Tuesday, September 11, 2001

unfold does ethics have anything to do

Lately, I amateurishly bumbled into, and became part of, a collection of posts and comments that could loosely be said to have a theme of ethical considerations of doing the scientific spade work in areas where popular opinions are hostile to, or inclined to misappropriate, facts and plausible working theories. Coturnix, constructive fellow that he is, pulled it all together so the breakdowns in the conversational process were apparent even to a hasty submitter like me. The particular science involved was mostly studies of determinants of sexual orientation but did range quite a ways from that. The ethics, best handled by Dr Freeride, concerned how and whether a scientist ought to communicate findings that could exacerbate the precarious state of minorities whose difference from the majority was the subject of the findings and which differences were the subject of common biases or ethical condemnations in some segment of society. In the comments to all those posts are more than a few interesting thoughts on whether and how the pursuit of knowledge we mostly agree to call "science" overlaps or has impact on any quest to know what is "right" or "rightful" or "righteous" any of which we may mean when we say "ethics"...to our perpetual confounding as communicators. (Not every liberal you speak to means "normative ethics" when they say ethics but I sure do. Not every conservative means the patchy scheme for moral assessment scattered in holy texts but many do.) Another angle on the ethical questions that scientists should give some thought when exploring human nature, especially variations that are currently tinderboxes of societal fragmentation, is how to document difference without portraying dysfunction, not all irregularities are illnesses. Gender roles and biases regarding them, ever a cause over at Pandagon, was also in this mix. Dr. Freeride uses the term "cultural assumptions" in a post about how hopelessly mythical our claims of equality of the sexes in academia are.

For me, the outcome of all that discussion, greater than the lesson in manners that I constantly need, was to learn there is a more rigorous framework than comparison to myth for examining the origins of the conceptions and misconceptions that riddle or rule public debate. With the reservation that we could risk being cast off on a desert island of academics for indulging in the emperor's new detector for non-elite narishkeit, I recommend [as do Coturnix and Amanda] Chris's posts on essentialism. It is a fascinating tool for plumbing the sources of popular or man-on-the-street opinions. Until we cease to live in a democracy, we cannot ignore these opinions, the damp clay of politics and its cracked pottery, for they do much to determine legal and financial and religious treatment of the putative victims of bias in courts, legislatures and churches. You all know I tilt constantly at sundry forms of self delusion so a new tool that can scrub away the shared forms of self delusion is a treat. It is yet another reminder to me that I should not be surprised at sloppy thinking. As I once commented to Cul:
If you went to an insane asylum [you can call them mental hospitals nowadays: most of them have been emptied on to the streets. But lets pretend its 1951...] wouldn't you be very surprised if all the patients had the same fantasy?
Important, or at least useful, as essentialist insights into popular notions about politically significant issues may be, it is still ironic that it is, in a way, an analysis of how we don't think or take shortcuts in our thinking. The study of how we avoid being deliberate in our thinking is not new. The subject of how humans often think in shallow if speedy ways, even for important decisions gets turned over every time a new tool or technique to measure and analyze thought is developed.. The first work I heard of that pointed to the biological/psychological, if amoral, advantages of stereotypical thinking is now behind a subscription paywall. In that paper with a title that will remind you of a Lakoff title, McRae and Bodenhausen reviewed studies of the nature of stereotypical thinking and particularly, thinking about other persons or groups:
"Given basic cognitive limitations and a challenging stimulus world, perceivers need some way to simplify and structure the person perception process. This they achieve through the activation and implementation of categorical thinking .... Rather than considering individuals in terms of their unique constellations of attributes and proclivities, perceivers prefer instead to construe them on the basis of the social categories (eg. race, gender, age) to which they belong, categories for which a wealth of related material is believed to reside in long-term memory."
And they speculated on how our thought capacity came to function in that manner. The benefit, if I may summarize, was a way to rapidly reach decisions in the presence of information overload. Other studies on stereotypical thinking are not complimentary in their assessments of conservative and gender biases. But stereotypical thinking may be the dominant mode of decision making for most people...Gladwell wrote Blink to explain how we have always sized things up, to praise and finesse intuition, but not to offer a new kind of thinking.

