Monday, January 10, 2011

Impossible demands for "proof" in the Giffords assassination attempt

Louisiana State University

Although it was an utterly predictable response, I was still disappointed at the re-emergence of one aspect of the “lone nut” response to the Giffords assassination attempt: the erection of an impossible standard of proof in linking the alleged shooter to violent rightwing rhetoric and imagery. As if you can’t talk about the relation between violent rhetoric and violent acts without showing some direct causation. 
But what can you expect from blog comment threads, I told myself. Fighting the misguided and the trolls might give you an insight into the median winger blog commenter, or at least those brave enough to take the fight to the sort of leftie-liberal blogs I frequent, but it’s not going to do much more than give you a break between serious reading and writing your own work. 
But then I read this post over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, and I realized that some social scientists, in trotting out that old show pony, the distinction between correlation and causality, might have a really impoverished view of “causality.” 
Here’s the post: 
January 10, 2011 | Charli Carpenter 
John Sides at the Monkey Cage weighs in with some social science on the relationship between militant metaphors in political speech and individuals’ willingness to engage in actual political violence against government officials. The findings he cites: an experimental study has shown there seems to be no effect on the overall population of exposure to “fighting words” in political ads, but there is an effect on people with aggressive tendencies. Moreover: 
This conditional relationship — between seeing violent ads and a predisposition to aggression — appears stronger among those under the age of 40 (vs. those older), men (vs. women), and Democrats (vs. Republicans).  

But his real point is that we should be cautious of inferring from this or any wider probabilistic data causation regarding a specific event: 
To prove that vitriol causes any particular act of violence, we cannot speak about “atmosphere.” We need to be able to demonstrate that vitriolic messages were actually heard and believed by the perpetrators of violence. That is a far harder thing to do. But absent such evidence, we are merely waving our hands at causation and preferring instead to treat the mere existence of vitriol and the mere existence of violence as implying some relationship between the two. 
I left the following response at LGM: 
So that’s it, a binary between “hand waving” and billiard ball causality? Somebody’s got a terribly impoverished view of “causality” here. I’d say it was an example of “physics envy” but contemporary physicists aren’t that crude. 
Let me give an analogy to a well-known biological principle, Schmalhausen’s Law, to show that we can make sense of the interchange of environment and population w/o meeting an impossible billiard ball causality standard. Schmalhausen showed that in species-typical environments, developmental robustness hides a lot of genetic variation. In other words, in normal environments you can get roughly the same results in a population with genetic variance. But put that population under environmental stress and the previously hidden genetic variation shows up in a greater range of phenotypes. This is not “hand-waving” but neither does it adhere to an impossible physics-envy billiard ball causality standard. 
The analogy here of course, is that today’s political rhetoric environment is so extreme that we can plausibly suppose that it will expose the psychological variation in the population that would otherwise remain unexpressed. 
This is not hand-waving, and it shouldn’t be dismissed because it doesn’t match some ridiculous standard of a direct cause-and-effect of one statement to one act.
I went over to New APPS and made a post of it, where I got this interesting response by Scalinger: 
In fairness to Sides, and in keeping with your example: an extreme environment can “expose” variation only if members of the population are actually affected by it (by its extremes, moreover). So it's not out of place to ask whether the assassin ever actually saw or heard violent messages. I don't see any physics envy in that.
My reply: 
Yes, that's fair to ask. The exposure to the rhetoric part is easy, given what we know even now. The shooter was described as "obsessed" with Giffords, he attended one of her rallies in 2007, she won her election by 3500 votes against a candidate whose campaign had all sorts of violent images. It's a vanishingly small probability that he wasn't exposed at some point to these sorts of things. 
Now as to Sides' second requirement, "belief," we're a lot closer to unilinear causality than I'm comfortable with. We have to prove that he had a representation with the content "Giffords must be eliminated" and that we can trace that representation to an event or series of events at time T1…Tn (the exposure to a particular message or set of messages)? So that this representation with that content (plus some other representation) are then the necessary and sufficient conditions for his action? That's not physics envy? 
OK, maybe he has a more sophisticated psychology than that, though it's hard to tell from his post. And it's certainly no good on my part to just chant "nonlinear dynamics" as a mantra so that anything goes in linking environment and shooter. 
But there has to be something along the lines of dispositions and thresholds that's better for thinking this case than the sort of linear belief-desire-action scheme he seems to be proposing (what Susan Hurley memorably mocked as part of the "classical sandwich" view: sensory input -- computation on representatons -- motor output). 
In this nonetheless heartfelt piece, Jon Stewart displays the same exclusive binary to which I object: either we can show a straight line causality or we can't make any sense out of a "complex ecosystem." So it's either a coherent ideological act (message – belief – action) or it's "senseless," it's "lunacy." But there are other forms of causation than straight line efficient causality, for example, the sort of environmental pressure causing increased phenotypic variance that Schmalhausen's Law describes. I hope we can say something analogous about the relation between the Giffords shooting and the extreme political rhetoric and images of Tucson Arizona without it being mere correlational "hand-waving." And actually I think Stewart's "toxic environment" trope is a good place to start.
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To wrap this up, it seems to me that this billiard-ball-causality view has a lot in common with the isolated libertarian subject. Libertarians, I think, have to deny corporate advertising effects on the formation of choices, since that’s their bedrock, the individual and a consistent preference set. So they will deny any cultural influences and the porous subject that goes along with that. So there’s the isolated hard-shell individual (the billiard ball), and the only thing that will influence it, short of literally banging into it with a real billiard ball, is direct gun-to-the-head government coercion. Hence their refrain in pushing the “taxation is theft” line: "men with guns will come to your house and make you pay taxes!" This impoverished view of causality seems to be what’s behind many demands for “proof” in the Giffords case.


