It’s great that Larry Kramer and Paul Brest of the Hewlett Foundation have let William Schambra tell them their “strategic” philanthropy, heavily based on social science, is misguided. It’s also exciting that they’ve both fired back in defense of their approach.

But I’d like to know, since neither Kramer nor Brest tells us, just what social science statistics led them to think that having such debates is worthwhile? Or, as I suspect, were they both wise enough to know that truth without need of a multivariate regression analysis?

I repeat my earlier praise of all three men’s courage for engaging in this intellectual boxing match, and my plaudits especially to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for making such give-and-take a part of its culture, thanks to Brest’s past leadership. Schambra noted that criticisms similar to his own have bubbled up internally from program officers like Kristi Kimbal and Malka Kopell (see, for instance, their Stanford Social Innovation Review essay here). Such honesty and debate are rare indeed in the boring world of multi-billion-dollar philanthropy. No wonder Hewlett’s grantees tell the Center for Effective Philanthropy that they respect the foundation and its work.

But let me show further respect for Kramer and Brest by taking them seriously enough to add two cents’ more criticism of their efforts to parry Schambra’s blows. Let’s take Mr. Kramer’s response first. He concedes that the strategic approach to philanthropy, like every approach, can be done poorly, but he finds Schambra’s speech “un-illuminating. He paints with far too broad a brush.” Kramer would have preferred for Schambra to

develop points that seem valid, especially the risk that strategic philanthropists may place excessive reliance on theoretical models developed by academic experts. In the end, however, Bill is not opposed to expertise. He merely favors one kind of expertise, based on local knowledge and experience, over another, based on broader study and more systematic analysis of data.

That “merely” is quite a broad brushstroke of Kramer’s own. For expertise “based on local knowledge and experience,” imagine a wizened grandmother who didn’t finish high school but who has for decades helped neighbors in her struggling neighborhood with her own money and advice on everything from childrearing to drug abuse to job training. For expertise “based on broader study and more systematic analysis of data,” imagine a twentysomething, unmarried young man fresh out of grad school with multiple graduate degrees paid for by the affluent parents who have provided him a life of ease. He’s crunched social science numbers from all over the world but just yesterday stepped foot for the first time in the grandmother’s neighborhood.

Is Schambra’s inclination to favor the grandmother’s wisdom over the young man’s social science “merely” a matter of taste, like a preference for barbecue over sushi?

Admittedly, Kramer does evince some respect for local knowledge:

one can misstep, and badly, by approaching problems in an overly abstract manner, without paying attention to local knowledge and circumstances. But one can also misstep, and just as badly, by relying on the unsystematic anecdotal experience of local participants. A sensible approach relies on both: drawing on systematized knowledge acquired by trained professionals as well as local experience and beliefs, using each to test and inform the other.

As an abstract statement, that may even be true. But can Kramer rattle off a few examples of major grants by multi-billion-dollar foundations that relied excessively on the unsystematic anecdotal experience of the human beings he condescendingly refers to as “local participants”? Statistically speaking, those grants are few and far between, especially when compared to the many overly abstract “missteps” committed by the same class of donors (I hope Kramer, who’s in his honeymoon year in philanthropy, has a copy of Martin Morse Wooster’s Great Philanthropic Mistakes.)

Kramer concludes his plea for a balanced approach with a rejection of what he calls Schambra’s “across-the-board rejection of the social sciences.”

Brest makes the same complaint, but just as Kramer tries to elide the differences between two quite disparate “expertises,” Brest in his response wants to elide the distinction between natural science and social science. The majority of his response is taken up with a spoof of Schambra’s speech in which Brest presents as a philanthropic challenge the true story of a cholera epidemic in a London neighborhood in 1854—before, as Brest notes, the germ theory of disease was known.

Of course, Schambra never says that natural science should be ignored, much less that it’s wrong to learn the role of Vibrio cholerae bacteria when you combat cholera. One would have to be a less intelligent reader than Brest is to imagine Schambra believes natural science is worthless when one tries to combat human suffering that stems from bacterial causes.

Perhaps because he knows that Schambra is criticizing social science, not natural science, Brest works hard to blur their differences with such remarks as these:

Many real-world problems don’t lend themselves to a neat separation of the natural and social sciences.

                                          * * *

Natural science and social science theories can never be proven for sure.

                                          * * *

statistics remains an essential and very powerful tool for understanding what works in both the natural and social sciences.

In his most extreme condemnation of Schambra, Brest goes so far as to exhort us to

eschew radical ignorance of science, whether natural or social. It is a rhetorical ploy and no way to help improve those most in need.

