Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Organized Rationality Pokes Its Head Above The Trench Line

Any number of Americans capable of rational thought -- perhaps the majority of American adults, sadly -- have no idea how to go about it:

  • They misconceive the goal and / or the constraining conditions;
  • They have no grasp of the process involved;
  • They fail to understand the requirement for measurement and feedback.

Even in our work lives, where we're supposedly trying to achieve a reasonably well-defined goal by the use of a delimited set of tools and techniques, organized, rigorous rationality is frequently absent. I could tell you stories aplenty; unfortunately, most of them are classified and the rest would get me killed.

Therefore, it gives me immense pleasure to encounter an occasion in which an intelligent man has openly applied a plainly rational process to a subject in public policy.

Please watch the video. (Yes, the mandatory lead-in ads can be annoying, but this one only lasts thirty seconds. You can endure that, can't you?) Note that David Katz, the subject of the thing, remains concentrated on his objective -- what measures might prevent another Adam Lanza from shooting up another schoolful of children? -- and never, ever veers off onto a tangential subject or agenda. Note that when one of the other attendees suggests an irrelevant direction, he responds with an unanswerable objection and returns immediately to his focus.

Note also that nothing like what Katz has suggested in that segment would be acceptable to liberals.

The video linked above is an excellent example of the uppermost rules of rational analysis:

  1. Formulate your goal in terms that permit an objective assessment of whether you're approaching it or receding from it;
  2. Stipulate a priori that while many objectives are only asymptotically approachable, constraints are binary -- can you or can't you? -- and therefore absolute.
  3. Recognize and respect the constraints on your actions in pursuit of that goal; never accept the suggestion that the constraints are the problem.
  4. Subject all suggested approaches to your goal to two kinds of scrutiny:
    • Peremptorily reject all suggestions founded on a different goal.
    • Test the surviving suggestions according to causality as it pertains to the goal and the constraints.

Thus, in addressing the question of violence against children gathered into a school setting, the formulation:

How do we prevent all violence against schoolchildren forever more?

...must be rejected at once. It includes an infinite number of scenarios and requires that whatever solution is implemented must be absolutely effective against all of them. This is plainly impossible. To suggest that that should be the goal under discussion indicts the suggester as having another agenda. Utopia -- even one as narrowly conceived as a school environment absolutely protected against all violence -- is simply not available.

By contrast, the formulation:

How might schools be better prepared to resist (and hopefully defeat) attempts, comparable to that of Adam Lanza, on the lives of American schoolchildren? analytically addressable. It allows for assessments in terms of causality; in terms of better and worse; and within a context bounded by external constraints that the analyst can enumerate.

The analyst must be intellectually honest. That is, he must not use his goal for the pursuit of another agenda he might value. That's a precondition to the rejection of others' irrelevant agendas; if he won't enforce it upon himself, he can't expect to enforce it against others.

If the context contains constraining features, they must be acknowledged; their power to invalidate an approach to the goal must be conceded. For example, were anyone to suggest that the Newtown massacre could have been prevented by an obligatory mental-health screening process in childhood leading to the mandatory incarceration, observation, or therapy of the Adam Lanzas of the nation, he would be guilty of violating at least two constraints. When a liberal suggests that mandatory confiscation of all firearms held by private citizens would do the trick, he's violating two others: one legal and Constitutional; the other immensely practical.

Every suggested approach to the goal must be tested against what we know about cause and effect in the relevant context. Prevent Newtown-like atrocities by posting a "Gun-Free Zone" sign at the front door? Absurd. Train otherwise unarmed teachers in hand-to-hand combat techniques? Almost as absurd, and plainly irrelevant against an attacker armed with distance weapons. Mandate that all grammar-school personnel be trained in the defensive use of of firearms, and must carry one each at all times? Not completely absurd, though it defies contextual constraints that would defeat it in the real world.

Finally, one of the constraints that's seldom explicitly articulated is that of time. Finding a perfect solution, even if one exists (and in the realms of human relations and public policy, that's approximately never), would take infinite time, which is more than is usually available. Incremental improvements are more plausible, and more testable: Did the frequency of school massacres decline after this policy was enacted? Conversely, there must be a "sunset clause:" any policy that produces no improvement over a prescribed interval must be acknowledged as a failure and repealed. That's the ultimate defense against both human fallibility and the use of an overt, agreed-upon goal to serve a covert agenda.

Persons aware of the political contretemps taking place in the Newtown aftermath are surely aware that the overt, wholesome goal of better securing defenseless schoolchildren against violence has nothing to do with the demands of many who have addressed it. Indeed, their rhetoric suggests that they welcomed the Newtown atrocity; it gave them a bloody banner to wave in pursuit of their covert goal of total citizen disarmament. There's no point in dwelling on the absence of morality and honor from such persons; it's enough to be aware of it, and to know how their little games can be defeated.

But Newtown is only a single case of a covert agenda being advanced through irrational arguments to exploit a recent tragedy. Consider one other tragedy -- liberals' insistence that Congress's propensity for deficit spending can be corrected by feeding it more money -- and reflect on how far rational thought has receded from the political discourse of these United States.

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