An earlier version of this essay appears in educational Horizons Winter 2010 

   Questionable Assumptions in Social Decision Making

Identifying Trans-ideological Epistemological Presuppositions

by Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

...unpack the assumptions that underlie the proposed policy,
practice or intervention, and confront those assumptions
with your collective wisdom and experience to see if they seem sensible.
-- Pfeffer & Sutton (2006)[1]

Never ASSUME, for when you ASSUME
You make an ASS out of U and ME.
-- Benny Hill

RETURN
edited 9/3/11

Philosophical Prologue: can we avoid making assumptions?

What's Benny Hill got against assumptions? Pretty much the same thing that philosophers, lawyers, scientists and scholars have complained about for centuries: assumptions are not knowledge. And so, the traditional story goes, anything built on assumptions is weak and not, in itself, knowledge.

Consider a detective trying to build a case from scanty evidence. The more she has to assume about the sources of that evidence and the connections among them, the weaker her case is. If you're trying to determine whether something is true or false, the more you have to assume, the less you know. If you have to get on with your argument or proposal, you may tentatively assume what you don't know. But assumptions are not knowledge and, worse, they may lull us into thinking we have it, when it is sheer wishful thinking at work.

But Benny Hill, like Plato and a host of other philosophers, scientists and scholars, have been trekking after a mirage: presuppositionless knowledge, that is, knowledge not based on any kind of assumption. However, because we humans are limited beings with bounded capacities, constrained in space and time, whatever we believe about what we know rests upon important epistemological presuppositions. [2]

These are not assumptions of the ordinary kinds that we commonly discuss. But they are things we take for granted unless something unusual, even bizarre happens. Examples of epistemological presuppositions are assumptions that our senses, memories and understandings do not majorly mislead us; that they are at the very least, somewhat consistent.

What is knowledge? Knowledge is that honorific title we give to those beliefs we feel meet whatever criteria we are committed to for distinguishing what is true from what is false. This could range from a scientific procedure to a reading from a holy book, depending upon what it is we are committed to. [3]

To call something honorific is to say it is treated as special despite the fact there is no real difference between beliefs which are knowledge, and other kinds of beliefs. To protest that knowledge must be, at least, true belief only sets up another problem. How do we establish what is true? Does our method of doing this rest on any important assumptions?

Epistemological Assumptions

For example, to the extent we rely on our personal sense experience to establish what is true, so do we assume that our senses do not "deceive" us; that is, they in some important way "parallel" the way the world presents itself to us. Call this Assumption 2: sensory reliability. Why Assumption 2? Because there is a prior Assumption, already mentioned. It is this: Assumption 1: our experience is more or less consistent.

To the extent we share practices and beliefs with other other people, we assume not only sensory reliability, but Assumption 3: separateness of our selves from the "other things" and also, Assumption 4: the acceptability of "outside corroboration" to strengthen or 'prove" our personal beliefs.

If we are scientists of even the most informal sort, we trust our memories and mental capacities of recall, deduction and reconstruction to expand those beliefs we rely on, our "knowledge," beyond our immediate constrictions in space and time. We have here two more assumptions:

Assumption 5: Some of our memories are true.

Assumption 6: Our mental reorganizations, for example, drawing of conclusions from, or the creation of ideas from those we already have, are not completely random.

It matters not whether we are the most "down-to-Earth" empirical "hard" scientists, or the adherents of the most "spiritualistic" multi-deitied Faith. We make these assumptions.

Let's list these assumptions and, to distinguish them from other, less deep assumptions that we will examine later, call them the Epistemological Assumption Set:

1. Our experience is more or less (repetitive and) consistent.

2. Our senses do not normally misfunction. (There is an isomorphic relationship between our experience and what goes on in the world which our senses capture.)

3. Each one of us is in some way importantly separate from other persons and things.

4. Corroboration with others of what we believe, strengthens (proves) our beliefs.

5. Some of our memories are true.

6. Reorganizing our ideas, for example, drawing conclusions, is not completely random.

The upshot of all this is that you don't can't really expect to conclusively win verbal arguments that depend upon establishing the Epistemological Assumptions as true, for example, arguments addressing questions such as

a. Does some kind of God really exist? Is he, she or it a deceiver; or, can God be trusted?

b. Am I alone in the Universe with only the illusions of other things existing beside me?

c. Does science provide truths about the world that religion does not (or vice versa)?

