What Errol Morris, Kuhn, and Incomensurability have to do with Military Stability Operations

INCOMMENSURABILITY – Opinionator – NYTimes.com.

Errol Morris recently wrote a five part piece in the New York times Opinionator on Thomas Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability. In studying the history and philosophy of science, Kuhn claimed that identical words and concepts were used in different ways that could not be resolved because they were emplaced within different and often incompatible systems of belief. Different “paradigms” conceived of the world in such different ways that it was near impossible to fully translate the meaning of a concept from its emplacement in one theory versus that of another. In other words, theories belonging to different “paradigms” are in effect theories that belong to different worlds. If you do not occupy a position in one of the worlds you cannot grasp what makes a particular theory or set of concepts seem salient. In Kuhns view, it is impossible to “translate” concepts from one theory to that of another theory because they only have meaning against the background of the originating theory. To move it into another theoretical matrix would be to change the meaning. This is akin to a gestalt flip (think the duck/rabbit illusion). But as Morris justly argues, Kuhn was wrong to use this analaogy because in a real gestalt flip, we do not loose the ability to percieve the duck/rabbit image as either a duck or a rabbit. We may only be able to see one image at a time, but we never loose sight of the fact that it has the potential to be both. Nor do we encounter a crisis of perception or judgement during Gestalt flips.

Morris was critical of the concept of incommensurability, essentially arguing that we could not even conceive of having a discussion of incommensurability if it were indeed the case that incommensurability were true. To try to historically or logically recover how scientific theories have changed with time should be impossible but yet philosophers, historians, and sociologists have made a cottage industry out of the practice. Something must be wrong here.

Morris cites Kripke’s “Naming and Necessity” as one way of understanding how we are able to overcome the “incommensurability” problem. Although Kripke didn’t think so, I actually think that the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations, On Certainty, and also The Brown and Blue Books provides a way of understanding how language and naming work in a non descriptive and non-correspondance theory of truth manner to help explain why we can overcome not just differences in theories but differences in world views (or culture, ideology, semantic network or whatever else you wish to call it).

Similarly, I recently gave a talk about a similar problem as define by Quine, problem of “radical translation” (which appears in Object and Word and another work). In a manner similar to, but more behavioralisticly oriented, than Wittgenstein, Quine argues that even though to a philosopher we may never be certain as the meaning of a word when trying to translate it from one language to another, completely unrelated one, this is in fact not a meaningful problem. Quine asserts that a field linguist, attempting to make sense of and translate an unfamiliar language is not dabbling in meanings but in linguistic conventions for which certainties are not necessary to allow for effective communication. In effect, according to Quine, the philosopher has misunderstood what is going on during actual translations.

A wonderful philosopher who happens to be my brother, Kevin Lande, put it succinctly:

“The radical translation thought experiment and the point about the indeterminacy of translation continues the attack on mentalism and the concept of meaning. We could, in principle, have an indefinite number of different translation manuals that assign incompatible synonymy relations, all of which account for linguistic behavior. Synonymy, therefore, can’t be read off of first-order linguistic behavior. But since behavior is all that the field linguist has to work from, we must realize that the field linguist isn’t/can’t be interested in anything like “meanings.” She is just interested in mapping the behavior. For Quine, this means that the field linguist isn’t trying to discover synonymy relations in the native’s language. She is searching for assent-conditions and dissent-conditions (as opposed to truth-conditions)–she doesn’t care if the sentence “Gavagai” has the same meaning or propositional content as our sentence “There is a rabbit”; what matters is that all the cases in which the native would assent to “Gavagai” are the cases in which a native English-speaker would assent to “There is a rabbit.”

So, Quine’s point is exactly that determining meaning isn’t a problem for the field linguist. In keeping with his naturalism, we should take a queue from the linguist: look at how the scientist would actually do her work if ever there were a case of radical translation, and stop worry about meanings and synonymy. Just worry about behavior.”

Thus for Quine there is no “incommensurability” of translation ‘for all practical intents and purposes’ and, I think, he would argue the same is true of Kuhn and his “paradigms.” For Quine, there is no absolute truth about the meaning of words. But then again, he denies the traditional representational understanding of meaning. This does not mean that words are not ‘meaningful’ or ‘significant’ to Quine. Quite the contrary, they matter in so much as they are pragmatically employed against a background context of conventional usage. But translation is not, for Quine, a matter of synonymy. For Kuhn, moving between theories does seem to be about synonymy. This is odd given the weight that Kuhn also places on the practical actions that ground a paradigm.

