Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Descriptive and Normative

I will never understand why the difference between descriptive statements and normative statements is so hard for people to understand.

David Berri once wrote a post on The Wages of Wins blog about who was widely considered an "MVP-candidate" but wasn't actually playing well. He was obviously making the normative statement "if you're not playing well, you don't deserve the MVP award. These guys aren't playing well [... you infer the rest]." But commenters objected, writing that Dave shouldn't title "Who is not the MVP" if he wasn't making a descriptive point about who is not the actual MVP. Yet we know that is a disingenuous point because if you take the title "Who is not the MVP" literally when the MVP won't be award for 5 months, then you expect the post to include every name in the NBA.

Still, you might be willing to cut the commentator some slack since writers often try to pass off normative statements for facts. Nicholas Krisftof wrote the worst op-ed he's ever written a few days ago. It's an opinion column celebrating wider availability for an abortificant that is very safe to use. It's obvious he's pro-choice and celebrating this fact because of the way he places facts in the article and the language he uses: "Up to 70,000 women die from complications of abortions . . .  last year the World Health Organization expanded it's uses as an 'essential medicine.'" But it's painful to read because, while this is an opinion column, Kristof is trying to hide his opinion and manipulate the reader by telling the story of a pill (with selectively chosen facts) as if it were a news story.

One of the most painful areas where people mix up normative and positive statements is when they talk about the arts. A third of the time when people say "that was a great movie" they mean that lots of people like or that on average people like it (descriptive), another third of the time they mean "I like it" (normative) and another third it's hard to know what they mean but it's something along the lines of either "this movie is widely praised by the elite" (descriptive) or "I think this movie will be widely praised by the elite for its structural properties" (normative). When I tried to write all of that I started to understand, just a little, why people can be so confused about whether people are saying something about what is or what should be. Look at this story where the author makes a statement of fact "Inception is ranked #3 on IMDb" but presents it in a warped way "Inception is the third greatest movie of all time." It certainly is not the third greatest movie of all time by any reasonable metric, so does he really just mean he liked it a lot? Or does he think IMDb is a representative poll? (This would make a nice post on why people need to learn statistics in high school.)

The most painful area, though, where people confuse the normative/positive distinction, is ethics. People often use "legal" as a proxy for moral, as in "well it ain't illegal" which is meant to imply it's acceptable and you shouldn't complain. To this day, despite being reminded a hundred times, my dad still thinks that say "the Supreme Court ruled [insert ruling, say that abortion is legal]" is a good argument for why I should think killing an infant is acceptable. Philosophers often confuse what is "natural" with what is right. This comes up often in relation to utilitarianism, where philosophers argue that because utilitarianism places too much of a burden on people to do the right things all the time that it's the wrong moral philosophy. If ethics had a low point of complete intellectual abdication in the past 50 years, it might be that debate. Yet, somehow, a related debate is starting to drag things down even further. As scientists have understand more about people's moral intuitions and it's become clear that, like how all languages are related and share a similar structure, all the rules different societies develop to regulate behavior share similar structure. Someone this has evolved into "morality is a product of evolution" becoming a catch-phrase that is meant to be taken as a normative statement--whatever your brain tells you to do is acceptable because your brain evolved to know right from wrong. Or something. It doesn't make any sense to me, but I've heard people I'd consider pretty smart and reasonable try to make that point.

All of that was cringe-inducing to write.

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