So Small A Number

How chance the King comes with so small a number?
The Tragedy of King Lear. Act II, Scene 4.


Who killed Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014? According to the legal record, it was police officer Darren Wilson who, in August of that year, fired twelve bullets at Brown during an altercation in Ferguson’s streets—the last being, said the coroner’s report, likely the fatal one. According to the protesters against the shooting (the protest that evolved into the #BlackLivesMatter movement), the real culprit was the racism of the city’s police department and civil administration; a charge that gained credibility later when questionable emails written, and sent to, city employees became public knowledge. In this account, the racism of Ferguson’s administration itself simply mirrored the racism that is endemic to the United States; Darren Wilson’s thirteenth bullet, in short, was racism. Yet, according to the work of Radley Balko of the Washington Post, among others, the issue that lay behind Brown’s death was not racism, per se, but rather a badly-structured political architecture that fails to consider a basic principle of reality banally familiar to such bastions of sophisticated philosophic thought as Atlantic City casinos and insurance companies: the idea that, in the words of the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, “the safest and most efficient way to provide [protection]” is “to spread the costs and risks … over the biggest and most diverse group possible.” If that is so, then perhaps it could be said that Brown’s killer was whoever caused Americans to forget that principle—if so, a case could be made that Brown’s killer was a Scottish philosopher who lived more than two centuries ago: the sage of skepticism, David Hume.

Hume is well-known in philosophical circles for, among other contributions, describing something he called the “is-ought problem”: in his early work, A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume said his point was that “the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects”—or, that just because reality is a certain way, that does not mean that it ought to be that way. British philosopher G.E. Moore later called the act of mistaking is with ought the “naturalistic fallacy”: in 1903’s Principia Ethica, Moore asserted (as J.B. Schneewind of Johns Hopkins has paraphrased it) that “claims about morality cannot be derived from statements of facts.” It’s a claim, in other words, that serves to divide questions of morality, or values, from questions of science, or facts—and, as should be self-evident, the work of the humanities requires a intellectual claim of this form in order to exist. If morality, after all, is amenable to scientific analysis there would be little reason for the humanities.

Yet, there is widespread agreement among many intellectuals that the humanities are not subject to scientific analysis, and specifically because only the humanities can tackle subjects of “value.” Thus, for instance, we find professor of literature Michael Bérubé, of Pennsylvania State University—an institution noted for its devotion to truth and transparency—scoffing “as if social justice were a matter of discovering the physical properties of the universe” when faced with doubters like Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, who has had the temerity to suggest that the humanities could learn something from the sciences. And, Wilson and others aside, even some scientists ascribe to some version of this split: the biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for example, echoed Moore in his essay “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” by claiming that while the “net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory),” the “net of religion”—which I take in this instance as a proxy for the humanities generally—“extends over questions of moral meaning and value.” Other examples could be multiplied.

How this seemingly-arid intellectual argument affected Michael Brown can be directly explained, albeit not easily. Perhaps the simplest route is by reference to the Malcolm Gladwell article I have already cited: the 2006 piece entitled “The Risk Pool.” In a superficial sense, the text is a social history about the particulars of how social insurance and pensions became widespread in the United States following the Second World War, especially in the automobile industry. But in a more inclusive sense, “The Risk Pool” is about what could be considered a kind of scientific law—or, perhaps, a law of the universe—and how, in a very direct sense, that law affects social justice.

In the 1940s, Gladwell tells us, the leader of the United Auto Workers union was Walter Reuther—a man who felt that “risk ought to be broadly collectivized.” Reuther thought that providing health insurance and pensions ought to be a function of government: that way, the largest possible pool of laborers would be paying into a system that could provide for the largest possible pool of recipients. Reuther’s thought, that is, most determinedly centered on issues of “social justice”: the care of the infirm and the aged.

Reuther’s notions however also could be thought of in scientific terms: as an instantiation of what is called, by statisticians, the “law of large numbers.” According to Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, the law of large numbers can be described as “the way results reflect underlying probabilities when we make a large number of observations.” A more colorful way to think of it is the way trader and New York University professor Nassim Taleb puts it in his book, Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets: there, Taleb observes that, were Russian roulette a game in which the survivors gained the savings of the losers, then “if a twenty-five-year-old played Russian roulette, say, once a year, there would be a very slim possibility of his surviving until his fiftieth birthday—but, if there are enough players, say thousands of twenty-five-year-old players, we can expect to see a handful of (extremely rich) survivors (and a very large cemetery).” In general, the law of large numbers is how casinos (or investment banks) make money legally (and bookies make it illegally): by taking enough bets (which thereby cancel each other out) the institution, whether it is located in a corner tavern or Wall Street, can charge customers for the privilege of betting—and never take the risk of failure that would accrue were that institution to bet one side or another. Less concretely, the same law is what allows us to assert confidently a belief in scientific results: because they can be repeated again and again, we can trust that they reflect something real.

Reuther’s argument about social insurance and pensions more or less explicitly mirrors that law: like a casino, the idea of social insurance is that, by including enough people, there will be enough healthy contributors paying into the fund to balance out the sick people drawing from it. In the same fashion, a pension fund works by ensuring that there are enough productive workers paying into the pension to cancel out the aged people receiving from it. In both casinos and pension funds, in other words, the only means by which they can work is by having enough people included in them—if there are too few, the fund or casino takes the risk that the numbers of those drawing out exceed those paying in, at which point the operation fails. (In gambling, this is called “breaking the bank”; Ward Wilson pithily explains why that doesn’t happen very often in his learned tome, Gambling for Winners; Your Hard-Headed, No B.S., Guide to Gaming Opportunities With a Long-Term, Mathematical, Positive Expectation: “the casino has more money than you.”) Both casinos and insurance funds must have large numbers of participants in order to function: as numbers decrease, the risk of failure increases. Reuther therefore thought that the safest possible way to provide social protection for all Americans was to include all Americans.

