Illuminating inversions

It is often illuminating to invert a statement or a concern that has been made explicitly. Consider, for example, the response of Jean Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, when confronted (c. 1982) with the ruling that the United States was mining the ocean to prevent ships getting to Nicaragua. Her response was to imply that it was Nicaragua that was the aggressor, in some not well specified way, but to do so by citing a lesson from psychology. The lesson was that often when a person is in the wrong, that person projects a problem onto the other person, the accuser. The irony here was that the United States was mining the harbors and Jean Kirkpatrick was projecting the U.S. violation of international law on to Nicaragua.

This example primed me to watch for projections by Republican or right-wing politicians. Or, in other words, inverting what they said can often be very illuminating. To pick a current example, the frothing at the mouth about Obama using executive actions to implement certain policies, when inverted, invites us to look at what is stated by the current Republican candidates for president, namely that they would use the power of the presidency to) plan parenthood, to carpet bomb areas Assyria, to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and so on. Moreover, the accusation serves either to distract attention from, or, by inversion, to invite us to examine the excesses of presidential power under George W. Bush.

If we move away from politics, inversions can be illuminating in discussions about science. An example that has always intrigued me is the claim of Arthur Jensen (c. 1970) that his studies of heritability, race, and IQ test scores meant that the US should stop trying to educate everyone in the same way—It would be better to customize education to meet the specific talents and aptitudes of each student. Many readers liked that conclusion – it sounds right—none of us feels good about being treated as just another body in the mass.

But he was writing at the end of the 60s and into the early 70s. There was no one size fits all education in the US at that time and, give or take attempts to establish national standards in certain subjects, there is no one-size-fits-all education in United States today. So, inverting that explicitly expressed concern, we might consider why Jensen and his readers would be concerned about attempts to reduce the drastic inequalities in the way students were educated.

The most striking inequality in the United States of the 60s was the racial inequality in educational opportunities, treatment, and outcomes. Ironically, Jensen’s arguments about heritability, race, and IQ test scores (arguments that many have shown to be seriously flawed) concluded not that each individual should be treated according to their specific talents and aptitudes, but that, if there were average differences between racially defined groups, then educational policy should be prepared to emphasize what the key is to be strongest in average for each group. Specifically, what that meant is that African-Americans should be taught through rote learning. In other words, individuals should be treated equally within a racially defined group – exactly the opposite of the conclusion that Jensen claimed to be making and that many readers liked.

An analogous issue emerges once we look at the attractive idea that medical treatment should match our personal traits (e.g., weight, metabolism, sensitivity), not one dose fits all.  The relevant inversion is teased out in an earlier post.


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