Patrick Thaddeus Jackson

For Accuracy, Consequences, and Truth. A Personal Manifesto.

The Trump Administration’s proclamation of “alternative facts” to suit the arguments they wish to make, and the branding of journalistic outlets that demonstrate the inaccuracy of the President’s statements as “FAKE NEWS!!!” have prompted me to do something I am not normally inclined to do: to actively campaign for the value and integrity of a broadly scientific approach as an important input to public deliberation. It’s not at all that I needed to be convinced of the value of such an approach; rather, it’s that I was somewhat blissfully unaware of the extent to which the current wave of populist politics was almost completely untroubled by notions of factuality. Sure, I had known that there was a hard core of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism that felt that scientific results and verifiable pieces of information were matters of opinion or belief — anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, people who worried about the U.N.’s supposed fleet of black helicopters that were waiting to swoop in and destroy national sovereignty — but I guess I always believed that such a minority would be held in check by the good sense of the rest of the electorate, even those with whose policy positions I disagreed. Apparently not. Apparently significant numbers of people in the U.S. were willing to vote for a demonstrated purveyor of convenient falsehoods — convenient in the sense that they support his, and their, preferred positions on a whole slew of issues. Welcome to the post-truth era.

Or: welcome to an era in which truth, and the earnest seeking after truth, is under assault, and under assault not for anything like defensible reasons. Instead, the political order of the day seems to be to make up whatever claims support one’s conclusions and then pass them off as “facts.” In my view what has changed is not politicians; politics was never about seeking truth, and frankly, shouldn’t be about truth but should instead be about making compromises and balancing priorities in order to make our common lives together work as well as they can. Believing that you and you alone have the truth makes you a poor politician, because you can’t compromise, and if you had the truth, why would you even want to? Politics is messy and imperfect, so we should never expect it to conform to ideal standards for the production of factual knowledge. Indeed, I suspect that most politicians would lie about and misrepresent situations as much as they could get away with doing so in pursuit of their agendas, because the central virtue in politics is effectiveness rather than integrity — and in the first instance that means effectiveness and gaining and retaining political power and influence.

All of which means that if we the people want our elected officials to make policy that engages facts instead of just making stuff up, we cannot rely on politicians or on the political process to defend that stance. We have to instead actively advocate and diligently defend the proper role of facts and factual explanations in relation to political contestation. Continue reading

And on that note…

It seems altogether appropriate to me that my last Duck post should be a post about pedagogy. The more years I spend in this business, the more convinced I am that our area of greatest impact, and the place where our academic vocations are most clearly on display, is the classroom. Whether in-person or virtual, hi-tech or low-tech, as a permanent member of a faculty or as a visitor coming in to guest-teach or participate in a single class session, the most unique and valuable thing that we do is to craft spaces for learning, and set up encounters of many sorts: encounters between students and teacher, encounters between students and readings, encounters between students and students, encounters between students and the world in all of its multifluous and grotesque majesty. “Uncomfortable facts” are our stock in trade, and helping students confront the limits of their perspectives and be thus made uncomfortable is our greatest good.

You may disagree. You may not think that classroom teaching is as central to the academic vocation as I do. You may think that my veneration of classroom teaching is unrealistically romantic, crypto-conservative, elitist, and perhaps even downright irresponsible given the challenges facing the world. So be it. While I am more than happy to continue a contentious conversion with any of you about this, we’ll have to do it in another forum than this one, because as we move closer to the date at which the new ISQ editorial team — of which I am a part, albeit a new and innovative part as my role on the team is to build out a revised web presence for the journal rather than being a traditional editor — takes on formal responsibilities for the journal, I hereby announce my resignation as a permanent contributing member of the Duck of Minerva.

As I do so, I will confess that I stand in awe of what this blog has become. In the beginning it was Dan, Rodger, Bill, and me, largely talking among ourselves in public. And look at it now: a large, intellectually diverse team, topics ranging from the extremely policy-relevant to the extremely geekily abstract (and sometimes both at once!), an institution that plays some indefinite but important role in the world of scholarly IR practice. I confess that I am a bad blogger; I write essays rather than posts, I free-ride on others’ work in putting up “morning linkage” posts, and I sometimes ignore other posts out there on the ‘Net when I put up my own thoughts. And I want to thank my colleagues here for being better at this than I am, but allowing me to be part of the community, and having a space to make my contributions. I take all of those lessons with me into the brave new world of a new web presence for ISQ, and I am convinced that my experience here will make me better able to help shape at least a corner of the online scholarly world to come.