Yet, according to those following Moore’s concept of the “naturalistic fallacy,” Reuther’s argument would be considered an illicit intrusion of scientific ideas into the realm of politics, or “value.” Again, that might appear to be an abstruse argument between various schools of philosophers, or between varieties of intellectuals, scientific and “humanistic.” (It’s an argument that, in addition to accruing to the humanities the domain of “value,” also cedes categories like stylish writing—as if scientific arguments can only be expressed by equations rather than quality of expression, and as if there weren’t scientists who were brilliant writers and humanist scholars who weren’t awful ones.) But while in one sense this argument takes place in very rarified air, in another it takes place on the streets where we live. Or, more specifically, the streets where Michael Brown was shot and killed.

The problem of Ferguson, Radley Balko’s work for the Washington Post tells us, is not one of “race,” but instead a problem of poor people. More exactly, a problem of what happens when poor people are excluded from larger population pools—or in other words, when the law of large numbers is excluded from discussions of public policy. Balko’s story draws attention to two inarguable facts: the first, that there “are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County”—Ferguson’s county—and nearly all of them “have their own police force, mayor, city manager and town council,” while 81 of those towns also have their municipal court capable of sentencing lawbreakers to paying fines. By contrast, Balko draws attention to the second-largest, by population, Missouri urban county: Kansas City’s Jackson County, which is both “geographically larger than St. Louis County and has about two-thirds the population”—and yet “has just 19 municipalities, and just 15 municipal courts.” Comparing the two counties, that is, implies that St. Louis County is far more segmented than Jackson County is: there are many more population pools in the one than in the other.

Knowing what is known about the law of large numbers then, it might not be surprising that a number of the many municipalities of St. Louis County are worse off than the few municipalities of Jackson County: in St. Louis County some towns, Balko reports, “can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts”—rather than, say, property taxes. That, it seems likely, is due to the fact that instead of many property owners paying taxes, there are instead a large number of renters paying rent to a small number of landlords, who in turn are wealthy enough to minimize their tax burden by employing tax lawyers and other maneuvers. Because these towns thusly cannot depend on property tax revenue, they must instead depend on the fines and fees the courts can recoup from residents: an operation that, because of the chaos that necessarily implies for the lives of those citizens, usually results in more poverty. (It’s difficult to apply for a job, for example, if you are in jail due to failure to pay a parking ticket.) Yet, if the law of large numbers is excluded a priori from political discussion—as some in the humanities insist it must be, whether out of disciplinary self-interest or some other reason—that necessarily implies that residents of Ferguson cannot address the real causes of their misery, a fact that may explain just why those addressing the problems of Ferguson focus so much on “racism” rather than the structural issues raised by Balko.

The trouble however with identifying “racism” as an explanation for Michael Brown’s death is that it leads to a set of “solutions” that do not address the underlying issue. In the November following Brown’s death, for example, Trymaine Lee of MSNBC reported that the federal Justice Department “held a two-day training with St. Louis area police on implicit racial bias and fair and impartial policing”—as if the problem of Ferguson was wholly to blame on the police department or even the town administration as a whole. Not long afterwards, the Department of Justice reported (according to Ray Sanchez of CNN) that, while Ferguson is 67% African-American, in the two years prior to Brown’s death “85% of people subject to vehicle stops by Ferguson police were African-American,” while “90% of those who received citations were black and 93% of people arrested were black”—data that seems to imply that, were those numbers only closer to 67%, then there would be no problem in Ferguson.

Yet, even if the people arrested in Ferguson were proportionately black, that would have no effect on the reality that—as Mike Maciag of Governing reported shortly after Brown’s death—“court fine collections [accounted] for one-fifth of [Ferguson’s] total operating revenue” in the years leading up to the shooting.  The problem of Ferguson isn’t that its residents are black, and so that the town’s problems could be solved by, say, firing all the white police officers and hiring all black ones. Instead, Ferguson’s difficulty is not just that the town’s citizens are poor—but that they are politically isolated.

There is, in sum, a fundamental reason that the doctrine of “separate but equal” is not merely bad for American schools, as the Supreme Court held in the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that ended Jim Crow in the American South. That reason is the same at all scales: from the nuclear supercollider at CERN exploring the essential particles of the universe to the roulette tables of Las Vegas to the Social Security Administration, the greater the number of inputs the greater the certainty, and hence safety, of the results. Instead of affirming that law of the universe, however, the work of people like Michael Bérubé and others is devoted to questioning whether universal laws exist—in other words, to resisting the encroachment of the sciences on their turf. Perhaps that resistance is somehow helpful in some larger sense; perhaps it is so that, as is often claimed, the humanities enlarge our sense of what it means to be human, among other sometimes-described possible benefits—I make no claims on that score.

What’s absurd, however, is the monopolistic claim sometimes retailed by Bérubé and others that the humanities have an exclusive right to political judgment: if Michael Brown’s death demonstrates anything, it ought (a word I use without apology) to show that, by promoting the idea of the humanities as distinct from the sciences, humanities departments have in fact collaborated (another word I use without apology) with people who have a distinct interest in promoting division and discord for their own ends. That doesn’t mean, of course, that anyone who has ever read a novel or seen a film helped to kill Michael Brown. But, just as it is so that institutions that cover up child abuse—like the Catholic Church or certain institutions of higher learning in Pennsylvania—bear a responsibility to their victims, so too is there a danger in thinking that the humanities have a monopoly on politics. Darren Wilson did have a thirteenth bullet, though it wasn’t racism. Who killed Michael Brown? Why, if you think that morality should be divided from facts … you did.


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