If holding and acting on certain beliefs give us power over the world and over those who do not hold or act on them, this may provide us motivation for accepting such "world-empowering" beliefs. Perhaps cultures whose members reject world-empowering beliefs weaken and become less dominant. (I suspect this is the case.) This does not establish any philosophical argument but may be taken to show that the assumption that world-empowering beliefs are true leads to long-term survival of the adherents of that belief. This is no merely academic matter.

Social Assumptions

Not quite so profound as the Epistemological Assumptions, but likely more important on the day-to-day are what I will call here Social Assumptions. Like fat, sugar and other additives in our foods, these are principles so deeply embedded in our culture that in most situations we unthinkingly indulge in them, although, under even casual consideration, we would find them far from indubitable. These principles are

The Principle of Command: To command is to control.

The Principle of Accepted Value: What we value, everyone should value.

The Principle of Objectivity: Facts are facts.

How do such principles control our thought processes? The quick answer is:

a. like the Epistemological Assumptions mentioned above, Social Assumptions support not only our conceptions of knowledge, but of Authority and Obligation and,

b. consequently they support practices we take to be important, essential, even, to our personal social, corporate, political, and moral life.

Let's look into this more closely.

Only Say the Words ...

Religious practitioners around the world in many traditions attribute to their deities the ability of creation by conception: to think or say something is to create it. On the negative side, the social institution of curses, obscenities and blasphemies, which, under certain circumstances, invoke feelings of contamination or repulsion, demonstrate a similar magic.

No less important in secular contexts is the assumption of this creative power of human invocation from persons in authority. The pronouncements of high-ranking organizational members, or the resulting documents they generate, are often thought, in and of themselves to be effective in dealing with situations of concern: action at a distance, as it were, cure without contamination.

The model underlying this belief is a simple cause-effect, command causes behavior, shown in figure 1.

Model 1: Command (Policy, Law, Curriculum) --> Behavior Change

fig. 1

In education this command-is-cause axiom generates curriculum that fills the school day with more and more of less and less. Is X desirable? Then add X-acquisition education to the curriculum. If X is undesirable, add X-avoidance education to the curriculum. (Do kids actually learn and retain this stuff? Don't ask!) [4]

I have spent many years asking school administrators in my graduate courses how to deal with problems in schools, and invariably, they suggest adopting policies that "address" the problem. Such policies are often thought of as a direct instrument of behavior control: Do kids wear gang paraphernalia to school? Make it policy that no hats, scarves or jacket emblems are to be worn on school grounds!

Outside of school, things are not much different. Does texting or talking on cell-phones appear to increase traffic accidents? Pass laws forbidding it in cars. But what evidence is there that anyone's behavior has been modified by any of this? The more likely model for ordinary laws is this: the law provides sanctions against those who break it. Knowing this, the potential law-breaker factors in the probability of getting caught and convicted with the cost to him of the punishment specified by the law. Against this potential loss he computes any possible gain he might get by breaking the law. Crimes of opportunity or impulse probably involve misapprehensions on the part of the malefactor as to the values of the possible gain and loss and the probability of either. Prisons give lie to the assumption that laws per se work; or that the rational underlayment of justifications is stable enough to constrain the undesirable behavior.

One traditional antidote to infection by the principle of command is given in the story of King Canute. The king's courtiers attempt to flatter him by suggesting that his kingly power is unbounded. Canute, wiser than they, invites them to a demonstration where he will show how he controls the waves of the ocean. At the edge of the sea, surrounded by his sycophants, he commands the waves to halt. Nothing happens. The moral is that command, even by the high and mighty, has its limits.

The Administrators, the Public & the Principle

Experienced administrators at all levels -- in schools, this means teachers as well as principals -- recognize that there is no tight connection between adopting a policy and changing the behavior of some target population. What is required are reliable enforcers using motivators that are plausible and morally acceptable to the target population. Few parents, for example, will permit physical punishment of their child, even though it may be effective, say, in reducing occasional lateness. A.L. Schneider & H. Ingram give the following model showing the complicated relationship from policy to behavior change in a target population.[5]

fig.2

The enforcers (administrators) themselves, unless they find the sanctions for target population offenders to be reasonable (and moral), may rebel or undermine the policy even in the face of possible "disciplinary" action by their superiors.