Thank you all, and I’ll see you around the ‘Net, around at conferences, and around the world as long as I keep being fortunate enough to get invitations to come visit interesting academic places! Continue reading

Podcasting Killed the Lecturing Star

The first video ever played on MTV, back when MTV played music videos most of the time, was the one-hit wonder “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. A lament about how new technology ended the career of a singer who was well-adapted to the production standards and genre constraints of an earlier era, the song recounts an irreversible process:

In my mind and in my car
We can’t rewind we’ve gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart
Put the blame on VTR

Maybe this rings a faint bell for some of you. In any case, for a quick refresher, you can watch the whole thing here.

The great irony of MTV using this to launch an entirely new avenue for experiencing music (music videos weren’t new in 1981, but the idea of a basic cable channel that showed basically nothing but such videos was quite new) is that it took The Buggles’ tragic tale and drew from it, at least by implication, a silver lining: the end of the radio era was the condition of possibility for the video era, and the experience of music was thereby enhanced and transformed. Radio stars might die, but music would survive and thrive.

As I read the discussion thread that unfolded underneath my brief pedagogical query from a few weeks ago, and kept composing replies in my head that I couldn’t make the time for amidst the chaos of the opening week of the semester (and no, APSA had nothing to do with it, since I don’t go to APSA these days…but that’s material for another post entirely), I kept coming back to the thought that there was something of the sentiment of this song in many of the replies, and something of MTV’s ironic deployment of the song in my reaction. I would submit that podcasting has killed the lecturing star already, although news of that death has yet to reach all corners of the academy. Large live lecturing, like churning one’s own butter or properly loading a flintlock musket, is a historical curiosity, perhaps something one might expect to see in museums or at Renaissance Festivals being practiced as a hobby, but not in the heart of a university. But this death of the lecturer is also an opportunity for teaching, much as MTV was an opportunity for music — not wholly positive, not wholly negative, but different. And ignoring that difference, which we can keep doing in the academy for a while because of our tenuous-but-still-extant-in-many-quarters isolation from broader socioeconomic trends, is not a strategy for continuing to educate the students who keep filling up our classrooms and our campuses. Continue reading

Pedagogical query

Happy first day of Fall classes, at least at my university. A question for discussion:

Is there any value whatsoever to a live lecture delivered in front of large numbers of students, given that podcasting is now sufficiently easy and ubiquitous that anyone with a laptop or a smartphone (or a digital voice recorder or camcorder) or access to those devices via a campus IT services department can do it?

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The Society of Individuals

Although I have made many of the points I am about to make in comments posted on Phil’s and Eric’s posts about rational choice theory over the past week, what I want to do at this point is to pull the whole thing together and make clear just why I still maintain that rational choice theory — and indeed, the broader decision-theoretical world of which rational choice theory constitutes just a particular, heavily-mathematized province — endorses and naturalizes a form of selfishness that is ultimately corrosive of human community and detrimental to the very idea of moral action. This is not a social-scientific criticism, and has nothing to do with the explanatory power of decision-theoretic accounts. I am not suggesting that there are empirical phenomena that for some intrinsic reason can’t be accounted for in decision-theoretic terms; indeed, given a sufficiently clever decision theorist, armed with game theory on the one hand and some individual psychology on the other, I think it likely that everything of interest (except, as Phil and I acknowledge, fundamental changes in the constitution of actors themselves — this is his “paintbrush” point) could be explained decision-theoretically.

