Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ruminations 49: "Society Knows What it Wants"-- Of Markets, Status Hierarchies and Knowldge Production

In his germinal text, Henry David Thoreau expressed a contradiction that is worth exploring in some detail.  He declared: the "greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything it is very likely to be my good behavior."  (Henry David Thoreau, Walden (chp. 1 Economy) (1854)).  Yet this tension is made irrelevant by the framework within which it is confronted.  "Shams and delusions are esteemed for higher truth, while reality is fabulous. . . .By closing the eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine, and habit everywhere, which still is built on purely illusory foundations." (Ibid., chp. 2, Where I Lived--What I Lived For). And the illusion of the foundation of life, of the basis of good and bad, is in turn reduced to irrelevance when one passes from one to another generation. Thoreau understood that "[o]ne generation abandons the enterprise of another like stranded vessels." (Henry David Thoreau, Walden (chp. 1 Economy) (1854)).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

Society knows what it wants!  The limits of knowledge are set by the desire to know certain things in certain ways; those who control the mechanics of knowledge relevance and the frame within which it is produced and interpreted, shape the way in which the possible is understood and veils the rest. The production of knowledge is commodified and disciplined through markets, like any other product.  What society knows is what it wants to know, and society always knows what it wants to know. The universe of that desire describes the totality of the reality of knowledge and its production; the rest is veiled. But the satisfaction of this demand requires an academic industry that is willing to meet the demands for knowledge that serves to meet societal needs. Thus the contradiction, knowledge exists to conform and advance intuition or to achieve an objective; knowledge production does not exist independent of the premises with which it is meant to engage.  It is only from time to time, when its essential contradictions are exposed, that one pauses, if only momentarily, to consider the character of the edifice thus constructed.  And so it is with the case of Diederik Stapel--who epitomizes all that is valuable in this framework structure, and semiotic incoherence of notions of "fraud" in the production of "useful" knowledge, when science is geared to tell people, and the institutions developed for their management, what they want to hear. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: Diererik Stapel, a Dutch Social Psychologist, Perpetrated an Audacious Fraud by Making Up Studies That Told the World What it Wanted to Hear About Human Nature," The New York Times Magazine, April 28, 2013.

Bhattacharjee retells the story of an "academic star in the Netherlands and abroad," one whose reputation rested on "well regarded studies on human attitudes and behavior."  (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: supra).  But it turned out that Dr. Stapel had been fabricating data for years.  People, academics and policymakers, had been willing for years to accept the conclusions of Dr. Stapel's studies precisely because the conclusions appealed to their own sense of the ways things ought to be and thus provided the necessary foundation to legitimate policy to which people were already predisposed.  But Dr. Stapel failed in his own role within this production cycle of social management, he failed to play the necessary role of purveyor of the data necessary to reasonably support the conclusions to which policymakers and the academic community were already committed.  Unable to serve his role within this knowledge production line, Dr. Stapel would lose both status and markets for his product. "After he got home that night, he confessed to his wife. A week later, the university suspended him from his job and held a news conference to announce his fraud. It became the lead story in the Netherlands and would dominate headlines for months. Overnight, Stapel went from being a respected professor to perhaps the biggest con man in academic science. " (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: supra). From that point, it was to the integrity of the "fact producing" portion of knowledge production, that institutions quickly moved to protect.

And yet, rather than accept his fate, Dr. Stapel sought to unmask the contradictions and needs of the knowledge production factory in which he played a role for which he was richly rewarded.
Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth,” he said. He described his behavior as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high. (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: supra).
Still, in unmasking the system that produced him, he also exposed his own failure to embrace the referents that provided legitimacy to his productive role. It was not truth or method that mattered, it was the ability to serve the purpose for which he was rewarded that mattered--the rest remains fungible detail.  "“I have fallen from my throne — I am on the floor,” he said, waving at the ground. “I am in therapy every week. I hate myself.” That afternoon and in later conversations, he referred to himself several times as tall, charming or handsome, less out of arrogance, it seemed, than what I took to be an anxious desire to focus on positive aspects of himself that were demonstrably not false."(Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: supra).

