Author: The Möbius Stripper

A little bit of everything. Cognitive Science, Philosophy, Psychology, Ethiopia, Ireland ...

The dark side of Big Data – how mathematical models increase inequality. My review of O’Neil’s book ‘WMD’

We live in the age of algorithms. Where the internet is, algorithms are. The Apps on our phones are results of algorithms. The GPS system can bring us from point A to point B thanks to algorithms. More and more decisions affecting our daily lives are handed over to automation. Whether we are applying for college, seeking jobs, or taking loans, mathematical models are increasingly involved with the decision makings. They pervade schools, the courts, the workplace, and even the voting process. We are continually ranked, categorised, and scored in hundreds of models, on the basis of our revealed preferences and patterns; as shoppers and couch potatoes, as patients and loan applicants, and very little of this do we see – even in applications that we happily sign up for.

More and more decisions are increasingly handled by algorithms, which in theory, should mean that human biases and prejudices should be eliminated. Algorithms are, after all, “neutral” and “objective”. They apply the same rules to everybody regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or ability. However, this couldn’t be far from the truth. In fact, mathematical models can be, and in some cases have been, tools that further inequality and unfairness. O’Neil calls these kinds of models Weapons of Math Destruction (WMD). These models are biased and unfair as they learn to encode poisonous prejudices, learning from past records just how to be unfair. These models punish the racial and ethnic minorities, low-wage workers, and women. It is as if these models were designed expressly to punish and to keep them down. As the world of data continues to expand, each of us producing ever-growing streams of updates about our lives, so do prejudice and unfairness.

Mathematical models have revolutionised the world and efficiency is their hallmark and sure, they aren’t just tools that create and distribute bias, unfairness and inequality. In fact, models, by their nature are neither good nor bad, neither fair nor unfair, neither moral nor immoral – they simply are tools. The sports domain is a good example where mathematical models are a force for good. For some of the world’s most competitive baseball teams today, competitive advantages and wins depend on mathematical models. Managers make decisions that sometimes involve moving players across the field based on analysis of historical data and current situation and calculate the positioning that is associated with the highest probability of success.

There are crucial differences, however, between models such as those used by baseball managers and WMDs.  While the former is transparent, and constantly updates its model with feedbacks, the latter by contrast are opaque and inscrutable black-boxes. Furthermore, while the baseball analytics engines manage individuals, each one potentially worth millions of dollars, companies hiring minimum wage workers, by contrast, are managing herds. Their objectives are optimising profits so they slash their expenses by replacing human resources professionals with machines that filter large populations into manageable groups. Unlike the baseball models, these companies have little reason – say plummeting productivity – to tweak their filtering model.  O’Neil’s primary focus in the book are those that are opaque and inscrutable, that are used within powerful institutions and industries which create and widen inequalities – WMDs – “The dark side of Big Data”! 

Weapons-of-math-destructionThe book contains crucial insights (or haunting warnings, depending on how you choose to approach it) to the catastrophic directions mathematical models used in the social sphere are heading. And it couldn’t come from a more credible and experienced source than a Harvard mathematician who then went to work as quant for D. E. Shaw, a leading hedge fund, and a data scientist, among other things.

One of the most persistent themes of O’Neil’s book is that the central objectives of a given model are crucial. In fact, objectives determine whether a model becomes a tool that helps the vulnerable or one that is used to punish them. WMDs objectives are often to optimise efficiency and profit, not justice. This, of course, is the nature of capitalism. And WMDs efficiency comes at the cost of fairness – they become biased, unfair, and dangerous. The destructive loop goes around and around and in the process, models become more and more unfair.

Legal traditions lean strongly towards fairness … WMDs, by contrast, tend to favour efficiency. By their very nature, they feed on data that can be measured and counted. But fairness is squishy and hard to quantify. It is a concept. And computers, for all their advances in language and logic, still struggle mightily with concepts. They “understand” beauty only as a word associated with the Grand Canyon, ocean sunsets, and grooming tips in Vogue magazine. They try in vain to measure “friendship” by counting likes and connections on Facebook. And the concept of fairness utterly escapes them. Programmers don’t know how to code for it, and few of their bosses ask them too. So fairness isn’t calculated into WMDs and the result is massive, industrial production of unfairness. If you think of a WMD as a factory, unfairness is the black stuff belching out of the smoke stacks. It’s an emission, a toxic one. [94-5]

The prison system is a startling example where WMDs are increasingly used to further reinforce structural inequalities and prejudicesIn the US, for example, those imprisoned are disproportionately poor and of colour. Being a black male in the US makes you nearly seven times more likely to be imprisoned than if you were a white male. Are such convictions fair? Many different lines of evidence suggest otherwise. Black people are arrested more often, judged guilty more often, treated more harshly by correctional officers, and serve longer sentences than white people who have committed the same crime. Black imprisonment rate for drug offences, for example, is 5.8 times higher than it is for whites, despite a roughly comparable prevalence of drug use.

Prison systems which are awash in data hardly carry out important research such as why non-white prisoners from poor neighbourhoods are more likely to commit crimes or what the alternative ways of looking at the same data are. Instead, they use data to justify the workings of the system and further punish those that are already at a disadvantage. Questioning the workings of the system or enquiries on how the prison system could be improved are almost never considered. If, for example, building trust were the objective, an arrest may well become the last resort, not the first. Trust, like fairness, O’Neil explains, is hard to quantify and presents a great challenge to modellers even when the intentions are there to consider such concept as part of the objective.

Sadly, it’s far simpler to keep counting arrests, to build models that assume we’re birds of a feather and treat us such… Innocent people surrounded by criminals get treated badly. And criminals surrounded by law-abiding public get a pass. And because of the strong correlation between poverty and reported crime, the poor continue to get caught up in these digital dragnets. The rest of us barely have to think about them. [104]

Insofar as these models rely on barely tested insights, they are in a sense not that different to phrenology – digital phrenologyThe practice of using outer appearance to infer inner character, which in the past justified slavery and genocide has been outlawed and is considered pseudoscience today. Scientific racism has entered a new era with the appearance of justified “objectivity” with machine-learned models embedding human biases. “Scientific” criminological approaches now claim to “produce evidence for the validity of automated face-induced inference on criminality. However, what these machine-learned “criminal judgements” pick up on, more than anything, is systematic unfairness.  

model that profiles us by our circumstances helps create the environment that justifies its assumptions. The stream of data we produce serve as insights into our lives and behaviours. Instead of testing whether these insights stand up to scientific scrutiny, the data we produce are used to justify the modellers’ assumptions and to reinforce pre-existing prejudice. And the feedback loop goes on.