So why is continued credence given to the idea that to command is to cause? There are several reasons:

a. it helps rationalize the differences in salary and privilege many organizations maintain between those designated as "leaders" and those who struggle directly with the target populations. [6]

b. leaders are "important" because they are, at best, seen as somewhat magical. But they are seldom really important to the continued existence of the organization. If something goes wrong that cannot escape severe public criticism, it is the leader who will be punished, even scapegoated, though innocent of personal wrongdoing, on the grounds that "being in charge, he, or she, should have known what was going on." (Professional sports coaches know this particular drill.)[7]

c. Our TV culture finds the myths of leadership make interesting drama. (NCIS, for example portrays a team leader whose firm commands, "Find Out" or "Get It Done" invariably result in successful work by his subordinates, even though he may have little idea about what they are doing.) "Good leadership," or "bad leadership," is a cheap and easy explanation for successes and mishaps reported by the minimally informed pundits of what passes nowadays for "media news and comment."[8]

And what is so wrong with the principle that to command is to cause? It blinds us to the distinction between role and function; and, consequently between authority and power and between symbol and substance.

Organizational roles may be merely traditional, honorific, symbolic and non-productive: sinecures of privilege. It is to roles that organizations assign authority, the right of command. But it is function, the disposal of substance, of resources at the place and time of their application, that defines power. [9] Functionaries get the work done: in many organizations they tend to share in little of the glory and even less of substantial reward.

What We Value Should be Valued by Everybody

One of the more common ill effects of confusing authority with power, of symbol with substance, is in confusing diplomas received with knowledge acquired: the common distinction educators make between scholastic attainment and scholastic achievement. Because college graduates earn more on the average over their lifetimes, some theorists imagine a Rumpelstiltskin-like role for universities.

In the New York Times of September 9, 2009 , B1, David Leonhardt in "Colleges Are Failing in Graduation Rates" presents the following argument. Highly selective, usually private, universities have a higher graduation rate than open-admissions or non-competitive, usually public universities. Therefore, such public universities are failing in their core mission: to turn teenagers into college graduates, (straw into gold?) Consequently, Leonhardt continues, social inequality has "soared" and productivity growth has slowed down. The students who do not complete their degree within four years -- even if they choose to take longer -- are being mislead and cheated; they are wasting their and their government's money.

Mark Schneider, a political scientist upon whose article Leonhardt has based his column, is a tad more circumspect. Although his title contains the snappy terms "failure factories" to characterize public universities [10], he couches his argument in the conditional: if we worry about students not graduating from high school and attempt to coerce high schools with low graduation rates into doing something about it, then why ignore the public university "failure factories" whose graduation rates are significantly lower than our public high schools?

Lest we, as educators, sit mouths agape with boggled minds and little in the way of response, it would do well to state explicitly the values and assumptions in terms of which we differ from Leonhardt and Schneider.

First of all, there is that old saw that one can never seem to dispense with: Correlation is not causation. The relationships between school attainment, much less achievement, are complex and disjunctive, so insinuating any connection between diplomas and economic failure is highly problematic. [11] If there were a simple relation, universities could simply sell diplomas to reduce social inequality and increase productivity growth.

Second, educators see nothing surprising as to why highly selective colleges graduate a higher percentage of their students. Among the positive reasons, one might mention a higher student level of academic competence; whereas, among the negative reasons, higher rates reflect -- according to grapevine scuttlebutt or actual research -- social pressure on instructors to inflate grades and more sophisticated student techniques of cheating and plagiarism.[12]

Some values that many educators -- Leonhardt and Schneider? -- have vis-à-vis their students are typically the following: negatively perceived are grade inflation [13], plagiarism, late or inferior work, asking for special privileges, and irregular attendance. Positively perceived are acquisition of knowledge, of new skills and attitudes and experiences, interest in studies, aspiration for higher, broader learning and in learning for its own sake. Does interrupting one's college career make this all a waste?

In the world of commerce, by contrast, plagiarism is seldom an important issue. It is rampant and generally tolerated, except where a copyright issue might be raised. Within-house reports are of perfunctory accuracy cut and pasted from a variety of sources. Nor is the business world typically concerned with any of what educators take to be positives except as they enable employees to complete their job tasks obediently and in a timely manner.

And yet, there is a most ironic twist here (that merits discussion which must be left to a later time.) Despite individual enterprises' often being narrowly focused on the bottom line, a majorly entrepreneurial economy like our own willy-nilly promotes social diversity because diversity creates new markets. But in many a college or university, where vehement lip service is given to the notion of diversity, the academy, under a monolithic motto, say, "Every Teenager a University Graduate!" has ossified into a congeries of sectarian camps who only begrudgingly accord members of other disciplines a scholarly respect.[14]

The Principle of Objectivity: Facts are facts

An exercise: settling an argument, if possible. Distinguish what is "true" from what is "false."

