Reflexivity

reflexivity


"It takes someone completely immersed in a subject to explain it in ways that nobody not immersed in that subject could ever understand."

I enthusiastically reserved George Soros' latest book, a collection of essays on the subject of Open Societies. I'd read other works by this great philanthropist and self-proclaimed failed philosopher, most memorably the one where he deconstructed the 2008 market crash. I found him both insightful and frustrating, as he exemplifies the above quote. He's long railed against certain foundational tenets of economics and social science in general, arguing that these fields seem to suffer from physics envy, and attempt to find level ground by adopting perspectives that could lead to truth only when analyzing physical stuff and might reasonably only lead to useful insight when applied to human systems, those being where human judgment and preference cast deciding votes about the outcome. He characterizes social science as compromised by investigators trying to emulate their physical science counterparts while lacking necessarily separate, agreed-upon social-science methods. Building upon Karl Popper's postulate which claimed that scientific facts forever remain hypothetical—prone to undermining with a single example of falsehood—he notes that social science cannot hope to achieve even that modest end, since social sciences rely upon human perspective, always subject to change. If you've ever gone shopping for something you deeply desire, found exactly what you'd imagined, then found yourself dissatisfied when using the product of your successful search, you've experienced Reflexivity. All human system most prominently exhibit Reflexivity.

The scientist, though, seems schooled in a firm belief in objectivity, a fundamentally paradoxical perspective which seems to hold that one could muster an observation without utilizing the services of an observer.
Reporters (clearly not scientists) also strive for this mythical objective state, seeking to simply state the facts as if their perspective, their very act of observing, didn't complicate and fundamentally change what they report when compared to what was actually there to report on. No two reporters could have possibly observed the same event. Critics then pile on to complain about a reporter's lack of objectivity, a simple statement of fact, the alternative fundamentally unachievable. Get over it. We're no more objective than we are omniscient, though with the physical sciences, observations might well approach objectivity by employing specific methods intended to leach out biases, but nobody gets to vote on the actual atomic weight of cesium. That measurement has held steady for generations. For the rest of human experience, we seem to be stuck with subjective observation coupled with reflection to reach conclusions, which never seem to approach the immutable.

In our real world, our sample sizes always seem too tiny to support making final conclusions, so we might better settle for tentative ones. In my writing, I might seem to overuse the short phrase 'seems to' in lieu of 'is', I do this to emphasize that in such a tenaciously Reflexive context, I could not possibly support any final conclusion. The way it seems to be seems to be the way it seems to be, probably not ever they way it simply is. If this perspective seems terribly complicated to you, I cannot disagree with your observation, though I have nothing better to offer you. Neither do you. The social world remains essentially unknowable, though we can glean clues about its nature and perhaps focus more productively upon adapting to the ever-unfolding story than defending an inescapably tentative conclusion. The conservative insists that he knows while the progressive endless rebuts that he's still learning. The former stays stuck in their past while the latter keeps moving onward.

Many professions insist upon their professionals displaying an absurd level of certainty as a precondition for membership within their society. This insistence didn't always seem absurd to me. My own profession, project management, eventually adopted a Body of Knowledge, facility with which became the evidence that one was properly schooled in the profession and therefore eligible for certification, a state I refer to as Suretification, and a state which utterly disqualified me from ever Reflexively engaging. The data disagrees with their presumption, as certified project managers reliably fail about as often (maybe a little more often) than feral practitioners, but the field operates within a tenacious context of Reflexivity, where fluid adaptation better serves achieving ends, which inevitably change whenever pursued. Economics, too, has long worshipped juvenile presumptions about free markets and equilibriums which resolve better in theory than in practice. Soros became fabulously rich playing against orthodox economics, and has dedicated his life to funding Reflexivity education in hope that our societies might finally move past these childish perspectives. An Open Society seems to be one focused upon endlessly adapting rather than endlessly upholding mythical values. No wonder Soros has been so widely reviled!

Soros introduces himself as a failed philosopher because in spite of decades of dedicated evangelism and teaching, he remains on the far periphery of the economics profession. He's been unable to explain to the orthodoxy's satisfaction how they've been wrong, a familiar experience for anyone who's ever tried and inevitably failed to clue in a naked emperor. Emperors cannot afford to know how naked they are and so maintain a powerful defensive bureaucracy dedicated to maintaining even those status quos which have never once served them well. We seem no more enlightened than our so-called pre-enlightenment thinkers, still immersed within pleasing fantasies about how our world is and therefore certainly must be. We are, this seems clear to me, at root delusional beings, absolutely dedicated to sustaining our most treasured myths, hardly interested in even sustaining our selves lest we lose our satisfying convictions in the process of learning better. 'Twas always thus.

I do not preach in favor of cynicism, though cynicism certainly seems warranted. One under-appreciated aspect of Reflexivity (an almost wholly under-appreciated field of study) seems to be the absolute necessity of knowing enough to fully embrace cynicism while absolutely refusing to ever tumble into its grasp. Should one not know enough to support cynicism, it seems one might then not know quite enough of the context to effectively adapt. Tumbling into cynicism's grasp forfeits all potential for difference, and if Reflexivity fails to teach us anything, it fails to teach this one almost immutable fact, that within even the most tenaciously insistent human system, the potential for difference always, always, always exists. This principle, unlike in the physical sciences, might well find itself questioned by ten thousand falsifying examples, but becomes validated with a single example where it proves true. Call it a faith-based perspective. Fake it until you manage to make something out of it.

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved








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