The Kid With the Hammer

A certain kind of application of social science and social science methods continues to be a really basic limit to our shared ability in modern societies to grapple with and potentially resolve serious problems. For more than a century, a certain conception of policy, government and the public sphere has been determined to banish the need for interpretation, for difficult arguments about values, for attention to questions of meaning, in understanding and addressing anything imagined as a “social problem”. This banishment is performed in order to move a social scientistic mode of thinking into place, to use methods and tools that allow singular causes or variables to be given weight in relation to a named social problem and then to be solved in order of their casual magnitude.

Certainly sometimes that analysis is multivariable. It may even occasionally draw upon systems thinking and resist isolating individual variables as something to resolve individually. But what is left outside the circle always are questions of meaning that require interpretation, that require philosophical or value-driven understanding, that can’t be weighted or measured with precision. Which is why in some sense technocratic governance, whether in liberal societies or more authoritarian ones, feels so emotionally hollow, so unpersuasive to many people, so clumsy. It knocks down the variables as they are identified, often causing new problems that were not predicted or anticipated. But it doesn’t understand in any deeper way what it is trying to grapple with.

I’ve suggested in the past that this is an unappreciated aspect of military suicides since 2001, that the actual content of American wars, the specific experiences of American soldiers, might be different than other wars, other experiences, and that difference in meaning, feeling, values might be a sufficient (and certainly necessary) explanation of suicide. But that conversation never floats up to the level of official engagement with the problem, and not merely because to engage it requires an official acknowledgement of moral problems, problems in meaning and values, with the unending wars that began in 2001. It’s because even if military and political leaders might have a willingness to consider it, they don’t have the tools. It’s not in the PowerPoints, in the graphs, in the charts. It’s in the hearts, the feelings, the things spoken and unspoken in the barracks and the bedrooms. It’s in the gap between the sermons and the town meetings on one hand and the memories of things done and said in the battlefield. No one has to say anything for that gap to yawn wide for a veteran or veteran’s family–it is there nevertheless.

Here’s another example: a report on “teen mental health deteriorating”. It’s a classic bit of social scientistic reason. Show the evidence that there is something happening. That’s fine! It’s useful and true. You cannot use interpretation or philosophy to determine that truth. But then, sort the explanations, weigh the variables, identify the most significant culprit. It’s the smartphones! It’s social media!

Even this is plausible enough and not without its uses. But the smartphone here is treated as causal in and of itself, with some hand-waving at social psychology and cognitive science. Something about screen time and sociality, about what we’re evolved to do and about what we do when our evolution drives us towards too much of something. What’s left out is the hermeneutics of social media, the meaning of what we say on it and in it. Because that’s too hard to understand, to package and graph, to proscribe and make policy about.

And yet, I think that’s a big part of what’s going on. It is not that we can say things to each other, so many others, so easily and so constantly. It is the content and meaning of what we say. The structures of feeling that follow from reading a stranger with no standing in your own life pronouncing authoritatively in the genre of a social-justice-oriented “explainer” that you are commanded to do something, feel something, compared to a person with great standing in your own life providing delicately threaded advice about a recent experience that you’ve had? Those are hugely divergent emotional and social experiences, they produce loops and architectures of sentiment. Reading people who hate you, threaten you, express a false intimacy with you, who decide to amplify or redirect something you’ve said? Those experiences have an impact on a reader (and on the capacity to speak) that rests on how their content (and authors) have meaning to the reader, often in minutely divergent and rapidly shifting ways.

We blunder not in our diagnosis of a problem (teen mental health is more fragile) or even in roughly understanding an important cause. We blunder in our proposed solution: take away the smartphones! (Or restrict their use.) Because that shows how little we understand of what exactly is making people feel that their online sociality is a source of vulnerability and fragility and yet precious and important all the same. It’s not the device, it’s the content. Or in a more well-known formulation, not the medium but the message. That requires semantic understanding, it requires literary interpretation, it requires history and ethnography, to understand and engage. And perhaps change–but that takes also a different set of instruments for coordinating shared or collective action than the conventional apparatus of government and policy.

