Sunday, January 07, 2007

Foxes, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Corrections Sentencing

A while back I wrote about our human cognitive tendency to take pieces of reality to create stories about the world that tell us who we are, why we’re here, and what we’re supposed to do while we are. The problem for us is that we fail to recognize them as stories and to accept the real limits on what we really know. That leads to ideologies and definitions of problems that assert truths, certainties, and asssurances that are too great for mere humans to support. Those definitions are the bases for the policies we develop, including those in corrections sentencing, and their inevitable, at least partial failures. But our stories are so well entrenched, and skepticism about them would leave us on shaky ground regarding our lives, professions, and futures, that rather than reevaluate what we’re doing, we simply add things to the stories or make up stories about the things that are proving intractable.

Which brings me to Reinhold Neibuhr. Most of what I think about corrections sentencing policy comes from him. Yeah, I know. He was a theologian, long time ago, never really wrote on crime, what on earth??? What you may remember most about him is the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can;and wisdom to know the difference.

That’s why he’s influenced me, though. The longer I’ve been in corrections sentencing, the more I’ve concluded that that prayer should start every session of every deliberation on criminal justice and corrections sentencing, Constitution notwithstanding. That prayer not only gives us determination to move forward even knowing that our efforts will face all kinds of obstacles and failures. It also makes clear that the “wisdom to know the difference” does not come from within us. We are not God, no matter how much some advocates and policymakers, on both sides of the ideological spectrum, seem to doubt that.

Niebuhr wrote tons of articles and books warning humans against their constant hubris, self-pride, and silliness, aka sinfulness. In a world of human frailty and mistakes, we should be very careful about exalting ourselves and diminishing others. Evil, like sin, is a human condition that should be countered with strength and forthrightness, but Niebuhr stressed, as did my other philosophical hero, Isaiah Berlin, Kant's "from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing has ever been made."

Niebuhr hammered consistently on the fact that not only are "the children of darkness" capable of evil and sin. So are "the children of light," who, convinced of their moral superiority, lose site of what those morals are and the necessary and perpetual humility that must accompany their exercise. According to Niebuhr, Americans in particular, long taught their special place in history, are highly susceptible to the self-righteousness that leads children of light astray. His The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness should be required reading for anyone involved in policymaking in any area but especially in an area in which “children of darkness” are so active, like corrections sentencing. [As I mentioned in that “stories” post, I also recommend William Ker Muir’s Police: Streetcorner Politicians, which id’s the best officer as the one with the sense that “there but for the grace of God.”] When was the last time that view grounded any corrections sentencing policy? When anyone even brought it up?

Which, of course, is Niebuhr’s worry.

One of Niebuhr's heroes was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's continual spiritual growth brought him to realize that the Civil War could best be explained as a punishment brought down on both sides, despite each side's claim of God's special allegiance, like receivers pointing upward after a touchdown over that God-forsaken cornerback. Even when triumphant at last, Lincoln called the nation to recognize its "dark" side and to base future reconciliation on that common human core. Of course, look at what happened to him.

I’ve worked in enough states now, with enough people, to have seen the heroes who truly remain “children of light” and the not heroes who have divided the world explicitly into “good guys” and “bad guys” (and guess which they are). To prove Niebuhr right, some of those proclaiming themselves “good guys” have been policymakers, prosecutors, and law enforcers who subsequently have done time, been censured for unethical behavior, or been called “used car salesman” by distinguished jurists in public meetings. The first prosecutor rep on the OK sentencing commission did time for selling items out of the evidence room.

My point is not that policymakers, prosecutors, and law enforcers are all “children of darkness,” too. Most are undefiled “children of light.” But far too many fail to see the line between their “righteousness” and Niebuhr’s warnings. And that plays out in policies that see every offender as the guy on the Lifetime “woman in peril” movie, incapable of reform. “Bad guys.”

