Social Knowing I

Randy Westgren raises an important issue in a comment to a recent post. “How is it that a group shares knowledge?” he asks. I want to try to answer this question in way that transcends (or perhaps just sidesteps) longstanding disputes, both among so-called “analytic” philosophers themselves, and between the analytic and so-called “continental” schools.

I sometimes think I’ve solved “the problem of knowledge” completely. But I’m well aware that I did so at the cost of stepping outside the bounds of proper philosophy. The point, of course, is that no matter how much doubt a philosopher is able to occasion, people know things anyway. They come to know things all the time, and, yes, they sometimes share what they know with each other. “The problem of knowledge” may persist in theory, but it is obviously solved in practice every day. How, Randy asks, does this happen?

He is rightly worried about the state of “scientific” claims about the ordinary lives of people. His friend Brian Wansink has been severely criticized, not least by the always trenchant Andrew Gelman, for deploying dubious methods of analysis in an attempt to qualify his ideas about what causes us to eat more or less healthily with “science”. Many of these ideas sound reasonable, and Wansink himself seems like a sincere and intelligent person. So there is a certain measure of sadness in seeing his work, as Randy puts it, “tarred and feathered”.

“Wansink may be right about many things that he shares with his audiences,” Randy reminds us (both Andrew and I have said similar things), “but his statistics-based accounts do not warrant justified true belief. Likewise, the brickbats thrown by statisticians are not sufficient to count as justification that Wansink is wrong about everything.” So where does that leave us? What are we, finally, to think?

I’ve long wanted to answer this, not so much for use by “the man on the street” (who might be looking for dietary advice) but by students and researchers at universities. What is a good way to come to know things in an academic setting? Over many years, I’ve come to settle on a three part definition, which includes both individual and social competences. At the end of the day, being “knowledgeable”, i.e., having the ability to know things, is the ability to (a) make up your mind about something, (b) speak your mind about it, and (c) write it down. We might say that knowing something, at least at a university, is a philosophical, rhetorical and literary competence.

Randy rightly mentions “justified, true belief”, which is the core (or beginning) of most philosophical definitions of knowledge, mine included. And here the Wansink case puts us in a kind of bind. Many people (including some of his critics) believe Wansink at some level. Smaller plates mean smaller servings which means fewer calories which leads to weight loss. Moreover, people of course believe these things because they think they are true. And they may in fact be true. (We don’t know that they are not true at this point.) So what they are arguing about is “justification”, the validity of the reasons that Wansink offers to believe something. We seem to be justified neither in believing nor not believing.

But we can ask ourselves another question. It’s one that has less to do with how we make up our own minds and more to do with how engage with those of others. Am I able to hold my own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people about healthy eating habits? If Wansink can do this, I’m going to let that count in his favor, even if his justifications don’t always hold water. (Boxers can “hold their own” and still lose the fight.)  Now, during the discussion, there was some question about whether Wansink was engaging in the debate in a knowing or hapless way. But I think at the end of the day, he found his composure. He acknowledged the criticism and seems, now, to understand it.* I have gained some respect for him throughout this. (Having Randy Westgren vouch for you, of course, also helps.)

Finally, we ask whether Wansink is able to compose coherent prose paragraphs about his subject in a reliable manner. This I think he has demonstrated as well. So I want to say that Wansink, however wrong he may be, either in his methods or his conclusions, is a knowledgeable food scientist. This judgment is not a trivial one, I want to stress. I have elsewhere been trying to engage with social scientists on other matters and have found them completely unwilling or unable to discuss their research sensibly. These people have led me to conclude that, however right they may ultimately be, they are not actually knowledgeable. They lack the ability to actually know the things they happen to believe.

The reason for this is that they have not mastered the social situation of knowledge. They hold beliefs that they are unable to share as knowledge. It is very important for scientists and scholars to develop this ability to share their thoughts and beliefs in such way as to contribute to the shared project of knowing. And that’s certainly an ability that I am here to help scholars develop.

Thanks, Randy, for the opportunity to try to hold my own with a knowledgeable person on this. It makes my work stronger. More later. (I think there’s a part II in me.)


*Update: I’m not so sure about this any longer. I had not been following the discussion closely enough it seems. Andrew summarizes the strange communication here.

Foreign Windows

“We’ve analyzed lots of orders and restaurants. What we find is that if you sit near a window, you’re about 80 percent more likely to order salad; you sit in that dark corner booth, you’re about 80 percent more likely to order dessert,” Wansink said.

The other day, I was explaining Writing Process Reengineering to a PhD student. I told him to articulate a key sentence at the end of the day and pick a specific time on the morning of the next to write. I told him not to let himself write at any other time. If the moment passes, he is not to write that paragraph at any other time the same day. He must make a new decision for the next day. And then do a better job of keeping his appointment.

He was puzzled about why. I told him it was jarring to his unconscious (the unconscious component of his prose, if you will), not just to be told it would be writing and then not get to write, but also to be forced to write at some unanticipated moment later that day. A double shock. I told him he would find his unconscious working more reliably if he kept his promises to it. He politely wondered whether I had any science to back that up. I did not claim that I did. I just asked him to take my word for it. To try it.

Andrew Gelman’s relentless critique of Brian Wansink is a good example of why I do this. It’s something I slowly realised after Freddie deBoer once pointed out that Arum and Roksa’s study isn’t, perhaps, as credible as one might hope. I realized I didn’t really know how credible it is. And I realized I didn’t really care. I had just found it useful to be able to cite a study that shows that writing makes you smarter and group work makes you stupider. It was a simple and effective way to present views I already held. Putting it the way I did, however, might have slightly overstated Arum and Roksa’s result. I didn’t really seem to care about that either.