When I consider the sloppy and self-serving ways that companies use data, I am often reminded of phrenology… Phrenology was a model that relied on pseudoscientific nonsense to make authoritative pronouncements, and for decades it went untested. Big Data can fall into the same trap. [121-2]

Hoffman in 1896 published a 330-page report where he used exhaustive statistics to support a claim as pseudoscientific and dangerous as phrenology. He made the case that the lives of black Americans were so precarious that the entire race was uninsurable. However, not only were Hoffman’s statistics erroneously flawed, like many of WMDs O’Neil discusses throughout the book, he also confused causation for correlation. The voluminous data he gathered served only to confirm his thesis: race is a powerful predictor of life expectancy. Furthermore, Hoffman failed to separate the “Black” population into different geographical, social or economic cohorts blindly assuming that the whole “Black” population is a homogeneous group. 

This cruel industry has now been outlawed. Nonetheless, the unfair and discriminatory practices remain and are still practised but in a far subtler form –  they are now coded into the latest generations of WMDs and obfuscated under complex mathematics. Like Hoffman, the creators of these new models confuse correlation with causation and they punish the struggling classes and racial and ethnic minorities. And they back up their analysis with realms of statistics, which give them the studied air of “objective science”. 

What is even more frightening is that as oceans of behavioural data continue to feed straight into artificial intelligence systems, this, to the most part will, unfortunately, remain a black box to the human eye. We will rarely learn about the classes that we have been categorised into or why we were put there and, unfortunately, these opaque models are as much a black-box to those who design them. In any case, many companies would go out of their way to hide the results of their models, and even their existence.

In the era of machine intelligence, most of the variables will remain a mystery... automatic programs will increasingly determine how we are treated by other machines, the ones that choose the ads we see, set prices for us, line us up for a dermatologist appointment, or map our routes. They will be highly efficient, seemingly arbitrary, and utterly unaccountable. No one will understand their logic or be able to explain it. If we don’t wrest back a measure of control, these future WMDs will feel mysterious and powerful. They’ll have their way with us, and we’ll barely know it is happening. [173]

In the current insurance system, (at least as far as the US is concerned) the auto insurers’ tracking systems which provide insurers with more information enabling them to create more powerful predictions, are opt-in. Only those willing to be tracked have to turn on their black boxes. Those that do turn them on get rewarded with discounts where the rest subsidise those discounts with higher rates. Insurers who squeeze out the most intelligence from this information, turning it into profits, will come out on top. This, unfortunately, undermines the whole idea of collectivisation of risk on which insurance systems are based. The more insurers benefit from such data, the more of it they demand, gradually making trackers the norm. Consumers who want to withhold all but the essential information from their insurers will pay a premium. Privacy, increasingly, will come at a premium cost. A recently approved US bill illustrates just that. This bill would expand the reach of “Wellness Programs” to include genetic screening of employees and their dependents and increase the financial penalties for those who choose not to participate.

Being poor in a world of WMDs is getting more and more dangerous and expensive. Even privacy is increasingly becoming a luxury that only the wealthy can afford. In a world which O’Neil calls a ‘data economy’, where artificial intelligence systems are hungry for our data, we are left with very few options but to produce and share as much data about our lives as possible. We are, in the process, implicitly or explicitly, coerced into self-monitoring and self-discipline as we continually attempt to conform ideal bodies and “normal” health statuses as dictated by organisations and institutions that handle and manage, say, our health insurances. Raley (2013) refers to this as dataveillance: a form of continuous surveillance through the use of (meta)data. Ever growing flow of data, including data pouring in from the Internet of Things – the Fitbits, Apple Watches, and other sensors that relay updates on how our bodies are functioning, continue to contribute towards this “dataveillance”.  

One might argue that helping people deal with their weight and health issues isn’t such a bad thing and that would be a reasonable argument. However, the key question here, as O’Neil points out, is whether this is an offer or a command. Using flawed statistics like the BMI, which O’Neil calls “mathematical snake oil”, corporates dictate what the ideal health and body looks like. They infringe on our freedom as they mould our health and body ideals. They punish those that they don’t like to look at and reward those that fit their ideals. Such exploitations are disguised as scientific and are legitimised through the use of seemingly scientific numerical scores such as the BMI. The BMI, a person’s weight (kg) over height (cm) squared, is only a crude numerical approximation for physical fitness. And since the “average” man underpins its statistical scores, it is more likely to conclude that women are “overweight” – after all, we are not “average” men. Even worse, black women, who often have higher BMIs, pay the heaviest penalties.  

The control of great amounts of data and the race to build powerful algorithms is a fight for political power. O’Neil’s breathtakingly critical look at corporations like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon illustrates this. Although these powerful corporations are usually focused on making money, their profits are tightly linked to government policies which makes the issue essentially a political one.

These corporations have significant amounts of power and a great amount of information on humanity, and with that, the means to steer us in any way they choose. The activity of a single Facebook algorithm on Election Day could not only change the balance of Congress, but also potentially decide the presidency. When you scroll through your Facebook updates, what appears on your screen is anything but neutral – your newsfeed is censored. Facebook’s algorithms decided whether you see bombed Palestines or mourning Israelis, a policeman rescuing a baby or battling a protester. One might argue that television news has always done the same and this is nothing new. CNN, for example, chooses to cover a certain story from a certain perspective, in a certain way. However, the crucial difference is, with CNN, the editorial decision is clear on the record. People can debate whether that decision is the right one. Facebook on the other hand, O’Neil puts it, is more like the “Wizard of Oz” — we do not see the human beings involved. With its enormous power, Facebook can affect what we learn, how we feel, and whether we vote – and we are barely aware of any of it. What we know about Facebook, like other internet giants, comes mostly from the tiny proportion of their research that they choose to publish.

In a society where money buys influence, these WMD victims are nearly voiceless. Most are disenfranchised politically. The poor are hit the hardest and all too often blamed for their poverty, their bad schools, and the crime that afflicts their neighbourhoods. They, for the most part, lack economic power, access to lawyers, or well-funded political organisations to fight their battles. From bringing down minorities’ credit scores to sexism in the workplace, WMDs serve as tools. The result is widespread damage that all too often passes for inevitability.

Again, it is easy to point out that injustice, whether based on bias or greed, has been with us forever and WMDs are no worse than the human nastiness of the recent past. As with the above examples, the difference is transparency and accountability. Human decision making has one chief virtue. It can evolve. As we learn and adapt, we change. Automated systems, especially those O’Neil classifies as WMD, by contrast, stay stuck in the time until engineers dive in to change them.

If Big Data college application model had established itself in the early 1960s, we still wouldn’t have many women going to college, because it would have been trained largely on successful men. [204]

Rest assured, the book is not all doom and gloom or that all mathematical models are biased and unfair. In fact, O’Neil provides plenty of examples where models are used for good and models that have the potential to be great.

