The fetishization of numbers in policy

Note: this article is not about how politicians find numbers sexy. The word ‘fetish’ in this context  designates something that is used or done ritualistically rather than pragmatically.

In the world of UK public policy, everyone loves quantitative skills. Making policy ‘evidence-based’ is considered a matter of significant importance, and the National Health Service is held up as the shining example – primarily because of the prominence of randomized control trials and value-for-money. In the past decade this has led to the development of ‘What works’ centres, such as the College of Policing’s ‘What Works Centre for Crime Reduction”, and LSE’s “What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth”. Based on my research on these centres (from articles such as this), they tend to subscribe to the ‘evidence-based’ movements hierarchy of evidence, with Randomized Control trials at the top and anecdotal experience at the bottom (for those unfamiliar with this hierarchy, my main point is that data is on the top).

This increased emphasis on evidence is not inherently a bad thing. Indeed, in many ways it is a positive development. However, I have a number of concerns on the ways that these work centres interact with policy.

Concern #1: Begging the question – What works… for what?
The title ‘what works’ begs the question of what the interventions are
working for.  On the College of Policing’s What Works Crime Reduction page (link), we are presented with a list of interventions, with data on cost, effectiveness, where it works, and the like. But this cannot answer the question of what the Police should do in the first place.

Concern #2: The ‘what works’ frame
‘What works’ neglects the reality that problems can be described in multiple ways. For example, are we concerned with young hoodlums who have not been taught proper values, or are we concerned with oppressed minorities who are lashing out due to opportunity deprivation. There is often not a natural way to interpret data – our personal values play a significant role. The ‘what works’ language seems to cover up these ambiguities by assuming a common frame.

Concern #3: Politics and evidence
‘What works’ does not seem to engage with the reality that policy overlaps with politics. Evidence is regularly used as ammunition to support pre-existing positions, rather than forming a basis for re-evaluating positions. Not that I mean to be entirely down on politics, I just mean that evidence will not transform politics.

Concern #4: Stifling innovation
When practitioners focus on ‘what works’, their attention is necessarily backwards looking, because we necessarily cannot have evidence on new ideas and approaches. ‘What works’ therefore cannot help us prepare for future problems, and may potentially hinder policy that looks to deal with future problems because ‘its not evidence based’.

Concern #5: The gap between theory and practice
Models and quantification represent reality, but there is always a gap. Further, small errors compound quickly. This is why our ability to forecast the weather drops off very quickly. This does not mean that we should not use models (we must!), but we should do so while being mindful that they are not infallible.

I intend to write a more in-depth article on this topic, but here are my immediate thoughts. Let me know what you think.



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Truth vs. reality

I believe I have just had a breakthrough in my understanding of truth. The classical (and intuitively dominant) theory of truth is probably the correspondence theory, which basically proposes that truth entails the correspondence of a statement to reality. The correspondence theory of truth, despite its intuitive appeal, is poorly regarded for a variety of reasons. One problem is defining what it means for a statement to ‘correspond’. Another problem is whether the correspondence itself represents a ‘truth’ (which leads to infinite regression). All of this I found easy enough to grasp (as in, by the end of a philosophy intensive undergraduate degree I more or less felt I had a handle on it). What I continued to struggle with was ‘if truth is not correspondence, what is it?’ There are, of course, a variety of alternatives, but explaining them will not get to the nub of my confusion. One example is the coherence theory of truth, which proposes (to quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) ‘A belief is true if and only if it is part of a coherent
system of beliefs.’ Maybe to some of you this makes total sense, but the notion left me entirely flummoxed. Specifically, I was flummoxed by the idea that truth was a property of relations between beliefs. Why did believes matter when determining truth? I was, of course, stuck on a a very fundamental misunderstanding of the transformation the concept of truth undergoes when it transitions from correspondence theory to a coherence theory, namely, truth ceases to be about reality.

