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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Reconfirmation Bias Among Conservative Literary Scholars: Jane Austen’s Hidden Special Victims Unit

The Flat Earth Society came to my mind yesterday after reading Michael Chwe’s recent NY Times Op/Ed piece …..

…entitled “Scientific Pride and Prejudice”, in which Chwe concisely and clearly addressed the issue of  “confirmation bias” in science and literary criticism.  Let me explain how I made that strange association.

First, here are the excerpts from his piece that particularly caught my eye:

“A major root of the crisis is selective use of data. Scientists, eager to make striking new claims, focus only on evidence that supports their preconceptions. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias”: We seek out information that confirms what we already believe. “We each begin probably with a little bias,” as Jane Austen writes in Persuasion,  “and upon that bias build every circumstance in favor of it.” Despite the popular belief that anything goes in literary criticism, the field has real standards of scholarly validity.
…In literary criticism, the question of how one’s arguments are influenced by one’s prejudgments has been a central methodological issue for decades. Sometimes prejudgments are hard to resist.
… We all bring different preconceptions to our inquiries, whether about Austen or the electron, and these preconceptions can spur as well as blind us. Perhaps because of its self-awareness about what Austen would call the “whims and caprices” of human reasoning, the field of psychology has been most aggressive in dealing with doubts about the validity of its research…the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman suggests that “to deal effectively with the doubts you should acknowledge their existence and confront them straight on, because a posture of defiant denial is self-defeating.” Everyone, including natural scientists, social scientists and humanists, could use a little more self-awareness. Understanding science as fundamentally a human process might be necessary to save science itself. “  END QUOTE

I wish to add a very simple but absolutely crucial gloss to Chwe’s otherwise unimpeachable thesis---one which Chwe would, I am very confident, be in hearty agreement with.  When he writes “Scientists, eager to MAKE striking new claims, focus only on evidence that supports their preconceptions,”, I would add  the following corollary:  “And those, whether other scientists or lay people, eager to REJECT striking new claims, ALSO focus only on evidence that supports their preconceptions.”

I.e., it is not only the scientists (like the biologists Chwe mentioned who very publicly and embarrassingly got it wrong about discovering a new life form a few years ago) and the literary critics (like Chwe himself, with his Austenian game theory claims, who was recently attacked for same by Deresiewicz) who must be on guard against confirmation bias, it’s equally incumbent upon those status-quo defenders who, as Thomas Kuhn so eloquently asserted in his brilliant and hugely influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, hold on to debunked theories, such that new, better theories only achieve wide acceptance from the next generation of scientists.

Here’s a perfect example of this conservative bias: as I pointed out the other day as I supported Chwe in rebutting Deresiewicz’s (unfounded) claims that Chwe’s game theory analyses of Austen were “intellectually bankrupt”, Deresiewicz unwittingly revealed a glaring example of his own (if you will) REconfirmation bias when he baldly asserted, based on nothing other than his own preconceptions about JA’s writing, that “Austen was a novelist. She didn’t write textbooks, she had no use for concepts, and she wasn’t interested in making arguments. If she had a research program, as Chwe insists, it was into the techniques of fiction and the possibilities of the English language….” Talk about begging a big question!

If you agree with what Deresiewicz claims there, then I suggest to you that you may share his misguided preconception about what being a novelist meant to Jane Austen, a preconception which, I suggest, is deeply at odds with the actual evidence everywhere in her writing. That textual evidence shows that she was extremely interested in concepts, in making veiled arguments about every aspect of human life, and indeed was a lifelong & perpetual “studier of character”, i.e., psychologist, and observer/analyst of human nature and behavior.

But Deresiewicz did not invent his preconception, he absorbed it from pretty much everything he has read or heard from other Austen scholars, in much the same way that (as per Henry Crawford) English folk supposedly learn(ed) Shakespeare:

“But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately."

Now, in the realm of Austen studies, it is clear to me how so intelligent and learned a critic as Deresiewicz clearly is, could yet feel so confident in making such a huge assumption, and then not even bother to support it with evidence. It is because, I infer, he was articulating the Standard Model of Austen criticism. It needs no explanation, because it is what “everyone” already believes. Somehow, that weight of  cumulative opinion is supposed  to suffice  by itself.

But that’s the key point—Jane Austen, in writing that passage, anticipated (indeed, invited) that sort of reaction to her writing! Think about it---do you really think that Henry Crawford was speaking for Jane Austen personally, and that she believed that any ordinary Englishman of any brain would just fall into the flow of Shakespeare’s meaning immediately, intimate with that meaning by instinct?

Upon examination, I suggest, this is nonsense! Even a brilliant man like Henry Crawford, with both an excellent formal education and also obvious native intellectual of the highest order, would have had to study Shakespeare very carefully indeed over a long period of time, to achieve the level of intimacy with Shakespeare which he so obviously had achieved. Is Shakespeare so simple to understand?  Of course not! There are infinite depths in Shakespeare that a lifetime of study is not sufficient to fully grasp.

And Jane Austen, of course, knew this very well, because my research has conclusively established that she had herself, when she wrote Henry’s speech, studied Shakespeare very closely over her entire writing career spanning nearly 3 decades, and had recreated (in both senses of that word) Shakespeare in her own personal style and in a novelistic medium with unparalleled success.

