A place for new ideas to settle.

23 October 2014

"Excessivisms," cargo cult politics, and #GamerGate (but maybe not how you expect)

Yes, this is where I'm going to express an official blog-opinion on #GamerGate—in the most abstract way possible. [WARNING: This post is very long... one might even say excessively so.]

I.

Richard Feynman, in a 1978 commencement address at Caltech (and also in the last chapter of his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!), describes a phenomena he calls "Cargo Cult Science":
I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.
"Cargo cult science" is a very specific kind of pseudoscientific mentality, where "pseudoscience" is generally considered to be appropriating the "form and trappings" of science without what Feynman called (read this in a heavy Brooklyn accent) "a kind of scientific integrity... a kind of bending over backwards." Pseudoscience is a spectrum disorder (with notoriously fuzzy boundaries between it and the "true" sciences), from cranks who think they've overturned all of physics but are being suppressed by the Establishment, to woo-meisters who claim that quantum physics proves that we are all one with the Universe, to people who really really want their claims to be scientific for their own sake, but miss the whole point of science, the "bending over backwards" to accept evidence before conclusions.

This last group are the cargo-cult scientists. The Pacific Islanders who got their society to build bamboo runways, for example, probably didn't have any malicious intent to deceive the aviation community. They recognized that airlifts of cargo were a pretty good thing to have, and tried to get more by mimicking the conditions that generated them in the first place.

Similarly, a good portion of the Western areas of study that Feynman calls out—education, criminal reform—probably aren't inhabited by willful deceivers. Oh sure, there are certainly those who set out with an ideal and want to "prove" it right by twisting data to fit their preconceived notions, but certainly there are many teachers or social workers who just want something that works.

They just don't know how to sort the gems from the junk.

II.

Massimo Pigliucci, a biologist and philosopher of science at CUNY-City College, describes a viewpoint called "scientism":
I have never understood why there is so much confusion about the definition of scientism. I just looked it up in my basic Apple dictionary, and it is crystal clear: “Excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.” The devil, and much of the discussion, of course, is in the details.
He goes on to discuss an "alphabet soup" of varieties of (possibly) scientistic thinking, from the reasonable:
A. There is a thing called “science” with its own characteristic features distinctive enough to distinguish it from other human practices.

Yes, there is. While it is true that scientific thinking, broadly construed, is continuous with human thinking in general (how could it be otherwise?), it should be uncontroversial (although it actually isn’t) that the kind of attention to empirical evidence, theory construction, and the relation between the two that characterizes science is “distinctive enough,” as John puts it, to allow us to meaningfully speak of an activity that we call science as sufficiently distinct from, say, plumbing, literary criticism, or mathematics.
To the outrageous:
V. A highly worthy life is one guided by a scientific outlook on the world.

Baloney. Plenty of people have lived highly worthy lives (ethically, I presume) that were not guided by the scientific outlook on the world. Pretty much anyone before the Scientific Revolution, for instance. And a number of other prominent and ordinary human beings since. Moreover, a lot of pretty bad stuff has been done by people who wholly embraced the scientific worldview, even without bringing in the Nazis again. And that, of course is because the connection between science and values is tenuous at best, and certainly not determinant.

W. The worthiest culture for humanity is the one technologically controlled by the scientific worldview.


This is simply a version of (V) above on steroids and applied to societies rather than individuals, and it is hence unacceptable a fortiori.

X. The most thoroughly scientific culture should displace and marginalize all other cultures across humanity.


See comment regarding (W) and bring it up a few more notches.

Y. The supremely scientific culture should eliminate all rival cultures and control the destiny of humanity.


A few more notches…

Z. The supremely scientific culture should control the course of humanity as well as all posthuman sentient forms of life, including AI life forms, that may arise from humanity.


Turn it up to the point of shouting a very clearly resounding “go to hell” response.
If there's a unifying theme to all of these positions, one more concrete than the Apple dictionary definition, it might be this:
A viewpoint may be called scientistic (or scientism) if it includes the following positions:

1.
For any given question, there is a science-based (or seemingly science-based...!) answer. Morality? Science will answer it! Call this position one of "(scientistic) existence."

