Saturday, August 22, 2015

Building a Bridge Between Science and Politics, starting with Justice Reform within Communities

Why Rationality and American Politics Are in Fundamental Conflict

 Video: - "A Science of Social Justice: Reason Revival"

“Having a serious discussion about ending or greatly marginalizing poverty in America is too important for sectarian or ideological bickering among our elites. We need to find a way to engineer what is one of the most important conversations of the 21st Century – how to bring rationality, philosophy and science into the public domain, in a way that transcends our partisan dogmas.”               


Let us look at two different statements about the same problem. One is based on scientific thinking, facts and an analytical frame of mind. The other is a common political sound bite.


(1)   Studies have shown for decades5 that we have a vicious cycle of incarceration, poverty, re-arrest, and crime. We have seen that alternatives to incarceration for smaller crimes, as well as making it easier for those without financial means to navigate the justice system, actually save tax dollars, reduce crime and drug use, and are far better for families and communities as a whole. This has been continually corroborated by experts in the field, veterans of the system, community field workers, seasoned police officers, lawyers, judges, lifetime residents of these communities, and the wider domain of social science.  


(2)   Criminals make bad choices and we need to be tough on crime. We need law and order. We need to remain diligent in the drug war. If you don’t like our justice system, don’t get arrested.


The first is a statement of facts, evidence, and scientific thinking; the second is a common sound bite by politicians, and by many who echo political dogma. Contrast these two statements, in terms of their very substance and the value they have as a guideline for taking action and seeking solutions. These are essentially two fundamentally different vehicles for navigating the terrain of social problems. They hold different frames of reference to reality and are not compatible as a way of solving problems. They will lead to different outcomes. Let us ask ourselves an honest question: which one is better suited for problem solving? Better for responding to our social ills and political issues? The answer should be obvious. Then ask ourselves: which one have we been using more? In this regard, the second example has clearly been winning out against the first, for decades. How has this worked out for us? Few have thought this through in a truly sobering way.                                                                                                                                                        
I want to make a point clear, to avoid misunderstanding. This is not chiefly about specific solutions or particular political positions per se – it is about better modes of conversation. It is about better ways of having a conversation. It is also about pointing out the Naked Emperor in the room. About political policies we know are backward and nonsensical, such as our approach to mass incarceration at the expense of more sound, humane, proven and cost-effective alternatives. We have accepted, en masse, a ‘culture of irrationality’ in which bad policies and bad ideas are not challenged in any serious way

The actual effects of these policies on human life and human flourishing are subordinated in our national discourse to partisanship and emotion

Age of Enlightenment, a result of the Scientific Revolution.  These events changes history and gave us new ways to think about the world, about being open to evidence, argument, and observation. Many of our social programs, from aggressive policing, drug sentencing, mass incarceration, and inequality before our justice system for the poor, are operating off of pre-Enlightenment, pre-scientific modes of thinking. The Scientific Revolution started with Galileo in the 1600s It is currently 2015, and we still have Dark-Age social policies. We need a new Rational Revolution in the American political system. 

Rikers Island and the Moral Arc of Justice, Science, and US Policy

As you read this very sentence, there are un-convicted people sitting by the hundreds in Rikers Island who have been there for months, simply awaiting trial. Their chief crime thus far is failing to have the friends, family or bank account to afford bail, while the very possibility of their guilt –and their very status as a deserving guest of the corrections system to begin with – has not yet even been established by the judicial process. They are being held in hellish, degrading and sometimes dangerous conditions of physical and psychological depravity that no politician or lawmaker would willingly subject their children to even if they volunteered – and of which the vast majority of us are almost completely unaware of. As a veteran of elite military training and selection processes, of harsh conditions of cold, of food and sleep deprivation, and of mental, physical and psychological rigors most would eagerly shy away from, I can admit that the experience by countless undeserving Americans of bearing the cross of the justice system is its own special category of hardship. It is crushing in ways I cannot even muster the words for, born out by experiential realities that are beyond my skillset as a writer to properly capture


The main objects of all science, the freedom and happiness of man, are the sole objects of all legitimate government.” -Thomas Jefferson

With this statement in mind, I want to cite a few contrasting (admittedly subjective) narratives, let the reader see the glaring contrast, and then decide which ones hold merit.

To cite several quotes from Michelle Alexander’s book11, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:


“All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

“The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.” 

“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”


Now contrast this with a famous statement by America’s most popular12 (by radio rankings) talk radio host:

"What this says to me is that too many whites are getting away with drug use, too many whites are getting away with drug sales, too many whites are getting away with trafficking in this stuff. The answer to this disparity is not to start letting people out of jail because we're not putting others in jail who are breaking the law. The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river, too." 
-- Rush Limbaugh. October 5, 1995 show transcript13. 


Which of these quotes stands out as perhaps being out of touch with moral common sense and empirical reality? The first 3 quotes are about Restorative Justice (results-based, outcome-focused), and the last one arguably reflects the sentiments of Retributive Justice (moral purity / revenge-based). The latter has more in common with the justice in the mountains of Afghanistan than with 21st Century logic, or even with post-Enlightenment logic.

Can we discuss complex issues without our ‘identify politics’? Science within Communities


“The Arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice…Let us bend it toward justice faster. Science, ethical reason, courage and love are the best tools to do this. The odds may seem overwhelming, but love drives people to try, no matter the odds. Many before us had an unbridled love for our Republic. For humanity, for justice, and for science and truth. We must ask ourselves, each of us: do we have that love?”