So what does this have to do with training service member to prepare for life on a provincial reconstruction team or for stability operations?  Our current best efforts to prepare service members for life in an unfamiliar and, to use Quines lingo, ‘unreleated’ culture, try to ‘translate’ another societies language, customs, and forms of life (to use Wittgenstien!). But, as Quine suggests, such an attempt will only have limited sucess because, by focusing on meanings, rather than engaging in practices, we prepare people to focus on a poorly defined problem of translation. The field linguist in Quines thought experiment, and I imagine the good philosopher of science in Errol Morris’s opinion piece,  are doing something else. They are finding ways of becoming engaged in forms of life, of learning the meaning of actions (not as intellectual effort of synonymy) in terms of their pragmatics implications and affordances within specific situations.   To avoid binding up training in terms of problems of “radical translation” or “incommensurability” we might want to focus on giving Marines and Soldiers the ‘ethnomethods’, i.e. some folk procedures, practices, and techniques for building up recognition of what are, in effect, patterns of use of words, gestures, comportments, manners, rituals, etc. This means focusing on sensemaking and procedures for entering into meaningful relationships and interactions with “unreleated” conspecifics.

Crc day 4

IED wisdom: if you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up.

CRC – Day 3

Final day of firearms qualifications, followed by OSHA regulations, and use-of-force policies. Once again, excellent training. Learned a new way of gripping the AR-15 carbine for shooting while standing and moving. The position is of grabbing the heat shield, from over the top and pulling the weapon into the shoulder. Great stability with less fatigue. Also practiced shooting while moving. Again, some new techniques (to me) involving rolling the foot from the heal, through the outside of the foot, to the ball of the foot. Creates better stability and reduces some of the jerky eye movements that create the illusion of the front sight being off target. Best of all, everyone qualified with high scores.

CRC – Day 2

Today was half of our firearms qualifications: Glock 19  (9mm) and AK-47. Everyone passed.  I received fantastic one-on-one instruction from the USTC cadre. Worked on refining my trigger pull especially some start-pause-start movements that I had never noticed before.  I also learned a more aggressive shooting posture for using with the AK-47 or AR platforms. A great day of shooting!

CRC — Day 1

Today I arrived at the sprawling campus of the United States Training Center (formerly owned by Blackwater) for my first day of pre-deployment training. The USTC’s facilities are top notch, with 40 plus rangers, rappel towers, shoot houses on land and on water (for naval  operators and USCG), and high quality classrooms. My CRC class is small, three people (and this includes me) and consists of a former Army soldier and a former naval officer. I am the only “govie.” The instructors are all former military, Marine and Army and were extraordinarily professional.

Today’s events were not too exciting, mostly medical checkups, admin paper work, and an overview of activites. I had two more vaccinations and one final blood draw  and I should be set to  be medically cleared. By coincidence, one of the fellows in the CRC course had a buddy of mind from Army ROTC as his XO! Small world.

Tomorrow the fun begins. Pistol and AK-47 qualifications. As the instructor put it, “If it gets real bad, there is always an AK laying around!”

Training Police For Counterterrorism

How We Train Our Cops to Fear Islam – Meg Stalcup and Joshua Craze.

Patrol officers should be cautious of the  counter-terrorism training they are exposed to. The article “How We Train Our Cops to Fear Islam” from The Washington Monthly, provides insight into how poor training makes it through the cracks.

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Meg Stalcup, is an anthropologist and writer at University of Washington. In the linked piece above, Meg and her colleague, Joshua Craze, expose the poor quality of the counterterrorism training that is available to local, state, and federal law enforcement.  While the article focuses on one trainer, in particular, Sam Kharoba, this subject is primarily used as an illustrative metaphor of a sociological story about how institutions come to make and recognize experts. In summary the problem is that persons with no prior law enforcement background, no direct background in counterterrorism practices (e.g. as operators, in intelligence, in analysis, etc.)  and no scientific credentials on the topics are able to  teach thousands of law enforcement officers questionable practices and provide dubious knowledge about terrorists and the Muslims.

