GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 30, 2015

Laws of Probability

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:18 am

There are statistical disparities between groups in all areas of life: educational accomplishment, mental aptitudes, physical ability, and so on. We are now capable of measuring these disparities in ever more nuanced ways, holding constant whatever variables we wish to isolate particular causal relationships. We couldn’t stop getting better at this if we wanted to, and we can’t stop talking about if for no other reason than that such disparities are proof, for the victimocracy, of the oppressions whose exposure and remediation justify its own existence. Such talk makes normal people very nervous, because we all thought we were done with it, and had all agreed to pretend to believe in a kind of blank slate equality, under the assumption that such a belief was a precondition of the legal and political equality upon which our civilization is predicated. But victimary thinking has shattered that pretension and, now, if you don’t want to accept that the disproportionate number of black men in prison can only be a sign of white supremacy, that the lower number of women in the sciences can only be a sign of patriarchy, and so on, you will have to treat statistical disparities as providing us with information about the capabilities and propensities of the groups involved rather than about the oppression or exclusion they suffer. There is no third way (even to say “it’s a little of both” breaks up the victimocracy’s ethico-epistemological cartel, because the precise proportions are then, unbearably, open for discussion). This is a very difficult way. Perhaps too difficult. In theory, exploding assumptions about natural equality (whether we see inequalities as natural, or cultural or historical, makes some difference, but not much in the short or, probably, medium, run—even if we could, say, trace some “disabling” features of femininity back to “patriarchy,” it is now free women who enact those features) need not undermine presumptions of legal and political equality, or meritocratic principles more generally. In practice, it is likely to do so, as just about everyone likes to have proxies for the traits they desire in an employee, student, friend, partner, etc. (That’s why we’re interested in probability in the first place.) But how theory and practice are mediated will depend solely on how we learn to speak about such things in the only way that we now can, if we are to resist (and put, to quote Lincoln, on the path of eventual abolition) the victimocracy.

Of course, to conform to statistical reality is to entrench and intensify it. More men will see women as alien to science, more whites will see blacks as criminals, and then fewer women may attempt scientific careers and more blacks alienated from society drawn to crime. The only effective counter-statistical measure, though, is discipline—the interest in an enterprise that depends open being open to improbabilities, to the idea or individual no one else expects much from. Such a discipline involves training oneself, while acknowledging broad statistical trends, to see minor counter-trends—perhaps some stereotypically “feminine” characteristic that provides a unique way into the sciences. There will always be sufficient limits to our understanding of human capabilities and their distribution to justify the energy expended in the detection of such counter-trends, which can perhaps serve as a proxy for a kind of hope.

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