Whether a model becomes a tool to help the vulnerable or a weapon to inflict injustice, as O’Neil, time and time again emphasises, comes down to its central objectives. Mathematical models can sift through data to locate people who are likely to face challenges, whether from crime, poverty, or education. The kinds of objectives adopted dictate whether such intelligence is used to reject or punish those that are already vulnerable or to reach out to them with the resources they need. So long as the objectives remain on maximising profit, or excluding as many applicants as possible, or to locking up as many offenders as possible, these models serve as weapons that further inequalities and unfairness. Change that objective from leeching off people to reaching out to them, and a WMD is disarmed — and can even become a force of good. The process begins with the modellers themselves. Like doctors, data scientists should pledge a Hippocratic Oath, one that focuses on the possible misuse and misinterpretation of their models. Additionally, organisations such as the Algorithmic Justice League, which aim to increase awareness of algorithmic bias, provide space for individuals to report such biases. 

Opaqueness is a common feature of WMDs. People have been dismissed from work, sent to prison, or denied loans due to their algorithmic credit scores with no explanation as to how or why. The more we are aware of their opaqueness, the better chance we have in demanding transparency and accountability and this begins by making ourselves aware of the works of experts like O’Neil. This is not a book only those working in data science, machine learning or other related fields need to read, but one that everyone needs to read. If you are a modeller, this book should encourage you to zoom out, think whether there are individuals behind the figures that your algorithms manipulate, and think about the big questions such as the objectives behind your codes. Almost everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, is part of the growing world of ‘data economy’. The more awareness there is of the dark side of these machines, the better equipped we are to ask questions, to demand answers from those behind the machines that decide our fate.

ክርስትና እና እንስታዊነት ሆድና ጀርባ በሲራክ ተመስገን

የእንስታዊነት (Feminism) እንቅስቃሴ በመሰረታዊነት ሴቷን ከወንዱ እኩል በኢኮኖሚ፣ በማህበራዊ እና በፖለቲካው መስክ ተሳታፊ እንድትሆን ማስቻል ነው። ሴቷ በፆታዋ ብቻ የሚደርስባትን መገፋት ለማስቀረት መንቀሳቀስ ነው። የእዚህ መገፋት እና አባታዊ ስርዓት በአለም ላይ መዘርጋት ክርስትና ትልቅ አስተዋፅኦ አለው ብዬ አምናለሁ። ለእዚህም ነው ብዕሬን ያነሳሁት። እንግሊዛዊው የባይዎሎጅ ሊቅ ሪቻርድ ዳውኪንስ ብዙ በተነገረለት ‘The God Delusion’ በተባለው ድንቅ መጽሀፉ ላይ የብሉይ ኪዳኑን አምላክ እንዲህ ሲል በምሬት ይገልፀዋል፡

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”

ፕሮፌሰር ዳውኪንስ ይሄን ሲል ግን እንዲሁ በባዶው አይደለም፤ ለእያንዳንዱ ስያሜው ከብሉይ ኪዳን መጻህፍት ጥቅስ እያጣቀሰ እንጅ፡፡ እኔም ‹‹ይሄንን ኢ–ሰብዓዊ የሆነን አካል በአምላክነት የተቀበለ ሰው ስለ መብት ሊያወራ አይገባም ›› የምለውም በመጽሃፉ የተጠቀሰው ባህርይ እጅግ ከሰብዓዊነት የራቀ በመሆኑ ነው፡፡። በዚህ ርዕስ የማነሳው የሴቶች መብት እና የእንስታዊነት (Feminism) ጉዳይም የመጽሐፉ ዋነኛ ተጠቂ ናቸው፡፡ በመጽሐፍ ቅዱስ ሴቶች ከብሉይ ኪዳን እስከ አዲስ ኪዳን ድረስ ሴቶች ተጨቋኝ ሆነው የቀረቡበት ጥራዝ ነው። አብነት እየጠቃቀስኩ ላስረዳ፡፡

የብሉይ ሴቶች

በብሉይ በእግዚአብሔር ተወዳጅ ከሆኑ ነገስታት አንዱ ንጉስ ዳዊት ነው። ይህ ሰዉ ወሲብ በጣም ይወድ ነበረ። ብዙም ዕቁባቶች ነበሩት። ሴቶችንም እንደግል ንብረቱ ቆጥሮ በአንድ ቤት ዘግቶ፣ ከማንም ሳይገናኙ እንዲሞቱ የማድረግ ስልጣን ነበረው ዳዊት (2ኛ ሳሙኤል 20:3)፡፡ በአመት ሶስት ጊዜ በሚደረገው የቂጣ በዓል፣ የመኸር በዓል እና የመክተቻ በአል ወቅት በእግዝአብሔር ፊት ለዕይታ የሚቀርቡት ወንዶች ብቻም ነበሩ (ዘጸአት፣ 23:14–17)፡፡ በሙሴዎ ዓለም የተፈጥሮ ኡደቶች (ወሊድም ሆነ የወር አበባ) ለሴት ልጅ የመርከስ ምልክት ነው። እንደዚህም ሆኖ ወንድ ከወለደች 7 ቀን የረከሰች ነች። በአስገራሚ ሁኔታ ሴት ከወለደች ዕጥፍ ቀን የረከሰች ነች መባሏ ነው (ዘሌዋውያን 12: 1–5)፡፡እግዜሩ ለሰው ልጆች ዋጋ ማውጣቱ ሲገርም ሴቶች ከወንዶች ያነሰ ዋጋ ያለቸው መሆኑ ይበልጥ ያስቃል። በብሉዩ ዓለም ከአምስት አመት ሴት ልጅ ይልቅ የአንድ ወር ወንድ ህፃን በዋጋ ይበልጣል (ዘሌዋውያን 27: 1–7)፡፡ ይባስ ብሎም ሙሴ በአምላኩ ሕዝቡን እንዲቆጥር ሲታዘዝ ሴቶች እንደሰው አይቆጠሩም ነበረ (ዘኁልቆ 3:15)፡፡ በዚህ አያበቃም እግዚአብሔር ለሙሴ በሰጠው ህግ መሰረት አንድ ሰው ቢሞት ወንዶች ልጆቹ ብቻ የንብረት ወራሾች ይሆናሉ። ሴቶች ልጆች ወራሾች የሚሆኑት ሟች ወንድ ልጆች ከሌሉት ብቻ ነው (ዘኁልቆ 27:8–11)፡፡ ድንግልና ሳይኖራት ያገባች ሴት በድንጋይ ተወግራ እንድትሞት ‹የእግዚአብሔር ህግ› ያዛል (ዘዳግም22:13–21)። በተቃራኒው ወንድ ድንግልና ከሌለው ይቀጣ የሚል ህግ ግን የለም። በአጠቃላይ የብሉይ ኪዳን ዘመን ተብሎ በሚታወቀው ጊዜ ሴት እቃ ( ) ነች እንጅ ሰው አልነበረችም፡፡ አዲስ ኪዳኑስ ምን ይላል;