A. True or False: Superman's cape is yellow?

False. Superman's cape is red. Is that a fact? On what basis can it be settled?

B. True or False: The wave frequency of red light is about 640 THz?

False, 649THz is a blue light. Is that a fact? On what basis can it be settled?

C. True or False: Jesus' True Church is centered in Rome. Is that a fact? On what basis can it be settled?

False or True, depending on the basis chosen to settle it.

These three examples illustrate that whether a dispute about "facts" can be settled depends upon agreement among the disputants as to what is the proper basis for decision and who or what is to be acknowledged as authoritative.

In many cases the content of the disputed question gives us indications of the basis for settling it, quite independently as to whether we care about acknowledging anyone or anything as authoritative. In each case we can use four questions to get at an answer:

1. What is the general context of the dispute?

2. What source of information can be found to bear on the question?

3. How authoritative is that source?

4. Need we personally acknowledge that authority, or can we settle the question conditionally, for example, "If you recognize X as authoritative, then the answer is Y."

Let's see how this works for our three examples

A. True or False: Superman's cape is yellow? False. Superman's cape is red. Is that a fact? On what basis can it be settled?

This is a dispute about a fictional, comic book character. This is a "constrained" fact, in a highly delimited context. If we accept the tradition of depicting Superman as costumed in a certain way as shown in issues of Superman comics, the dispute can be settled. Other sources of authority on Superman's appearance would not likely be recognized in our culture. Note that we need not get personally involved in determining an outcome; that it, our personal commitments as to who or what is authoritative in our life need not be touched.

B. True or False: The wave frequency of red light is about 640 THz? False, 640 THz is a blue light. Is that a fact? On what basis can it be settled?

This is a scientific fact from the practice and theory of the physics and engineering of light-wave phenomena. If we recognize those who practice such physics and engineering as authoritative, they provide the information which settles the question. We could, as with the Superman example, accept the settlement conditionally. But this kind of science is unlikely to threaten our personal beliefs and commitments in such a way as to move us to defend them by flatly rejecting them as pertinently authoritative.

C. True or False: Jesus' True Church is centered in Rome? Fact and Non-fact. On what basis can it be settled?

Clearly, depending upon our personal commitments to who or what is authoritative here, the decision may go either way. If we feel personally indifferent to how it turns out, we can do it conditionally, for example, "If you acknowledge as authoritative the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the answer is true. However, if you acknowledge as authoritative the teachings of Protestant Christian Churches, the answer is false."

What we have to recognize is that in casual discourse, we might refer to someone as "an authority" merely on an assessment of their knowledge on the matter. Example: "Jack, my barber, is an authority on National League pitching."

But that there is a "serious sense" of the notion of authority is illustrated by the difference between the law buff who has amassed substantial knowledge on, say, tort law and the judge acting in an actual case who, though he may know less than the dilettante, will decide its outcome. It is the judge's opinion, not the law buff's that counts as authoritative.

Another example is this: the facts of evidence, no matter how palpably obvious, illegally obtained may be dismissed from acknowledgement as authoritative in a given trial. Authority may be entirely a matter of institutional recognition of someone or something as authoritative.

But nothing is authoritative, if everyone (or almost everyone) disregards it. Even data, per se, are not authoritative. Nor is research. Some data is garbage. And there is bad research. It is the acknowledgement on our part that the institutional and procedural contexts are appropriate that lends them authority.

But even with institutional authority we have options. Each of us can exercise personal moral freedom, even in the face of "reason," and refuse to acknowledge as authoritative, sources e.g. Scripture, tradition, or persons, e.g. religious, scientific or political leaders, if we can escape, or are willing to bear, the consequences.

This sounds very momentous but is a daily, common occurrence. Whenever we run a stop sign on an empty road, or encounter strangers, or disregard our doctor's advice, or turn a deaf ear to an importunity, we may disregard authority. Although for the sake of manners we may conform to some standard of non-offensive behavior, personally, we let no presumption of the other's authority touch us where it matters.

The Basic Antagonisms: survival of those who survive.

Underlying many disputes are two opposed positions:

Position 1: Present structures of authority and other traditions must be maintained.

Position 2: Some structures of authority and traditions may be allowed to disappear.