This refusal to distinguish natural from social science verges on the disingenuous, perhaps because Brest knows how easily and profoundly the latter can be distinguished from the former. Let me repeat a quotation I used in an earlier post. It comes from the wise book Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy, a novelist who earned his M.D. from Columbia and doesn’t need Brest’s lessons in bacterial epidemiology:

Can you explain why it is that there are, at last count, sixteen schools of psychotherapy with sixteen theories of the personality and its disorders and that patients treated in one school seem to do as well or badly as patients treated in any other—while there is only one generally accepted theory of the cause and cure of pneumococcal pneumonia?

If social science, as employed by America’s largest foundations over the last century, were so wonderfully productive of human flourishing, why don’t Kramer and Brest toss out numerous instances of its successes with such non-bacterial human problems as unwed motherhood, the declining work force participation of men, or “income inequality”?  Why haven’t foundations conquered those challenges as straightforwardly as cholera and hookworm? Could it be because human beings differ in kind from bacteria and parasitic nematodes?

An even better question where social science is concerned: Why don’t Kramer and Brest meet the toughest challenge Schambra could have posed, but which he was too polite to bring up at their offices, despite his powerful writing elsewhere on the topic—namely, the appalling support by numerous large foundations for eugenics?

If they can, I’d love to see Kramer and Brest respond to the challenge Schambra made in another speech:

no other project in the 20th century came as close as eugenics to replicating, in the social realm, philanthropy’s model practices and demonstrable successes in the scientific realm, such as the campaign against hookworm or the Green Revolution. By any standard—other than that of human decency—eugenics was a spectacular example of effective strategic grantmaking.

The crux of this dispute with Schambra is not the question of the usefulness of epidemiology in combating diseases. It lies in two questions:

     1. Should wisdom be valued over social science?

     2. Do ordinary citizens possess sufficient wisdom about their community to be important partners in efforts to improve their community?

To be fair to Brest, he does suggest the limited value of social science when he writes

Even when social science can only tell us what doesn’t work, this is an incredibly valuable insight that can avoid long and expensive trips down the wrong path.

I’ll agree with a chuckle and bring up just such a social science example from Brest’s California backyard: Andrew Coulson’s devastating research on eight years of foundation investments in charter school networks in the Golden State. Thoughtful places like the Gates and Broad foundations, and many others, poured in millions of dollars with the best of intentions, but Coulson found no correlation whatsoever between which charter networks received the most funds and which networks had the most powerful effects on their students’ test scores.

Of course, Coulson himself was unsurprised by this number-crunching, because he is wise enough to know that foundations no less than governments, however strategic and scientific they try to be, can’t have the wisdom or local knowledge to pick winners and losers in such a race. Coulson also is wise enough to know, and has other stats to show, that countries like Sweden and Chile, which allow ordinary parents to exercise their wisdom and local knowledge to choose their children’s schooling, end up causing money to flow far more efficiently to the best schools.

That’s why wise philanthropists find value in markets, which let local knowledge and citizens’ initiative tackle problems. And it’s why wise philanthropists talk a lot more to local leaders and proven, community-based charities than to social scientists.

Speaking of community, that’s the last complaint I’d make about Kramer’s and Brest’s responses to Schambra. Community doesn’t loom large in their comments, does it? Perhaps because to be wise enough to appreciate actual communities, one must first appreciate all the quirks and capacities of the ordinary, non-scientific human beings who make up communities. Those persons are not grasped by statistics nor by any other generalizations, which are the stock in trade of social science.

Allow me to cite one more wise novelist, Willa Cather, for her insight into the nature of human beings and their communities, as well as the limitations of science. This comes from her 1925 novel The Professor’s House:

“No, Miller, I don’t myself think of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins—not one! … I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance—you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives….

     Moses learned the importance of that in the Egyptian court, and when he wanted to make a population of slaves into an independent people in the shortest possible time, he invented elaborate ceremonials to give them a feeling of dignity and purpose…. You might tell me next week, Miller, what you think science has done for us, besides making us very comfortable.”

FOOTNOTE: For more of the other side of this debate, see Paul Brest’s manifesto of the Hewlett Foundation’s strategic approach to philanthropy and his book with Hal Harvey, Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy. Any donor can learn a great deal from these works. And if Brest and Kramer want to learn from a Nobel-winning social scientist how science has been unwisely abused by social engineers, I recommend Friedrich Hayek’s The Counter-Revolution of Science. For a related post of mine, engaging the question whether philanthropy should be considered a profession, go here. For an argument in the Huffington Post that today’s foundation support for population control resembles the old foundation support for eugenics, go here.

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