ሴቶች በአዲስ ኪዳን

ከብሉይ ኪዳኑ የጭካኔ ዘመን አንፃር እየሱስ ክርስቶስ አብዮተኛ ነበረ ማለት ይቻላል። በአይሁዳውያን ዘንድ ሴቶችን ዝቅዝቅ የማድረግ ባህልን ሲጠቀም አይታይም። ሴቶችንም ያስተምርም ነበረ። በተዘዋወረባቸው ቦታዎችም ሁሉ በቋሚነት አብረውት ይከተለት ነበረ። እንደ ወንዶቹ ይፈውሳቸውም ምሳሌ ያደርጋቸዋልም። ይልቁኑ የክርትና መሰረት ነው ተብሎ ከሚነገርለት ከቅዱስ ጳውሎስ አስተምህሮ ነው አዲስ ኪዳኑ በሴቶች ላይ ሲጨክን የሚታየው፡፡ ጳውሎስ በ1ኛ ቆሮንቶስ 11:3 ላይ «ነገር ግን የወንድ ሁሉ ራስ ክርስቶስ፣ የሴትም ራስ ወንድ፣ የክርስቶስም ራስ እግዚአብሔር እንደሆነ ልታውቁ እወዳለሁ» ብሎ ሴትን በደረጃ ከወንዱ አውርዶ ያስቀምጣታል፡፡ አልፎም ለሴት ልጅ የፀጉር አቆራረጥ ህግ ያፀድቃል። ሴትም ለወንድ ሲባል የተፈጠረች እንደሆነ በግልፅ እና በጉልህ ይናገራል። ሚስቶች የባሎቻቸው ባሪያ እንደሆኑ እና ያለምንም ማመንታት ለባሎቻቸው እንዲገዙ ደንግጓል (ኤፌሶን 5:22–23)፡፡ ሴቶች ህዝብ በተሰበሰበበት ቦታ መናገር አይፈቀድላቸውም። ማወቅ የፈለጉት ነገር እንኳን ቢኖር በቤታቸው ባሎቻቸውን እንዲጠይቁ ነው እግዜሩ የሚያዘውይመክራል ጳውሎስ (1ኛ ቆሮንቶስ 14:34–36)፡፡ ሴቶች እንዲያስተምሩ አይፈቀድላቸውም። በወንድ ላይም መሰልጠን አይችሉም (1ኛ ጢሞቴዎስ 2:11–15)፤ በማለትም ‹ወንድ ወደ ችሎት፤ ሴት ወደ ማጀትን›› ጳውሎስ ይሰብከናል፡፡ ሲያጠቃልልም ሴቶች ደካሞች መሆናቸው በ1ኛ ጴጥሮስ 3:7 ላይ ይነግረናል ቅዱስ ጳውሎስ፡፡ እዚህ ላይ ነው ጥያቄው፡፡ ይሄን የመሰለ ሴቶችን እንደሰው እንኳን ለመቁጥር የሚግደረደር የጭቆና መሳሪያ ተይዞ ስለ ሴቶች መብት ማውራት እንዴት ይቻላል? መብትስ ምንድን ነው? ራስን መቃረን ደሞ በሽታ ነው። ይህን የሃይማኖት የጭቆና ህግጋት እና ትዕዛዝ አውልቀው ሳይጥሉ ‹እንስታዊት ነኝ› ማለት ለእኔ ለእንቅስቃሴው ስድብ ነው። እነደጳውሎስ ምክር ስጥ ብባልም እንደዚህ የመጽሃፉ አማኒያን ራሳቸው ‹የሴት መብት ተከራካሪ› ብለው የሚጠሩ ሰዎች ከእንስታዊነት እንቅስቃሴ ላይ እጃቸውን ቢያነሱ ሸጋ ነው ብይ ነኝ፡፡ “You can’t have your cake and eat it” እንዲሉ፤ ወይ ሽልጦውን ወይ ሆዳችንን ነው ጥያቄው፡፡ ለነገሩ እንደ ኤልዛቤት ስታንተን ያሉ ሴቶች ‘The Woman’s Bible’ ብለው ማሻሻያ ለማድረግ መነሳታቸው፤ የዚሁ የመጽሃፉ ጨቋኝነት ቢያማራቸው አይደለምን?

 

The Scope of Existential Anthropology – Jackson

Such a beautifully written passage which compels you to reflect, wonder, and think …

Like other human sciences, anthropology has drawn inspiration from many disciplines and sought to build its identity through association with them. But the positivism that anthropology hoped to derive from the natural sciences proved to be as elusive as the authenticity it sought from the humanities. Moreover, though lip service was paid to the models and methods of biology, ecology, psychology, fluid mechanics, structural linguistics, topology, quantum mechanics, mathematics, economics, and general systems theory, anthropologists seldom deployed these analytically or systematically. Rather, they were adopted as images and metaphors. Thus, society was said to function like a living organism, regulate energy like a machine, to be structured like language, organized like a corporation, comparable to a person, or open to interpretation like a text.

Jackson. M (2013) Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology. (Chapter 1, The Scope of Existential Anthropology, p.3) 

Western philosophy has historically seen only what its “illusions” permitted it to see

Warren“Philosophy’s attachment to its illusions of gender neutrality functioned like Narcissus’s self-perception of himself when he looked at his image in the lake: he saw only what he wanted to see. Analogously, canonical Western philosophy has historically seen only what its “illusions” permitted it to see.” Karen Warren, 2009. 

When the issue of the absence of women and underrepresented groups in philosophy, or any other male-dominated discipline in general, is brought to attention, the reason for the absence is often attributed to the individuals themselves such as, ‘there aren’t many women in philosophy because it is not a subject that most women are attracted to’ or that ‘the Western philosophical canon almost exclusively consists of white males because there simply weren’t other voices’ or that ‘women didn’t write or take part in the philosophical debates of their times’. This simply is not true. As far as Western philosophy  (I presume as well as other domains) is concerned, one would find that women’s voices were systematically excluded or ignored from the canon. This is evident in that when you go looking for them, you find voices and perspectives that have been diminished in important ways. This is in fact what Warren did in her “recovery project”. She rediscovered names, lives, texts, and perspectives of women philosophers from the 16th B.C.E. on. She then went beyond recovery, to an “inclusion project”: a gender inclusive account of the history of Western philosophy. The result, an anthology (An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy: Conversation Between Men and Women Philosophers) of the history of Western philosophy that accounts works of both women and men philosophers.

