Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Anecdotal Evidence

Ingrid has several times remarked to me, “Anecdotes are a lousy basis for public policy.” She knows anecdotal evidence—she's a writer who uses anecdotes as a way of illustrating complex, abstract systems. So, when she talks about anecdotal evidence, I figure she knows whereof she speak.

In public policy, the alternative to anecdotal evidence is statistics and other hard data. So why isn't this evidence universally accepted? Why is anecdotal evidence hard to brush aside?

The conventional reason given by intellectuals and scientists is, because people are idiots. Which is a comforting sort of reason I suppose, if not being an idiot is an important part of your self-image. But it doesn't really quite answer the question.

People gravitate to stories, and lots of people believe personal experience over theory, especially when they are discussing a "territory" they have not themselves explored. This is why stories involving death are so powerful: we aren't going to go there ourselves until we do, and at that point hearing stories about death isn't going to do us a lot of good.

So we have narratives of people dying, and we have narratives of people moving across into what happens after they die. And these narratives are different from "maps" of the afterlife. They are from one individual's point of view and they make no guarantee that your experience will be the same. In fact, some of the most resonant narratives are parallels: X goes to heaven, Y goes to hell. By invoking multiple narratives we give shape to the basic idea of choice.

Alongside these narratives, there are, in fact, maps. All kinds of maps. I'm speaking metaphorically, in that graphic representations are a small subset of the non-narrative descriptions of death and after-death. In fact, many of them are embedded in narrative descriptions—one of the points of the narrative is to get the central character to a point where they can view the structure of after-death, or of the cosmos in general, for themselves. Think Dante. Or think of those ballads like "The House Carpenter" where the hapless person is shown the shores of heaven "where you and I will never be" and the shores of hellfire "where you and I will unite."

Regardless of its pedigree, we are talking about two kinds of evidence. One is narrative: it can be insightful or banal, but it is framed as testimony out of one's journey, whether that frame is reliable or utterly unbelievable. The other is factual: it is a statement of "what is."

So to go back to what Ingrid said, why is one a better basis for public policy than the other?

I think it's basically about scale. Narrative works on an individual basis: in a successful narrative, we imagine ourselves in the story, and can follow a series of actions over time. Narratives are immensely important in understanding how to live. But when one is creating structures for a large number of people, especially when you must include people you are not like (or people who are simply unknown to us), narratives break down.

So it's not the "policy" part that's the problem: actually, narrative provides a pretty good basis for creating personal policy. Maybe that's even its strongest suit. It's the "public" part, because "public" means all the people, including those strange to you.

All of which means creating structures based not on that emotionally "strong force" of narrative flow, but on the "weak force" of reason and description. Which is why advocates love to try and use sad stories to sway voters and their representatives, and why the President always has someone in the balcony at the state of the union to inspire us all. And why Ingrid uses anecdotes to illustrate her points.

The point is not to avoid anecdotes; I think this is the mistake many rationalists make. It's to recognize their limits, and their power. Finding that balance is a hard thing to do—stories have a way of taking over. And to some extent, we need to let them take over. It is what homo sapiens do in order to live happy lives. But we also need to be careful, especially when the limits of our personal experience kick in, not to let anecdotes from within our mortal and limited skin blur what vision we have gained through our measuring and conceptualizing beyond that skin.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The God Thing

[lightly edited after first being published so the "ands" and "buts" make a bit more sense...]

Chris posted on FaceBook:
I'd like to join Robert and Glenn and simply observe that if you accept that magic isn't real you don't have to worry about making such distinctions. It really does make life a whole lot easier. There is neither God the Father nor God the Judge. There simply is no God, or god.
and I responded:
Chris: Hmm. That's kind of a put up or shut up statement there. So I'll put up in a blog post... Too long to post here... And thanks for being blunt!
I've kind of resisted any real statements of faith: little pieces here and there, but maybe I ought to just put out there where I stand on this basic "is there or isn't there" thing:

Magic may not be real in the same sense that the sofa I'm sitting on is real, but then neither is love real in the same way. I believe God as a person is a human construct made to explain and give sensible shape to an observed set of patterns in the world. I don't believe God has personhood in and of itself.

Actually, I think God is the strawman in this, in that there are so many shapes and visions and experiences that all get lumped together, and everyone who "believes in God" ends up actually believing in a subset of them, either through their own conscious choice or more often through personal experience and social pressure.

I think of it in the abstract as the difference between matter and energy: we can't see energy, only its effect upon matter. Some energy is utterly chaotic at a human scale (the weak and strong atomic forces, for example, are way too fast and small to register with us, and the resulting molecular interactions, or even the basic chemical reactions of living cells, happen at staggeringly rapid, small-scale speeds). Other evidences of energy (Hurricane Earl for example) have clear, directional force but a mindless intent. This sense of a hurricane's mindlessness is comparatively new: people may pray for a miracle, but few liberal religionists really understand God as the one who puffs His breath and makes the tornado wipe out one house and not the other. On the other hand, there are still plenty of people out there who think God decides baseball games. Or who believe in good luck charms.

And then there's energy with intent: life. Weeds that "want" to grow into the tomato patch, the virus that "wants" to take over your body. Love. War. My point is, while living things are concrete, life itself is essentially defined by the flow of energy through these concrete systems.

Now, I do not personally believe in a cosmic mind, in the sense that humans have minds and individual wills. I think a Universal Will looks an awful lot like gravity, in that it's things we really don't think of fighting. But, of course, people do fight gravity all the time. And death. And taxes, but that's only marginally related to the topic here. And I'd argue that the fight is not on the whole a good thing. Dancing with gravity and death, sure, but in the end they will win. Your plane will need refueling, and you will eventually die.

On the other hand, I see people rely on the cosmic mind, aka God the Father or the Trinity or Allah or Jehovah, or whichever construction the particulars of their faith entails. And for the most part, it seems to be a force for good in their personal lives. Now, I know about Messrs Falwell, Swaggart, Roberts, Robertson et al. And pedophile priests and Osama bin Laden and suicide cults. But I see that none of these perversions could have existed without the love and trust created amongst people: there has to be something real there for demagogues and opportunists to twist to their own advantage; something internally forceful and good that people can be persuaded is threatened by external forces. But for the people themselves, this God thing seems to heal them, support them, and frankly make them better able to play with others.

Which is where I am right now: that it isn't actually all that important to show that God has physical manifestation, or that it can be measured and recorded. But as part of a religious organization or two (if you count my marriage as an organization), I want to see how we can make a place where folks like me on one hand, and folks who live a life with God on the other, can live together and learn from each other, as opposed to beating each others’ orthodoxies over each others’ heads.