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Monday, October 8, 2018

Monday, October 8, 2018

Kavanaugh v. Academic Knowledge

Many people are worried about the damage the Kavanaugh appointment will do to the Supreme Court and to American politics.  I'm worried about the new damage it did to the public understanding of academic knowledge.   Brett Kavanaugh (left, in my one personal photo of the hearings, taken September 27th) and other Republicans attacked the equivalent of basic research-- an unrestricted FBI investigation-- as nothing more than a political hit, while generating fake academic knowledge to exonerate him.  

This reduction of knowledge to partisan politics was supposedly a left postmodernist position, but it has in fact been a right culture-wars argument about the nonsense of academic research.  It has hurt academia of course, but has also torn the intellectual fabric of society.  It weakens public resistance to the political dismissal of validated knowledge about everything from the effects of sexual trauma to Trump family tax evasion to climate change.  Political dismissal supports a he said/she said deadlock on any issue, making Americans even more fatalistic about resolving differences with force instead of knowledge.

Academic knowledge rests on a few basics that we don't make explicit enough.  People may not ever expect politics to follow academic standards of evidence and argument, but they should be able to  tell them apart--and also to recognize the superiority of academic standards for knowledge to political ones. This is particularly important when politicians claim valid knowledge to justify political decisions.

As I go through these standards, I will omit breaches that come from within academia itself.  I am aware of them.  For example, the dependence of research on private money presents opportunities for bias, corruption, and neglect of the public interest.   But breaches are no reason not to compare public debate to the knowledge standards that academics struggle to adhere to--and that produce much better arguments and conclusions than what we've been hearing in U.S. public debates about pretty much everything. 

The first of these standards is that academic research cannot be coerced, predetermined or discredited in advance by direct or indirect authority.  Academic freedom includes the freedom of an inquiry from being steered or suppresed by bullying, intimidation, slander, and blanket accusations of bias and political motives. In contrast, discrediting the allegations against Kavanaugh was a key Republican strategy, and doing it with white male anger was a calculated strategy.  Here's Kavanaugh:
When I did at least OK enough at the hearings that it looked like I might actually get confirmed, a new tactic was needed.
Some of you were lying in wait and had it ready. This first allegation was held in secret for weeks by a Democratic member of this committee, and by staff. It would be needed only if you couldn’t take me out on the merits.
When it was needed, this allegation was unleashed and publicly deployed over Dr. Ford’s wishes. And then — and then as no doubt was expected — if not planned — came a long series of false last-minute smears designed to scare me and drive me out of the process before any hearing occurred.
Crazy stuff. Gangs, illegitimate children, fights on boats in Rhode Island. All nonsense, reported breathlessly and often uncritically by the media.
This has destroyed my family and my good name. A good name built up through decades of very hard work and public service at the highest levels of the American government.
This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election. Fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record. Revenge on behalf of the Clintons. and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.
This is a circus. The consequences will extend long past my nomination. The consequences will be with us for decades. This grotesque and coordinated character assassination will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions, from serving our country.
And as we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around.
Kavanaugh was marshalling the essential claim of the culture war on academia--the pretended pursuit of truth is a cover for the politically-motivated destruction of respectable people and their values--to discredit the entire second round of research.  Having refused Sen. Dick Durbin (D-WI)'s request that he call for a full investigation of the charges against him, Kavanaugh then helped convert the FBI's supplemental background check from a required to an offensive act.

The second feature of academic knowledge is that it has to be impartial. This doesn't mean that the researcher's procedure is value-free.  It does mean that the researcher may not let self-interest control the research design, such that it leads to an answer that is more likely to benefit her, her team, or her institution. Researchers control self-interest with various well-known modes of self-reflexivity.

Thanks to reporting by Peter Baker, Nicolas Fandos and others, we know that this principle was violated when the FBI's supplemental background check was structured through a series of political negotiations.
When Mr. Durbin [D-WI] asked Judge Kavanaugh to turn around and ask [White House counsel] Mr. McGahn to request an F.B.I. investigation into the charges against him, Mr. Graham erupted in a ferocious, finger-wagging lecture. Other Republican senators began channeling their inner Trump and lashing out on Judge Kavanaugh’s behalf as well.
Republican senators met that night just off the Capitol Rotunda. Ms. Collins said she would find it hard to vote yes without a sworn statement from Judge Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge denying that he saw what Dr. Blasey described. Aides to Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary chairman, got a fresh statement from Mr. Judge within three hours to satisfy her.
Mr. Graham went to dinner that night at Cafe Berlin with Ms. Collins and two other undecided Republicans, Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. They discussed whether a limited F.B.I. investigation might assuage them.
The next morning, Mr. Flake announced that he would vote for Judge Kavanaugh in committee, only to change course after being confronted on an elevator by women who told him they were victims of sexual assault. Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski were already talking by phone when Mr. Flake called them from a committee anteroom asking if they would back him in demanding a one-week F.B.I. inquiry.
Later that day, the three joined other Republican senators in Mr. McConnell’s office to discuss what the F.B.I. investigation should look like. The three undecided Republicans settled on four people they wanted to hear from: Ms. Ramirez, Mr. Judge and two others identified by Dr. Blasey as being elsewhere in the house at the time she was allegedly assaulted.
Republicans organized the investigation to get the right answers for their remaining fence-sitters.

