Friday, March 26, 2010

Gut Over Glut

In 1990 Carolyn Miller took decision science ("a theory of choice with an accompanying battery of 'decision aids' for 'modeling problems of choice' in management and public policy"(163)*) to task for both what Wayne Booth calls motivism and for what Chaim Perelman refers to as reducing "problems of action" to "problems of knowledge." Miller dings decision science for a few other things; I am interested only in these two for my present purposes (as I am likewise thinking about my Computers and Writing presentation in May): the dangers of motivism and the action/knowledge problem in public life and how rhetoric should respond pedagogically.

Troubling Decision Science
Miller defines decision science as a kind of rhetoric in that it is a "theory of choice" (163). Nevertheless, Miller argues it is a problematic rhetoric because it abdicates or avoids reasoning about values, what Booth terms motivism. My more cynical response is that those folks in economics and management who typically employ decision science are avoiding addressing values purposefully to prevent them from being challenge (but this is, perhaps, another problematic kind of motivism that Burke admonishes against).

The second issue Miller addresses is how decision science boils problems of action (what should we do? should we do something at all?) down to problems of knowledge (how much will is cost? what are the risks and rewards?). The problem is that in reducing action to knowledge decision science erases conflict and avoids the question of values.
Problems of action involve conflict between people; even solitary deliberators negotiate conflicts between possible versions of themselves. Problems of action are "essentially contestable"; problems of knowledge are not. (175)
Decision Science Troubles the World
For example of how both aspects of decision science problematically operate out in the world (one of Miller's chief concerns), I would draw our attention to the NOVA documentary "The Spy Factory". The oddly titled documentary explores the role of the National Security Agency (NSA), in combination with the FBI and the CIA, in the "intelligence failures" preceding and following the 9/11 terror attacks. In particular, the issues of motivism and problems of action/knowledge show-up in the Bush administration's response to those attacks. (Obviously, this blog post is limited and much of the work now being done within the intelligence services is to be commended. This post and the documentary it draws on have a necessarily limited perspective. That being said, I am responding to stated desires and policies.)

In brief, the Bush administration's response was to remove barriers to searches and spying so as to increase the amount or volume of information available to our intelligence agencies. Many critiques of this policy -- beyond the legal and moral ones -- persuasively point out that information or the lack thereof was not the issue -- was not the root of the problem. There was enough intelligence in terms of raw data. Indeed, the ease with which government investigators were able to piece together the events leading up to the attacks suggests as much. The problem was a problem of action, of value-laden decision-making (not "do we have enough information?" but "should we be sharing it with other agencies and how and when?"). What was required, to borrow from Miller, was an ability to reason about values, about the culture of the intelligence community, and about how information was allowed or not allowed to circulate. Most importantly, however, reducing this problem of action to a problem of knowledge has potentially threatened core legal principles and not made us all that much safer. A primary contributor to the documentary, and a long time historian of the NSA, concludes the NOVA documentary this way:
Is this flood of information making us any safer? [...] We should have been safe the way it was [...] How much information is enough -- and won't too much information end up making the world more dangerous?
At first this seems counter-intuitive: how can too much information be a bad thing? If you are a decision scientist and assume that "if our information were more complete or our calculations more accurate, we could know with complete certainty whether it will rain today" (Miller 175), then it very much is against your intuition. However, if the problem is one of action (one of human relations and values and contingencies and probabilities), which I think it is, then it is rather reasonable to question the absolute value of information. And I would suggest, as I move to conclude this discussion in rhetoric's pedagogy, that it is precisely in the direction of intuition/instinct that we should head.

Conclusion: Rhetoric's Pedagogy for Deciding
To return to Miller's assertions for a rhetorical understanding of decision science (and for an accounting of how decision science has influenced pedagogy and so impacted decision making), I would ask what all this means for rhetoric's pedagogy. How might those of us in rhetoric teach decision-making in and against the context of decision science?

If traditionally education has been about information (P. Friere's influence notwithstanding), what do we make of such persuasive arguments against decision science, which is largely predicated upon this Enlightenment ideal? I would propose (although I am far from the only one) that rhetoric draw on recent research on instincts and gut feelings. For instance, the work on Gerd Gigerenzer and his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious is quite informative (yikes!) in this direction. I argue that an education that would avoid motivism and the reduction of action to knowledge should focus less on "information" and more on "instinct."

I like a focus on instinct because instincts become an excellent way to address how we reason about values. In essence, instincts are about response-ability. They are about patterns or habits of engagement. Instincts filter what information counts as valuable and they motivate particular actions over others. Instincts are, in other words, were the rubber of values meets the road of action. Values, however, and as Gigerenzer argues, are not beyond human (pedagogical) agency and they are not automatic. Instincts, he argues, are cultivated. Instincts are neither value free nor beyond rhetorical deliberation and persuasion. Indeed, instincts must necessarily be cultivated precisely because they are not pre-specified (we could take numerous examples of this from athletics where it is the honing of instincts that is so much a part of practice and improvement. The work of Debra Hawhee is valuable in this regard).

