Frameworks, And Their Problems

As a long-time blogger, I have more than my fair share of experience with frameworks. For my purposes here, I'll use the word "framework" to apply to any systematic conceptualization of an issue. A framework is any structured way of looking at anything at all, any narrative that does the job of conceptualizing the matter in a way that makes it easier to think about.

To use plainer language, human beings have a tendency to do their thinking via the use of stories. The Big Bang Theory isn't just a set of laws about physics, it's a narrative that tells the story of the creation of the universe in a way that can be absorbed by ape brains. Before we had the Big Bang Theory, we had other theories about the creation of the universe, and most of them really were stories, written in storybooks, which characters who said dramatic things like "Let there be light!" Over time, as we learned more about the universe, we spent less time on those stories, and eventually replaced them with a new one. It would not surprise me at all if we were eventually to replace the Big Bang Theory with a new narrative, one that does a better job of narrating the earliest moments of the universe. Should that come to pass, it, too, will be told as a story.

Stories are useful for what they describe, and useless for what they do not describe. This sounds obvious, but the importance of it is not obvious at all, so I will illustrate with an example: Comic books from the 1950s are really useful for telling cool stories about magic superheroes; but they're really awful, completely useless, for telling stories about how men and women should treat each other. Comic books from the 1950s are broadly sexist, by today's standards, and possibly even by the standards of the 1950s. People still read those old comics from the so-called "Golden Age," but they don't read them in order to learn about gender relations. The only reason anyone reads old comic books is to enjoy cool stories about magic superheroes. These comic books serve that purpose very well; but we shouldn't use them to explore civil equality unless we're looking for a What Not To Do manual.

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Back to my main point: frameworks are useful for describing what they describe, and useless otherwise. Yesterday, I mentioned a possibly racist Scott Sumner blog post. That an example of a framework poorly matched. The "strongman" hypothesis of Donald Trump's political success may be a useful framework for analyzing the current presidential administration - it's not my preferred framework, but I have seen people use that framework to make good points. But the "strongman" hypothesis is not a good framework for describing the results of public opinion polls among Hispanic Americans. It's important to use your framework only for its purpose, to avoid extending it beyond its usefulness, and to only apply it to new subject matter experimentally. (That is, maybe it would be interesting to apply the "strongman" framework to a physics problem or a problem in psychology - but also maybe not; feel free to experiment, but remember that it is only an experiment, and be ready to reject what you find as readily as you might accept it.)

Being wrong is one way that a mismatched framework can cause problems. Being confusing is another way. This latter thing is arguably much worse. For example, this AOC congressgirl recently presented a policy wish-list that attempts to apply the Socialism framework to the Environmentalism problem. One reason this attempt is problematic is that it is wrong: there is probably not enough taxation and redistribution in the United States to change the course of global climate change, especially considering that the major polluters today are in other countries, such as China and India.

Like I said, the mismatched framework is bad because it's wrong. But more problematically, it's bad because it's confusing. If people come to believe that climate change can be solved by merely passing legislation then we won't stop climate change at all. Climate change is not a political problem, of course, but a science problem. It may also be an engineering problem, since technology must be invented to clean our air and our oceans and to establish more environmentally sustainable ways of housing human beings and processing our waste. It might even be true that legislation can help direct us toward addressing the science problem or the engineering problem - the reader knows where I stand on that, but let's concede that it's possible. Even though it's possible, climate change is still fundamentally a science problem that must be conceived of in a scientific framework and solved through a story about science. Not a story about legislation. Our environmental problem is not that too few people understand politics; it's that too few people know how to do the kinds of science and engineering that we need to stop climate change. We'll never get there without the right framework, and time spent on the wrong framework is confusing us.

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We also experience frameworks for dealing with our every-day lives, and thus we experience the same kinds of pitfalls as they pertain to our individual relationships.

Take your sibling, for example. Early on, you developed a framework for understanding the thoughts, feelings, and actions of your brother or sister. To the extent that this framework was accurate and did a good job of explaining your relationship, it was useful. One day, though - or, more accurately, over the course of many years - your sibling grew up and became a new person. It would be foolish to attempt to explain the actions of your adult sister by referring to a childhood framework about her motivations, based on how she once played Monopoly with you.

That's extreme, but we don't have to rely on extremes. It would be foolish to apply the framework you built that explained your brother's drive to be a high school varsity football player to your 40-year-old brother's recent divorce. If you want to apply a framework to your brother's recent experiences, then you need to learn about what he's been through lately and find a framework that explains those experiences. In short, you need to accept that your adult siblings are not exactly the same people you grew up with, that they have been shaped by the years, and that the old frameworks never apply.

Failing to do this will cause relationship problems. The map has to match the territory, as the saying goes.

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An additional problem arises when we try to apply macro-frameworks to micro-problems. Consider how wildly inappropriate it would be to analyze your relationship with your sister using the framework of climate change! It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?

Why, though, do we not hesitate to apply the feminist framework to the child-rearing problem? Why do we become so entrenched in our feminist framework (or, equally, our anti-feminist framework) that we work to make our children an incarnate representation of our beliefs about gender equality?

Why do we attempt to indoctrinate our children in any such ideology, forcing them to behave in accordance with what we see as universally and morally right? Why do we pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we're good parents when our children repeat our own nonsense back to us for approval? Why do cry out in anguish when our children grow up to develop their own ideas about morality and behave in accordance with that new set of morals, so different from our own? Why do we consider that a failure? Why do some parents consider it a failure if their children grow up to gay, or Democrat, or atheist, or a lawyer, or…?

The answer is simply this: We've mismatched the framework and the problem. Child-rearing is not an ideology problem, and so should not be understood using an ideology framework. Parent-child interaction is not political, and so it should not be understood using the framework of politics. Indeed, I'll even go this far: raising a child is not a spiritual problem, and thus cannot be understood using a religious framework.

I'm not saying ideology, politics, or religion are bad; I'm saying that those frameworks only apply to ideological, political, or religious problems, respectively. Using religion to understand child-rearing is as erroneous as using religion to understand a physics problem, and the results will be similar.

Nor can you use these macro-frameworks to solve any of your other micro-problems. You can't get a promotion at work using an ideological framework; how would that even work? You can't mend fences with an old friend using a religious framework; god may have told you to forgive, but nobody told you to steal his lawnmower. You can't pay your weekly grocery bill by thinking about red states vs blue.

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Frameworks are highly attractive, because narratives are the way human beings understand the world around them. Despite all that, the application of frameworks comes with deep pitfalls with respect to matching the correct framework to the correct problem. Not only must we choose frameworks that accurately reflect the problem we're trying to solve, as measured by the usefulness of the framework to describe that problem, we must also apply the right level of framework to the right level of problem. At best, choosing the wrong framework will result in a wrong solution, and your problem will go unsolved. At worst, though, choosing the wrong framework will cause persistent confusion that will render your problem unsolvable.

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