Ironically, there is something that rings true here in Dr. Stapel's affirmation of the conflation of science and aesthetics.
In his early years of research — when he supposedly collected real experimental data — Stapel wrote papers laying out complicated and messy relationships between multiple variables. He soon realized that journal editors preferred simplicity. “They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler,’ ” Stapel told me. Before long, he was striving to write elegant articles.  (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: supra). 
But this is not a case of Oscar Wilde, here aesthetics assumes a performative role, and that role was undertaken for reward. This was not the story of a quest for beauty, but rather a quid pro quo bargaining--that is the higher truth here that Thoreau speaks of.
What the public didn’t realize, he said, was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,” he said. “Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman. I am on the road. People are on the road with their talk. With the same talk. It’s like a circus.” He named two psychologists he admired — John Cacioppo and Daniel Gilbert — neither of whom has been accused of fraud. “They give a talk in Berlin, two days later they give the same talk in Amsterdam, then they go to London. They are traveling salesmen selling their story.” (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: supra).
The higher truth, then, is the performance itself--the embrace of formalism in science (as in other aspects of organized life) to give an appearance of solidity in support of desire or intuition (born as well of desire).  

This higher truth is embedded in the structures that produce the rewards for serving the academic production of facts to suit the intuition of those who consume them.  It was not for nothing that Dr. Stapel's peers hesitated to denounce him.  Dr. Stapel's position appeared to protect him and the assumptions grounded in reputation, grounded in publication, grounded in conference marketing, provided a measure a protection.  Formal structures, in effect, made functional deviation not invisible but more unassailable. (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: supra). It is not for nothing that Dr. Stapel's denunciation came not from his peers but from his students along with a young faculty member.  (Ibid.). Yet there is a high price for allegations of this kind, even when proven accurate--the article author noted that "Each of them spoke to me but requested anonymity because they worried their careers would be damaged if they were identified." (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: supra). While the institution of knowledge production must protect its legitimacy, it reserves punishment in like manner to those who expose its contradictions as well as to those who betray its fundamental operating norms to the extent that the legitimacy of the system itself is threatened.  "Those who suspect a colleague of fraud may be inclined to keep mum because of the potential costs of whistle-blowing." (Ibid). Indeed, to protect themselves, the students planned their denunciation like a military campaign: "The students waited till the end of summer, when they would be at a conference with Zeelenberg in London. “We decided we should tell Marcel at the conference so that he couldn’t storm out and go to Diederik right away,” one of the students told me." (Ibid.).

In the end, Dr. Stapel was sacrificed for his misdeeds, but the system retained its integrity, and it operates unchanged. 
The key to why Stapel got away with his fabrications for so long lies in his keen understanding of the sociology of his field. “I didn’t do strange stuff, I never said let’s do an experiment to show that the earth is flat,” he said. “I always checked — this may be by a cunning manipulative mind — that the experiment was reasonable, that it followed from the research that had come before, that it was just this extra step that everybody was waiting for.” He always read the research literature extensively to generate his hypotheses. “So that it was believable and could be argued that this was the only logical thing you would find,” he said. “Everybody wants you to be novel and creative, but you also need to be truthful and likely. You need to be able to say that this is completely new and exciting, but it’s very likely given what we know so far.” (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: supra). 
And thus we return to Thoreau. The ideal of research, and of the production of knowledge, serves as a powerful foundation for a disciplinary relationship between knowledge, its producers and those who consume knowledge.  What consumers of knowledge know is in some measure the sum of all that consumers want to know. Consumers reward producers who satisfy their demand for certain forms of knowledge with status, influence, and money.  The production of knowledge is itself legitimated by a formal structure that serves to certify the approach to knowledge production and thus its content.  Those complicit in this production process understand its limitations and constraints but also know that failure to satisfy demand means no market for knowledge production. They contribute to the illusory foundations built on tastes for knowledge--that is built on what consumers want, and what they want to know. The best knowledge producers develop knowledge for the market and then "invest" their status in efforts to move consumer taste for knowledge (both what they know and what they want to know)--with limited success--and replicated in form though not in content in each generation.