Chris was explaining how essentialism is already being stretched into new areas:
An interesting [question] is whether we are psychological essentialists about concepts that might be considered as falling somewhere in between natural kinds and artifacts, like social concepts. Are we psychological essentialists about concepts such as gender, ethnicity, political orientation, or mental illness? Do we treat these concepts like natural kinds, or like artifacts, or as something in between? In this and subsequent posts, I'm going to discuss evidence indicating that we are, in fact, psychological essentialists about many social concepts,

Thus, it may be going too far on my sketchy acquaintance with the idea of kinds and essences to propose a more abstract kind but here goes : goodness or rightness is a natural kind or category into which we casually and reflexively sort many things which we perceive to have the following "essence": they promote, protect or affirm our self or things with which we identify. And there is an opposite "kind" for which the essence is that it competes with, injures or denies our self or interests with which we identify.

I want you to consider the barriers that impede ethical thinking if we are not mindful at the moment of decision. Ignore for a moment that mindful and deliberate are not the same concept and that necessity does not often afford the luxury of long reflection on a decision. Just weigh against your own experience the quality and utility of your own decisions made in any of these modes: stereotypical thinking, essentialist thinking, first impressions, hunches and intuitions. We use the term "common sense" in a generally positive connotation of "what everybody should know and how everybody should think" about commonly experienced issues and events. If you stop to think about it you'll probably agree with the Horace Greeley quip. Only a very technical investigation of common sense starts with the observation of how damn hard it is to derive, compute or instill. Do you have "common sense"? If what you consider to be your common sense appraisal of a situation is different from your peers, or some norm, how is it "common" sense? When you exercise it, do you ever revisit initial impressions and decisions [and impression IS decision: you get a feeling, you have taken a stand] or do you tend to later find more conscious reasonings that support the snap judgment? The research says the average "you" does this backfilling of hunches. What commonly passes for thought is not only NOT common sense, it is more like autopilot.

If it gets any attention at all, my suggestion that "good and right" is a kind from the psychological essentialist viewpoint will probably be shredded or at least get marked down for sloppiness. What I find most appealing about it as a model of mental processing is that it fits with the way we either deemphasize the negatives or the positives about many things that require our judgment, particularly as the those negatives and positives impact us personally. Nobody, well, nobody I know, intentionally works to do wrong but lots of us have to deal with gray areas. The ease with which we binarize to black or white ought to give us pause. To avoid coming into the grip of harmful or selfish decision making, if indeed we operate on the basis of some self-interest essence, is to teach ourselves to draw the largest possible circle of beings and cultures with which we can identify.

That essentialist way of saying we think categorically about what/who is good and bad popped into my head as I was reading the front page, above-the-fold story in Saturday's Boston Globe about a fierce old alpha male in the tribe of science, Nobel laureate Susumu Tonagawa who is accused by 11 colleagues at MIT of driving off a supremely qualified job applicant. This applicant just happens to be female and just happens to have areas of interest in neuroscience that heavily overlap his own. This is a rather different face of ethics in science than the questions of what is good to study and what is safe to report. Ethics among scientists has its own scale of sinfulness. I won't sort them for you but you might, as an exercise, consider ordering these examples.
  • faking data or experimental results
  • sabotaging someone else's experiments
  • withholding knowledge that would probably help a competing line of research
  • suppressing another's work by negative reviewing of a submitted paper.
  • Not reporting something fraudulent you detect in a colleague's work
  • concealing a conflict of interest or simple professional jealousy that affects cooperation with investigators whose work is related to yours

It seems that intra-scientist matters operate according to much the same human nature as we observe and complain about it in other walks of life, office politics as usual. Its not that MIT does not have a few women who did or currently do rock their world with renown and budget power but the culture of the institution, as the article hints has had to redress a spotty record regarding equal recognition of women as researchers and non harassment of women as students.

Women who are personal acquaintances of mine have filed grievances or written about the glass ceilings at their department at MIT and that colors my perception of this news. The Globe article is, and speaks carefully because it knows it is, an incomplete picture of what Tonagawa said to dissuade Karpova from working at MIT. The Globe article hints no awareness that the Stanford researcher who wrote to MIT on behalf of Dr. Karpova, the transgendered Ben Barres, has an unusual perspective on the effect of gender on the interactions of academic peers. Read Dr. Freeride's post and see. Departments more injured by Karpova's rejection and researchers more closely associated with Tonagawa come down on different sides of the controversy in their memos to the institute. Karpova's published thoughts are the elegant minimum: "No thank you MIT". What I am trying to illustrate here is that there are many perspectives on this affair and none of them except possibly Dr. Tonagawa's has even a chance of being inclusive of all the facts. From my own limited perspective, I can not imagine any benefit to MIT, to the program Dr. Tonagawa heads or to his own reputation that might result from discouraging a promising researcher from working there. And though it is remote, there is a slight diminution of my own interests. And, to be honest, I came to my conclusions about Tonagawa's problems two paragraphs into the Globe article Saturday morning and have struggled since to re-suspend judgment.