In this distinctive work, the first book in any language to include women philosophers among their historical male counterparts, Warren pairs women philosophers with canonical male contemporaries. Primary texts of “philosopher pairs” address topics or positions that when taken together, constitute a conversation. This project dissolves the add-women-and-stir-philosophy problem – a pertinent problem that arises when attempts are made to add women philosophers whose claims, positions, and methodologies are in conflict to that of the canon, creating what might seem “more like an explosion than a mixture”. The common practice is to avoid this attempt to integrate the works of women philosophers into the canon all together and develop a distinct “women’s philosophy or philosophy by women”. Examples of such include, ecofeminist philosophy, feminist ethics, feminist epistemology, and feminist philosophy of science. Warren, in this exceptional anthology, successfully manages to integrate the works of women philosophers into the canon whilst avoiding the add-women-and-stir-philosophy problem.

Given that there are material that are inclusive of both women and men, any curricula that fails to include women philosophers is outdated and inaccurate. At least, that’s Warren’s position. Now, whether the availability of material that have recovered and included the works of excluded and ignored women has had any significant impact on any philosophy curricula is another question.

The absence of women and underrepresented groups is not news to many, especially to those in philosophy. The exclusion of women from mainstream collections is indisputable. Take a look at these three randomly selected common textbooks/anthologies used in (political) philosophy: 1) A History of Modern Political Thought by Ian Hampsher Monk, 2) Political Thinkers: From Socrates to the Present by David Boucher & Paul Kelly, and 3) Western Philosophy: An Anthology by John Cottingham. Of these three (~600 pages long) anthologies, you’d find only one women philosopher mentioned (in Cottingham) – Judith Jarvis Thomson. And the philosophical work included in this anthology, unsurprisingly, is one that deals with abortion and rights.

This is depressing indeed but nonetheless, a poignant indicator that “rediscovery” and “inclusion” projects carried by the likes of Warren are of crucial importance in the long and slow journey towards fair representations in philosophy.

Solitary confinement deprives dialogicity and therefore deprives a coherent sense of self

solitaryI recently came across this extremely powerful and disturbing 3 minutes video of solitary confinement and given my dialogically informed perspective, it kind of made me reflect (as well as initiate conversations with others ;-)) on the concepts of self, other and world. Solitary confinement, which can be seen as the absence of dialogicity, seems to have a devastating effect on the sense of self and I think, this video is the material affirmation.

I don’t think there can be much disagreement regarding the disturbed state of most of the prisoners in the video. Solitary confinement disrupts our sense of self-narratives for self-narratives depend on having something to narrate as well as an ‘other’ to narrate it to. Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens have described the prisoner in isolated cells as “buried alive” and subjected to “immense amount of torture and agony” through a “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain”. Looking at solitary confinement from a phenomenological perspective, Gallagher (2004), has identified a long list of experiences associated with solitary confinement:

“anxiety, fatigue, confusion, paranoia, depression, hallucinations, headaches, insomnia, trembling, apathy, stomach and muscle pains, oversensitivity to stimuli, feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, withdrawal, isolation, rage, anger, and aggression, difficulty in concentrating, dizziness, distortion of the sense of time, severe boredom, and impaired memory.”

There is little disagreement, if any at all, that solitary confinement is cruel and damaging. However, as Foucault in Discipline and Punish reminds us, the original purposes of solitary confinement, was a way for the prisoner to reflect on his crimes and return into his inner ‘true’ self. Given time to introspect in a solitary confinement, the prisoner was expected to turn his thoughts inward, repent his crimes, and eventually return to society as a morally cleansed citizen.

“Thrown into solitude, the convict reflects. Placed alone in the presence of his crime, he learns to hate it, and, if his soul is not yet blunted by evil, it is in isolation that remorse will come to assail him”

(Tocqueville in Foucault 1979: 237)

At the centre of this viewpoint is an underlying assumption which views the individual as something that exists and is capable of reasoning and functioning in isolation from others – a notion of the individual that is self-sufficient and self-contained where the necessarily interrelatedness of self, other, and world is overlooked. For philosophers such as Gardiner, this individualistic notion of the self is something we have adopted from the Western Christian notion of the soul through Cartesian-inspired philosophies. Contrary to this notion of solitary (which is built upon individualistic assumptions) as a means to come back to the inner self, deprived from contact and interaction with others, the very core of our existence is threatened.

‘‘Just as the body is formed initially in the mother’s womb (body), a person’s consciousness awakens wrapped in another consciousness … Individuality is created by and through others and the Other is part of the self.”

(Bakhtin, 1990)

Coming back to my brief musing, the fact that our sense of self seems to erode when we are deprived of interaction with others reinforces the Bakhtinian dialogical viewpoint that self and others co-develop and are two sides of the same coin. It is through our dialogical and embodied interactions with others that we are able to form and sustain a sense of coherent self. Others are essentially involved at all social and individual lived experiences. Through our encounters with others, we are able to evaluate and assess our own existence. Depriving the person of ‘others’ by subjecting them to solitary confinement, denies that essential additioal external perspective, the means by which a coherent self-image is maintained and the person risks losing the ‘self’ and disappearing into a non-existence.

Black feminist epistemology – Collins

ghana-unityShould experiences of Black women be the grounds for knowledge claims when studying and theorising about Black women? I imagine many would say yes, however, as Patricia Hill Collins points out, that hasn’t been the case. We often have two inadequate perspectives on offer for studying consciousness of an oppressed group. Either these groups identify with the oppressor, in which case they lack an independent interpretation of their own oppression, or they are seen as less human than their oppressors, in which case they lack the capacity to articulate their own standpoint. In the first case, independent consciousness is seen not as their own, while in the latter, consciousness of the oppressed group is seen as inferior. In ‘The social construction of black feminist thought’ Collins argues for the need for an alternative epistemological stance that reflects Black women’s standpoints.

Collins rejects both perspectives and asserts that Black women have been neither passive victims nor willing complies of, what she calls, the dominant ‘Eurocentric masculinist epistemology’. She traces its origins in Western elite white male structures of knowledge foundation, where Black women’s experiences with work, family, motherhood, and sexual politics have routinely been distorted or excluded from traditional academic discourse and from what counts as valid knowledge. This exclusion from the mainstream epistemology has led to what Collins calls ‘subjugated knowledge’ – expressions of experience through other forms such as music and dance.