My point — my plea — is that it shouldn’t be. The “model of man” (sexism in original, and that’s almost certainly important…) at the heart of decision-theoretic accounts begins, as a matter of assumption, with individuals isolated from one another in a deep ontological sense. Such individuals can’t engage in moral action; the best they can do is to act in ways that happen to correspond with moral codes. Such individuals can’t make commitments to one another; the best they can do is associate and interact with one another as long as there are more benefits from doing so than from striking off in another direction. And such individuals can’t actually be members of communities, since their place in any given community is only ever contingent on factors over which they exercise no influence: namely, the strategic environment and their own preferences. Deploying explanatory models and theories that stem from such a notion of the human person, even though this is an ideal-type rather than an actual description or an explicit normative recommendation, reinforces the notion that this is how people are and should be, and that the most they can do is form, in Norbert Elias’ apt phrase, a “society of individuals.” In my view, reducing social outcomes to individual decisions is thus problematic for ethical, rather than explanatory, reasons. Continue reading

The Three Commandments for Editing a Journal

Typesetters Sorting CaseThis brief post started life as a comment on a Facebook discussion thread about peer reviewing practices but I thought it might deserve a wider readership. The question was raised: is it kosher for a journal editor to request information about good reviewers from the author of the manuscript? The general consensus, with which I agree, was that it’s fine to request those names because editors are always looking for qualified reviewers, and the author’s list might provide names that the editor might not have thought of. Of course, the editor need not be bound by that list, and shouldn’t be, but sometimes people in a subfield (or a sub-subfield) know the specific lay of their part of the intellectual landscape better than an editor does.

That said, this is the kind of thing that can be easily abused, as people game the system and give names of people who are most likely to give their manuscript a thumbs-up. And the peer review system is a creaky beast in any event, so I thought I’d lay down a few imperative commands to journal editors, mainly in order to provoke discussion but also to summarize in concise form my own experience both as a journal editor and as an author and reviewer:

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A Certain Kind of Selfishness

This is more of a riff on Phil’s post from last week than a direct reply; the post that Dan and I wrote addresses more directly the issue of actor autonomy that we think Phil misunderstood us on we and Phil were clearly on different semantic pages, so I am not going to go back over that ground here. Instead — and since we all basically agree that rational choice theory, as a species of decision-theoretic analysis, is located someplace in the tension between self-action and inter-action — I want to pursue a more specific point, the criticism of decision-theoretic accounts on both social-scientific and ethical grounds. In terms of the former register, there are kinds of questions that decision-theoretic accounts are simply not adequate to help us address. In terms of the latter register, the naturalization of individual selfishness that is inherent to decision-theoretical accounts regardless of the preferences held by individual actors and how self-regarding or other-regarding they might be, provides an important avenue on which all such theories can be called into question.
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Outside of Context: Iain M. Banks, 1954-2013

Yesterday the world lost one of its great contemporary literary lights. Iain M. Banks, named “one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945” by The Times in 2008, died of gall bladder cancer that had only been diagnosed this February. He finished his last novel — ironically, it’s a story about the final weeks of a man dying of cancer — very recently, and it’s due to be published before the end of the month. From all reports, he passed peacefully, having spent as much of his last months as possible spending time with his wife and close friends.

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The Lost Jedi Art of Reading Closely

I thought, mistakenly, that the Hoth symposium had run its course: Ackerman point, a bunch of us counterpoint both at Danger Room and elsewhere (here at Duck, and, if it’s not up yet it will be soon, over at Grand Blog Tarkin), and my tossing a little more fuel on the fire by arguing what I generally take to be a pretty obvious and I thought uncontroversial point: that Star Wars is a story about the struggle between Jedi and Sith about the nature of the Force, with other people and organizations (like the Rebel Alliance, and the Empire itself) getting caught up in the middle of what is, basically, a theological dispute. I thought that was pretty obvious because, well, the Star Wars universe is presented to us as one in which the Force exists and is efficacious, in which some people have Force-sensitivity and others do not, and in which the greatest of galactic events derive their importance from their connection to the Jedi-Sith struggle, whether we are talking about Palpatine’s election as Chancellor or Luke’s decision to leave Tatooine with Ben Kenobi.

Then I chanced (or maybe it was the will of the Force?) to glance at twitter as I was waiting to board a plane, and found this gem from Robert Farley: “The real story in the Star Wars universe is about whatever we find theoretically interesting and relevant.” What then ensued was a flurry of thrust-and-parry twitter jabs, a kind of miniature lightsaber duel carried out mainly through 140-character quips (although as Rob pointed out I did break that rule by producing several linked tweets that continued a thought past that limit; whether this is deserving of a penalty or not I leave for the general audience to decide). It was temporarily halted, not as in Episode I by a series of functionally-opaque force fields that impose a break in the action, but by the announcement that we had to turn off electronic devices in preparation for takeoff. Taking the time in fight to gather my thoughts and prepare a reply for posting, here is my contribution to a possible next round. Continue reading

It’s a trap. No, really, IT’S A TRAP.