But the greater insight ought not to be overlooked in the morality tale that "The Mind of a Con Man was written to be.  The only difference between Dr. Stapel and his ethical colleagues is their relationship to data, to the information harvested in the service of knowledge consumer tastes and expectations. Both seek to satisfy the tastes and expectations of the groups for which they perform, especially if they wish to be rewarded--with career advancement, money, and the inclusion of their work within the body of knowledge produced that would, in turn, serve to constrain their fellow academics in their own work, and provide the structures for the instrumental work of those whose job it is to use this knowledge production to manage society.  But this is not unique to academic production--it is inherent in most market behavior.  The circular and self replicating framework within which consumers and producers operate suggest both stability, and the political power of tradition in managing not only aggregate behavior but the structures of societal reality within which the possible is realized.  It is the essence of the judicial project as well. (Larry Catá Backer, “Chroniclers in the Field of Cultural Production: Interpretive Conversations Between Courts and Culture,” 20 Boston College Third World Law Journal 291-343 (2000)).  "Courts accomplish this transformation by retelling stories to express conformity with what we believe and what we “know.” In this sense, the stories themselves embody the rules by which we come to know and discipline our social selves." (Larry Catá Backer, “Tweaking Facts, Speaking Judgment: Judicial Transmogrification of Case Narrative as Jurisprudence in the United States and Britain,” 6 S. California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 611-662 (1998)).  These are insights that should be kept in mind as those who control the boundaries of the realizable complain about the constraints that inhibit progress beyond what can be imagined now.  The price of stability is tradition, and the cost of tradition is sometimes measured in the perversions of its form for the preservation of its substance. 

And thus we should be mindful of Thoreau's larger point. "Society knows what it wants!  Individuals bend to societal wants; individuals consent to social desire, indeed contribute to it incrementally to establish and deepen habits and routines that define the shape and direction of knowledge production.  The fabulous character of this production based on the satisfaction of desire permits development as society evolves its desires and intuitions as tastes change and the community of individuals is transformed by death and regeneration. The academic experience of Dr. Stapel  then is important as a marker of the double nature of its betrayals.  Dr. Stapel's fraud amounted to a double betrayal.  He betrayed the internal standards within which knowledge is produced to satisfy the demands for institutionally valuable knowledge.  But more significantly he betrayed the social system on which knowledge production is based; he did so by threatening its integrity and thus its  legitimacy, one grounded on the ability of academics to produce the facts necessary to support the judgements and interpretations on which social, political, economic and other governance policies are based. This second was the greater sin--its threat to the integrity of the system in support of which knowledge is produced. (Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (A.M. Sheridan Smith Trans., New York: Pantheon Books1971) ("there is no knowledge without a particular discursive practice; and any discursive practice may be defined by the knowledge that it forms." Ibid., 183)).
Fraud like Stapel’s — brazen and careless in hindsight — might represent a lesser threat to the integrity of science than the massaging of data and selective reporting of experiments. The young professor who backed the two student whistle-blowers told me that tweaking results — like stopping data collection once the results confirm a hypothesis — is a common practice. (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "The Mind of a Con Man: supra).
Yet it is these very contradictions that frame the structural foundations of academic knowledge production, the status hierarchies on which they are built, and the means through which these status oriented knowledge production mills develop "facts" and norms that are of use to those who view the state, religion, economics and culture as instrumental means of managing populations.  Indeed, these very characteristics make this not merely useful but essential for the construction of a harmonious and well ordered community. 

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