For Collins, as for many feminist standpoint theorists, ‘all social thought reflects the interest and standpoint of its creator’ and political criteria influence the knowledge validation process. Knowledge is evaluated by a community of experts that represent the standpoint of the groups from which they originate. Credibility is thereby maintained as defined by the group from where the basic knowledge is drawn. This  alienates alternative standpoints as anomalies. Since Western structures of knowledge foundation have been controlled mainly by elite white men*, the dominant epistemologies reflect interests and views of that group while other views are systematically distorted.

This dominant, white male controlled knowledge validation process, which Collins closely associates with positivist** epistemology, suppresses Black feminist thought on the grounds that it is not credible research – for new knowledge claims must be consistent with existing bodies of knowledge that the dominant group accepts true. Thoughts that challenge the inferiority of Black women are unlikely to be generated. Such thoughts reveal the white male controlled academic community’s inadequacies and its lack of familiarity with Black women’s reality. Expressing an independent Black feminist consciousness, therefore, becomes problematic, as it is a threat to the established interpretation of reality.

Black women who achieve academic credentials face pressure from multiple sides. They must navigate between two conflicting epistemologies – representing white male interest on the one hand, and Black female interest on the other. These scholars must constantly translate and move back and forth between these two frameworks. Those who accept such institutional assumptions are rewarded, but often at a personal cost and those that challenge such assumptions face the risk of being ostracized.

Given that ‘reality is experienced differently by different groups’ is at the heart of Collins’s argument, it is no surprise that she rejects positivism as an appropriate epistemological framework to study Black women’s experience. Positivist approaches, in their strive to produce objective generalizations, fail to acknowledge that researchers have values, experiences, and emotions. She asserts, “genuine science is unattainable unless all human characteristics, except rationality, are eliminated from the research process”. I am sympathetic to Collins’s position on positivism. The very idea of “genuine science”, not only whether it is attainable, is questionable – well, at least as far as humans are the centre of enquiry. In its desire to be objective and value-free, science often makes the scientist invisible. As ideal as this may sound, it is an unobtainable utopia. There is no such thing as ‘a view from nowhere’ and science and scientists are not immune from this. The methods the scientist chooses to investigate certain phenomena (and by implication those she chooses to ignore) and the way research questions are framed, for example, affect the kind of knowledge produced. Instead of making the scientist invisible and attempt to eliminate human characteristics from the research process, science might be better-off acknowledging that science is a human endeavour. As such, passions, values, and situatedness in certain historical and cultural discourse, among many other factors, are likely to play a role in our findings. That doesn’t mean that our findings are simply invalid or flawed rather, we need to be mindful of these factors and underlying assumptions.

Since the traditional epistemological stance is not helpful in articulating Black women’s consciousness, Collins proposes an alternative way of producing and validating knowledge claims consistent with Black women’s criteria – based on the lived experiences of Black women. Black women’s lived experiences, for Collins, are more credible and believable than those who merely read or think about such experiences. These experiences that Black women share and pass on become a collective wisdom and form the basis for Black women’s standpoint. These knowledge claims rest in the women themselves and not a higher authority. Collins mentions institutional support, such as the Black church, for articulating these lived experiences. 

It seems reasonable to view Black women’s concern as more of an experiential one and less of an intellectual endeavour that could be contemplated from afar, given that Black women do live and experience oppression on a daily basis. However, given that institutions such as the church have their own values and ethical agendas, those that refuse to conform to those values and ethical guidelines are likely to be excluded and discriminated against. The obvious example is ideologies in opposition to LGBTQI people.

Collins puts forward dialogues as a method for assessing knowledge claims. Emphasis needs to be placed on extensive dialogues in communities rather than thought in isolation. For Collins, connectedness rather than separation is an essential component of the knowledge validation process. I think, Bakhtin would further agree that the fact that dialogues are missing from the modernist conception of the self reflects the lingering Cartesian residues in our modernist epistemologies. In its desire for epistemological certitude and logical coherence to establish absolute certainty, Western metaphysics roots knowledge in the solitary subject contemplating an external world in a purely cognitive manner as a disembodied observer at the expense of embodied dialogism. It is by adopting a dialogical world view that we are able to assess and evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image. The lack of dialogues in our modernist epistemologies and by extension the metaphysical assumptions of positivist epistemologies further support Collins’s criticism of positivism.

Finally, Collins identifies three key groups that women scholars who want to develop Black feminist thought need to assure in order to be credible. They must be personal advocates for and be willing to engage about their findings with ordinary Black women, they must also be accepted by Black women scholars, and they must be prepared to confront Eurocentric masculinist political and epistemological requirements. There arises a dilemma as the criteria of one groups’ credibility may not necessarily transfer to another. A dilemma, I imagine many Black women in academia experience. 

*Collins makes a careful qualification that it is not necessarily individual men that benefit from such institutional structures.  

**Collins emphasises that neither all positivist aspects are bad nor all non-positivist frameworks automatically better.

Men #mansplain feminism to me

1ahehy

I recently got into some Twitter exchanges regarding Ethiopian feminism. Seeing a bunch of men telling women that they can’t be both religious and feminists despite those women arguing otherwise, started it. Let me clarify things in a bit more detail here. Not only are you mistaken, as there are plenty of remarkable Muslim feminists, the arrogance in your tone is unbearable.  The real irony was though you failing to see the privileged standpoint which you are speaking from. A privilege that grants you to think that your opinion on feminism should be more trustworthy than the experience and say of women who live sexism and misogyny every day. I am not at all religious but one doesn’t need to be religious to see how wrong-headed it is for men to alienate and exclude women from feminism based on faith. Especially, when those women are declaring themselves feminists and providing justifications (note that they needed to) why it works for them. Do you think they need your approval to qualify as a feminist because you have problems with letting go of authority? Why should women feel they need to fit your definition of feminism to call themselves one? Do you think they need men like you to think for them and tell them what feminism is or should be? Telling a woman that she can’t be both religious and feminist is like the oppressor telling the oppressed what oppression means. If you think women need your approval and validation as they explore what feminism means to them, it is a sign that you have failed to grasp the kind of patriarchal society we live in and you are likely to be part of the problem.

I am not advocating for any strand of feminism here. Neither am I trying to define what feminism is nor who should be categorised as a woman and why. My issue is you belittling and demeaning women for saying what kind of feminism works for them and what feminism means to them. It doesn’t matter what level of education you have, or how enlightened your knowledge of feminism might be (although I highly doubt most men who think they should be in charge defining feminism know much about it at all), telling a feminist what feminism is or should be, defeats the very essence of what feminism stands for – namely women thinking and deciding for themselves. You wanting to be the central voice here not only gives you complete authority, which feminism is trying to shift, it also disregards and invalidates women’s experiences.