The sociological take away is that there are few boundaries of entry to into the field of counterterrorism training. To legitimate counterterrorism practices and training requires little effort other than good marketing and charismatic presentations to police and federal agents. Best practices and  rigorous research into counterterrorist training, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) do not apear to be requirements for the acceptance of counterterrorism TTPs.

Further, it is difficult for Law Enforcement Agencies (LE) to determine whether or not someone is qualified to conduct training. So long as a trainer can successfully claim to be an expert to at least one LE, then it become difficult for other LE to discriminate the actual qualifications of the trainer. This is especially so if a trainer is picked up on the training circuit by any one of the many state and federal intelligence or narcotics task forces. More insidiously, the Anti-Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB), that claims to consecrate training as rigorous and accurate, is not a federally constituted organization nor are its practices vetted by organizations like the FBI, FLETC, or other Federal LE for scientific credibility.

Other gatekeepers, like the rigorous California Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, provide some protection to the LE community but do not have the ability to dig deep into training practices themselves to vet them for quality and effectiveness. Meg writes:

Another theoretical gatekeeper to the world of training is at the state level. In many states, entities called Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) boards determine what should be taught both in basic training and in continuing education courses. However, POST approval does not entail evaluation of the content of each course. If an instructor submits a syllabus that lists appropriate topics and concepts, teaching accurate course content is that instructor’s job. Approval of the instructor, in turn, is usually done on the basis of a resume.”

More salient for those who do care about the rigor and validity of training practices is the fact that increasingly, training is provided free to LE through federally funded organizations like the HIDTAs (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Task Force). I, like many peace officers I know, are huge fans of the the HIDTA trainings we are able to attend for free in order to receive high quality training. However, as Meg points out, organizations that accept free training have to be careful in how they respond to poor training. The training organizations that provide free training, like the HIDTAs, often can refuse to have a questionable training take place, but complaining about or reporting bad training and trainers to the originating institution may be seen as risky. For example, to report bad training from another organization or task force is concievably tantamount to an insult to the organization that accepted poor quality training. So in order to continue being able to receive free training from sources around the U.S., organizations like the HIDTAs may have to tolerate poor training and unqualified instructors.

So what can the cop on the beat, who eagerly is seeking further free training to enhance his or her professionalism, especially during the recession,  do? My suggestion is to always do a quick web search of instructors for the courses you are interested in attending. While no guarantee, I tend to find that instructors with extensive law enforcement backgrounds are more reliable than those with none. Further, if the instructor has a degree, investigate whether or not the degree comes from an accredited university or college. Moreover, investigate the quality of that institution of higher education. The better the university the more likely that the instructor will have been held to higher standards of accountability for research originating during their advanced studies. Look to see if the instructor has published. Ask, “where did they publish?” You want instructors, especially those teaching on difficult topics like Islam, politics, etc. to truly be subject matter experts, and they should be publishing in peer-reviewed journals and demonstrating a thorough mastery of their knowledge through extensive references from other credible sources. None of this is a guarantee but it helps the individual officer determine whether training content and instructors are worth your precious time.

Be safe!

Kennedy on new armies

From a 1962 JFK speech: “Your military responsibilities will require a versatility and an adaptability never before required in war or in peace.”

“Sec Def” Gates at West Point, 2011:”In my opinion, any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined’, as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Atlanta police get new mobile fingerprint scanners

Atlanta police get new mobile fingerprint scanners.

The state of Georgia recently received a grant to purchase portable fingerprint scanners. Such technology could greatly improve an officers ability to do their job without using up valuable radio space, going back to their patrol cars Mobile Digital Terminals, and making identification in the field more efficient. A major concern is the privacy implications of the new scanners.  The ACLU’s primary concern is that the scanners are collecting finger print images and storing them for use even when there is no probable cause for an arrest. Thus far there appears to be no evidence that the data sent back from the scanners is being stored.

Cognitive interviewing linked to ‘fair, objective’ OIS investigations

Cognitive interviewing linked to ‘fair, objective’ OIS investigations.

The above article, from the Force Science Institute and posted at PoliceOne.com, makes an obvious but often forgotten point, that the types of interview methods we use are appropriate only to certain types of interview situations. Cognitive Interviewing, much like critical incident interviews, are about trying to get the best quality memory retrieval possible and to help the reveal to the interviewer the officers understanding of the situation at the time (not just the rationalizations and ad hoc justifications that officers or other witnesses generate to “account” for an event).