The fact is, we are often wrong in our perceptions of people, situations, and likely outcomes and what policies and actions can accomplish. I’ve noted research here that shows that those who think they are best at spotting liars are actually the worst. Our policy prescriptions frequently end up being based on those wrongful perceptions, and unfortunately, we too often fail to learn from reality that disagrees with us. No surprise to Niebuhr, it’s endemic to all areas of “expertise.” One of the best books in a long time on this topic is Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?.

Tetlock examines "experts" so wedded to their monolithic views of the world that they can't adjust when the world shifts lanes. However, because, as “experts,” they are so forceful and dedicated to their beliefs, able to put forward "solutions" authoritatively, they dominate discourse and search for policy options. Tetlock calls these individuals "hedgehogs," honoring Isaiah Berlin's classic formulation of people who know "one big thing" and stick to it come hell or high water. These are opposed to Berlin's "foxes," who know lots of little things, take the world in far less black and white, are able to deal better with contingencies and complexity, and thus can zig with the world's zigs and zag with . . . well, you get it.

The thing about Tetlock's analysis is that, rather than simply assert what is to me a comforting view of who does better in understanding reality, he proves it true. His methodology, fully and almost deadeningly explained in an appendix for anyone wanting to copy it, was basically to take some known "experts" categorized by their hedgehogness or foxness, give them scenarios about current situations and ask for predictions, complete with rationales. Then he checked for accuracy and asked for explanations about correct and incorrect predictions. Foxes were more likely to consider alternatives and to be open to being wrong and changing situations; hedgehogs were generally able to convince themselves that their beloved theories were still correct, it was reality that was wrong.

Sound familiar?

Tetlock concludes that more complex the situations observed or policy problems of concern, the better foxes will be at dealing with them because of their openness to contrary information and willingness to deviate from initial plans. However, in stable environments without much change going on, hedgehogs who have managed to glom onto that stability effectively will outproduce foxes who will still tend to search for the nuances and ambiguities. Since the former situations of complex uncertainty and daily failure (recidivism? rising violent crime rates?) dominate corrections sentencing policy at every level, unsupported, unreasonably certain hedgehogs would get the worse of it from Tetlock, if not from policymakers and advocates. But, because they sound so confident and can explain away their inaccuracies so convincingly, all in ready-made bumper sticker simplicity, they dominate our corrections sentencing discourse, suiting our brain-challenged media and need for “answers” much more than people who might actually get us out of our messes.

Dealing effectively with a complex world with flows of varying stability is what Tetlock calls "a precarious balancing act." It requires being able "to monitor our own thought processes for telltale signs of excessive closed- or open-mindedness and to strike a reflective equilibrium faithful to our conceptions of the norms of fair intellectual play." He says of the best analysts in his experiments, "if I had to bet on the best long-term predictor of good judgment among the observers in this book, it would be their commitment--their soul-searching Socratic commitment--to thinking about how they think."

I appreciate the foxes and wish there were more of them in what we do. I’ve been on panels, in debates, on radio shows with “alternative sentencing/too many first-time offenders in prison” advocates who have taken the same “don’t bother me with research or data” approach to our policies as the “incarceration stops all crime best” advocates. I think I’ve made clear my annoyance with both sides. These folks are better arguments for the sentencing information systems, schools of criminal justice, policy, and law that we’ve advocated, and evidence-based policy that we talk about here than any arguments we can put forward. We need to be foxes, not hedgehogs, as Berlin outlined and Tetlock demonstrated.

As Niebuhr said, back in a day when we at least listened a little, we need to understand that we’re all just human and not God’s spokespeople in anything, much less corrections sentencing policy. Yes, we are trying to control “children of darkness,” but the dangers to “children of light” in our actions need to be just as much at the forefront. Niebuhr saw that we could become what we were fighting if we were obsessed with our superiority in God’s eyes. As Lincoln knew, there are some purposes that go beyond us. We need to be able to see clearly, change as necessary, accept that we are going to fail, but keep going nonetheless.

And ask for the wisdom to keep us on the right track.

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