2. Moreover, science-based (or seemingly science-based) answers ought to be the first kind of answers sought to any given question... if any other answers are even admissible! Call this position one of "(scientistic) primacy," or in the case of the more exclusive position, "(scientistic) uniqueness."
Anyone who has studied mathematics might be familiar with "existence-and-uniqueness" proofs. The names seem appropriate enough here for our characterization of scientism. Indeed, this may allow us to generalize to a larger category of viewpoints, as we'll see below.

Why did I say "seemingly science-based" in the characterization? Well, nobody said that scientism had to be scientific! In fact, bragging that scientific methods can totally be brought to bear on (e.g.) a being that exists completely outside our reality, is utterly without scientific merit.

Science operates under a methodology of naturalism: that the only things we can test are objects and processes in the natural world, and if we can measure or test it, then it's of the natural world. (Abstract study of pattern and structure is mathematics; abstract study of "what," "why," and "ought" (for example) is philosophy.) By asserting that science could test for the existence of Yog-Sothoth, the scientist-ist(???) is actually making a philosophical (read: non-scientific) claim: that Yog-Sothoth is of the natural world.

Or, if Yog-Sothoth is still outside our reality, then suddenly science has burst the bonds of methodological naturalism and everything is science. What's the point of words then?

The essential nature of scientism is one of unwarranted excess: caught up in the deserved success of science, one excessively broadens the scope of scientific inquiry. This can happen regardless of whether or not one happens to understand any aspect of science at all.

III.

Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, writes about the "moral limits of markets" in an article for The Atlantic:
Some say the moral failing at the heart of market triumphalism was greed, which led to irresponsible risk-taking. The solution, according to this view, is to rein in greed, insist on greater integrity and responsibility among bankers and Wall Street executives, and enact sensible regulations to prevent a similar crisis from happening again.

This is, at best, a partial diagnosis. While it is certainly true that greed played a role in the financial crisis, something bigger was and is at stake. The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t.

Sandel's critique suggests an analogous characterization to scientism, like so:
A viewpoint may be called marketistic (or marketism) if it includes the following positions:

1.
For any given question, there is a market-based (or seemingly market-based...!) answer. Morality? Create a market to allocate it! Call this position one of "(marketistic) existence."

2. Moreover, market-based (or seemingly market-based) answers ought to be the first kind of answers sought to any given question... if any other answers are even admissible! Call this position one of "(marketistic) primacy," or in the case of the more exclusive position, "(marketistic) uniqueness."
The parallels become clear: what Sandel and others may call market triumphalism, or market fundamentalism (a misreading of what "fundamentalism" is, I think), I'm choosing to call "marketism" in a conceptual alliance with "scientism." Certainly there's a good reason for this. Marketism (née market fundamentalism) is yet another case of unwarranted excess. Overconfident from the justified (yes, you leftists!) success of fair markets (yes, you anarcho-capitalists!), marketists decide to set up markets for every little thing. Figure out that a good can be divvied up, and The Market will divvy it up according to The Market's will.

Okay, that's two examples—enough for any mathematician. Let's generalize! I'm going to be cute and call both of these viewpoints specific examples of excessivism. (Get it?) So here's the rule:
An excessivism is a viewpoint about specific kind of human inquiry or decision-making process—call this process P—that includes the following positions:

1. For any given question, there is a P-based (or seemingly P-based) answer. Call this position one of "existence."

2. Moreover P-based (or seemingly P-based) answers ought to be the first kind of answers sought to any given question... if any other answers are even admissible! Call this position one of "primacy," or in the case of the more exclusive position, "uniqueness."
Now we can pull back and give a succinct description of the previous examples:
The excessivism of science (that is, scientism) asserts the existence of a uniquely science-based solution to any given problem.

The excessivism of markets (that is, marketism) asserts the existence of a uniquely market-based solution to any given problem.
Isn't that tidy? Again, the potential problems with these sorts of viewpoints are manifold. Maybe there is no such solution—science being dragged over the demarcation line well into philosophy territory where it shall not tread, for example. Maybe there are other kinds of solutions, ones that are just better—markets usually seem to "work," but sometimes the results are rather perverse; other options, like social norms and values, might be more harmonious.

IV.