The work on essentialism, the studies of stereotypical thinking and "Blink" each counsel in their own way that we always have a ready-made perspective but seldom are aware of it or of how limited it is. What was the thought that passed through Dr. Tonagawa's mind in the minutes after Karpova's application first came to his attention? Even he might not remember. From dusty decades my own reactions I now recall and wonder what man still has these thoughts upon a first meeting with a female boss or co-worker who seems largely interested in her own ideas and not his own or who speaks with a tone of undue confidence:
"If she were another guy, I'd know how deal with this but what if she plays one of her 'woman' cards? Would I come off as intimidating? Am I already guilty of bias and liable to blackmail on that account? I am caught perpetually off balance."

Trust me gals, to some men an intimidating woman is that much more intimidating than an intimidating man.

The critical question, since our habits of thought are so firmly set and we don't always have time to expand our thinking before narrowing it back to a decision, is this: Can we revisit and if not, what exercises of thought beforehand might broaden the set of factors that will come into play reflexively in the moment of decision?

The most ethical thought you can have is the one made with the fullest context consciously born in mind. But omniscience is not available and we simply don't know how to fully subtract our own wishes from the processing.

Deliberation will do if you can summon it. Research psychology finds scant evidence that we do this summoning. Mindfulness improves upon deliberation by greatly and gracefully speeding it up through an ironic freedom from the burdens of self. That freedom falls out of detecting the interferences of self so they can be disarmed. But if not by seeing through your self then by whatever means are available to you, you should explore what positive connections and win-win dynamics may exist between you and all the fellow creatures who are not now the members of "your" crowd of good guys. Deliberation may be ideal, but intuition is fast and self interest is the fastest part of it. I am suggesting a liberalization of what an individual senses as his or her self interest is the most effective way to move more of the "others" of the world into the beneficial categories when categorical thinking can not be avoided.

-------Foot notes------
Since this post rambled all over the place, let me just bullet what I intended as my points:
  • Whether your ethics is more like Rawls, more like Nozick or somewhere in between, that is just the ethics you think about but clearly much of what is, de facto, at work as moral social thought is NOT rational but some kind of natural mental short cut. Pick any of the theories of categoric thinking you like or make up your own...it doesn't matter.
  • We are barely conscious of the ways our perceived self-interest factors in to split-second decisions that later harden into plans and positions.
  • Inability to detect and counter ones own stereotypes produces thoughts and opinions which incorporate bias.
  • Since we all fail to some degree to carry on deliberate thought even at moments when that would be ideal, we need to more inclusively restock our personal set of recognized items of self-interest in order to function in a more ethical manner.

I hesitate to put in the body of a post, in a context of endorsement, what most will write off as an "unproven religious claim". What I say about the benefit of mindfulness is not crucial for the deliberation nor the inclusiveness of stereotype that I argue for here. And in no way should you assume I have a schooled appreciation of Buddhist forms of meditation. Buddhism is a religion with many distinct branches of practice but the branch that impresses me is the one that sells no balm of calm nor claim of proof but rather challenges the practitioner to find the proof in becoming their own least interested observer. Those impressions have led me expect the benefit I put forth. I have a more personal reasoning that brings me to suggest that we can improve on our baked in tendency to stereotype: self interest begins to pale when we begin to see the self as an illusion. Still,I did what I obliviously always do, I asked google. Surprise! I found agreement with an expectation:

Improved Interpersonal Relationships At Work And Home

Mindfulness skills impact this arena in two ways. First, they allow one to be more "present" with people, more engaged and less drawn into fantasy and projection moment by moment. Second, they provide a tool to reduce the effects of negative emotions which often get in the way of successful interpersonal communication.

I was bothered about saying what amounts to "The nearer they are to a person's perceived self interest, the more 'good' is seen in a another person" : it seems so terribly obvious.
I pulled the post back into my drafts collection. But today, good 'ol 3 Quarks Daily pointed me to my own SciAm Digital subscription: Shermer writes a piece that strongly supports the too obvious: we categorize as "good" those things with which we identify and we bypass rationality in doing this. The problem, whatever its ultimate sources in our wiring is that obvious or not, self interest is NOT so obvious to us when we are deciding how to treat others. It should be noted that the findings Shermer reports lay the "thinks stereotypically" label about equally on either political affiliation but I think the operative variable is the strength, not the party, of the affiliation.