In addition to being a call to discuss values (or patterns of response), instincts are a way around one of the oft-described problems of teaching rhetoric, which presumes to address the contingent and situational (thus making the teaching of formulas problematic). Rhetoric strikes me as instinctual (which are always geared towards problems of action) rather than formulaic (which strikes me as largely focused on problems of information). I would argue that what we (should) teach are instincts. In so arguing, I necessarily invite a discussion about what kinds of instincts. And it is a discussion of what instincts and what values we should teach that potentially protects us from the troubles of decision science and from the charge of motivism, which is as damaging to teachers as it is economists.

*Miller, Carolyn R. "The Rhetoric of Decision Science, or Herbert A. Simon Says." The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry. Ed. Herbert A. Simon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.


  1. I followed you almost all the way here. Interesting stuff! I'm weirded out by your last turn--the part where the discipline of Rhetoric, wielding its pedagogy, reenters the scene. If "we" should (re?)turn to the scene of intuition or instinct, what purpose could it possibly serve for Rhetoric professors to interrogate that aspect of students' lives? Wouldn't you have to presume, rather matter-of-factly, that your emotive/instinctive responses are somehow more valuable, or better informed, or more... something... to even bother the students with this stuff? Is that question finding its mark?

    One other note: I think it's important to distinguish between institutional decisions (should the CIA share info with the FBI) and individual decisions. For the latter, you might be interested in some of my more obscure favorite stuff: Ludwig Von Mises' "Praxeology," which is a broad term for what he takes to be the science of human action. I'll let you find your own sources there.

    I've always been frustrated with my friends who are well-versed in postmodernism when it comes to their general lack of interest in (or lack of knowledge of?) Austrian/subjective economics. The so called "marginal revolution" of the late 19th century, in economics, essentially stands as a prelude to the very interesting epistemological problems that postmodernism loves/loved to highlight.

    One more thing: I'm glad you posted this today. I was about to comment on yesterday's post by your guest blogger--something about how the argument makes sense, but it seems to simply return us to the question of values. "Okay fine, each individual decides -- but how and why?"

  2. I don't think I would have to assume the superiority of my values. I would (only) have to assume that we ought to at least talk about our values and how they manifest themselves in our habits of response. In many ways, I think the kind of instinct cultivation I am talking about is the province of parenthood, which doesn't make it any less rhetorical, debatable, or social.

    In this regard, we can talk about individual vs. institutional decisions, inasmuch as institutional cultures cultivate particular instincts. This seems to be very much the case in intelligence agencies (i.e., a culture of secrecy). So, yes, individual decisions should be distinguished from institutional ones, but we should not ignore their reciprocal (mutually-constitutive) relationship. Regardless, and this is Miller's point in the block quote I provide, both individual and institutional decision-making involves reasoning about values.

    Also, is it safe to assume you require no such interrogation in your literature classes? Are you just teaching "light entertainments," then? I think pedagogically we would be on the same page here. It seems to me that one of the chief virtues of literature is precisely that it interrogates values experientially. Reading is about responding, and really great books give us (as readers) a run for our money. They get inside of us and move things around. This is certainly ethically fraught (one more reason I say in my post "I would argue that what we (should) teach are instincts. In so arguing, I necessarily invite a discussion about what kinds of instincts."), but that only makes it harder rather than off limits. Education has to be about more than uploading information, right? And if it isn't that, then what is it?

  3. I'm actually in the thick of a book that might pull me pretty hard in another direction. I'll save the specifics for later, but a big part of the argument works against your point(s) about problems of knowledge vs. problems of action (where you come down [sort of... y'know] against knowledge). My feeling is that knowledge is itself liberating. Your point about the CIA possibly facing the problem of information overload does not strike me as relevant with regard to (my?) college freshmen, who know almost nothing of history or theory. Yes, they know how to use wikipedia, but if you ask them to describe what America was like circa 1800... ugh.

    And I'm not complaining about the state of American education or anything. I'm just saying I think we're at a critical juncture for teaching knowledge. I don't think our (my?) students are equipped to make judgments about their own values yet.

    But okay -- that point aside, you're right about our "ends." I'm not teaching antiquated entertainment (or at least I don't think I am). But as I've said explicitly, what I am doing is teaching in the manner of 17th century Puritan scholar Samuel Johnson, who wrote in 1657, "Remember the purpose of Logick is to direct man to see the wisdom of God." [from my new book; I'll introduce it shortly on YouTube.]

    So now we're on our familiar disagreement, right? Me talking about a kind of internal promised land, where divine experience is the culmination and fruit of the discipline (defined in Foucault's terms as both an area of study and as a rigorous pattern of behavior requiring effort) enforced by "education" -- and you doubting. :)

  4. Your conclusion is right on. But it is, at least, taking us longer and longer to pin it down in each conversation. That is, we are now productively tracing this familiar (and ancient) disagreement through the contemporary scene, which seems quite valuable does it not?

    On the issues of student knowledge, then. Their lack of knowledge about, for example, American history (or the wisdom of God) proves my point in a round about way. I would think their ignorance cannot simply be explained in terms of access: that they simply haven't been given access to such information and so don't know it. It seems the far more likely explanation is that they don't much care. At which point you are playing in my ballpark. They have to want to learn about American history (or God). So much of what frustrates me as a teacher is not my students lack of knowledge, but their instincts (or habits) as learners. This is what I am getting at with "problems of action." It isn't that knowledge isn't unimportant, but that knowledge isn't "first" in the learning process. And it isn't first in becoming wise either.