The investigation violated academic standards in a third way.  Academic research must respond to new information or anomalies, which are facts that don't fit the guiding hypothesis. The research needs to be open to its own enlargement, complication, or refutation at each and every point.

Instead, the Republicans set aside the major new anomaly in their theory of Kavanaugh's victimized goodness by declaring that Julie Swetnick's claims were "too over the top" to be considered.  They asked rhetorical questions whose answer was predetermined, like "Why would [Swetnick] as a college student repeatedly go to high school parties where young women were gang raped?" Of course academic researchers don't have the time or money to investigate everything, but they can't rule out possible holes in their theory with one-line objections or ad hominem attacks.

Fourth, academic research has to show its data and results to the whole knowledge community. It can't give selected results to just a few people under predetermined conditions.  In the Kavanaugh case, the FBI sent one copy of their report to the Senate, which senators could view only in a secure room without the ability to copy or to take notes.  The report was not released to the full Senate to say nothing of the public.  This of course eliminates the possibility of an impartial evaluation of scope, quality, and results performed by people other than the interested parties.

Academic research is conducted by regular humans who bring their preferences, identities, hopes and fears to work, which is why a fifth feature is so important. Once findings are released, they have to achieve a decent general agreement before they are passed on to be applied in the wider world.  When they are disputed, they are re-tested, reanalyzed, and revised until most if not all researchers in the relevant fields can at least provisionally accept them.  Think climate change modeling as an example, which has over the years gathered near unanimity about the main points even as details remain disputed and methods continue to change.  Good researchers don't pitch research results to policymakers before they have won general consent. Exactly the opposite happened in this inquiry.  Nearly half the Senate rejected the validity of the FBI's findings, with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) calling it a "bullshit investigation."

Because none of these five academic standards were followed, the pivotal moment of Republican knowledge production--Susan Collins' brief for Kavanaugh--amounts to an apology for a political position that was decided in advance.   It takes the politically-framed investigation at face value, asserting non-confirmation of Blasey Ford's story even though the FBI was in no position to confirm it because they were not allowed to interview the many people who claimed to have information. Collins wrongly treats the cherry-picked interview list as dispositive.

Collins also considers no evidence contrary to her "yes" position.  She does not separate the textual evidence of Kavanaugh's (also cherry-picked) opinions from Kavanaugh's claims about himself in interviews with her.  Collins then claims, while offering no evidence at all, that Ford was deluded about her attack: "she is a survivor of sexual assault," Collins writes, but just not the one by Kavanaugh about which Ford claimed 100% certainty. 

Perhaps worst of all, Collins reintroduces a genteel version of Lindsey Graham's and Kavanaugh's smear of the inquiry itself as nothing more than a Democratic hit.
Some of the allegations levied against Judge Kavanaugh illustrate why the presumption of innocence is so important. I am thinking in particular not [of] the allegations raised by professor Ford, but of the allegations that when he was a teenager Judge Kavanaugh drugged multiple girls and used their weakened state to facility gang rape.
This outlandish allegation was put forth without any credible supporting evidence and simply parroted public statements of others. That’s such an allegation can find its way into the Supreme Court confirmation process is a stark reminder about why the presumption of innocence is so ingrained in our a American consciousness.
Collins doesn't actually know that the allegation is outlandish because her party blocked its investigation.  Rather than data she gives us a milder form of the male rage that had disparaged the investigation the week before.  Her tacit claim is that a full FBI investigation would be the tool of a Democrat political conspiracy that runs roughshod over the core American value of presumed innocence.  Then she concludes,
my fervent hope is that Brett Kavanaugh will work to lessen the divisions in the Supreme Court so that we have far fewer 5 to 4 decisions and so that public confidence in our judiciary and our highest court is restored.
Once you take leave of argument and evidence, its hard to return to your senses.

Kavanaugh's confirmation showed the extent to which power politics depends on invoking academic-style knowledge, even as it violates academic standards.  The default scenario for the next year is a continuation of culture war gridlock. Journalists and social media will continued to investigate Kavanaugh. The White House will denounce any new evidence as a politically-motivated lie.   Fewer and fewer people will see the Supreme Court as politically neutral, even as bad evidence for its neutrality will be advanced.  In the deepening cynicism about knowledge itself, universities will continued to be viewed as the Democrat's propaganda arm, their pale imitation of Fox News.

Why can't universities do a much better job of explaining standards of academic knowledge?   The country that isn't sure what real knowledge is, is doomed not to have it.

3 comments:

California Policy Issues said...

The real Kavanaugh problem is that he represents a longstanding conservative agenda - now referred to as "originalism" - to undo the New Deal. No, I'm not just talking about unemployment insurance, etc. The position of the Supreme Court until 1937 was congressional power was limited to interstate commerce and interstate commerce meant literally things that crossed state lines such as railroads. All other federal regulations were unconstitutional. The famous "Switch in Time That Saved Nine" and the "court packing" episode ended that narrow view. But going back to pre-1937 originalism means no federal labor laws, no civil rights laws, etc. Essentially, the modern state is dismantled. While the Court is unlikely to go fully in that direction, it will move incrementally. Kavanaugh could have been clean as a whistle, i.e., no sexual allegations, no drunkenness, etc., and the threat would be the same.

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