A reader of this blog recently sent me a link to an article about prognostications, noting that its central message had application to the discussions that take place on this blog–especially in the comments.
She was correct.
The article began with a story about the author’s brother, who had been born with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other conditions that made the doctors believe he’d be unlikely to live past his first birthday; they informed the parents that there was a 95% probability that the baby wouldn’t make that birthday.
Nevertheless, year after year, the brother outlived the doctors’ predictions.
Jason’s ‘95 per cent’ wasn’t just an indifferent number. My brother’s life is evidence of the politics of probability: the life-defining feedback loop that exists between our values and the information that shapes them. What we know about the future depends, in part, on what we think is worth knowing – and what we think is worth knowing depends, in turn, on what we believe the future already holds.
Researchers who measure various physical phenomena frequently worry that the act of measuring may affect the behavior of what is being measured, leading to inaccurate results. The author of this article has a similar concern about the act of prediction:
In other words, if a condition is thought to result in a low chance of survival, it translates into less care for the person with it. Invoking probabilities can create a fatal cycle that shapes how people understand the range of options at their disposal, and even the value of their children’s lives. Disability communities know this all too well. The idea that disability implies disadvantage is regrettably widespread, as loose talk about ‘tragedy’ and ‘struggle’ suggests. A wealth of research suggests that doctors routinely misjudge the quality of life that people with disabilities enjoy. If one judges such a life not worth living – as even Socrates ignominiously suggested – there’s no point fighting for treatment or questioning the conditions that generate the chances of success. Probability, far from being neutral, can directly contribute to injustice.
The political application of this observation is obvious: if we believe that the district in which we live and vote is “safe” for the other party, we are much more likely to skip voting; if enough of our neighbors do likewise, we have created the predicted result.
If the public response to yet another mass shooting is limited to bemoaning the “fact” that the NRA’s influence is too strong to overcome, Americans will fail to do the organizing and agitating that can counter that influence.
There has been a wake-up call prompted by the election of Donald Trump; many, many people who previously didn’t follow political news have become aware of the “brokenness” of America’s government. If they respond with angry acceptance–if majorities of Americans believe that the country is so far down the road to corporatism and corruption that a return to more democratic, ethical governance is unlikely–then we will fail to organize, agitate and vote in numbers sufficient to effect that change.
Being human, we will always engage in prediction. But we need to be careful that we don’t act in ways that reinforce–or even bring about– our gloomiest prognostications.