To illustrate: Academicians as well as property owners have a stake in maintaining present structures of authority, even in the face of strong reasons for change. The very fact that universities, or professors, are judged, and paid for, on the basis of reputation rather than on measured achievements in getting their students to some commonly recognized goals, demonstrates this. Similarly, change frightens many who are economically more well-situated, since it is perceived to threaten more likely a loss rather than a gain.

And yet many academic theorists pride themselves on being "change agents." And some of our wealthiest citizens promote undertakings that demolish traditions and structures of authority.

The two positions given above are centered in two kinds of community and the research typically associated with them:

a. communities intended to preserve the source or interpretive authority of persons or traditions, e.g. research in Religion, Law, Education, Science and a host of therapies.

b. communities intended to expand the scope or strength of their power in the world, -- covertly, usually at the expense of the others, e.g. Religion, Law, Education, Science and a host of therapies.

These rest on different assumptions of value but seldom capture every practitioner at any given time. The result is a dynamic of competition within broader established communities by sub-communities within them. But this is too often competition with no shared sense of fitness or progress.

Article References

[1] Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert I. Sutton, Hard Facts Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense. Profiting from evidence-based management. 2006. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press. P. 21 A propros of Pfeffer's and Sutton's advice, see Rozycki, E.G. "Rationales for Intervention: From Test to Treatment to Policy" available at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/Rationales.html

[2] Gigerenzer and Selten, in effect, postulate that we are "hard wired" to accept certain kinds of beliefs as knowledge, despite their deviation from traditional expectations. See Gerd Gigerenzer, "The Adaptive Toolbox" Chapter 3 in G. Gigerenzer & R. Selten (eds) Bounded Rationality. The adaptive toolbox. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2002) pp. 37 - 36.]
For a quick overview of Gigerenzer's and Selten's heuristics types and comparison with standard computational methods see the "Types of Heuristics" chart available at
http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/TYPESofHEURISTICS.html.

[3] For extensive consideration of these issues, see Edward G. Rozycki, "The Philosophical Foundations of Human Cognition" available at http://www.newfoundations.com/CogTheo/CogTheoPro.html

[4] See Rozycki, E. G. "The Viability of Curriculum Leadership" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/CurrLead.html

[5] A.L. Schneider & H. Ingram. Policy design: elements, premises strategies. In S. S. Nagel (ed.) Policy theory and policy evaluation. Chapter 6. 1990. New York. Greenwood.

[6] See Jeffrey S . Nielsen The Myth of Leadership. Creating Leaderless Organizations. (Palo Alto: Davies-Black 2004) Also, see Pfeffer & Sutton, p. 31, "Using Data Changes Power Dynamics."

[7] Rozycki, E. G. "Leadership vs. Morality: an unavoidable conflict?" At http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/MoralLeadership.html For criticism of "command mythology" see "Questionable Assumptions in Social Decision Making" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/FalsePresupp.html

[8] Learning to pretend that our "superiors" have "magic powers" may be the most significant function of schooling. See Lee Clarke (1999) Mission Improbable. Using fantasy documents to tame disaster. Chicago: U of Chicago Press. Also, see Jeffrey Pfeffer "Management as Symbolic Action: The Creation and Maintenance of Organizational Paradigms" Research in Organizational Behavior Vol. 3 pp.1 - 52 1981, JAI Press.]

[9] See "Controlling the School: Institutionalization."At http://www.newfoundations.com/OrgTheory/Institutionalization.html#authority]

[10] Schneider, M. The costs of failure factories in American higher education. Educational Outlook. No. 6. October 2008. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research

[11] See Rozycki E. G., "Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry: how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?" At http://www.newfoundations.com/SchoolResponsibility.htm] For criticism of a parallel argument that attempts to connect natural development with moral development see E. G. Rozycki, "Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development?" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/NaturalMoral.html.

[12] See "Cheating Trends" in Clabaugh, G. & Rozycki, E.G., Preventing Cheating and Plagiarism, 2nd Edition (2003) Oreland, PA: NewFoundations Press. At http://www.newfoundations.com/PREVPLAGWEB/PrevPlagIntro.html

[13] Barndt, R. Fiscal Policy Effects on Grade Inflation at http://www.newfoundations.com/Policy/Barndt.html]

[14] Becher, Tony Academic Tribes & Territories: the Cultures of the Disciplines Open University Press. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis, 1989

See also publications by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for many examples of university attempts to suppress student speech under a variety of pretexts. At http://www.thefire.org

TO TOP