Thursday, February 18, 2010

On "Relevance"

A common concern of undergraduates, laymen, and policy-oriented graduate students is that one's research be relevant. They rarely specify that to which the research is supposed to be relevant. Occasionally they make vague references to the 'real world'. Given that the vast majority of political science research is engaged in some sort of empirical analysis, and often it is the purely theoretical that is most interesting or useful, it is puzzling that political science is not seen as relevant. In a 1971 paper, Murray Davis provides a plausible explanation for why this is the case.

Anyone who wishes to assert a proposition that will be found interesting by laymen as well as experts must deal with the dilemma of this double dialectic. On the one hand, his proposition will interest experts only if it denies the ground-assumption of their discipline. On the other hand, his proposition will interest laymen only if it denies a ground-assumption of the commonsense world. But since the ground-assumption of experts is already a denial of a ground-assumption of laymen, he will find that any proposition which interests experts (because it denies their ground-assumption) will not interest laymen (because it affirms their ground-assumption), and vice versa. What will be interesting to the one will be obvious to the other. In the academic world, a person usually resolves this dilemma by grasping for one horn while ignoring the other, by restricting the potential audience who will consider his proposition to his fellow experts while not worrying about the opinion of laymen. He will usually publish his proposition in a specialized journal or technical text where it will be scrutinized only by his colleagues who hold the very ground-assumption he wishes to attack. But note that the propositions of these specialized journals and technical texts that are found interesting by their professional readers are actually of the form: ’What everybody, except experts on the subject, think is true is in fact true’.

No one will recognize that the proposition is of this form until the proposition is brought to the attention of non-experts. However, the more a person’s proposition is found interesting by the experts of his field, the more he will be tempted to bring it to the attention of these non-experts. Should he be foolish enough to reveal the proposition which interested his colleagues to his non-professional friends, he will usually find that they are not impressed. Should he be even more foolish enough to disseminate this proposition to a wider public through popularizing it in newspapers and magazines, he will succeed only in convincing more people of the poverty of his discipline.

In sum, the fact that the baseline assumptions of intellectual specialities and the baseline assumptions of the common-sense world are incommensurate is responsible for the fact that propositions, which had had good receptions in the former, usually get poor receptions in the latter. Those who attempt to popularize propositions which experts had found interesting often must resort to jargon in order to obscure the fundamental lack of intertranslatability between the universe of discourse of the intellectual speciality and the universe of discourse of the common-sense world. They are aware, intuitively if not consciously, that the ’interestingness’ of an expert’s proposition, like the ’poetry’ of a foreign author, is what gets lost in translation.

(Murray Davis, 1971. 'That's Interesting!: Towards a Phemonenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology', Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1(2), 309-344.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Going mediaeval

One strand of the torture debate in the US at the moment is the debate over efficacy. By efficacy I mean the probability that a tortured suspect provides more or better information than a non-tortured suspect. Ex-vice president Dick Cheney recently alluded to the efficacy of torture as a justification for it. Even if we leave aside the fact that torture might be effective in this regard (my murdering the next guy I see on the street is a pretty effective way of getting his wallet), I find it hard to believe that people, the public, regular folks, anyone out there actually holds this position in the face of its obvious implausibility. A simple example of the problems with the efficacy position comes from a book I am currently reading. John Felton, in prison after having murdered the Duke of Buckingham in the summer of 1628, insisted that he had acted alone. The Bishop of London William Laud, anxious to bust a nest of Puritans, threatened him with the rack if he did not reveal his accomplices. Felton's reply is instructive:

he could not tell whom he might nominate in the extremity of torture, and if what he should say then must go for truth, he could not tell whether his Lordship (meaning the Bishop of London) or which of their Lordships he might name, for torture might draw unexpected things from him.

Apparently, "After this there were no more questions for the prisoner".