And here’s the best part. JA was self-confident enough in her own writing, and in her own understanding of the likes of Shakespeare, that she  could afford to wink at patronizing, condescending reactions to her writing in this way—it’s not just in that passage that JA parodies the kind of dismissive interpretation of her as a writer of “mere novels”, writing for a supposedly undiscriminating unintellectual female readership. What she’s really saying, on a meta level, using the charismatic Henry Crawford as her ventriloquist’s dummy, is that any reader who believes they can absorb HER meaning by instinct, without any conscious effort and study, is going to wind up with exactly the wrong opinion about Shakespeare, and about her writing as well!

If there is any characteristic that unites JA with Henry Crawford, and with Lizzy Bennet during the first half of P&P, it is what Darcy so succinctly expressed:

"I shall not say you are mistaken," he replied, "because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you; and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own."
Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself…”

And I assert, with a high degree of confidence, that a significant portion of the basis of the widespread mistaken preconceptions that still widely prevail about Jane Austen, are based on a widespread fundamental failure to recognize that JA, via Darcy, was describing Jane Austen herself, both as to the opinions that her novels seem to express on her behalf, and also as to the opinions her letters seem to express as well. In a nutshell, Darcy was describing Elizabeth’s ironical inclinations, and in so do, he points backwards to his own creator, Jane Austen, for whom irony was the heart and soul of every word she wrote.  

Now, that sets the stage for me to return to Chwe’s op/ed piece, and to my claim that reconfirmation bias is at least as big a risk for those who preserve the status quo in science and literary criticism, as confirmation bias is for those who would demolish it. If  anything, the longer  an opinion is held, the harder it will be to change. So old wrong  ideas will be much harder to give up than new wrong  ideas!

Just think about the once widespread certainty that the sun revolves around the earth, that infectious diseases are caused by demons, that life on earth did not evolve, and a thousand other once-widely held “certainties”, both ancient and modern, which have, sooner or later, been discarded by educated people as a result of scientific evidence to the contrary.

It’s easy to reconstruct the kinds of preconceptions that people must have once held, in order to so tenaciously cling to such wrong ideas. Reconfirmation bias is the intellectual equivalent of digging in one’s heels. And so it just seems to be easier to spot confirmation bias in reformers than in conservative thinkers. But we’re all of us, reformers and conservatives, human beings subject to that same sort of potential prejudice and preconception.

Which brings me at long last to my punch line--- my central claim, which I have kept busy for nearly a decade researching, is that Jane Austen’s novels are all double stories, as to which the concealed “shadow stories” are reflective of an author who was a radical free-thinking feminist who was a fierce critic of all patriarchal aspects of her society. Obviously, this view is currently espoused only by a small number of Janeites who’ve become familiar with my theories, and have found them convincing based on the diffuse format I have presented them in to date.

So, from my (admittedly mostly solitary) side of the telescope, the universal belief that JA’s novels are not double stories is comparable to the once universal belief that the world is flat. I claim that each Austen novel is a “house” which consists of not one, but two stories (all puns intended).

But I also fully recognize that the burden of proof I will carry in order to achieve wide acceptance of my claims will be very heavy. Hence the decade I’ve spent patiently peeling away successive layers of JA’s literary onions, compressing my conceptual framework tighter and tighter together. And a key portion of my argument, I have also long recognized, will be to demonstrate the reconfirmation bias that I see everywhere in contemporary Austen literary criticism.

Chwe wrote about the grave danger of “focus only on evidence that supports their preconceptions”. I will therefore leave you with perhaps the best example I know of reconfirmation bias among Janeites who do not believe JA was a radical critic of her patriarchal society, or that she expressed the sharpest part of her critique  sub rosa, just beneath the light bright and sparkling surface of her novels.

In 1999, i.e., 14 years ago, Jill Heydt-Stevenson presented unassailable evidence, expressed in clear terms, that Garricks’s Riddle, which Mr. Woodhouse struggles to recall in Chapter 9 of Emma, is, when read in full (i.e., including, crucially, the much dicier stanzas he can NOT recall) the expression of a syphilitic man’s depraved urge to cure his venereal disease by having sex with a “frozen maid”, i.e., a virgin girl.

Now, this was 14 years ago, so it dates back to the beginning of Internet discourse about Jane Austen. Since 2005, when I first read JHS’s claims about Mr. Woodhouse’s hidden meaning, I’ve written about it  many times in Austen L, in Janeites, and in my blog. And her work has been cited, albeit always in passing, in many subsequent books and articles.

But how many of you who reading this today, who have a firmly held opinion about JA’s authorial intentions being very different from those I’ve ascribed to her, above, have ever really tried to come to terms with WHY JA would insert such a disgusting, horrifying subtext as this in one of her novels, and what’s more, to do it in such a subliminal way?

This is a theme that we’d expect to see instead in the long running Special Victims Unit TV series starring Mariska Hargitay, not in Emma, and especially not in a scene that, superficially, as we fondly observe and listen to Emma, her father, Harriet and Mr. Elton  seems to be nothing other than a masterful comedy of romantic errors.

Garrick’s Riddle in Emma is evidence that supports my otherwise seemingly preposterous conception of Jane Austen. Before rejecting my admittedly radical new interpretation of its significance out of hand, and before suggesting that I have been guilty of confirmation bias, have you focused enough on this evidence to properly assess its implications for your theory of Jane Austen?  Have you paid attention to JA’s near universal deployment of irony in her writing?

Specifically, have you considered whether this evidence might, combined with hundreds of other disturbing cruxes and ambiguities scattered throughout JA’s novels, support my claim that there are actually two versions of each of these novels, one of them much darker than previously understood in Austen novels?  

And if you haven’t considered, and are not prompted by this post to do so now, then how exactly does that differ from what I’ve dubbed reconfirmation bias?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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