This is the breakthrough. Truth is not necessarily about reality. When we ask ‘what is truth’, we are not necessarily asking about how the world is. We might be asking about how the world is, but not necessarily. Instead, epistemology is concerned about the criteria by which sentences are deemed true or false. Correspondence theory proposes sentences should be deemed true or false based on whether they correspond to reality, while coherence theory proposes that truth or falsity is determined by the relationship between beliefs. Coherence theories therefore draw a distinction between beliefs and the reality that those beliefs are about: the question is not whether beliefs fit with reality, but whether beliefs fit with each other.

In my next post I will explore this issue in relation to knowledge and Justified True Belief.

Thank you for reading,


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Thinking and the unthinkable – The edges of reality

A friend and I are currently working on writing a philosophy paper on epistemology together. Both of us are dissatisfied with epistemology’s current obsession with Gettier problems*. Both of us more or less agree that Gettier problems get something wrong about the nature of knowledge, or that the knowledge that Gettier problem’s interfere with was already unobtainable anyway. To paraphrase my friend, we always only believe the truth by chance.

Having reached this consensus, however, our positions immediately diverged as to the nature of the human condition in relation to truth. For, she maintained, the problem facing human knowers is that we can never eliminate the possibility of unknowable truth, and so we should consider ourselves to be dealing merely with appearances**. I, in contrast, maintained that what she was trying to say was impossible to think or mean. To phrase the issue in a way that favors my side of the argument, our debate is on the thought that we should give to the unthinkable: Emily’s position is that we should leave space for its possibility, and mine is that such space cannot be left because whatever we think of, by definition, cannot actually lie beyond the scope of thought.

Since our conversation I’ve been doing some research, and, unsurprisingly, this debate is not a new one. Indeed, we each seem to have settled into the role of our respective favorite philosophers. Emily, speaking as Kant, argues that all we know is the apparent world, and that we cannot get at the reality underneath. I, echoing Hegel’s famous response, argue that we can do away with the idea of the real and the apparent: there is simply the indivisible world, for we can never encounter the beyond.

I was greatly aided in my interpretation of our conversation by Lee Braver’s article ‘Thoughts on the Unthinkable‘. For the first half of the article he follows the historical conversation on the unthinkable, starting with Parmenides forbidding us from thinking about the unthinkable to the Hegelian position I have already described. If that were the end of the story then I would feel well vindicated in my position. However, Braver continues on to argue that what is absent in the Hegelian story is humility: for by Hegel’s philosophical system our rationality is rendered into the entirety of existence, and all of our investigations become only investigation of ourselves.

When put in terms of humility, I become somewhat uncomfortable with my own position previously described. I did write my undergraduate thesis arguing the ultimate path to knowledge was through humility, and it is certainly an arrogant kind of claim to say that all that exists is that which is within the realm of mind. However, Braver acknowledges that it is difficult to make room for this other in any sensible way. His proposal is essentially this: the other, the unthinkable, can only be encountered in that which we do not understand. We encounter the unthinkable when our expectations are violated and we are thrown into confusion and fear. He here draws a distinction between relative unthinkables and absolute unthinkables. Relative unthinkables are those things which are initially incomprehensible, but which, upon reflection, can be drawn into the fold of human understanding. Absolute unthinkables, however, are those things that defy all attempts at understanding or comprehension.

I find this account both appealing and confusing. It is unclear to me whether or not this is just a re-description of Hegel, or whether it is a significant departure. More problematically, for me, is that Braver does not seem to provide an example of absolute unthinkability.

Let me know what you think,


*A Gettier problem is basically a situation where someone has justified
true belief but is still right only by chance: for the uninitiated, read
some of these.
** Apologies, Emily, for any disservices I do to your position.

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Are we Rational?

This post was inspired by another post that one of my friends made recently. My friend referenced this article as evidence that humans are rational (even under extenuating circumstances such as poverty), and that they therefore should not have restrictions imposed on their financial aid. When I read his post, my initial response was vague dissatisfaction, but it took me a little while to decide what exactly I wanted to respond to. I decided that the part of the claim I wanted to address or examine was the proposed idea that we are rational. This is not a direct response or rebuttal to my friend’s post, since his ultimate claim was that people know how to make the best decisions in their own lives. The relation between good decisions and rationality, however, is an important part of what I want to examine in this post.

