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October 24, 2010


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I was hoping somewhere, someday, someone would work Zippy the Pinhead into a post.


Zippy, as most fans know, wears styrofoam shoes, and is rarely violent. Coincidence? Unlikely: Wearing styrofoam shoes --> Laughter, in which the wearer gets caught up --> A feeling of well-being --> Decreased violence.

Mary Ellen Caoek

My theory of change is that two dimes and nickel = a quarter...at least in the US

Enrique the Gay Philosopher

Do the two dimes and the nickel need to be co-located? or can the nickel be in New Orleans, say, and the dimes in Warsaw? You want to be able to say, "Here's a quarter," pointing to the nickel in your hand, without also referring obliquely to the dimes' alleged location in Poland and apologizing for their absence.

I'm troubled by these lingering questions regarding your theory of change. You clearly haven't paid enough for it.

a careless reader

"an idiot savant cannot explain to you how he is able, in under a second, to calculate the square root of a 55-digit number."

Hmmm, the idiot savant explains that he sees all numbers as gradations of colors, and he is able to arrange those gradations in a manner that allows him to produce the correct result. This is an explanation. An explanation which accompanies a successful result.

Also, you propose 'theories of change' are 'narratives' and therefore lack scientific rigor. This sounds postmodern to me. Scientists don't do narrative?


Sure. The idiot savant can provide an explanation of her methods, perhaps one that only other idiots savants can understand. An executive director, even one who uses her "gut" to design her social interventions, can appeal to instincts that are (almost) universally shared. As for the question of narratives: yes, point well taken: all is narrative. But I would argue that there are distinctions we can and should make between certain kinds of scientific narrative and chapter 3 of Great Expectations. My greatest worry about treating all narratives equally in this postmodern age is that this gives an enormous advantage to the silver-tongued--the Jerry Falwells, the Sarah Palins, the Glen Becks. I'd rather err on the side of reductionism than on the side of those who subvert Truth to ideology.

Daniel Ben-Horin

This is a great piece. Thanks, Albert


Thanks, much appreciated.

a careless reader

"As for the question of narratives: yes, point well taken: all is narrative."

No, no, that wasn't the point at all.

More like, ok:

1. Postmodernism "prime" as it were is, in Lyotard's formulation, "incredulity towards meta-narratives." This is a philosophical skepticism.

2. Pop postmodernism is "all is narrative." This is a moral cynicism.

Disparaging the role of narrative within science, as narrative, because it is narrative, bears the stain of pop postmodernism because it's a reaction to it.

It is perfectly possible to approach narrative *within* science without referencing postmodernism at all, and without displacing its rightful role.


Points well taken, careless reader, insofar as I'm able to understand them. While I agree that the claim "all is narrative" might be wielded like a blunt weapon, I believe there's an important insight there, one I attribute to postmodernist theorists who, like Barthes, urged that we counter the notion of a "work" with a broader understanding of what a "text" can be (or rather, is). I didn't mean to sound dismissive by agreeing that all is narrative. As for narratives "within" science, you're right. These were studied and discussed long before Derrida soiled his first diaper.

Many social sciences lack the rigorous modes of explanation available to physics, say, or genetics, because there are few general laws that social scientists can appeal to. Theories of change, because they so often involve predicting the actions of human actors, inherit the weaknesses of explanations in the social sciences (the weaknesses of folk belief-desire psychology, say, or of rational actor theory). They rely for their strength on the plausibility of their cause-effect connections, and this plausibility, I would argue, has more to do with artfulness, with the ability to spin a good yarn, than with any general laws of human psychology we might invoke that would lead us from one link to another in the theory of change. This is not a bad thing, it's simply a far cry from what I believe Mr. Brest expects of his grantees.

a careless reader

Hmmm, well hard science can't "explain" things that haven't happened yet, either, but certainly has predictive value in projecting what will happen when a cue ball hits an eightball. Social science is stuck with having to delve into the uncertain result of an eightball hitting a human. But it certainly is of value in being able to describe the result of past instances of human/billiard ball interactions.

What is really important is it seems that by denigrating the the role of "theory" you seem to think you are somehow avoiding ideological complications, while at the same time your descriptions of "implicit theories of change", "gut feelings", and "intuitions" are all plausible synonyms for the "false consciousness" model of ideology.

In which case, it's easy to understand why the likes of Schambra would reject the Theory of Change crap.


I'm getting sloppy here. I started talking about explanation in physics and then, as you pointed out, I shifted to discussing our ability to predict human actions. I guess I have Hempel on the brain. He argued that the logical form of an explanation is essentially the same as that of a prediction. A prediction to Hempel was simply an explanation that used the future tense.

I do wonder, now that you bring it up, about those domains in which we restrict our use of intuition. Dentistry, certainly; belly dancing, not so much. The handlers of politicians running for national office worry when they go off script and use their gut feelings to address a crowd. Intuition in that case can drive a person toward a more genuine kind of expression.

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