Change you can believe in. Or is it a trap?

So our little geekfest-in-a-teacup has provoked, among other things, some additional contributions by members of The Duck focusing on additional ways that the Empire’s command structure and Imperial strategy towards the Rebel Alliance doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Imperial troops are feckless, letting the rebels escape on occasions when they should have been able to stop them easily. Opportunities to wipe out the rebels are missed through various kinds of incompetence, tactical or bureaucratic or otherwise. The Empire as a whole is riddled with inconsistencies and incoherences, clashes between divisions, competing goals, unclear budgeting priorities. And so on.

To all of that I say, along with my main Mon Calamari, Admiral Akbar: IT’S A TRAP. Really. The whole damn thing is a trap, not just specific instances of deception like the one that his most famous exclamation seems to refer to. Yes, it’s a trap that the shield generator is still working and the Death Star is operational when the rebel fleet jumps into the Endor system, but more to the point, the entire interstellar-galactic-political situation is a giant trap for the unwary, and by “the unwary” here I mean not just the various denizens of the Star Wars universe who are focusing on the wrong thing if they think that the main game in town is Empire-vs.Rebel Alliance, but also and perhaps even more profoundly the analysts who keep mistakenly treating anything that the Empire does as animated by the strategic goal of securing political rule and defeating insurgents. All of that is a sideshow, because the actual story here has nothing do with political rule; the contest is and always has been Sith vs. Jedi, which is more of a theological contest despite what misguided strategic analysts who don’t respect the conditional autonomy of constitutive ideas might think about it.

So, let’s review a little basic Star Wars history (and I am going to give the grade-school textbook version here, not the C-canon version). Once upon a time there were Sith engaged in an epic battle with Jedi, but the Jedi prevailed, set up their Temple on Coruscant, and proceeded to be the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy for a thousand generations, including their cooperation with the Old Republic. The Jedi order is based on the notion that the Force has two aspects, the Dark and the Light, and that only the Light has merit: they are, pretty directly, Manichaean dualists. Meanwhile the Sith bided their time, adopting the Rule Of Two — always two there are, a master and an apprentice, no more, no less — and managed to survive in the shadows, waiting. Palpatine, a.k.a. Darth Sidious, after killing his master Darth Plageous, becomes basically the single most powerful Sith Lord ever, with a command of the Dark Side of the Force to make anyone quail in terror. But even this isn’t enough against an entire galaxy that thinks of the Jedi Order as a good thing, so he launches a cunning plan to utterly destroy the Jedi by corrupting the Jedi Order (getting them involved in the Clone Wars as generals) and then turning the galaxy against them (declaring them traitors, blaming the war on them) and then killing off most of them (issuing Order 66, Vader’s rampage in the Temple). Vader then proceeds to hunt down and destroy the rest of the Jedi that he can find, and only misses Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda because they go into deep-cover hiding and lie very low for almost two decades.

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The Force is strong with this one

Episode I: Spencer Ackerman over at  Danger Room posts this analysis of the Battle of Hoth.

Episode II: 90 e-mails and twelve hours later, this symposium goes up on the Danger Room website including a contribution by our own Dan Nexon. Unfortunately, not all of us involved in the furious e-mail thread made the cut or the deadline, so not all of our replies were posted. Which brings us to:

Episode III: my piece, sadly not included in the Danger Room symposium. Below the fold.

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Hydrogen Sonata Forum wrap-up

Just to collect all the links from our Forum on Iain M. Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata into one coherent place:

Chris Brown: A Triumphant Return to Form | Gerard van der Ree: Learning from Utopia Iver B. Neumann: Religion and the Sublime | Patrick Thaddeus Jackson: Actors on the Sci-Fi Stage | Dan Nexon: To Sim, Perchance to Dream | and Iain M. Banks’ reply

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The Hydrogen Sonata Forum: Iain M. Banks Replies


General Warning: this is emphatically not a spoiler-free Forum! Hence all of the text all of the contributions will be safely below the fold, and only the identifying information for the author of the contribution will be here for even causal browsers to see.