So, the question under examination: are humans rational? Or, to explicate it properly, what does it mean to be rational, and, if we can articulate the concept meaningfully, are we humans that? So, first, what does it mean to be rational? I will first explicate what I believe to be the colloquial definition of rationality, and then I will probe into more sophisticated philosophical territory.Rationality pertains to both belief and action, though the two are so inexorably intertwined that it is not clear to my mind that a true distinction can be drawn. Colloquial rationality entails believing and acting in ways that align with common wisdom: you are rational when you believe in and pursue the things that society believes you should. Colloquial rationality is therefore a form of endorsement: a rational person is someone who is operating properly.

What is the deeper philosophical substance of our ideas of rationality? I think that first a distinction must be drawn between economic rationality and more holistic rationality. Economic rationality is probably the most clearly defined account of rationality. Economic rationality (or rational choice theory) may be best understood as a model for predicting human behavior. The fundamental assumptions of rational choice theory are that people can rank their preferences and that these rankings are transitive (if I prefer A over B, and B over C, I will not prefer C over A).

There are many problems with this model. First, there has been much research done that suggests our preferences are not transitive (Wikipedia backs me up). There are also thought experiments that argue for the reasonableness of intransitive preferences. One experiment, developed by Quinn, has us imagine that someone has been implanted with a medical device with 1001 settings. Each increase of 1 represents a negligible increase in pain. Every week the implanted person has the option to increase the setting by 1 in order to receive $10000. The argument goes that the person will prefer 1 to 0, 2 to 1, and so on, because the increase in pain is so negligible that it is worth $10000. As the dial moves higher, however, the pain builds up so that the individual eventually would prefer to be at 0 again with no money rather than to be in their current state. Though I won’t be exploring this issue further, it is possible this kind of problem could yield some kind of argument that people can be better off if they have their options restricted. To learn more about issues of transitivity I recommend this Stanford article.

Two more fundamental problem for economic modeling is that informational poverty and no-optimal-strategy scenarios can often undermine the meaningfulness of the model. Making rational choices, by the economic model, entails choosing the best option. In the real world, part of choosing the best option entails gathering information on the options available. Gathering information, however, has a cost. An agent is therefore stuck in the difficult situation of making a trade off between the cost and benefits of gathering information, a problem which, by definition, they have insufficient information to make an economic rational decision. There are also some problems for which there is not an optimal strategy, even when all the relevant preference data is known. The classic example is a game of chicken with cars (you race your car towards someone else in a car, and whoever swerves loses). This is a game with no optimal strategy, because your strategy depends on what the other person does and vice versa (some may say that the optimal strategy is not to play, but that is beyond the scope of economic rationality).

As may have become apparent, I find the economic interpretation of rationality unsatisfying. But what about if we consider a more holistic interpretation of rationality? Such rationality, I think, is an extension or exploration of the colloquial conception. It is much easier to give an account of rational belief and action in relation to physical properties of the world then in relation to more conceptual beliefs and actions. Rationality and science traditionally go hand in hand: when it comes to understanding and moving in the physical world we say the rational person more or less uses the scientific method. When we try to move beyond such basic epistemic competency, however, it becomes much more difficult to say what it actually means for someone to behave rationally. I will open this can of worms in my next post.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think,


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Narrative and Truth (and the return of CreativePhilo)

Hello everyone, CreativePhilo is back! I have finished my masters degree and am now going to be updating the blog on a weekly basis.

For my first post back, I am going to be talking about narrative, an extremely pertinent topic considering the upcoming Canadian election (since I am sure all of my readers are following the Canadian election with bated breath).