David Brin, in his political writing and blogging, often champions the notion of accountability arenas, which he suggests deserve the lion's share of credit for the dominance of the post-Enlightenment neo-Western civilization:
Consider four marvels of our age -- science, democracy, the justice system and fair markets. In each case the participants (scientists, litigants, politicians and capitalists) are driven by selfish goals. That won't change; not till we redefine human nature. But for years, rules have been fine-tuned in each of these fields of endeavor, to reduce cheating and let quality or truth win much of the time. By harnessing human competitiveness, instead of suppressing it, these "accountability arenas" nourished much of our unprecedented wealth and freedom.
We've already seen too-confident idolizing of science and markets. Complete the pattern. We've probably heard talk of America being an overly litigious society, or that such-and-such politician wants to "legislate morality." That's an excessivism of law. But do we have a good concept of an excessivism of politics? Sure, there's plenty of hand-wringing (or reassurances to the contrary) about "polarization," but that's a symptom, not the actual disease:
The excessivism of politics (that is, politicism) asserts the existence of a uniquely politics-based solution to any given problem.
But here, I think, we see an overwhelming case of pseudopolitics as the driving force behind political excessivisms in the real world. Simply put, I think there's been a mutation in how people see the nature and product of the political process, and it's become rather malignant. More than ever, politics is war and arguments are soldiers. It's not that politics in Washington, D.C. was ever that much different in generations past; but that more things became politicized.

In this way we've shifted our guiding metaphors: politics is no longer "the art of the possible" but rather "war by other means." Less Bismarck and more (inverted) Clausewitz.

We might think of the "true" (or at least, old) political process as optimizing for agreement—not necessarily the happiness of the parties involved, but at least an agreement to a certain policy package knowing that it's the best they can do. You won't please everyone (anyone?) with three-quarters of what you want and a few million dollars of pork-barrel spending for the opposing committee chair, but you'll at least accomplish more than nothing.

But here's the problem: in this brave new game of pseudopolitics, the end state of the conflict is not agreement, but unconditional surrender. And under this view, combined with the political excessivism (asserting the existence of a uniquely politics-based solution to any given problem), we have that any given problem can be solved by splitting into two sides and browbeating each other until Our Side wins and Their Side loses. And remember, there are no noncombatants—this is total war.

[A small digression: I should note that my characterization of the political process is not precisely "democratic," and in fact the most vulgar forms of democracy are exactly the kind of cargo cult politics I'm describing now. I'm thinking more of small-r republicanism: the democratic process is more of an accountability measure to attain some level of representativeness.]

It's a cargo cult because rather than getting at the true mechanisms of politics—compromise and grudging concessions—it's taking literally the narrative of politics. Our Side will win, because we are righteous; Their Side will lose, because they are wicked.

And I hate it because the only real winner is the Narrative itself. Like Chambers' King in Yellow it "could not rest until it had seized the minds of men and controlled even their unborn thoughts." I hate it because anything that seems to serve the Narrative could have been done precisely for that reason. Certain individuals or groups are seen as victims and held therefore beyond reproach; and yet every accusation at their abusers now has the unspoken possibility of falsehood. Every coincidence becomes a conspiracy. Every setback becomes enemy action.

There are no exceptions or excuses.

I hate this. The Narrative is such an easy tool of agency-denial: "You can't really mean that, I've decided you should have been on Our Side, so Their Side must have corrupted you. You're no longer protected, and moreover, you're unclean. You too must be destroyed." It's simply not possible to have complex thoughts once the Narrative has infected the body of rhetoric. Complex thoughts might contain bits that help Their Side, so complex thoughts are forbidden.
V.

Finally we arrive at #GamerGate as merely a worked example in my burgeoning theory of people taking things I like and using them wrongly. At the risk of debasing Feynman, I'm going to paraphrase him in describing a more general phenomenon than #GamerGate:
On Social Media there is there is a cargo cult of people. Learning history in high school they saw society change for the better, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like protests, to criticize their opponents, to make a new jargon. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. Society isn't changing like it did . So I call these things cargo cult politics, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of politics, but they're missing something essential, because the problems don't go away.
When you combine the politics is war metaphor with the personal is political, it seems like the result is politics is total war. Now nothing is safe from politicization, even some things that probably aren't amenable to politics. In all corners of society we have people mobilizing against a dire threat to their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. And conversely, no action can be seen as neutral—if it doesn't help Us, then it must be helping Them, even if only because it's not directly helping Us!

In this war, which is not waged on a physical battlefield, all sides see fit to deploy whatever superweapons they can assemble and bring online.

