Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"We know that..."

Hal Pepinsky,,
March 6, 2013
                I just turned off yet another talk-show guest who was preaching that we use “evidence-based” “best practices” that reflected what “we know.”  Here I go, taking sides again:  I cringe every time I hear someone start a pronouncement with “we know that…”
                The guest I turned off was castigating doctors and nurses for continuing doing things “the way they’ve always been done” instead of following the latest best practices.  She did reinforce my conviction not to give a doctor permission to do or give me anything I don’t understand and want.  I stick my good old criminological ways all the time, and I can’t imagine any research finding convincing me that there is such a thing as anybody’s best crime prevention practice that I am going to recommend be adopted anywhere on the strength of someone else’s “best evidence” that purports to explain results elsewhere, using someone else’s evaluation protocol.
                “We know that…” is a problem for me at two levels.  First, like US Democrats now calling themselves “blue,” it is an Americanization of the royal “we.”  That is, some self-referent group of “experts” now claims the authority of God and King with respect to where “our” evidence leads.  Worse, the use of the first-person plural signifies that “they” speak for me too—for what I’d better accept or do, or else demonstrate that I don’t know what I’m doing.
                I won’t claim credit for the thought reform program my parents jointly put me through when I came home from college spouting newfound wisdom:  “You don’t KNOW that Harold, you just THINK that it is true.”  At the outset, this came with mini-lectures on epistemology.  And so, by the time I began to write for professional publication, I only felt qualified to use the first person as my sole authority for all of my “research” pronouncements.  I’m less obsessive about it.  I’ll make flat-out declarations without no attributions, but I persist in making clear that I am never speaking for anyone but myself.  That has among other things made co-authorship something I rarely let myself be talked into.  My most recent co-authorships have been dialogues.  This is my methodological position, another exception to my rule of not taking sides.
                At another level, the peacemaking process of social construction I favor entails people assuming responsibility for creating their own programs.   One example of the difference:  When I was invited to conduct a workshop on mediation in a Trinidadian prison, the usual approach would have been to get a group of people to go through one or more role plays that I myself made up.  Instead, I proposed first that the workshop include parties who were likely to be in dispute (prisoners and officers).  This runs counter to the normal assumption that mediation between people with unequal power just carries oppression one step further.  Like the Navajo for instance, I see peacemaking as a way to confront and transform the entropy of power differences into the synergy of cooperation.  Second, I asked that the scenario we role-played be the creature of the people I was training, involving what they knew (I use the term advisedly) to be ongoing serious issues among themselves.  If participants do on applying what they learned in the workshop, I know of no wrong way for them to try, as long as they learn from the process.  For all I know, with no formal mechanism, guards and prisoners may already be applying ways of talking and listening they experienced in one or both of the workshops in individual encounters, on the spot.  Whatever they do, I want them to own it, not just follow anyone else’s system including what I might dream up for them.
                By contrast, in its pure form, ritualized application of best practices amounts to totalitarianism.  As Thomas Kuhn proposed in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “we” go slavishly conforming our rules of “best evidence” to paradigms of how to control change until somehow we become fatigued enough by persistent failure to give trying to replicate old results.  I’m more than tired enough of “we know that…” statements already.  May the growth of we-knowingness follow the way of the economic growth paradigm overall.  Meanwhile, I expect I’ll pause now and again to indulge in catharses like this blog post.  Love and peace--hal

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