Likewise, Wansink’s research, as Andrew keeps emphasizing, might very well be suggesting perfectly good health advice. The problem is just that he puts numbers on it and therefore might give the wrong impression about the effect size. Eat your rice on a black plate and you’ll probably eat less. But you’re probably not going to lose exactly 18 pounds. (And certainly not some even more precise number to three decimal places.)

I think I’m going to renounce science altogether in my area of expertise. I know what works for my own reasons. I’m not going to pretend to have “scientific” reasons to back me up. In fact, I think we should stop demanding scientific reasons for everything we do. Let science be what it can be. Mostly, we have to get by without it.

Tell your unconscious what you’re going to do the next day and then do it just as you said you would. I’m pretty sure that’s not going to do you any harm. And I’m also quite confident you’ll find it improves your writing. I could be wrong. But I’m not wrong about the science because I’m not claiming there is any science. If someone does come along with a study that shows I’m wrong, I will look at it very closely. But I promise I will not cite a study that confirms my views and say “See! I told you.” I’ll only do that when you come back to me and tell me my advice worked for you. As Van Morrison sings…

And if you get it right this time
You don’t have to come back again
And if you get it right this time
There’s no need to explain


People sometimes ask me how they know they are improving if they are not getting feedback. My answer is to remind them that no one has to tell them they are getting into better shape if they are running three or four times a week; nor does anyone have to tell them they are getting better at playing piano with daily practice. The trick is to put yourself into the same frame of mind with your writing.

What that means is that you have establish conditions that allow you to experience your competence. When you set aside a time to run, and map out a route, you are defining the run in a way that (if you’ve done it right) let’s you relax and enjoy it at your own (if you will) pace. You decide how intense it’s going to be, and you therefore open yourself to the details of the experience. The same goes for practicing the piano. Since you are in control of the conditions, you can listen to what you’re doing. It should be clear to you what sounds good and what doesn’t, what is easy to play and what is hard.

With your writing, my advice is to decide the day before on a particular claim to support, elaborate or defend, at a particular time, in a single prose paragraph (of at least six sentences and at most 200 words). Deciding what you will say is like deciding what route you will run or what piece of music you will practice. Now that you know what you’re doing, you can focus on whether or not you are doing it well. Fixing the moment in time lets you concentrate fully until your time is up. Then you stop.

It’s difficult to explain this in a way that is as effective as simply having the experience. Try it. Try writing a predetermined paragraph for a predetermined amount of time. Whatever else you may think of that experience, it brings the act of writing, and your ability to carry it out, to the fore. That’s the entire point of doing it this way. It makes improvement palpable.

No Theory, No Method, No Teacher?

I’m going to write a series of posts vaguely inspired by Van Morrison’s 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. I don’t have any particularly good reason for this, other than a moment of free association I experienced while reading Andrew Gelman’s recent post about Brian Wansink.

In the comments to Andrew’s post, there is a brief discussion about Wansink’s atheoretical approach to behaviorial economics. In this video, Wansink is quite explicit about what he’s doing. He says that instead of extending and testing theories based on past research, he just comes up with “cool” questions that he has “hunches” about and constructs “pilot studies” to find out if there’s anything going on. Andrew comments: “This won’t work too well with noisy data. In the absence of theory, effect sizes will be low, and anything statistically significant is likely to be a huge overestimate of any effect and also likely to be in the wrong direction (that’s type M and type S errors).” In another comment, he elaborates this point with an example from Wansink’s research:

I’m no expert in food science, but let me just take an example: Wansink’s claim … that “if you sit near a window you’re about 80% more likely to order salad.” There has to be some theory underlying this, right? I don’t know what it is, not having read Wansink’s book or watched his video, but whatever it is, I imagine one could take measurements on some of the intermediate steps. You develop theories, make testable predictions, the usual story. I’d think if that is someone’s full-time job and he’s supposed to be a world authority on the topic, that he can do this. If there’s really no theory at all—zero—then my guess is that the whole thing is a waste of time, that he’s just chasing noise and learning nothing at all.

When Van Morrison rejects guru, method and teacher, he’s talking about his personal journey towards enlightenment. Some version of that rejection is part of many wisdom traditions because spiritual enlightenment, whatever it is, is supposed to be a liberation of the self, which must ultimately happen by yourself alone. I get that. But it doesn’t play very well in academic circles because academic “enlightenment” is a much more social sort of experience.

In my adaptation of Morrison’s slogan, I’ve only replaced the “guru” with “theory”. It reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s observation that sometimes a system of logical notation can bring insights as good as a live teacher. (Frege, who invented a “conceptual notation”, has had his writing described by one commentator as “an epiphany of philosophy itself”.) But it’s actually that rejection of teachers that should tell us what’s wrong here. After all, what is a school (an academy) without teachers and their students?

Academic knowledge is the sort of thing we can learn from others. That’s what makes an education something quite different than a spiritual journey. We’re not just supposed to find the answers within ourselves (though we may find many of them there while attending a university); we’re supposed to be brought up to speed about what the culture already knows.

A “scientific” discovery, likewise, is one we can teach to others, it is “contribution” to others, especially other researchers. That’s why theory is so important. It’s what you are contributing a particular result to. In science, you can’t really claim to answer “important questions” instead of extending or testing a theory. It’s the theory that gives the question its importance.

For Wansink to present an “experimental” approach to economic behavior with no theory is as odd as if he proposed to conduct his experiments with no method. And, in an academic context, that, in turn, is as odd as signing students up for classes and then refusing to be their teacher. There is some wisdom in all such rejections of history and authority. But it is neither scholarship nor science.