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Monthly Archives: November 2019

Epistemic crisis

In this article, With impeachment, America’s epistemic crisis has arrived, David Roberts, argues that impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump will be the stress test for a right-wing alternate-reality. This alternate reality has been fomented over decades, through the cultivation of a right wing media ecosystem – from talk radio, think tanks and talking points. Now, Roberts argues, the Fox News junkies have taken over the White House and are going to try and get away with carrying on as if the crimes Trump committed are not obvious and impeachable – throwing up enough doubt and uncertainty over the proceedings that they can get away with it.

Two elements of this Roberts highlights are:

Tribal epistemology: “… when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.”

And strategical exploitation of consensus: “The right has hacked the cognitive biases of voters and reporters..[there is] a strong tendency, especially among low-information, relatively disengaged voters (and political reporters), to view consensus as a signal of legitimacy. It’s an easy and appealing heuristic: If something is a good idea, it would have at least a few people from both sides supporting it.” Robert’s argument is that by denying consensus they deny legitimacy to mainstream (i.e. Democrat) positions, and keep alive the legitimacy of the alternative (i.e. Republican) reality.

As a wail of despair, or prophesy of doom, I find this piece as appealing as the next liberal, but the lie in it is revealed by its impracticality. The piece doesn’t tell us what to do about hyperpartisan alternative realities, and it can’t, because at root it subscribes to the same model of human irrationality it decries.

The idea that epistemology can be subverted to tribalism implies that there are ways of knowing – or people who know – which aren’t influenced by their social group. The idea that the right-wing base have had their cognitive biases hacked implies that the rest of us have resisted this, or never had a vulnerability in those biases in the first place.

I’m not claiming that there aren’t biases, or tribalism. Reality exists, errors exist and sometimes tribalism does provoke the sacrifice of accuracy. But a useful view of these things will tell us what do when epistemological realities seem to diverge.

My problem with the “alternative reality” account is that is plays to a model where people who disagree with us are irrational. And once you have decided that people are irrational it blocks any possibility of rational engagement – why try to persuade these people (the model suggests), isn’t it hopeless?

Pressure Vessels

Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute in May 2019, reports an escalation of signs of stress among University workers. Using FOI requests about referrals to University counseling services and occupational health, the report finds, since 2009, widespread, ‘sharp’, ‘astonishing’ and ongoing rises in the number of staff referred every year.

The report describes University work as an ‘anxiety machine’, where pressure to support student satisfaction, workload intensification, work allocation models, performance management and casualisation all combine to ramp up pressure on individual members of University staff. (These issues are precisely those which are the subject of the current UCU dispute and planned industrial action).

Sheffield Hallam UCU used this report, and the underlying data, to identify these statistics for their University: between 2010 and 2015 a 56% increase in staff referrals to University counselling; between 2015 and 2016 a 240% increase in referrals to occupational health.

This is in line with the industry-wide pattern. Extracting the data from the report, I drew the graph of total reported referrals of University staff to counselling (red) and occupational health (blue):

The data is broken down by institution, so I can pull out the data for the University of Sheffield. Here referrals to counseling grew by 2700% (from 30 in 2009, to over 800 in 2016). The occupational health data is not complete, so a comparison is not possible.

Here are graphs for a few other Universities:

A few “data caveats”

  • The data are incomplete, so the total increase could be inflated by more institutions keeping records. Looking at the average figures reported each year, as well as these per-institution figures, shows that this possible confound is not driving the increase.
  • If anyone wants to make some more FOI requests and get data for 2016-2019, I’ll make the graphs
  • I have made graphs for all the institutions in the report. Look for yours.
  • There are large differences in absolute numbers between institutions. If I had the number of employees of each institution I would like to calculate the rate of referrals per employee to allow better comparison across institutions.
  • Many institutions have been making more effort to respond to poor staff mental health, however I think it would be wrong to view the increase in uptake of counselling as an entirely a positive thing – the bottom line is that increased uptake, and increased provision, are responses to the same underlying forces: unnecessary and unhealthy pressure on University staff.