Iain M. Banks is a celebrated author of both science fiction and “regular fiction.” According to his Wikipedia page, in 2008 The Times named him in their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945.” Continue reading

PTJ on The Hydrogen Sonata: Actors on the Sci-Fi Stage

The-Hydrogen-Sonata-Iain-M-BanksGeneral Warning: this is emphatically not a spoiler-free Forum! Hence all of the text all of the contributions will be safely below the fold, and only the identifying information for the author of the contribution will be here for even causal browsers to see.

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Relations and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the School of International Service at American University. Continue reading

Iver B. Neumann on The Hydrogen Sonata: Religion and the Sublime

The-Hydrogen-Sonata-Iain-M-BanksGeneral Warning: this is emphatically not a spoiler-free Forum! Hence all of the text all of the contributions will be safely below the fold, and only the identifying information for the author of the contribution will be here for even causal browsers to see.

Iver B. Neumann is Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics. For some reason he doesn’t have a personal page at the LSE, so here’s his Wikipedia page instead. Continue reading

Gerard van der Ree on The Hydrogen Sonata: “Learning From Utopia”

The-Hydrogen-Sonata-Iain-M-BanksGeneral Warning: this is emphatically not a spoiler-free Forum! Hence all of the text all of the contributions will be safely below the fold, and only the identifying information for the author of the contribution will be here for even causal browsers to see.

Gerard van der Ree is Assistant Professor at University College Utrecht. Continue reading

Chris Brown on The Hydrogen Sonata: “A Triumphant Return to Form”

General Warning: this is emphatically not a spoiler-free Forum! Hence all of the text all of the contributions will be safely below the fold, and only the identifying information for the author of the contribution will be here for even causal browsers to see.

Chris Brown is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Continue reading

A Christmas present: a Forum on Iain M. Banks’ new novel


Iain M. Banks, an especial favorite author of mine and someone on whom I‘ve written before, published a new novel earlier this Fall: The Hydrogen Sonata, the latest installment in his ongoing series of novels about The Culture, a post-scarcity pan-human civilization largely controlled by hyper-advanced artificial intelligences called Minds. I invited four other scholars — Dan Nexon, Iver Neuman, Chris Brown, and Gerard van der Ree — to write short critical essays on the novel, and sent the package to Iain for his comments. I now have all of the pieces in hand, and over the next few days I’ll post them here. Happy holidays. You’re welcome.

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Whither constructivism?

The first posting of some of the audio from this weekend’s ISA-Northeast conference is up over on my syndication site. This one is from a panel called “Whither Constructivism?” featuring Nick Onuf, Mike Barnett, and me, chaired by Sammy Barkin. I’ll get the audio from the methodology workshop up in the next couple of days, and Dan has the audio from our “science fiction and IR pedagogy” panel because my recorder crapped out and didn’t record it properly.

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I find your lack of faith…disturbing

Full disclosure: I am incapable of being completely, or even mainly, a detached observer or commentator when discussing either Star Wars or Disney, having grown up largely surrounded by both enterprises in equal measure. Anyone who walks into my office sees, hanging over my computer, two posters: a 50th anniversary Fantasia one-sheet, and an Episode I theatrical teaser poster. And chances are if it’s the first time you’ve come to visit me there, I’ll end up telling you why “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the saga are the largely same cautionary tale about hubris. And scattered around the rest of my office, a plethora of Star Wars toys and Legos, a number of Disney collectibles…you get the picture. And I have on this blog been accused of being a corporate shill, incapable of saying bad things about the media companies that own the copyrights to the raw cultural materials out of which we craft the meanings of our lives.

All that by way of saying that today’s announcement that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion and is planning a new Star Wars film for 2015 (Episode VII, reportedly, and expect massive argument within Geekdom At Large about just what that means right up until opening day, which for the sake of tradition better be late May 2015) produced the following reactions from me in this order:

1) speechlessness.

2) [a few minutes of frenzied Internet fact-checking to make sure that this was not a massive hoax]

3) you know, this could work.

4) OMG a new Star Wars film! In only three short years!!

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