What is the relation between narrative and truth? The naive reaction to this question, I think, is to say that narrative pertains to story while truth is, well, the truth, what actually is. Stories may or may not align with the truth at the speakers whim or knowledge. However, contra the naive line of reasoning, I would argue that many ‘facts’ of human life are narrative dependent, in the sense that without narrative certain crucial facts about reality do not exist. For so often the way that we explain or interpret an event is crucial to the actual nature of the event itself. For example, when friends have an argument, often the resolution entails imposing some kind of theory upon the events. Now, the scenario is much more complicated when we are dealing with conflicting narratives, so I will be setting that thorny (though central issue) aside for the purposes of this example. Often the resolution of a dispute involves both sides agreeing on a story or narrative of what actually happened. Both might agree that they were just having a bad day, or that one of them was rude because of lack of sleep, or that the other had just not realized how much they were asking. In this way the dispute can be resolved: the narrative tells them who owes who, what went wrong, and provides a heuristic to avoid such disputes in the future. There are usually many theories that can be applied and many ways that an event can be understood, but the reality of the matter does not solely exist in the configuration of atoms: narrative language plays a constitutive roll in the nature of the event.

This, of course, does not answer the question of whether there are true or false narratives, but only points out that the problem is not solved by turning to the natural sciences. The issue with true or false narratives is though false narratives seem easily definable (at least in theory), it is much more difficult to define a true narrative. False narratives seem easily identifiable in that there can be explanations for events which just seem false, or to focus on incorrect features of an event. For example, a child may say that her invisible friend made her commit an act, and she may even believe that to be the case, but it still seems to be ultimately false. True narratives are more complicated because a single event seems to allow for multiple true narratives. For example, if someone is asked to say who they are, they can focus on a plurality of features in their own past to define their identity. Whether there is a ‘true’ narrative is difficult to discern.

The real meat of the issue though comes when we examine how narratives create facts. For narratives have a reflexive affect: when we describe an event we look at it differently, but the way that we look at an event is an important constitutive feature. For example, a newscaster or politician may say that healthcare is the defining issue of an election. This is partially an epistemic claim about what people currently care about, but it can also serve to draw attention to healthcare, to try to make the election about healthcare.

In this initial investigation I have mostly raised questions, but I will revisit the topic.
Please let me know what you think,


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“Real Men are Gentlemen” – The Rhetoric of Normative Epistimology

There is a phrase or idea that I’ve seen popping up lately which I find interesting.  The phrase is something like ‘real men are good people’.  Now, I’ve mostly been seeing these kind of phrases on those somewhat silly internet lists that I waste my time reading on Facebook.  Things like the following: pictures of real men, Traits of Real Men, etc.  I’d be surprised if you haven’t seen something of the sort before.  However, the concept does permeate beyond the internet.  For example, Obama uttered similar sentiment somewhat recently

I get hung up on words.  It’s a regular part of my humor.  Even if I know what someone means, I will often joke about what they actually said.  In this particular case, I’m pretty sure what the authors mean is something like ‘these are good things to do’.  What they’ve actually said though is something quite different – they’ve made a normative definition of what it means to ‘be a man’.

The clear cut dichotomy of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ is something that I perceive as under review in liberal society at large.  For example, one of the recent (post 1970 according to this article) conceptual moves  has been to divide sex and gender.  Though there are almost certainly some clear and articulate thinkers who have written on the topic, I would not say that anything I’ve encountered so far has made it clear to me how all of this cashes out (on any side).  I’ve bought the notion that even defining sex can is fuzzier then most would think (and almost certainly the dichotomy is one with very shallow metaphysical roots).  When it comes to how sex and gender relate to each other, I’m honestly quite lost.  I’m somewhat inclined to think that the moralizing of the concept of man (I’m guessing most people mean the word in both the sexual and gender identity sense) comes out of similar confusion in others.  Then again, I don’t think that this moralized definition of man fits well with the common project of defining gender.  I’m inclined to say that the whole thing is really just playing with language – real just means good.  The authors are clearly not claiming that people who lack their list of traits are women or intersex individuals.  However, the authors are clearly not making universal moral prescriptions.  I would liken their idea to something like an Aristotelian telos.  They are describing how a man should act, but they are not actually providing much insight into the nature of man.

As a political move, however, the phrase is very interesting.  It is a kind of linguistic annihilation which makes those who fail at being a man into nothing.

