“One sure way to ruffle feathers at the normally staid Council on Foundations—the nation’s largest philanthropic membership organization—is to remind it of American philanthropy’s knee-deep involvement in eugenics,” writes Bill Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. “Whenever an arrogant, insulated, wealthy elite begins to treat human beings as experimental subjects, the results are often disastrous, no matter how noble the intentions.”
Mr. Schambra goes on to argue that philanthropy’s shameful support for eugenics in the early decades of the 20th Century offers a cautionary tale about the wrongheadedness of searches for the root causes of our social ills. A proponent of eugenics would argue that one root cause of a dysfunctional society is its dysfunctional people: keep them from being born in the first place and your indicators for community health will naturally take a turn for the better.
Mr. Schambra’s attempts to get the foundation world to ‘fess up and apologize for its support of eugenics are of relatively recent vintage. By contrast, he has been waging war on so-called “root causes philanthropy” for at least a decade. I understand how a well-compensated technocrat, ensconced in his comfortable Manhattan office, might make a poor arbiter of the root causes of poverty, as Mr. Schambra argues. But social phenomena such as concentrated urban poverty, reality TV shows, and drone strikes have real causes just as much as do lightning flashes, apples falling from trees, and blocks sliding down inclined planes. These phenomena supervene on the physical world. They do not magically evade the causal nexus.
Social scientists, philosophers, and others learned long ago to distinguish between human motions (a person accidently falling off a chair, say) and human actions (a person jumping off a chair to mimic the way a diver jumps into a swimming pool). Human motions are unintentional; human actions have content and are interpretable. According to at least one school of thought,* the causes of our actions, however complex these actions might be, are often discernible by the reasons we give for them. So, for example, if we ask the person jumping off the chair about his behavior, he might say, “I jumped off the chair the way I did because I was playing with my daughter and we were pretending we were at a swimming pool.” What caused his jumping off the chair was his desire to amuse his daughter and his belief that simulating the actions of a diver would accomplish this goal.
In a similar vein, on any weekday afternoon you might hear Kai Ryssdal, host of NPR’s Marketplace program, report that “Worries about the Eurozone and jitters about North Korea sent the markets into a nosedive.” The behavior of financial markets, an extremely complicated social phenomenon, is explained, or so Mr. Ryssdal appears to claim, by these causes. And while Mr. Ryssdal’s causal attributions are pure folk psychology, they can, in principle, be empirically confirmed or disconfirmed. There is no arrogant overreaching at work here.
And so it goes with other human actions. One often hears in philanthropic circles that we cannot “attribute causality” to our grantmaking interventions. We can arguably attribute causality, and in a large number of interesting cases.
Philanthropy’s support for eugenics certainly offers a cautionary tale about the moral values and intellectual standards that drove foundation leaders in the early 20th century to embrace a pseudoscience that harmed many of their fellow citizens. But it says absolutely nothing about our ability or inability to discern the causes of even the most complicated real-world events.
To his credit, Mr. Schambra raises an important question about the relationship between philanthropy and the methods and aims of a wide variety of disciplines that fall under the rubric of the “social sciences,” a category that includes everything from anthropology to economics to political science and other disciplines that attempt to understand human action, either at the individual or collective level. One interesting aspect of these disciplines is that their practitioners don’t always agree on what constitutes an “understanding” or “explanation” of human behavior.
The great anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued that explaining human culture should be largely an interpretive exercise. “Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun,” he wrote, “I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.”** Geertz’s views contrast with those of his more positivist peers—Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, who sought to explain human culture in terms of underlying cognitive structures that give rise to the regularities in human behavior observed by ethnographers.
I highlight this multiplicity of views on understanding or explaining human actions because, like it or not, those of us who work in the field of philanthropy are engaged in a kind of experimental social science. We make grants because we predict (or at least fervently hope) that our interventions will shift human behavior in certain hoped-for ways: individuals will swear off their drug use, community-based organizations will create affordable housing, Senator So-And-So will introduce legislation to allow convicted felons to vote in state elections. After we make our grants, we test our predictions and adjust our grantmaking accordingly.