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3 Responses to The Kid With the Hammer

  1. BL says:

    Your post reminds me of a passage in David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture: “Historians who ignore conflicts in moral values, or who attempt to reduce to other categories of explanation moral questions that have an autonomy of their own, can be justly charged with blindness to the facts of life as we experience it” (27).

  2. This post has held my attention from the moment I first read it. I ordinarily think I understand your posts, and I keep coming back for more. But I have truly had difficulty with this one. I have spent hours (easily 30) trying to understand it. Finally, I think I get it, but I know that I could be seriously wrong. So, before I respond to it, I want to tell what I understand you to be saying. Then at the end, I will respond. Here is what I think you are saying:


    The way we are trying to solve our social problems is keeping us from solving our social problems.

    Since about 1900, the institutions that hold government power have rejected with prejudice the nuanced contributions of academia as it labors to reach a multi-layered understanding of the important elements and structures of society, particularly the constructs that academia has deemed to be “social problems.”

    This rejection is intended to push problem-solving into a narrow world that relies on pseudo-scientific analysis which simplifies and then ranks the elements that may contribute to the creation and persistence of a given social problem so that it can be solved by using simple methods and tools to correct each element according to its rank.

    It would be fair to concede that this simple-minded process can be complex.

    It would also be fair to say that this simple-minded process may appear to be scientific in nature and sometimes may accidentally stumble into using scientific tools.

    But, nevertheless, this simple-minded process is simple and therefore is denied the essential benefit of the analytical, scientific process and tools used by academics in many disciplines which enable the academics to take into account elements that cannot easily be ranked, but which, left in the hands of those able to understand them, will drive society to better, to real, solutions.

    This impossibly oversimplified, pseudo-scientific, highly irregular, discontinuous process, foisted on society and academia by “technocratic governance,” is devoid of feeling (at least it feels that way), and is impossible for many academics to countenance.

    This pseudo-scientific process restates at least, or rejects at worst, the variables identified by academics which often creates new problems, and does not contribute to the goal of solving the social problem under study.

    You then suggest that this simple-minded approach to complex problems may have glossed over important aspects of the causes of military suicides since 2001—it may have missed that the on-the-ground experiences of military personnel may be different in “meaning, feeling, values” than in earlier wars. But because these elements are simplified out of the data, those who are making overall assessments of the problem may not be aware of the unique character of these recent suicides.

    And then you say that even if those making the overall assessments may be vaguely aware of the unique features of these recent suicides, they will never be made fully aware of the nuanced elements because their subordinates who are reporting on their findings of individual suicides do not have the tools to tease them apart and present their findings to their superiors in ways that drive to a shared, nuanced, understanding of the overall problem—that more recent suicides have elements that differentiate them in significant, but hard for the unsophisticated to see, ways from suicides of wars in previous centuries. As a consequence the military institutions, the families of the suicide victims, and a host of other interested and affected parties cannot understand what happened to their loved ones and may remain puzzled and even unduly hurt by their loss. The parties may misjudge what happened and naturally then would place blame where it is not deserved or implement avoidance procedures that are ineffective.

    Then you proceed to discuss a report on the deterioration of teen mental health. With respect to the handling of this social problem you say that the simple-minded approach again rules out nuance and reaches for the simplest “culprit,” the smartphone or social media.

    Then you hit me squarely in the gut…

    You say that the acolytes of this simple-minded approach do take some notice of “social psychology and cognitive science. Something about screen time and sociality, about what we’re evolved to do and about what we do when our evolution drives towards too much of something,” but they go no further. Instead they make policy without enough nuanced analysis.

    Then you completely lose me when you talk about “stranger with no standing,” “false intimacy” and all the rest.

    But then I think I again make contact when you say that we may not blunder “in our diagnosis of a problem, or even in roughly understanding an important cause, we blunder in our proposed solution.”