  1. I'm not sure if my comment posted or if I exited before I could complete. If so, delete this one. Libertarians are beholden between a desire=consumption model of agency. Any external limit that impedes the efficient translation of desire into a commodious "free act" is a social obstacle. There's no sense that there can be internal limits to agency, or that desire itself is, by definition, impossible to satisfy, that it's cultivated, mediated or, in any way, semiotically a social condition.

  2. This is great! I have a very similar take here:

  3. "today’s political rhetoric environment is so extreme that we can plausibly suppose that it will expose the psychological variation in the population that would otherwise remain unexpressed."

    But was this act an example of the phenomenon you describe?

    It's really, really important to get this right, because some folks (not you, necessarily) are arguing that Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are morally responsible for Loughner's actions.

    A few real idiots (on Democratic Underground, for example) are claiming Palin should be held legally responsible, in part, for his behavior.

    That's not you. I get that. But when people start talking about allocating moral responsibility, I want a more precise one-to-one causal relationship. And I think a lot of people are having the same reaction.

    Depending on how I am supposed to change my attitude toward Palin and conservatives (it's already pretty awful), as well as my own behavior in other respects, I may even want a counterfactual test: would Loughner have started shooting if Palin had chosen her words and symbols differently?

  4. To wrap this up, it seems to me that this billiard-ball-causality view has a lot in common with the isolated libertarian subject. Libertarians, I think, have to deny corporate advertising effects on the formation of choices, since that’s their bedrock, the individual and a consistent preference set. So they will deny any cultural influences and the porous subject that goes along with that. So there’s the isolated hard-shell individual (the billiard ball), and the only thing that will influence it, short of literally banging into it with a real billiard ball, is direct gun-to-the-head government coercion. Hence their refrain in pushing the “taxation is theft” line: "men with guns will come to your house and make you pay taxes!" This impoverished view of causality seems to be what’s behind many demands for “proof” in the Giffords case.

    EXCELLENT final point here. I can't tell you how frustrating this general "only linear causation is real causation" and "only state use of force is power" view has been for me when I've dealt with libertarians. It's a deliberately cultivated narrow view of human agency that excludes any and all nuance in favor of the mythic "self-made man", fully autonomous and beholden to no one for anything.

    In other words, calculated stupidity.