Those of you with grantmaking experience know, however, that our interventions seldom, if ever, unfold as we predict they will. Our inability to predict human actions with a high degree of accuracy has been understood and discussed by philosophers, psychologists, social scientists and others longer than the field of organized philanthropy has been in existence. Yet those of us who work in foundations ignore these fundamental truths about the difficulties of predicting human behavior when, for example, we construct elaborate theories of change, or worse, when we inflict them on our grantees. These truths don’t absolve us of the responsibility to change or inspire human behavior, but they do place limits on our attempts to anticipate or direct the many twists and turns of the human heart.
If the idea of philanthropy as an experimental social science unnerves you as much as it does me, how would you re-conceptualize it in a way that the most “results-oriented” among us would find compelling? If the idea appeals to you, how would you suggest that philanthropy capture and teach the lessons learned long ago in allied fields, especially those lessons that might help save our grantees and the communities we serve from unnecessary suffering? As I’ve argued elsewhere, at any conference of grantmakers, a careful observer will witness how generally oblivious we are as a field to historical truths, to insights into the nature of culture and how it changes over time, to new research into the rationality of human actors. Our attention spans are short, our memories even shorter.
Is it perhaps better that we ignore these truths? We’ve already made a complete hash of the simple exercise of giving money to good people with good ideas and getting out of their way. Perhaps at this stage in our development as a field, a deeper knowledge of the many disciplines and traditions that inflect our work would only add to our dysfunction.
3. Lies, Damned Lies, and the Social Sciences
Social scientists make an easy mark for their critics. We’ve seen or heard tales of alienists whose pseudoscientific testimony landed convictions for innocent people; pointy-headed apologists for the human rights abuses of despotic governments; equally well-credentialed economists who’ve used the same data to come to opposite conclusions about the effects of quantitative easing. As a young student of physics, I was taught to mistrust any discipline compelled to append the word “science” to its name. And yet I also know that these same disciplines regularly make claims that satisfy Popper’s requirement that they be falsifiable, and that they have the tools—the application of reason, training in the scientific method, peer review—that enable them to do effective self-policing. Mr. Schambra, in his justified critique of foundation proponents of eugenics underplays the vocal minority who understood eugenics to be a pseudoscience or who simply denounced it on ethical grounds.
Social scientists certainly don’t need my defense of their work. And they can give back as good as they get. In the November 1958 edition of Political Research: Organization and Design, for example, Alfred de Grazia penned this stinging editorial:
[T]he solution of certain fundamental problems cannot be expected of foundation leaders. They cannot be asked to decide whether foundation resources might be better paid over directly to private universities. Nor can they be reproached for deficiencies of imagination and genius, inasmuch as these qualities are almost entirely lacking, or at least undiscoverable, in the greater environment that embraces foundations. …
Still, some element of criticism seems to be lacking in the atmosphere in which the free foundations work. The foundations do not know how to receive criticism and those who pay attention to foundations do not know how to give it. … There is altogether too much cringing and fawning by the actual and potential beneficiaries of foundation largesse …***
These lines of criticism are as relevant now as they were 55 years ago. I strongly suspect there are foundation leaders not yet born who will be ignoring these critiques 55 years from now.
However chummy or antagonistic the relationship between foundations and social scientists might be in the year 2068, I’m convinced that they need one another now. Without the contributions of good social science, and without philanthropy’s enhanced ability to tell good social science from bad, grantmakers will forever flail about ineffectively. There is good social science on the causes of concentrated poverty in America: we don’t need to send so-called thought leaders to Bellagio or Davos to opine on the cure for this particular social ill, at least as it manifests itself in the US context. Some foundation leaders have had the moral courage to put race, class, and power on the table. We now need the courage to address these issues with every tool available to us, including the kinds of data and rigor the social sciences bring, married to the values that animated the life of St. Vincent de Paul, who vowed in his work never to forget the face of the poor.
* Cf. Donald Davidson’s Essays on Actions & Events
** Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of Cultures
*** Many thanks to my colleague Jeff Ubois for finding and sending this gem