A closer look at the UMC Call to Action (Afterword)

(This is the Afterword in a series taking a closer look at the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) Call to Action Steering Team Report.

The first part is here.)

As an infant, I was baptized in a United Methodist congregation.  I left the denomination when I was old enough to decide for myself where to spend Sunday mornings.  The past few years have seen me returning to church.  This returning is very much a story-in-progress, and in any event is best left for another time and perhaps another place.

The Call to Action Steering Team Report claims to be something new under the sun.  This Report reminds me of some of the reasons why I left the church for the first time.  Here are two of them.

Patterns of leadership

I don’t want to say that all leaders are like this, but there are often a select few who self-select themselves into leadership positions.  These select few often have an influence beyond their numbers due to their style: they often dominate discussions and come off as experts on every subject.  They have no time for questions or for doubts, whether from themselves or from others: the meek and the gentle need not serve with them.  The passage from the Report’s page 41 which was quoted in part 1 (about “cause and effect relationships”) is one passage in the Report that reminds me of this style of leadership.  It is a leadership style of which I am not particularly fond.

Page 19 calls for leaders

to forge strong coalitions, joining with willing partners who agree to disagree about lesser matters and setting aside many passionate causes in order to focus instead on overarching goals for the greater good. Choosing to continue behaviors that arise from narrow interests and subordinate objectives will lead to increased divisiveness and accelerate the current disintegration.

The above is a perfectly noble sentiment in the abstract, yet who decides what are “lesser matters” or “narrow interests” or “subordinate objectives”?  Will these priorities be determined by a process closer to broadly inclusive deliberation or closer to American managerial groupthink?

The future could be about creating numerous and diverse places to scatter seed, sustainably, year in and year out.  Or it could be about which low-level manager can take credit for most birds nesting during the previous quarter.

Role of Interpretation

The Report states over and over and over again about the importance of objective measures.  But being objective does not automatically make something meaningful.  Take the numeral 8: it is an objective concept, but its objectivity by itself does not mean that every use of the numeral is meaningful.  A concrete example, adapted from John Allen Paulos’ book Innumeracy: “4+4=8” is an objective, true statement of arithmetic.  It does not follow from this statement that 4 cups of water plus 4 cups of popcorn equals 8 cups of soggy popcorn.  This claim about soggy popcorn is an objective statement, yet it does not represent a meaningful application of arithmetic.  In order to apply mathematical statements in a meaningful way, we have to interpret them.

I’m not certain about interpretation in mathematics.  I don’t know what academic study these practical considerations fall under.  I have an undergraduate degree in math, but interpretation itself only came up occasionally and informally.  I hope it’s OK to point out that mathematical interpretation involves tradition, reason, and experience.  (These three elements aren’t isolated; they overlap and interfuse one another.)  Tradition gives us basic notation (Hindu-Arabic numerals such as “1” and “3” indicate the numbers “one” and “three”), basic ideas (we can think of “zero” as “nothing standing for something”), and more recent concepts.  Reason includes not only the basic steps of calculation, but it can also involve larger questions of coherence with our goals.  Experience consists of not only how each of us learned the rudiments of counting, but also helps us find our goals.  Again, these aren’t isolated from each other.  For example, experience draws on traditional notation in order to express itself.  Reason can draw on experience to find new proofs of familiar truths.  Tradition can draw on reason to persuade rather than rely on the weight of custom.

Interpretation also involves acknowledging our limitations.  No one should think of me as an authority on statistics.  Trust, but verify.  Similarly, acknowledging our limitations opens us up to what others contribute.

The Report’s vision of applied mathematics assumes an analysis that mechanically outputs a single unambiguous authoritative conclusion.  This isn’t a harmless difference of opinion.  The Report’s vision threatens to cut off needed discussions before they start, all in the name of a pseudoscientific objectivity.

Cargo cult science

During his commencement speech at California Institute of Technology in 1974, Richard Feynman spoke (PDF) about what he called “cargo cult science” (since these remarks were made in 1974, they don’t necessarily capture current practice in the South Seas; this date would also account for his mention of “the other fellow”):

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

Others have used this metaphor in different contexts.  In The Trouble With Nigeria, Chinua Achebe criticized Nigerian leaders for displaying a “cargo cult mentality.”

As we begin 2012, it’s an open question whether the United Methodist Church will fully embrace a cargo cult methodology.