  5. Thanks for the comments so far! I'll be back tomorrow to respond. JP

  6. thanks for this excellent post. but i still have some doubts. apologies for the length of this comment ...

    first, i basically agree that the "atmosphere" of violent political rhetoric, together with many other factors, increases the odds of political violence. worse, i even suspect that some of the people who use such rhetoric privately hope that their message will be received and acted on by someone. for example, those who "target" abortion providers.

    an analogy: it is standardly agreed that climate change is not *the* cause of any particular storm. instead, it is part of a hugely complex equation - one that raises the probability (frequency) of "violent" weather. it may be argued that the "heated atmosphere" of political discourse has an analogous relation to particular acts of political violence. but it is still true nevertheless that climate change is NOT the cause of any particular storm. ridiculing "billiard ball causality" doesn't change this. of course, this doesn't mean that climate change is a non-issue, or that we shouldn't take steps to try to correct it. it just means that greenhouse gas emissions are not "morally responsible" for the blizzard in nyc.

    the cruel mistress (another blog) holds that palin et al are morally responsible for this event even though they are not the cause of the event. this makes little sense (unless she just means that palin et al are generally bad people, in which case it is obviously true but irrelevant). oddly, though, she also says that palin et al have the right to their political rhetoric. but holding that there is a right to the rhetoric just means that it is permissible to use the rhetoric, and there is no moral liability for it!

    this begins to get at some of the meat in protevi's post. arguing from phenotypic plasticity, he holds that the rhetorical environment can bring out underlying genetic differences & predispositions to violence that otherwise might not be expressed (at least not in this way, but that is a further question). this is exactly right, and i am glad he has posted it. the difficulty lies in knowing what to make of it, since it applies to all expressions and actions of any kind. should discourse in general be limited to those expressions that cannot possibly find a violently predisposed audience? what principle will you use to decide between cultural expressions that are dangerous in this way from those that are not? for example, will you agree with the state of arizona that teaching mexican-american studies in high school must be banned because there is some possibility that a revolutionary message will be received and acted on?

    the point to take from protevi's discussion is not that there is a sophisticated theory of causality according to which palin et al are the cause of this event after all. on the contrary, what the appeal to underlying-but-masked genetic predispositions shows is exactly what protevi seems to deny: that the explanation of the behavior lies (primarily) in the genetic differences, not in the media rhetoric. consider that we are ALL subject to the violent rhetoric. if the rhetoric explains the violent behavior, then you have a new explanatory burden - why don't we all react violently? what makes the difference between this violent individual and the rest of the population?

    there's more, but i'll stop there without noting all the ways i agree with protevi and all the other really interesting points he made.

  7. Great. I look forward to your reply and please excuse the typo in my comment. "Libertarians are beholden to..."

  8. BTW, I find it interesting that Palin's defense was to privatize blame.

  9. here is an link to a government report on exceptions to the first amendment. this is an interesting angle on all this. it is arguable that the violent rhetoric is not protected. one precedent might be the case of burning a cross in someone's yard.

  10. Here's another blog post on the shootings. This one responds to and develops the idea of atmosphere you set forth here in terms of affective concepts like mood or structure of feeling.

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  12. Sorry the comments are not threaded but Blogger is being difficult. I will try to fix this soon until then John's responses are labeled as to who he is responding to.

  13. darkness: yes, I think that's the key, the unwillingness to examine the production of desire. the bedrock is the subject and its desires. how the desires came about is not to be examined. it's always free choice, and the choice is either sane or insane. with sane people it's infringement on their liberty to ask how their desires came about or better, it's insulting to their dignity to see them as having been manipulated (they don't acknowledge influence and think the only other category is "brainwashing" which is how they explain collectivism. with the insane you have to show the exact nature of the manipulation (this is the psychological analogue to billiard ball causality: message intake -- belief -- action). and with criminals, any attempt to examine the production of their desire is "blaming society." ("blame" is a key concept here: "liberals are trying to play the blame game" where blame can only be appropriate in explicit manipulation scenarios.)

