Consider Herman, a person.  Considered as an individual Herman is a very complex thing.  He is a product of a myriad of interactions between his genes and his physical and social environments through time.  He—like all of us—has a brain with billions of neural connections, a “machine” that is as or more complex than the universe.

Scientifically speaking we understand very little about Herman.  We certainly cannot accurately predict what he will do over a long stretch of time and cannot totally understand what he did after he did it, since there are so many interacting variables at play in Herman’s brain, genes, environments, and history.  Each individual is a complex system (in the technical sense).

If we want to “understand” Herman, we have to consider him as member of a group and then study the group (with statistics, for example).  But, then, we have lost Herman and are making assessments about average members of the group, not about Herman.

In fact, we often cannot be sure that we have the right group for Herman or that Herman is not actually a special case (perhaps a member of a special sub-group of the larger group).  In either case, our statistics are not going to tell us much—at least not much that is correct—about Herman.  And we are going to miss lots of things that we could have studied had we got our categories right (though we cannot usually be sure they are right and that there are not better ways to carve things up).

People do not fall “naturally” into most categories.  We have to argue that we have the right people in the right categories, which is more like herding cats than we think.  We are now well aware of this when it comes to gender, but it is true of many other socially significant categories.  How much “blood” do you need to be Native American or “black”?  How little money or education do you need to be poor?  What do you need to like or hate to be a terrorist?  Are grades the right measure of who is a “failure” at school?  Where do we put people who play video games regularly but do not call themselves “gamers”?  Is Herman a “poor reader” if he reads two grades below his grade, but reads World of Warcraft manuals several reading levels above his grade?

Do people who do not approve of abortion but do approve of capital punishment belong in the same category (“pro-life”) as someone who abhors both?  Do people who believe in “choice” in regard to abortion but not for gay marriage belong in the same category as someone who approves both?   Is someone a “libertarian” when they want the government out of everything but other people’s bedrooms?

It turns out that a great many of our judgments about Herman based on measuring him as a member of a group are wrong.  Work in education and medicine claims to tell us “what works”, but often it doesn’t work for Herman (for all sorts of different reasons, but the basic one is that Herman is a complex system and controlled studies do not apply to complex systems).

So, what to do with Herman?  What to do with Herman the child in school or Herman the patient in a hospital or Herman the prisoner in prison? Well, as I have said Herman is a complex system and we would have to study him the way we do complex systems in physics or meteorology.

We would have to watch Herman closely over time, collect all sorts of Herman interactional data over time, iterate Herman (that is, watch him do similar things over time), perhaps build Herman simulations, and for the results of all our Herman watching and Herman simulations, we would have to engage in post-hoc explanatory theory building always open to revision.  This is what some people call “qualitative research”, though, ironically, it is standard in the “hardest” science, physics.

Why would we do this?  If we do it, the predictions we make about Herman will probably be no better than weather predictions (which are better than nothing).  But we will be able to make and revise better and better judgements about how to help Herman in school, in the hospital, in prison, and in society.  Here, for sure, “better than nothing” is better and surely better than bad ideas based on groups to which Herman does not really belong or belong in any way useful for what we need to do for Herman here and now.

Of course, we will always need categories and statistics (though the statistics we usually use in our journals stink).  There are too many humans to study all of them individually.  But let’s have the humility to admit that our statistics do not capture Herman. And let’s have the intelligence and morality to study Herman when he is in our care, and not just groups, even if that means telling the quantitative scientists to “stand back” (are you listening teachers?).



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March 29th, 2018

The Interpreter System (7)

Let’s return to our diagram of a human being (or, “an enviro-human system”).  I want now to look just at […]

March 27th, 2018

Joint Actor Systems (6)

The diagram I used in the last post is misleading in that it makes things look more contained and bounded […]

March 26th, 2018

A Human Being (5)

Last time, we raised the question: “What is ‘Jim”?” (substitute your own name for “Jim” here).  We think of ourselves […]

March 25th, 2018

Jim and Identities/Discourses (4)

When we make a choice, who is making the choice?  We have already seen that there are lots of things […]

March 10th, 2018

Alternates (3)

When we make a choice about ourselves often that choice is vastly undetermined by the information we have available.  Say […]

March 7th, 2018

Flourishing (2)

It makes little sense to see a human being (or any other animal) as an individual making free choices.  In […]

February 25th, 2018

Free Will (1)

Note that the question of free will simply does not arise for animals.  We think that, even for intelligent species, […]

October 29th, 2017

The Principle of Charity

October 8th, 2017

Character Education

Recently, the College of Education at Arizona State University—where I work— received funding from the Kern Family Foundation to make […]

June 15th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 6 (The End)

What killed people’s sense of mattering was the growth of very high levels of inequality.  What caused such high levels […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 5

Many of us tend to think of history as a march forward and upward. So, we tend to interpret the […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 4

The Catholic Church declined in three stages. The same was true for many other institutions.  “The Sixties” (roughly from 1963 […]

June 12th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 3

Today, we have among the highest levels of inequality we have ever had.  Drug addiction, environmental degradation, flows of climate […]

June 11th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 2

The British economist John Maynard Keynes and “Keynesian Economics” were foundational to the Bretton Woods Agreement and to the world […]

June 10th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 1

Though neo-liberalism is the “usual suspect” for the miseries of our institutions and society, it is not nearly as relevant […]

May 30th, 2017

Main Points from My New Book

Teaching, Learning, Literary in our High-Risk, High-Tech World: A Framework for Becoming Human (Teachers College Press, 2017). Ignorance We humans […]

April 17th, 2017

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 10 The End

Neither love nor liking is necessary for the sorts of critical discussions among different frameworks that might lead to shared […]

April 15th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 9 Interpretation

Goodwill.  What could possibly encourage people in a fractured and inequitable world to have goodwill?  I, for one, do not […]

April 14th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 8 An Example

I want now to give an example of two different frameworks that certainly appear incommensurable.  My purpose here is make […]

April 12th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 7 Discussion

We are at a critical juncture now in our attempt to understand why frameworks can cause us humans such grief.  […]