies. Bureaucracies by their very nature are secretive and loathe to tell people, even when they are sworn under oath and testifying before Congress, the truth about what they are doing, how much it costs to do it, and why they are doing it. This is not something that occurs because the individuals in charge of these bureaucracies are liars and if we just replaced them with better people then they would start to tell the truth. This is something that grows out of core characteristics of the governing principles for bureaucracies themselves as a mode of organizing tasks. I explore these questions in depth in especially Chapter Three of Globalization and the Demolition of Society. As a former student, writing his final paper in Classical Social Theory class two years ago, describes it:
The fact that the U.S. government employs bureaucracies may leave an individual confused when confronted with the question, “Can a bureaucracy exist within a democracy?” The fact that bureaucracies are such a major part of the way that government is organized, not only in the U.S. but in every major government, presents a problem for someone who is attempting to analyze this question. Bureaucracies are so intertwined within the fabric of modern U.S. society that one does not even question whether they can coexist with democracy. The question posed, however, is not intended to be a trick. Bureaucracies, though a common entity within modern government, are not facts of necessity, indispensible and ever-existing throughout time.
When juxtaposed with democracies, serious contradictions arise that make the coexistence of both, within the same government, illogical. Close analysis of the composition of bureaucracies and democracies and the paradigms upon which they are constructed elucidate the fact that both cannot operate simultaneously, in their pure forms, within the same government. This realization posits that our current form of government must be analyzed so as to understand the reason for its creation and the purpose behind the actions that it carries out. When these two things are made known, the truth behind the current economic system within which our society operates and the government that it promotes and is subsequently supported by will be revealed and progress toward change and social equality can be obtained.
To understand the relationship between democracies and bureaucracies, one must first understand the basic characteristics of each. Max Weber writes that bureaucracies are the highest form of societal organization. In order for society to operate on a macro level, bureaucracies, as proposed by Weber, must exist. Weber does not take this stance because he is a proponent of bureaucracies but rather because the observations that he made of society during the time his prominent works of literature were composed led him to claim that bureaucracies were the logical solution to mass control. For Weber, power, and therefore political rule – which is simply the legitimized employment of power – is the ability to coerce a person, or a group of people, to do something regardless of the desire of people. In other words, power is the ability to make someone do something whether they want to or not. Governments, therefore, possess power when they can effectively impose their will on the governed. In order to do this though, Weber states that these bureaucracies follow a particular modus operandi.
Bureaucracies – in order to fulfill their purpose of organizing society and maintaining control – possess certain traits. Weber wrote that bureaucracies are characterized by the following: having jurisdictions, appropriating official duties, granting authority to positions of leadership, possessing a hierarchy, documenting actions, having standardized training, and having a set of rules. The bureaucracy – by employing these standards – is “… the means of carrying ‘community action’ over into rationally ordered ‘societal action’” (McIntosh, 1997:149). These qualities are necessary in order to turn “public sentiment” into physical action. The size of government and the complexity of achieving a specific goal within a large society call for a strict set of rules and specific hierarchical structure to ensure the accomplishment of specific tasks. Without implementing such standards, the nature of human beings would disallow the smooth functioning of society. No sustained and efficient actions would be implemented if the masses were unorganized; control begets order. These very characteristics, though, are in opposition to the true nature of democracy.
The characteristics of bureaucracies, though efficient in facilitating the maintenance order, are not efficient in facilitating the representation of the people whom bureaucracies govern. This tendency is rooted in the very nature of bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are comprised of individuals who are appointed to their positions. The appropriation of official duties is not the appropriation by the people but by the organization itself. When talking about bureaucracies, understanding the deep complexities of a bureaucratic entity sheds light on this fact.
The maintenance of order and the deep ranks that make up a bureaucratic body are shaped internally. A quasi organism is developed in which checks and balances are applied to maintain the health of the organization. Even if the people vote that a bureaucratic organization be created – though that is not usually the case – once the organization has been established, the onus of maintaining the organization falls upon the organization itself or any governing bodies accountable for the organization. Therefore, the decisions that are made by the organization are decided by those who work within the organization; they are not decided by the people. Promotions, rules, policies, and actions that affect society are decided by those who are in control, those who have been appointed. This fact contradicts the very premise of democracy that the people decide the rules that govern them.
In the case of the U.S., one might propose that the citizenry does in fact decide the rules that govern them. One might make the argument that we elect our officials, therefore we are in control of the system. If we decide who has been elected to office, then we have essentially exerted our authority as the people; therefore the elected officials and their subsequent decisions are in essence a reflection of our will. What is being overlooked here, however, is the fact that we do not decide who is nominated to represent us in the first place.