Do you find the idea that women can think and decide for themselves and that your input comes second indigestible? That might be because it has been the accepted norm (thanks to patriarchy) for your voice to be the dominant and authoritative one. You wanting to take the upper hand and explain what feminism is to women is an indictment of your unquestioned and taken for granted privilege as a man. It takes one to critically reflect on societal structures and one’s place in such structures to be aware of one’s own privilege.

If you think feminists central focus should be the protection of your freedom of speech, then you’ve got it all wrong. And if you can’t see why your rights aren’t the centre of attention in the feminist’s agenda, then you really are blinded by your male privilege in which case you urgently need to scrutinise those privileges.

If you truly want to contribute to the whole movement, learn to critically analyse your place as a man in society and carefully listen to what women have to say. Your knowledge is no good if it is dismissive of women who live to experience sexism every day. There can only be a common ground for discussion of your contribution to feminism when you first believe and accept that women are capable of leading their own movement and are the primary role-players as far as feminism goes.

Finally, this is aimed at those men who think that their knowledge of feminism is far superior to women’s lived experiences and say on feminism. If you are not one of them, then this post doesn’t concern you and you are most likely to agree with me here. If you are, I hope you find this post somewhat helpful in terms of clarifying issues – absent in the restricted Twitter exchanges.

Bakhtin, Merleau-Ponty, and the Cartesian subject

 

dialogue 1To what extent are the modernist conceptions of the subject Cartesian? What of our sciences, especially the human sciences and the knowledge that emerges from them? And how can we overcome these lingering Cartesian residues? Gardiner in ”The incomparable monster of solipsism’: Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty’ explores these questions (and more). This post is an attempt to provide a brief review of this paper. 

The subject, at least in Western metaphysics, according to Gardiner, is narcissist for it is shadowed by the Cartesian view which yields to a total self-determinism and total-self-grounding. Our capacities for abstract thinking are privileged at the expense of embodied dialogism. The production of knowledge according to Western metaphysics is rooted in the solitary subject contemplating an external world in a purely cognitive manner as a disembodied observer. The locus of classical modernity, Gerdiner argues, is captured by the overwhelming desire for epistemological certitude and logical coherence in its desire to establish absolute certainty. In attempting to establish this lucidity and certainty; complex, multivalent and ambiguous reality is substituted with crystalline logic and conceptual rigour. Our obsession to transcribe the world into pure algorithmic language, as if the external world presents itself as a collection of inert facts, according to Gardiner is the epitome of  Cartesianism.  Merleau – Ponty describes this as “A nightmare to which there is no awakening”.

It is however, important to note that the status of the human sciences has evolved considerably over the course of the enlightenment and since Popper, falsifiablity and not certitude and coherence is the hallmark of science. Descartes, with emphasis on doubt stands at the beginning of this tradition and as Ian Shapiro would argue, the locus classicus of modernity is in fact doubt, skepticism, and falsifiability. 

According to Gardiner, the Cartesian self poses a threat to dialogical values and what they espouse. By seeing the world as a projection of cognitive capacities, we leave no room for recognizing otherness. Not only is the body alien to this physical subject, other selves are equally mysterious that can have no authentically dialogical relationship. It is by adopting a dialogical world view that we are able to capture the interactive nature of bodies and selves as they co-exist within a shared life world. Gardiner asserts that Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty are in agreement that modern Western thought, Platonism being the archetypal example, is dominated by perspectives that have rejected the validity of the body and it’s lived experience in favour of theoretical constructions. The utilitarian character of modern science and technology and abstract idealist philosophy reflects this. The tradition in which arguments are framed and debated in the philosophy of mind in which philosophical zombies and Martian c-fibres often take centre stage, illustrates this further. 

Gardiner argues, the privileging of purely cognitive abilities results in tendencies in equating the self to subjective mental processes. This comes at a price of the subject being abstract that dispassionately contemplates from afar. Bakhtin insists that relation to the other requires presence of value positing consciousness and not a disinterested, objectifying gaze. Without the interactive context connecting self, other, and world, the subject slips into solipsism and loses ground for its Being and become empty. For Merleau-Ponty, the world is always in a Heraclitian flux, constantly transforming and becoming and not static and self-contained. Nor is our relation with others a purely cognitive affair. World and body exist in a relation of overlapping.  My senses reach out to the world and respond to it, actively engaging with it. They shape and configure it just as the world at the same time reaches deep into my sensory Being. The perceptual system is not a mere mechanical apparatus that only serves representational thinking to produce refined concepts and ideas but is radically intertwined with the world itself. Self perception, according to Merleau-Ponty, is not merely cognitive but it is also corporal. As I experience the world around me, I am simultaneously an entity in the world. I can hear myself speaking.

The world is presented to me in a deformed manner. My perspective are skewed by the precise situation I occupy at a particular point in time/space, by the idiosyncrasies of my psychosocial and historical context of my existence. Since I am thrown into the world lacking intrinsic significance and I have to make the world meaningful, I am condemned to make continual value judgments and generate meanings. I can never possess the totality of the world through intellectual grasps of my environment, thus my knowledge of the experiential world is always constrained and one sided. As meaning of the world for each of us is constructed from a vantage point of our uniquely embodied viewpoint, no two individuals experience the world precisely the same way.  Encounter with other selves is necessary to gain a more complete perspective on the world. I am never my own light to myself. It is through encounter with another self that I gain access to an external viewpoint through which I am able to visualize myself as a meaningful whole, a gestalt.

Gardiner argues this is how we can escape solipsism – through an apprehension of oneself in the mirror of the other, a vantage point that enables one to evaluate and assess his/her own existence and construct a coherent self-image. To be able to conceptualize myself as a meaningful whole, which is fundamental to self-individuation and self-understanding, I need additional, external perspective. By looking through the other’s soul, I vivify my exterior and make it part of the plastic pictorial world.

We need a philosophy that understands nature as a dynamic, living organism that is ‘pregnant with potentials’. As embodied subjects, we are intertwined with the world, bound up with the dynamic cycles and processes of growth and change.  Insofar as our minds are incarnate and our bodies necessarily partake the physical and biological natural processes, there is an overlap of spirit and matter, subject and object, nature and culture. No break in the circuit; impossible to say where nature ends and subject begins. The self is dynamic, embodied, and creative entity that strives to attribute meaning and value to the world. We are forced to make certain choices and value judgments by Being-in-the-World to transform the world as it is given into a-world-for-me. In making the world a meaningful place, the subject actively engages with and alters its lived environment. I and other co-mingle in the ongoing event of Being. The self, as Bakhtin points out, is ‘unfinalizable’ –  continually re-authored as circumstances change.

