Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Epistemic Closure

Here's an interesting article that discusses some of the psycho-social dynamics behind why Vatican officials (including Ratzinger) may have handled the information they had they way they did (which is reminiscent of my post on Groupthink):
Now, let us assume for the sake of argument that Ratzinger had sufficient information to draw strong and solid negative conclusions about Maciel and his brood of vipers. Does it necessarily follow that he would have drawn harshly negative conclusions about the refusal of John Paul and his inner circle to act against Maciel -- conclusions so strong as to have compelled him to act in a manner highly uncharacteristic for a senior curial cardinal (e.g., to have made him overturn the moneychangers' tables in the Temple)?[...]It is not so difficult for me to imagine that Cardinal Ratzinger, even if he had drawn negative conclusions about Maciel, deferred to the judgment of the Pope, not only out of pious regard, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, out of epistemic necessity.

It was only yesterday, it seems, that orthodox Catholic bloggers, when confronted by evidence that John Paul's actions (or lack thereof) in the scandal could not be defended, resorted to asserting that surely the Holy Father must know things we don't, and must be carrying out some secret agenda to rout the bad guys. It was literally unthinkable that this might not be the case at all.
Ah yes, the "the Pope has a secret plan, just you wait" canard. I believe that Fr. Z is always claiming that Pope Benedict doesn't just fix the liturgy immediately because he has some sort of "Marshall Plan" and has to be all sly and slow about it. That's all crap. There is no secret plan, just a lack of vision or will-power to step on any toes or rock the boat. And this problem of not even considering alternate possibilities.

These dynamics might excuse the Pope from personal moral culpability, but the fact that they exist and are so very fostered in the current clerical culture is the problem that needs to be deconstructed. "The Pope was genuinely ignorant!" is not an answer to our objections! Great, defend him, say he was personally genuinely ignorant. Big whoop: the problem may very well be exactly that for some reason he was ignorant (albeit genuinely) even though he was in perhaps the best position to know about all this! If this is the case, that is still indicative of a massive organizational flaw in the system.

The point is that we have to make decisions based on limited evidence, evidence that is limited in part by our own epistemic biases, some of which are cloaked from us by the choices we've previously made. Taleb's discussion of "unknown unknowns" -- things we don't know exist because it doesn't occur to us to ask -- is key here. One reason why priests got away for so long with molesting boys is that it never would have occurred to many Catholics (and others) to imagine that a priest would do something like that.

I'm rambling here, but what I'm trying to do is to climb inside Ratzinger's head and imagine how much effort he had to make to overcome the epistemic biases that hid from his consciousness the true horror and corruption of the Maciel matter, and the rest of it. We who sit far away from any situation may comfortably assume that what we see is readily apparent to those up close. Or, if we are close to a situation, we may comfortably assume that we see more clearly what's really going on than those on the outside. The truth is, both perspectives are distorting in their own ways -- and in ways that will not become fully apparent until time has passed. Infinite vigilance is not possible. And decisions must be made now.

This is the stuff from which tragedies are made.


Jeffrey Smith said...

"...it never would have occurred to many Catholics (and others) to imagine that a priest would do something like that."
That reminds me of the story told by one of Cardinal Spellman's lovers. When asked if his promiscuity was a bit too risky, Spellman supposedly said it wasn't, because no one would believe it.

A Sinner said...

Which is extremely powerful, the source of most of their psychological power, even. I think it's part of the reason they're so adamant about continuing mandatory celibacy and tried so hard to cover all this up. Fostering the false image of priests as sexless turns them into super-beings and also provides a presumption of chastity on the part of priests behind which they can hide all sorts of shenanigans.

A Sinner said...

The quote you mention is in this article on Cardinal Spellman's Dark Secrets: