Toward A General Theory of Wrongness: Contingent Social Organization

The Press and The Academy are two social institutions that generate, process, or distribute virtually every idea that circulates in the consciousness of humanity. By and large, they do this successfully, but it is important to realize that both are organized in a particular way that could be otherwise.

For the vast majority of organisms on earth, social organization is a determined fact that could not have been otherwise. Given their environment and genetics, it could not be the case that beaver dams are built by beaver teams. Beavers are solitary builders and it could not have been otherwise.

Humans are organized in a variety of ways, some necessary, some contingent. The basic structure of the family is determined by the very nature of sexual reproduction. Different cultures treat families somewhat differently, but the core elements of mother, father, child could not have been otherwise.

Most human organization is not like this. Empires, nation-states, currency zones and bowling leagues are all accidents of history. We can imagine a history of humanity that simply doesn't have one or all of these particular groupings of people. But for Buddha, there would not be Buddhism. Each of these structures or institutions has quirks. For example, Buddhism has a lot to recommend it, but it tends to neglect the need for hard work to relieve the suffering of others.

So too, The Press and The Academy have their quirks and resultant blind spots. But because these institutions are so important to human ideas and social cognition, those blind spots become giant shadows in our ideas of how the world works. Like a bad copy of a gene that gets repeated endlessly throughout a growing organism, the quirks of The Press and The Academy are continually reproducing throughout our social discourse. Just as we can trace a genetic disease back to that first faulty copying job, we can trace wrong ideas back to the quirks or biases of either the Press or the Academy. And by reversing the process, we can uncover systematic and widespread wrongness throughout the culture.

For example, the professional post-war press requires "objective reporting". In practice, this means that every story has two sides, minimum, or it is "bad journalism". The result? Widespread wrongness whenever one side is the truth. Since WWII the objective media has dutifully reported--in the exact same voice as the facts--the following "other, equally valid, side of the story":

  1. Hollywood and the State Department are filled with Communists.
  2. "States Rights" is a legitimate Constitutional theory that is about more than the right to keep black people as slaves, or after Reconstruction, under the thumb of Jim Crow.
  3. Tax cuts for the rich pay for themselves.
  4. Many scientists believe that the globe is not warming and that the variations we see are not caused by humans.

All lies. All reported in the New York Times.

The press could be organized in lots of different ways. We could have obviously biased journalism like Joseph Pulitzer. We could have biased journalism that claims to be objective like Fox News. We could have point of view journalism that acknowledges it's bias and position but strives for accuracy like the best parts of the blogosphere. Or we could have objective journalism where equal time is given to truth and lies like the New York Times. Because we have objective journalism, our ideas are consistently wrong in a distinct, two-sided, manner.

Less well documented is the type of systemic wrongness generated by The Academy. It can be called the "Gladwell Bias", the tendency to analyze the world so that it fits into a coherent theory that can be written about and published. Whether it's a New Yorker writer selling books, or a professor trying to get tenure, writing for publishers needs a hook.

But what if we don't live in a world with "tipping points", but where instead change happens in an infinite variety of speeds? What if morality is not coherent like "utilitarianism" or "consequentialism", but just a list of circumstance based rules? What if history is neither the story of "great men" nor "social movements" but simply the sometimes aggregated, sometimes disparate, always meaningless, actions of human beings?

The answer, is, "Well, the world might be like that. But then academic publishing on those subjects would be impossible. Research would amount to lists of facts."

While, I happen to think morality is more like a list of facts than a coherent theory, I think we do live in a world that is mostly generalizable in a way that makes good writing. Nonetheless, we see that the organization of the Academy--where professors are hired and promoted based on their ability to publish papers--is a contingent fact of human social organization. It could have been otherwise. But the fact that it is arranged that way means that we have Gladwellian errors that are magnified and repeated throughout our social cognition. These manifest as theories that aren't true in areas where we'd be far wiser to just understand the particular underlying facts. Examples include theories about racial characteristics or broad theories about the weather.

The errors of the Press and the Academy are most glaring at the intersection of politics and public policy, and the worst of the worst is economic policy. Every news story, to be "good journalism" is required to report the view point of the economic royalists (the business half that joins with the Tea Party to form the Reaganist GOP). Meanwhile, the Academy (schools and think tanks) is funded by the tuition and donations of those same royalists, and so economists generates theory after theory that conveniently supports the economic royalists, somehow never noticing that the facts on the ground have falsified their theory repeatedly.

The press is evolving thanks to the Internet. Economics, meanwhile, has been under assault from empiricists since the 1970s. Equilibrium analysis was discredited 40 years ago. And yet the E in DGSE still, amazingly, stands for "Equilibrium". The Academy cannot evolve. Action must be taken. Buddhism is the wrong answer.