Tuesday 12 August 2014

The question: "Compared with what?" - one of the most useful conceptual analytic tools


The economist Thomas Sowell suggested that the question "What happens then?..." is a very useful tool in evaluating policy suggestions. Because many policies may sound good until you consider what new incentives they set-up, and which will unroll after they are implemented.

My equivalent question is "Compared with what?" - which is used to analyse both factual assertions and indeed moral or aesthetic evaluations.

For example, elite people used to say (a lot) that George W Bush was 'dumb' (and before that Ronald Reagan) - meaning low in intelligence and academic ability. But if you ask "dumb, compared with what" you will see that even in a worst case scenario they were in the top quarter of the population (in reality the top five-ten percent for Bush, and higher for Reagan).

As another example, secular Leftists in the UK and elsewhere in the West show by their actions that they regard Israel as an evil country - and indeed they believe that the evil of Israel is the single most important issue in international politics.

To which the best answer is to ask 'Compared with what?'

The relevant comparisons of Israel would, of course, be with a sample specific single other nations, compared nation by nation. Having defined 'evil' with some reasonable precision, we would need to ask how many other historical and present nations of what types and locations are clearly less evil than Israel, and how many (or what type and location) are more evil? So is Israel the most evil country by any reasonable comparison? Obviously not. 


These example show that secular Leftists are by far those most prone to leave-out comparisons.

So when Leftists assert that (say) universities and colleges are hotbeds of sexism, racism and bullying of those with different sexualities - the proper analytic rejoinder is not denial (because obviously some things of this kind are found everywhere at some level - depending on the criteria for detectability) but to ask: 'Compared with what?'

So for example - racism. Are UK or US colleges racist compared with world historical levels? Obviously not. Compared with non-Western colleges? Obviously not. Compared with historical levels in the UK or US? Obviously not. Or compared with the history of this particular college? Obviously not. Or, is this particular college campus - for instance - aggressing-against, holding-back and generally persecuting women compared with the world outside the college campus - a few hundred yards away? Obviously not.

So why the big focus on racism? The answer will come that so long as there is any racism at all, no matter how comparatively little; then then there is no place for complacency.

But that applies to about 1000 other bad things, so why the big focus on racism?

There is no good answer - but plenty of bad answers to this question - especially the answer that uncontextualized anti-racism has proved itself an insatiable agent of societal and personal destruction. Therefore naturally the secular Left want to prioritise it in all situations, regardless of severity.


So, the question "Compared with what?" can serve as a valuable tool in revealing the reality of a situation - especially in revealing the hatred-fuelled destructive impulses which motivate the pseudo-moral campaigns of the secular Left.

Which is why you will never hear Liberals or Leftists using this phrase or applying this analysis. 



JP said...

For example, elite people used to say (a lot) that George W Bush was 'dumb'... meaning low in intelligence and academic ability.

Compared to his successor, he seems like a genius! And for a fact, we know very little about his successor's academic performance beyond the fact that he obtained prestigious credentials (as did Bush), the exact details of which remain obscure precisely in order to prevent comparison and assessment.

J. B. said...

Very true, spot on. The absence of the question 'compared to what?' is the key failure of nearly all moral analysis and outrage today, it seems...

Interestingly, one of my undergraduate history professors - at a secular institution and in a highly leftist and postmodern setting - made the comment that one of the chief values of the study of history is to discover the 'normal' or 'average'. I think he was right, and it fits nicely into what you are saying here.

Bruce B. said...

I read (Sailer, I think) that George W. Bush scored 1280 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test which would suggest an estimated IQ of about 133 (15 point SD) or 98.5th percentile.

I think this passage from the late Lawrence Auster’s “Path to National Suicide” booklet illustrates Sowell’s analytic tool nicely:

“The very idea of racism implies a human norm that is not racist, and from which racism, by definition, would be a departure. But in what does this norm consist? Where in the world are there families and communities that are not based on this mutual preference for people who are similar? The answer is that, outside of marginal and cosmopolitan exceptions, the preference for one’s own is the universal tendency. Since, then, there is no “non-racist” norm, from which racism would be a deviation, is it not clear that “racism,” in its contemporary inflated sense, has no meaning at all? It has no more meaning than calling people with noses “nosists.”

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Yes, I have been reader Steve Sailer for about a decade now, and I recall his analyses. I don't regard SATs as a precise estimate of 'g' especially not for high levels of intelligence. Having said that, GW Bush was clearly very intelligent by national standards, and indeed very able all-round (having been a military pilot amongst other attainments). The fact that the academic elite managed to believe he was a drooling neanderthal says everything about them, and nothing about GW Bush.