 Video: - "A Science of Social Justice: Reason Revival"

My other blog on this topic, Social Science Warrior

There is a marvelous intersection between the need (1) to empower people with science and rational thinking, and (2) the need to give many of our marginalized communities a voice at the table to discuss their most pressing issues of poverty and justice. It is perhaps one of the most beautifully interwoven pairings of different human aspirations – that of seeking knowledge and new ways of thinking, as well as the dignity and recognition of one’s basic humanity and right to be heard amidst injustice.

For generations, our communities have been subject to a kind of social subordination in how they are treated, neglected, or shoved aside by the status quo. Environmental discrimination by waste disposal efforts, economic pressures of affluent developers, financial discrimination by a staunchly unequal justice system, and targeting by aggressive police policies, these communities have undergone decades upon decades of treatment by a crushing neglect that elicits the most fundamental cry of human yearning for an equal place a the table of civilizational co-existence, an innate, unquestionable desire present in our species since the earliest days of humankind. 

The Need for a Voice of Justice meets a Need for Science


There seems to be the world of the elites, the policy makers, the ones who listen ‘from the top down’. Then there is the world of ‘the community’, who often tries to be heard, from the ground up. While this is certainly a simplistic way of stating things, it is how it feels to countless people in these communities, and has for generations. And for Generations, there has been a translational divide between these two worlds. Perhaps the language for transcending this divide is that of science.

This ‘language’ of scientia, which should be noted to include or exist alongside logic and moral philosophy, not only allows for conversations about the reality around us, which transcend race, social and economic status…it brings great value to the community itself, from individuals and families to wider discussions and education across the wider neighborhood. Yes, indeed, it gives these communities the tools to identify problems, understand data, and communicate coherently to the outside world in a language that overcomes all divide. At the same time, this ‘language’ brings with it an enriching closeness to reality and universe around us, from the early astronomers gazing at the stars during the Scientific Revolution to the modern science-driven experiments in alternative justice systems or the ‘living universities’ held between poor neighborhoods and the institutions of business and social enterprise, to the use of information technology brought to the more remote corners of communities and villages seen increasingly around the world. The fabric of all of this is that of free inquiry, analysis, openness to new experience, and scientific thinking 

 Bringing  issues of crime, drugs, poverty, policing, and community justice back to the domain of science and logic

The issue of crime and poverty tends to be discussed and decided around political fault lines of our ’liberal’ and ‘conservative’ tribes, organizing our media outlets and inner circles of discussion and friendship made up of like-minded people. 'Left' vs 'Right'. The more partisan people in both groups will often see this from only their side, and divide it into two ‘sides’ of opposites rather than something that is indeed more complex, layered and in need of abstract thinking and the humility to admit we should listen others.

However, popular discussion on the issue of crime and poverty – and of policing and local justice systems – need not be confined to the political soundbites of GOP candidates on our TV screens viewed  by college students during presidential debate drinking games. It can be a question of science, moral philosophy, and of a wiki-informed citizenry. 

Unfortunately, this issue is still thought of as a mainly partisan political matter, subject to the whims of voter bias, election cycles, and ideology. This need no longer be the case. This is an issue which can lie in the domain of facts, evidence, and rational argument, based on the Socratic method of discussion and the scientific method of testing , proving and disproving ideas. Of ruling out bad theories and confirming or invalidating good and bad hypotheses. The idea that ‘we need to get tough on smaller crimes through an aggressive police posture and a system of incarceration; is a hypothesis. It can be tested. It can be observed. It can be held to the light of empirical scrutiny and examined for its merits and its efficacy. Average people can be a main part of this observation -it need not be confined to experts and technocrats. It is not a process of elites and people with lab coats doing our science for us – rather, this is a discussion capable of being had in very informative and empowering ways, by entire communities, from the halls of community boards, meetings, discussions, and panels on community justice.

A social policy can be a testable hypothesis, and communities can be the voice of reason

The academic and professional elite need not do all of our thinking and science for us; we, as a society, as a culture can be a part of this scientific process. We can observe the reality of this hypothesis and clearly see – through decades of anecdotal evidence, and mountains of credible fact-based studies such as the Center for Court Innovation, that it is a bad hypothesis A failed hypotheses. We can see – through the eyes of millions, or even the scrutiny of hundreds within the community who are involved with their local justice centers, nonprofits, and a simple Google search – that it is not an effective way to respond to many of our smaller crimes. We can also observe that better ways have been tried, tested and proven. We see that local justice centers, youth programs, and drug courts, tend to work much better. They lead to less crime over time, less conflict and rifts within the community, less damage to the family struggle, less fatherless children, less incarceration, and even less cost to the taxpayer.

The burden of argument should not be on those advancing a need for serious reform, but on anyone who defends the status quo. Still, advancing this is itself an important burden for any Free Thinker and American patriot, and one we should take on with honor and unwavering diligence.

The Drug War and Justice Reform as a Starting Point for Rationality


This culture of irrationality will have to change. It must change if we are to flourish - the costs have simply gotten too high and the disillusionment too deep and too broad. It will eventually happen. Partisan rhetoric and emotional sound bites will collapse as the foundational pillars of decades of irrational stupidity give way to reason and logic. Bad ideas and hurtful policies will no longer be enshrined by our traditions nor protected by social correctness or a bias for the status quo. “We’ve always done it this way” will no longer be acceptable, as more and more of us stand up to it as a dangerous and hurtful meme of irrational thinking. As we converge on this kind of nation-wide discussion, fostering conversations and debates between people from diverse walks of life, both famous and common alike, we will start to see a beautiful emergence of commonalities and a love of knowledge and thirst for common sense, even in ‘political tribes’ we thought we’d never interact with…”