We saw this thing start, arguably, with a slightly unhinged bitter ex-boyfriend inveighing against his ex-girlfriend, claiming that she was a hypocritical adulterer who slept with game reviewers to get good press for the game she developed. (Superweapon: The Scorned Lover)

We saw the right-leaning blogosphere glom on to the growing chorus of generalized "something ain't right" against games media, and the chorus was hereby christened #GamerGate. (Superweapon: The -Gate Suffix)

We saw the retaliation by journalists and commentators, declaring that "gamers are dead" as an identity and that to be a "gamer" meant to be an evil mutant misogynist neckbeard lardbucket with no friends and a terminal case of needing-to-be-bullied:



Then, in response to Biddle's really-not-funny tweets, Adobe requested that Gawker Media remove the Adobe logo from an image on their site, and tweeted the following:

How did The Verge, an online publication on the anti-GG side of the aisle, report on this?

Software company Adobe has implicitly voiced support for vitriolic "consumer revolt" Gamergate. After being asked by Gamergate supporters to drop sponsorship for Gawker Media, the company said that it was not actually an advertiser, but would ask Gawker to remove an Adobe logo from its site. Gamergate supporters were protesting a series of tongue-in-cheek tweets by Gawker-affiliated Valleywag editor Sam Biddle, jokingly calling to "bring back bullying" of nerds.
Yes, this action by Adobe is implicit support for #Gamergate, while Biddle's tweets are "tongue-in-cheek" and "joking." This is the kind of politicized shit we see from, like, gun-nuts. (Pro-gun or anti-gun, either way.) If you don't agree with this specific thing on one side, you must before the other side, you evil mutant!

Let's recall the "culture" framework I used in my post on gun culture: ownership of guns validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by the possession and use of guns.


What about "gamer culture"? [X] of video games validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by the [X] of video games.


Hm. There's a problem here: it feels right, like there's an analogous statement for this sort of potentially-toxic cultural attitude. I'm just not sure what the actual connection to video games is. It's not simply owning a lot of games: I own a lot of games (thanks for nothing, Steam sales) but I haven't played most of them (yet) and moreover I don't consider myself a "gamer" per se. It's not simply enthusiasm for games, at least not just any kind of game: one sort of has to be highly enthusiastic for a definite class of games, and maybe even make a show of disdaining other classes of games. And it's not simply skill at playing games, though that is a sort of factor: certainly "gamers" tend to be into the more "hardcore" games.


Here's the disturbing thought: what if "gamer culture" is actually 'gamer' culture? That is: Identifying as a 'gamer' validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by associating primarily with other 'gamers.'

Yup. I think we've got it. The seeds of politicization were planted deep in the past.

Consider the following metaphor:
A group of friends, tired of being picked last for sports and generally left out of other kids' fun, decided to build a treehouse in the branches of a huge oak tree at the local park. It was modest, but they had a roll-up rope ladder and secret pass-codes and developed a close, shared community. Eventually other misfits joined this treehouse club, and some moved on, but the general rules of the club stayed the same. Shared experience created shared norms.

Then other kids noticed how much fun the treehouse club seemed to be having. The oak tree was quite large, so other treehouses started popping up in its branches. This didn't bother the original club very much—they had their secret pass-codes and so on, but it was kinda lame how the new treehouses had rigid ladders and ramps to get from one to the other, rather than just climbing through the branches. It wasn't that difficult once you got used to it!

Eventually the whole oak tree contained a vast network of treehouses, and the original treehouse was swallowed up by the newcomers. "Why don't we play together?" the new kids asked. "No, go away!" the treehouse club replied; "This is our special club."

The new kids—some of whom were just the sort of kids who rejected the club before—laughed: "That's stupid! Everyone has a treehouse now. You're just weird about it."
That's part of the situation as I see it: gamers have constructed a whole culture on the idea of an identity, self-constructed and defined by separateness and exclusivity! But now geek culture has become boring: it's in the mainstream now, but with none of the individual context that gave the source material its original potency. (Formative experiences aren't transitive between people, especially adults.) Now the identity defined by separateness and exclusivity is neither separate nor exclusive. It's a crisis.

For an especially explosive reaction, add in a cadre of inveterate politicizers, the "culture warriors" of the right-wing and the "social justice warriors" of the left. Now it's an identity crisis and a two-fronted Manichean battleground. Let the total war commence.