Gardiner concludes that both Merleau-Ponty and Bakhtin object to the ‘Primacy of intellectual objectivism’ taken as the model of intelligibility which forms Western philosophy from which our sciences emerge. Such objectification of the world in modernist paradigms represents a retreat from lived experience. Genuinely participative thinking and active engaging requires an engaged, embodied relation to the other and to the world at large. Our capacity for abstract cognition and representational thinking is incapable of grasping the linkage between myself and the other within the fabric of everyday social life. Hence the solipsistic consequences of subjectivistic idealism. As Bakhtin’s ‘carnal hermeneutics’ – the dialogical character of human embodiment – emphasizes, the incarnated self can only be affirmed through its relation with the other. The body is not something self-sufficient: it needs the others’ recognition and form giving activity.

Science! It works, bitches!

Science 2

Science is constantly pushing the boundaries as to what can be known and it’s the best available tool we have to produce the most reliable knowledge. Scientifically produced knowledge is often taken as legitimate, objective, unbiased and value-free. A scroll through some scientist’s Twitter posts can show just how much a great deal of scientists make it clear that knowledge that science produces is the ultimate fact. Arguably, knowledge grounded in science is perceived as the ultimate and the most authoritative that others need to aspire to – one that is qualified to legitimately dictate correct from incorrect or right from wrong and considered as the standard against all other forms of knowledge should be measured.

This form of knowledge is often presented in sharp contrast with knowledge that is dogmatic and ideological as if they are neatly separable. Those who are reasonable and educated are seen as free from ideologies and dogmas. Those that attempt to dispute this so called fact are often portrayed as anti-science. Typically snarled at “Don’t take it personal it’s science, can’t argue with the facts”.

Don’t get me wrong! I love science. Science is wonderful and yes, as far as the most consensual way of producing knowledge goes, science may be the best tool we have. However, it’s the idea of scientific knowledge as completely objective, free from any values, ideologies and biases that I object to. There is no such thing as ‘a view from nowhere’ and science and scientists are not immune to this. Science as completely free and separable from ideologies, biases and currently available discourses and a tool by which we objectively discover what is out there is simply naive. Nor is science free from theoretical commitments, or epistemological and ontological assumptions on which experiments are founded.

The methods we choose to investigate (and by implication those we choose to ignore) are central to the kind of knowledge we produce. Such methods are essentially tied to certain underlying theoretical commitments, which are embedded in certain ontological and epistemological assumptions. How something is defined has great influence on what conclusion one arrives at. How scientists analyse and interpret data can greatly be influenced by their preconceived notions. These two studies on sex differences on the brain, arriving at almost opposite conclusions despite having comparable data, shows just that. 

Science as a way to establishing facts gets fussier and messier as we move away from the natural sciences and towards studies of human cognition and behaviour. The more socially constructed the concept seems, the more problematic it becomes to make any claims of knowledge as the truth or an established fact. This is evident by the fact that there can be multiple equally plausible theories and research findings explaining certain concepts such as emotions or happinessNot to mention the difficulties defining these concepts in a manner that scientists agree upon. The very idea of defining the concept or phenomena that scientists are trying to get hold on brings with it associated cultural, historical, and ideological baggage.

We operate within a certain cultural context and are situated in a certain geographical location at a certain time in history where certain ways of practicing science are more acceptable than others. The way we frame how we think about certain things as well as the methods we develop to explore these questions are inseparably tangled with these factors. As well as our historical and cultural past, our own perspective is coloured by our immediate interaction with others around us. The very language we use to formulate our hypothesis predetermines, to some extent, the direction that our research follows. For example, despite the underlying similarities these questions are framed “are you pro-choice?” or “Do you object to the idea of murdering unborn children?” will elicit different responses.

This messy picture of science where the objective and subjective are not neatly separable, makes attempts to develop so called objective approaches with regard to socially constructed behaviours such as criminality questionable. What kind of behaviour is criminal? In which society? At what time? There is no simple and universally defined definition of crime. A brief look at the concept of homosexuality that has developed from being a criminal act to now (for most of the Western society, anyway) as a right, shows how slippery and context dependent the very idea of what counts as a criminal behaviour. Any attempt to understand drug-related crimes, for example, shows how unclear the idea of crime can be – both snorting cocaine and smoking cannabis (in certain parts of the world) being defined as criminal acts, legally speaking .

I am not arguing that all science is biased and that the work scientists have been doing is no use. The point I want to make is that how we come to conceptualise certain phenomena in a certain way but not other does not spring out of nowhere but is inextricably linked to our language, the current dominant theories, current discourses available to us, and our history among other things. Therefore we need to be aware that our science is (implicitly or explicitly) influenced and to some extent determined by these – some fields more than others. And as the scientist is not a robot that is devoid of passion, interests, errors, and biases (which is not necessarily beneficial either as I think some passion and interest in our research is important), the least we can do is acknowledge this and actively question and review whether our views have been clouded by such as well as being mindful of any generalizable claims that we make as objective facts.

What makes me, me?

What makes me like coffee over tea? Why do some people engage in criminal activities? What is it that makes some people a rapist? What are the sources of bullying behaviour?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find simple explanations for such complex questions? Psychology is constantly trying to explain complex behaviour. It’s not uncommon to hear explanations by psychologists, neuroscientists, social scientists, criminologists, and the like, usually each from their own perspective, asserting why we prefer one thing over the other, why we are repulsed by certain things, or why we behave the way we do. These explanations often invoke factors such as parenting style, genes, environment, history, culture and so on, depending on the perspective the subject has been approached from.

Arguably, explanations that closely focus on certain factors and not others serve a purpose when it comes to narrowly defined investigations. The problem is, in attempting to explain complex behaviour, we often fail prey (knowingly or unknowingly) to false dichotomies. Despite the constant warning against false dichotomies, it is common to read scientific papers making attempts, for example,  to ascribe the influence of genes as opposed to environment in seeking to understand the effect of parenting on the kind of person we grow up to be.

The “person” is an extremely slippery and difficult concept to pin down. What makes me ‘me’ is extremely fuzzy (and constantly changing) to the extent that it cannot be separated from those around me, my historical background, the culture and time I am situated in, and the dynamical interactions at play. We are constantly dynamically interacting and influencing others around us, and the physical environment, as well as being influenced by these factors. My view of what constitutes a criminal behaviour for example, does not spring into being from nowhere. Rather it is an interplay of many factors, such as the currently available discourse, my political, social, economic, and geographical position in a certain society, the kind of shared of language that is available for use, as well as my family, culture and historical background.

Given that we are constantly in the process of becoming mediated by the dynamical interplay of inextricably linked factors such as culture, genes, physical environment, history, currently available discourses, local societal norms, diet and so on, attempting to separate these factors and claiming to have determined  the contribution genes and/or environment makes towards complex behaviour such as criminality would be similar to having successfully separated the inside and outside of a Mobius strip.