    Then you say our blunder shows how little we understand of what exactly is going on.


    Here is my response:


    I have read several of E. O. Wilson’s books and articles, and I have seen several of his televised talks and interviews. He often says that his field of evolutionary psychology (or whatever it may be called) will one day join up with the more traditional humanities and create a field of knowledge that is… I don’t know what he is talking about—he is too nuanced for me.

    I come from a different place. I am a mathematician who was drawn into computers and what they can do for society beginning in 1957. My generation computerized the world—no thanks are necessary, it was a hoot.

    In any case I wonder if what you are seeking is even possible. And I wonder that even if you get the data you seek, and if all the interested and commanding parties fully understand that data, will you get the results you seek? Will suicides be prevented? Problems of this kind are hard to solve.


    For example, a terrible, heartbreaking social problem that we face today is the murder of our schoolchildren and their teachers. I think that seeking a nuanced understanding of the elements that, taken together, cause a young, white, male to collect arms and ammunition that he will then use to slaughter innocents will be impossible to achieve. We can try, and we should, but in the meantime, we have to do something.

    But, at the same time, this severe social problem does contain within its horror circumstances that you described. But nuance understanding is not necessary to solve this problem. The way to keep our children from being gunned down in school is to get rid of guns. Problem solved.

    But the social problem that frustrates the implementation of my perfect solution is that many human beings, many with great power, do not care about the murders of our children enough to give up their guns. I think that the understanding of their reasons would be nuanced and helpful if it could be gained—but in the meantime, our children are dying.

    So what should we do? How will academia solve this problem? How will computer systems solve it? They won’t.

    What will solve it is for someone to convince a majority of our people to eliminate guns from our society. We have many social problems and I am convinced that they all have the same cause: evolution by natural selection. It produces human beings who do not want to kill schoolchildren and it also produces human beings who do. And those who want to kill are very aggressive and have managed to aggressively get more than enough power to block my perfect solution.

    So, what must I do? (Why must I do it?”) I must explain all of this, first to you, and then to society. I must show that our systems were designed to put power into the hands of the aggressive, murderous people who hold it everywhere, and to keep it there. I must show that the people who do not want to kill our children are not aggressive but are timid and, while they will, from time to time, screw up their courage and take up arms to confront the bad guys, that will no longer be enough because the kill power available to the bad guys is now at the point where civilization can be destroyed by July 4th.

    So, what must I do to make all these explanations? I must be able to get the attention of those I am trying to convince, and I must hope that their minds are open to my ideas. I have been trying to do this very thing since July 22, 2004, and I have gotten nowhere. I tried to begin a conversation on your blog, and I got nowhere.

    But, time is growing short. I look at our society as being composed of four cohorts defined by age. Each cohort has different needs but these needs can be grouped under these headings: Rights, Resources, Opportunities, and Protections. Our government is supposed to supply these needs.

    • Guardians: under age 26 35.3% of our population
    • Experts: age 26-50 34.0%
    • Generalists: age 51-75 25.1%
    • Sages: age 76 plus 05.5%

    The average age of Members of the House at the beginning of the 115th Congress was 57.8 years; of Senators, 61.8 years, among the oldest in U.S. history. These facts make clear that well over 70% of our population have no representatives in Congress. It is no wonder that most Americans feel alienated from those who are supposed to give us access to the four elements of a successful life. It is no wonder that our aged leaders do not take action to stop the murder of our schoolchildren. Our officials at the national and state levels worship the God of Reelection above all other gods, and this explains why they are controlled by the National Rifle Association. Schoolchildren cannot vote, gun owners can, and do.

    Based on the best evidence available, I have concluded that if we humans continue to burn fossil fuels at the current rate (which increases commensurately with the growth of world population, and with the modernization of developing nations) we will face serious, irreversible, perhaps fatal, consequences by the year 2050. The adverse effects of burning fossil fuels are already being felt around the world, and will continue to grow at an unpredictable rate, and will have different and unpredictable impacts on the four cohorts.

