The Science of Structure and the Apologetics of Agency

No Comments
What do Jonah Lehrer and Sheryl Sandberg have in common?

I think it's productive to see their separate moments in the sun through a shared lens. The way they've been received recently tells us something interesting about the way ideas of structure and agency play out in the popular press, and specifically how science fits into that picture.

In Lehrer's plagiarism and Sandberg's "Leaning In," critics have fixated on the relative emphasis the two give to structure and agency. Where Lehrer didn't take enough responsibility for his own agency, Sandberg made too much of hers (or any woman's), at the cost of structural inequalities. Below, I explore how (and why) the two account for structure and agency the way they do, with special emphasis on the role of science in their accounts.

Let's start with Lehrer.

Once the boy wonder of popular science, Lehrer's world fell apart late last summer amidst allegations (and confessions) that he had both plagiarized (his own work and others') and, at various points, outright fabricated. In a four-part series (links here), I used the episode to explore structural features of "the house that Gladwell built" and the place of popular science. 

Lehrer's recent apology did something similar—much to the displeasure of his critics. Many felt Lehrer avoided admitting fault by pivoting away from his misdeeds to tell a story about the way the rules we're forced to follow structure the actions we take. It's not that Lehrer denied wrongdoing; it's just that an apology is about your agency, not about what made (or let) you do it.

Critics called it a "meh culpa" and a "Mea Sorta Culpa." They were outraged that he thought he could "humblebrag his way back into journalism." The fact that he was paid $20,000 for his time certainly fueled the flames. But what was really at issue, displayed on the wall of live tweets behind him as he spoke, was the fact that he was using science to explain away his agency.

Live tweet by the man who first outed Lehrer
Lehrer says he needs new "standard operating procedures." In effect, he says that his faults are here to stay—all he can do is contain them, with "a new list of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures." Needless to say, this recourse to rules rankled journalists who see their trade as the pursuit of truth, not a flight from error. 

As Jennifer Scheussler put it for the New York Times: "before too long Mr. Lehrer was surrendering to the higher power of scientific research [and] the kind of scientific terms—“confirmation bias,” “anchoring”—he helped popularize." In the end, it was more structure than agency, more science than apology—which no one wanted.

Things are different—opposite, even—with the reception of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. Sandberg's book, currently the #1 New York Times bestseller, has been persistently (some say unfairly) contrasted with another hugely popular piece on gender and the workplace: Anne Marie Slaughter's much-read essay in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."

Slaughter's article, which sparked a healthy debate over the summer, was actually framed partly around Sandberg's take on similar issues, as expressed in a series of lectures (Lean In wasn't out) like the one above. While applauding many of Sandberg's points, Slaughter takes strong issue with her charge that the lack of female leaders can be explained by an "ambition gap."

It's a critique Slaughter sharpened in her recent review of Lean In for the New York Times Book Review. Though Sandberg recognizes both women's agency and the structures that constrain it, "she chooses to concentrate only on the 'internal obstacles,' the ways in which women hold themselves back. This," Slaughter adds, "is unfortunate." Yes, women should lean in; but so should "business."

Many, including Slaughter, have faulted Sandberg for generalizing from a privileged position within the corporate world. That is, it's too easy for a woman who seems to have it all (or as close to it as one can get) to emphasize individual agency as the driving force of inequality. Structure, suggests Slaughter, slips through the cracks of Sandberg's self-help feminism.

Which brings me back to structure vs. agency. Where Lehrer emphasized structures, Sandberg touts agency. And, while both draw extensively on scientific studies, these seem to align much more strongly with the structural side of things. Maybe this is obvious, but it's helped me clarify some of the issues I was teasing out of Lehrer's fall last autumn.

For Lehrer, science suggests that his pre-conscious biases require structural constraints. On this view, agency eludes articulation—in fact, it's hardly there at all. Sandberg, by contrast, uses science (and statistics) to flesh those structural constraints out in full—and then argues for agency as a way to push through them.

Either way, the scientific world "out there" is a structural one. As far as agency goes, it either vanishes entirely (in the case of Lehrer) or exists somewhere outside the studies, a sort of deus ex machina—in Sandberg's view—to fight back against the structures that constrain it. When all is TED and done, it's up to us (ironically, perhaps) to decide which it is.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

back to top