  14. Richard, thanks, i like what you do with latour very much.

  15. terrence: my co-blogger at New APPS, Ben Hale, has a good argument for why moral responsibility is warranted here: as far as your counter-factual goes, i'm not a big fan of that philosophical method, which seems to me to be after identifying necessary and sufficient conditions for an act. but that's the kind of restricted notion of causality i'm resisting. what we can say is that loughner did his act in tucson arizona, and that we have plenty of evidence of the poisonous political climate of tucson. in any case, it's not just palin, and while i know you know that, it should be said. it's not about "blaming" sarah palin by identifying the key piece of evidence (a phrase in a journal lifted from one of her speechs).

  16. flewellyn: yes, the atomic subject is alive and well. not to pick on palin exclusively, but just as an illustration: in today's already and rightfully notorious "I'm a victim of a blood libel" speech, one of her lines was that "crimes begin and end with the criminals who commit them." 

  17. From John Protevi:

    anonymous: yes, i completely agree. the poisonous rhetoric here is analogous to global warming. it's a factor in a complex system. what i'm objecting to is the exclusive binary by which, unless one can show a strict linear causality then one can say nothing. i'd be happy if people would say there are sometimes linear causation systems (with some ceteris paribus conditions) but they are a minority even in physics; they general case is complex nonlinearity. but we have then to expand our notions of causality rather than restrict them to linear causality vs mere correlationist "hand waving." 

    now w/r/t the biology analogy: i don't think the unexpressed genetic variation gets all the credit / blame here. in brief, it's the interchange between the environment and the genetic variation. in long, there's a way the environment constructs, ex post facto, the expression that reveals what had been unexpressed. that's paradoxical on a linear model, but i argue that's what we have to say here:

    now i'm not calling, necessarily, for restrictions on political discourse / images. but i am saying we need to think about it, as susan hurley did when we called for thinking about the legal status of first-person shooter games:

    so finally i'd say there is no sophisticated causality in which palin is THE cause, because that's not a sophisticated causality. she and others are arguable A causal contributing factor or something like that. 

    thanks to all for helping me sharpen my formulations. this sort of exchange gives me hope for the internet after all!

  18. A Facebook exchange, reprinted here with permission

    Scalinger: It's an interesting and (when you get down to cases) a sometimes difficult question what one should ask for in the way of evidence to exhibit a "quasi-causal” relation (sometimes referred to by the unhelpful word “influence’) between an agent’s acts (or intentions as inferred from acts) and their cultural environment. If Locke sometimes sounds Cartesian, we don’t need to find in Descartes the precise propositions in Locke we regard as Cartesian; we give Locke credit for being able to work out consequences, draw parallels, introduce new instances, and do all the other things we ourselves normally do while reading texts (‘influence’ is not a helpful word just because it turns an active into a passive process). Nevertheless *something*, some text or intermediary, must link Locke to Cartesian philosophers; otherwise we have a mere parallel, a convergence, a common source.

    Protevi: Yes, I completely agree as to necessity of a link, but not as to the level on which the link was made. The link seems to be immersion in the anti-government (and violence as solution to government problem) milieu of Tucson. But I think it's a mistake to look for ideological motivation, as in a match between message intake and output, i.e., looking for a repeated key phrase or even key idea, as would be evidence for influence in the history of philosophy example. But Loughner didn't have a coherent ideology. Nonetheless, he, like many others in the last two year, chose a Democratic politician targeted by right wing rhetoric, and intensely so targeted by Giffords's opponent in the last election.

    So I think we have to look not to a smoking gun ideological match but to the way the target provided a promise to at least make a mark, to show he was serious, etc. Any big target would do (why not Gov. Jan Brewer?) but this one had more energy attached to her. So the ideology doesn't belong to Loughner, but he picked up on the energy that a particular ideology aimed at Giffords.

    Summary: it's not the ideology that counted to Loughner, but the social energy that became attached to Giffords. And that energy was not generalized "anti-government" sentiment, but specifically targeted by those who do have an ideology.

  19. Great post, to which I've responded on my blog