    Our older Americans may not be severely affected by global warming, but people under age 26 will have much to lose. They hope that they and their children will be able to enjoy long, fruitful, happy lives, but as our planet warms, their quality of life will be sacrificed in a planetary struggle for survival. Our youngest Americans, those still in diapers, may face a heartbreaking decision as they approach 2040. As our climate worsens, those of childbearing age may well wonder if it would be fair to bring a child into a world that may be dangerous and suffocating, that may not hold a bright future for a newborn.

    Most, if not all, of the current Sages Cohort will have passed away by 2050, but many of their descendants will still be living. It is a sad possibility, but the current Sages Cohort (my cohort) may well be the last group who will have known our planet at its best. The other cohorts will see the splendor and bounty of our planet fall into ever steeper decline. The Generalists Cohort is old enough to already have children and grandchildren who make up the Experts and Guardians Cohorts. The Experts Cohort is old enough to have children, and along with that comes the responsibility for caring for those children—a task that will become increasingly difficult as global warming continues to destroy our atmosphere, our economy, and many of our most important resources, such as fresh water supplies and food crops.

    The older cohorts have all had a chance to enjoy two of life’s greatest blessings: to personally experience childhood, protected and nurtured by loving parents while embraced by a friendly natural world, and to vicariously experience childhood again as a parent or grandparent. I think that members of the Guardians Cohort would like to have a chance to enjoy the same blessings, but they need the help of the older cohorts, the Sages, Generalists, and Experts.

    It is clear to any rational observer that our systems of government and economics are failures, and must be replaced. The three older cohorts, Experts, Generalists, Sages, have proven beyond doubt that they are either unwilling or unable to solve our enormous social problem, so the Guardians cohort must take the lead. They will have to develop plans for making the institutional changes that are needed and they must win the support of the older cohorts to help them obtain the money and the political power they need to implement their plans. Those who currently hold political and economic power will bitterly resist their efforts. Only with the help of the older cohorts can we strip the current masters of our universe of political and economic power, and turn it to the advantage of all humankind.

    So, there is some nuance there for you to consider. How do you propose to save the world?

  3. Alice says:

    It’s possible that I am misunderstanding you, and that I actually agree with you, but I think that I very strongly disagree with you.

    Let’s take suicide. Analyzing the data tells us that there are 3 primary risk factors: thwarted belonging, feeling of being a burden, and capability of suicide. If I’m going to support people who are suicidal then this I think that having this sort of model helps orient me and helps me know what kinds of supports to look for?

    Or the topic of teen mental health, well, again the number crunched survey data tell us that the two biggest mitigating factors are feeling unconditionally loved by family and number of trusted adults at school (with 0, 1, 2 being the three important numbers). Analyzing the data actually tells us that smartphone use doesn’t have a signignificant impact on mental health (however much seeing a teendom different from our own makes us uncomfortable) so now I know that getting in a fight with my students about their smartphones is a bad move – what I should really be doing is targeting students who are unwell for positive outreach. Data analysis tells me to put relationship before task, that I need to address students by name, that I need to ask about their personal life and remember the answers, that I need to explicitly tell them that I know that they can succeed.

    I just think that the numbers really matter? And emphatically yes, numbers without theory are not very helpful – within physics Einstein is celebrated above all else because he created a story that makes sense of special relativity. But we also need numbers? The story that Einstein told is utter crazy pants and without numbers I doubt he would ever have dreamed it up, let alone had anyone believe him. And likewise, you have a story about smartphones and mental health and a story about endless war and suicide and I am left I guess to say “maybe? what is your evidence?”

    But re-reading your first sentence I think maybe I am just a prickly math teacher (I am also a lover of numbers and one who finds technocratic governance emotionally fulfilling) and that actually I agree with you but operate from a different perspective and so don’t really understand the phenomenon you are responding to. Because I agree with you that the problems of value and interpretation are inescapable. So, that’s a ramble, but I hope maybe in the end a friendly comment? It helped me make sense of what you were saying!

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