Drawing from the works of Dr. Dennis Loo, if people are presented with a choice between two objects – he uses the example of two ice cream flavors – then whichever object is chosen is not necessarily that which the people wanted but rather that which the people preferred (Loo, 2011). There is a distinct difference between the two.
What the people truly want – leadership, in the case of political authority – is not necessarily offered as a choice. The election between two people is hardly democratic when the people did not even have the opportunity to choose whom they wanted to vote for in the first place. Claiming that an elected official is the “people’s choice” is only half true. Yes, the people did in fact elect that person, but only because he was the best option; the people decided within the narrow limits of their choices. It would be a completely different situation if the people decided who ran for office in the first place. If the choices available were the preferences of the people, then whoever got elected would in fact be the people’s choice because the candidates would have been decided by society instead of some organization in charge of choosing official candidates [including both the mainstream media’s designation of certain candidates as “credible” and major party leadership’s designation of the same]. This holds water, though, only if democracy is seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself.
If democracy is viewed as an end in itself then just the fact that people voted would be good enough to fulfill the criteria. Democracy and the event of people casting their ballots is not a full embodiment of rule by the people – as argued above. But, if democracy is viewed as an end in itself, then this is okay. If people vote, and if it did not matter whom they voted for, only that they voted, then democracy would be fulfilled. This would make the existence of bureaucracies and their system of operation okay in a “democratic” society. The problem is that if people are not in control of every aspect of government, then those who are in control will manipulate the system to meet their interests, not necessarily the interest of the people.
Marx and Engels wrote that a capitalistic system of economy would be doomed to fail because those who control the means of production would manipulate the system in such a way that would cause immense economic inequality and therefore a collapse. Engels specifically wrote that “… the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions …” (Engels, 2007). These two realizations, the fact that a capitalistic society is doomed to fail and the fact that government ultimately represents the economic system within which it operates, expose why bureaucratic institutions in the U.S. cannot operate within a true state of Democratic rule. Going back to the fact that bureaucracies are highly stratified and maintained by the organization itself and not the people, it becomes clear that when people do not have control over an organization, and if the organization is heavily influenced by an economic system, then that organization is going to be a product of the economic system and put forth policies that support those who are in power (not the people). In the case of the United States and our capitalistic economy, those who are in charge are the capitalists themselves.
Our economic system breads inequality and those who are able to succeed within the system are able to use their material wealth to influence the system and use it to promote their desires. The decisions that are made by governments are therefore not decisions that reflect the will of the people but the will of those who are in charge. When those who are in charge are those who are at the top of social hierarchy then naturally their decisions are not going to reflect necessities of the greater population. Government institutions will therefore operate in such a way that ensures that the current economic system stays intact so that those who benefit from the system can continue to reap its benefits. This pattern is a result of the fact that Democracy is not an end in itself.
If voting was all that mattered, then those who are in charge are granted authority and are legitimized because the people “have spoken.” The people whom we elect to represent us are then free to make decisions based on their own volition and the people are powerless to stop them. There is no democratic rule if the people have no ability to affect change within the system. In order for a government to arise that is representative of the people and a proponent of equality, revolution must occur.
The reason why our current system persists is because the people have been fooled to believe that capitalism is the only way. Capitalism’s historical roots in our country and its promotion in everything in modern day society lead people to believe that it is the way that things should be. Ordinary people do not question whether capitalism is the answer or not; they automatically assume it as a truth and live their lives within its constructed reality. This deep existence in the minds and hearts of the people is what ultimately lends to its continued dominance.
People think within the paradigm of capitalism and all the individualistic selfishness that follows; it therefore serves as the base of their decisions. People do not see inequality as a result of the system but of individual failure. People do not have the desire to change the system or eliminate those who are in power because they believe that one day they might be in that position and if so, they would like to enjoy the same privileges. It makes sense to the average person why someone would manipulate the system to work for his/her own benefit; few people would say that it is unwise to do. The idea of, “I am okay as long as I get mine” follows. A more equal system cannot be put in place until these sentiments are greatly diminished or destroyed. As long as selfishness is purported as the standard of human existence, then no matter what system is put in place, manipulation will be inevitable and corruption will follow.
Bureaucracies and democracy should not coexist in the same society. If democracy is viewed as an end in itself, then this would not be true. But the fact that democracy as an end in itself is a democracy that grants almost no power to the people, means that it must be viewed as only a means to end. People must vote, this is important, but people must also be able to design the system within which they are voting. Any new system that is developed must be one that is grounded in a paradigm centered on equality and human rights. As long as the motivations of the people are based on individual gain, equality cannot manifest itself.
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
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. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)