Other titles for this post kept occurring to me:
Typical thinking, now available in stereo.
We are ALL "deciders", can you deliberate?

Irony: the neuroscience turf over which Karpova and Susumu were anticipating a clash is research into memory. And what is the basis of the roughly counterbalanced mechanisms in stereotypical thinking in the view of MacRae and Bodenhausen? short and long term memory:
According to recent developments in the cognitive neurosciences, flexible processing is believed to be attained through the operation of two complementary mental modules: the neocortical and the hippocampal learning/memory systems .... The neocortical system (i.e. slow-learning system) comprises people’s generic beliefs about the world (i.e. semantic memory), beliefs that accumulate gradually through repeated exposure to particular stimulus events. Given the need for stability in people’s perceptions of the world, the contents of the neocortical system (e.g. beliefs, expectancies, norms) are highly resistant to modification or change. The hippocampal system (i.e. fast-learning system), in contrast, serves a different function in mental life in that it enables perceivers to form temporary representations of novel or surprising stimulus events, representations that commonly gain access to consciousness (i.e. episodic memory)..
Does this have much to do with politicized thought? Yep, Shermer's report is an echo of a long trend in research psychology [makes you wonder about researcher's motives of course...]. From page 100 in the MacRae and Bodenhausen article [citations are elided]:

In addition to temporary processing objectives, a perceiver’s chronic beliefs about others also appear to moderate the activation of categorical thinking .... It is interesting, however, that this observation is at odds with conventional thinking on the dynamics of the categorization process. Based on Devine’s (1989) seminal article, it has been widely accepted that both prejudiced and egalitarian individuals activate categories (and their associated stereotypes) to the same degree when they encounter members of stigmatized social groups. Through common socialization experiences, all individuals are assumed to have the same cultural stereotypes stored in memory, stereotypes that are accessed as soon as a group member (or symbolic equivalent) is encountered .... The cognitive difference between humanitarians and bigots is that whereas the former group overrides the automatic effects of category activation by replacing stereotypic thoughts with their own nonprejudiced personal beliefs (i.e. controlled inhibition), the latter group does not engage in such an activity. Thus, differences between the groups emerge only at the level of controlled cognitive processing. Where automatic operations are concerned (i.e. category activation), bigots and humanitarians are believed to be psychologically indistinguishable.
But is this strictly true? Some recent research casts doubt on the veracity of this assumption. Unlike their prejudiced counterparts, egalitarians display no evidence whatsoever of stereotype activation when presented with priming categorical stimuli .... In other words, bigots and humanitarians appear to be distinguishable at the level of automatic cognitive operations ... The implication of this finding is obvious: Bigots and humanitarians must differ with respect to material they hold in memory about the members of stigmatized social groups, with humanitarians holding substantially less prejudiced beliefs about these groups .... Taken together, these findings suggest that category activation is sometimes amenable to control, at least in the sense of being responsive to a perceiver’s cognitive limitations, temporary processing objectives, and chronic beliefs about certain social groups.
Now that is interesting, especially when you put it together with the Ohio State findings that the brakes on our categorical thinking tend to fail as we age. You might want to go to the library of your local university's psych department and check out the full text. Much thanks to Chris for the pointers. I hope I return the favor in a slight way by pointing out that Haslam is cited in the MacRae and Bodenhausen review: looks like he got his appetite for mathematically defensible data analysis from having some of his earlier work overturned by another researcher who had a bigger math tool at his disposal. The conclusion section of this 2000 review of research on categorical thinking also made harbinger mention of essentialism:
For example, we have not touched on the highly promising application of the notion of subjective essentialism (Medin 1989) to the domain of social categories.

The fractured facade of academic gender neutrality was my entre to a more generic discussion of why we tend to think in stereotypes: few leaps are too far for a no-name amateur blogging on about other people's fields of expertise. But do you suppose its just something in the air this week or is there a generic dysfunction in institutional cultures when the capacities and traits that need to be judged may be viewed via stereotyped gender differences and the judgments are made of a person on one side of the gender gap by a person on the other side for whom that gap is a barrier to empathy or identification or, worse yet, an actual them-us divide? The part that stereotypical thinking plays in cases of bias is loud and clear in the indictment phase but muted by the time the verdicts are reached.

========== Updates =============
Anonymous [neuroscience student, researcher?] blogger notes that all 11 signatories to the protest letter first sent to Hockfield were women. That blog is more insider than most and in addition to adding facts most of us won't find elsewhere, illustrates care in seeing that there are several sides to the problem: i.e. exhibits deliberation and conscious perspective very nicely.

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