Let me know what you think,


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Human as ‘World’

One of my philosophical goals is to build a comprehensive and consistent account of… pretty much everything I can manage to stuff into it.  I think that I’m a systems builder at heart – I want to build edifices out of words which will amaze and astound those who read it.  Many of my previous posts have detailed some of my constructive efforts, mostly focused on autonomy, morality, and epistemology.  Over the last few days I’ve had some interesting larger structural ideas about this project, and I’m going to write some of them out in this post.  Many of them are more full of holes then Swiss Cheese at this point, so, as always, I appreciate any feedback that you have for me.

First I’ll give a very quick summary of my structure as it stands.  We are experiencing entities. It is the substance of our existence, the flesh and bones of agency.  Through our experience we construct our ‘world’.  By our nature we are continuously faced with choice, or the challenge of having will.  I define our beliefs to be the parameters within which we understand our normative choices (i.e. our beliefs define our options).  This means that epistemic beliefs are also at once normative beliefs – we cannot have an experience of ‘is’ without the is also being reflected in our ‘ought’ considerations.  There are two ways in which we can relate to our autonomy – we can be subservient to the world and take it as a given, or we can continuously engage with experience and thus be autonomous.  We cannot seize the second, but instead can only be gifted it by experience.

I feel that in my musings I’ve given this account a decent amount of flesh, but it feels like a part hanging in empty space.  Now I’m going to explore some ideas that I have had for the surrounding structure.  There are a number of problems that I’m trying to address here.  The first problem that I want my structure to address is inter-subjectivity.  As I’ve previously stated, I’m inclined towards Husserlian bracketing of the question of realism verses idealism.  One of the issues that I’ve been struggling with is that I believe there is a real world (in the realism sense) but I also think that this ‘real world’ cannot be thought of as the world that we experience.  It is reality sans all concepts, meaning, and entities.  I do not think of this formless real as ‘truth’ but instead as an unthinkable – for how can we think of things as they would be if they were not an experience?  My move instead is to think of each experiencing entity as a ‘world’ onto themselves.  We constitute a world when we experience.  I think a good case to make this more intelligible is the way that we constitute a storm.  When we experience wind and rain on our skin, and see wind blowing objects around us, the entire space around us becomes ‘stormy’.  Strictly speaking we experience only a tiny fragment – the rain on us, the wind on us – but we extend these fragments into the concept of an entire storm.  In this way our experience becomes an entire world.  These worlds together (as in, many experiencing entities) somehow constitutes the inter-subjective reality of agents (maybe?).

Does this mean that the real is merely that which we perceive?  I would say no.  I divide an experiencing ‘world’ (or person) into two distinct parts: the experience (consciousness, roughly speaking), and the giving of experience (which can be indistinctly cut apart into outside, body, and the unconscious).  We (as consciousness) cannot control the way the world is ‘given’ to us in any direct fashion.  The relationship between these two parts defines our autonomous state.  The ‘given’ can be wholly dominant.  If the given is dominant then consciousness takes experience (the world as it knows it) as inevitable.  In the second state consciousness grapples with the submerged element, or the given.  In this grappling the consciousness takes experience as non-inevitable, and attempts to impose on experience its own nature (desires?).  At the same time, however, the consciousness realizes that it does not know itself, and part of its grappling with the submerged giver is to pull as much as it can from below into itself.  The consciousness can never dominate the given, however.  It will never pull all of the given into the light of experience.  The given is the element that unifies collective experience – as much as the depths of the given are the same, so too do humans inhabit the same world.

Part of the nature of this world entity is action.  The entity continuously expresses its epistemology normatively.  There can be conflict within the entity on normative questions, but the actions of the entity at any one moment represent its ultimate normative position at that moment.  I’m still playing with this idea, but I think even actions such as breathing and sleeping can be captured in this framework – the desires of the body are part of the normative beliefs of the whole, and so we can say that as long as an entity is not committing suicide at any particular moment it desires to subsist.

Let me know what you think, thank you for reading,


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