The Application of Relativity to Social Issues: A Thought Experiment On Racism In The Criminal Justice System

Between the years 1905 and 1915, Albert Einstein worked continuously on certain abstruse mathematical frameworks within which the great puzzles of the universe could be solved — for it was impossible to solve them without something of the sort.  From his work arose his Special and General Theories of Relativity, which redefined science’s approach to such problems as travel at the speed of light, whether gravity has waves, and what spacetime’s shape is like.

I’m not going to explore the full ramifications here:  first, because we don’t need them for our purposes, and second, because the full ramifications make my brain hurt.

But I would like to present the concept of the Special Theory in simple terms (in order to apply it in ways that the designer never intended, but that’s not at all a bad thing.  Stick with me; it’ll be a ride.)

Special Theory Of Relativity

Stated generally, the theory goes like this:

If a system of coordinates K is chosen so that, in relation to it, physical laws hold good in their simplest form, the same laws hold good in relation to any other system of coordinates K’ moving in uniform translation relatively to K.(1)

Trust me; in real terms, this isn’t anywhere near as complicated it sounds in postulate form.

The usual example (in fact the one Einstein used) is that of a boy on a moving train playing with a ball.  We the observers can stand anywhere and watch the boy and the ball.  So, if we’re standing on the train, we can watch the boy toss the ball up, and we can watch it come back down exactly as at would anywhere else.  If we’re standing to one side watching the train go by, we see the ball move in a series of curves, up and forward with the train then down and forward.  To the boy, the motion of the ball doesn’t change, but to us as observers, it’s a big difference.

See how it works?

Incidentally, Galileo used something similar in the work that got him so famously into trouble with the Church, his Dialogue.  And the concept of the framework transformations isn’t new either; it’s just that Einstein derived it logically and explored the impact on physical science in a way nobody had done before — and that we won’t trouble with further, because our object is to use this method of formally altering perspective to look at social issues.

(Relative) Social Issues

I’m going to start off with racism, or more correctly (since we’re all human), bias and prejudice due to perceived ethnic origin.  For short, I’m going to call it “ethnic bias”, and I’ll be examining it within the framework of the American criminal justice system.  Please note:  I’ve deliberately chosen a divisive issue in order to demonstrate something; stay with me, even if it gets difficult or seems offensive.

It is a matter of recorded fact that people who do not identify themselves as “white” are incarcerated more frequently, that this incarceration is generally more severe, and that the individual is less likely on average to survive their initial arrest.(2)  In 2009, 7 adult white males per thousand in our population were incarcerated; 18 hispanic males, and 47 black males.  On the face of things, this speaks soundly toward an ethnic bias in law enforcement and in the entire criminal justice system in this country – and there’s a great deal of other evidence to support the contention.

On the other hand, there are other factors at work here, not least of which are other biases.  Let us examine these same numbers from the perspective of poverty rather than ethnicity.  The same report that gave us the above statistics reported a definite correlation between incarceration and a lack of affluence.  Therefore, it’s potentially valid – using only this report, mind – to assert that the problem is not so much one of ethnicity as of economic class.  One could use this shift in perspective to determine, therefore, that the most just method to equalize numbers of incarcerated as determined by ethnicity would be to create conditions of economic (and therefore social) equality by ethnic identity — or, rather, without regard to any ethnic bias.

This too is far too simple a perspective to consider, as it fails to take into account recognized and evident factors that depend largely (if not entirely) on apparent ethnicity.  And yet, it does illustrate the utility of moving one’s viewpoint to a different framework in order to compare the apparent causal relationships at work, for it is likely that if our country’s poor were randomly distributed without regard to ethnicity, many of the inequalities in incarceration would cease to exist.

We can employ the same method to examine the same statistics with regard to mental illness and its correlation with subsequent recidivism, and we conclude that there ought to exist a much greater support structure than we now have — simply because what we’re doing now doesn’t work.  So we have a functional conclusion as a result of our examination, but it’s hardly an absolute answer to the entire problem.

Bringing us back to the correlation between ethnicity and incarceration:  A 2013 study (3) examined arrest and incarceration rates, compared them relatively not to poverty but instead to IQ and, more particularly, to rates of self-reported lifetime violent tendencies and found that the difference by ethnicity entirely disappears.  I say “not to poverty”, but poverty and opportunity are more telling than any other factor in a person’s IQ.  It seems conclusive here that ethnicity is just a red — or perhaps black or brown or white or even green — herring, aside from its impacts on education and social mores.

Further exploration opens up several other apparently valid ways to view the same data and situation; it should surprise nobody that’s kept up with this thus far that most of these views seem mutually contradictory.  Hirschi’s “Social Control Theory”, which correlates crime rates with the specific absence of those factors which compel individuals to obey the law, is supported by a great body of research.  Likewise, the “Subcultures of Violence” theories, which among other things connect violence directly with the existence of the gang and gangster-rap subcultures in young black society, have a great deal of support.  “Conflict” and “Strain” theory, which tie crime rates with the economic conditions and competition between societal classes, likewise have evidentiary support, but these tend to ignore any individual motivations in exchange for grosser causes.

(And yet, all of this ignores one of the most basic aspects of imprisonment in this country:  The United States imprisons more of its citizens per capita than any other industrialized nation.  How can we call ourselves the “Land of the Free”?!)

But I digress.  I was talking about ethnic bias in the criminal justice system.  Which doesn’t exist, apparently; instead, it seems we have ethnic bias in our society, in large part due to society’s perception that ethnic bias actually exists.  Or we can turn the concepts around again and examine the idea through a different perspective, observing instead that the primary root cause of the apparent ethnic bias in incarceration is that those who commit crimes believe themselves to be violent individuals due, in part, to their own ethnicity.  Either viewpoint seems valid given the statistics; neither seems entirely demonstrable.

My point here is that each of the foregoing frameworks, while potentially of use, are rendered less useful by their tendency to emphasize those factors which they were designed to examine — the very definition, in fact, of observer expectation bias.  It seems evident therefore that, in order to properly apply relativistic frames of reference to social issues in general, we must first remove the cause of that bias.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen in pure mathematics, or in physics, or in quantum mechanics(4).  Lorentz transforms are precise and detailed, the very essence of unbiased.  And there’s a very good reason for this:  The language of mathematics is one that is devoid of imprecision.

We have no way to express social concepts precisely.  There exists no mathematics of sociology, or of psychology.  On the other hand, statistics and probability are useful tools in applied politics and the like; modern sociology would be lost without them.  Therefore, one must conclude that it is not because these sciences are incompatible with mathematics that they are not modeled therein; instead, I propose that they are quite compatible, and it is merely our lack of sufficiently precise definitions and of proper analysis that gives us our present absence of an abstract and mathematical model for society.  We require a new language wherein we can express these concepts with precision and then manipulate them absolutely.

However, the establishment of such a logical framework, while certainly postulable, is a project that may be practically beyond the capacity of human reason and knowledge at our present stage.  In the interim, let us instead examine methods by which we can employ our philosophical tools — those of mathematics, of physics, of logic — accurately and precisely within the limitations of our present system of rationalism.

To continue, I’m going to examine apparent observer bias in the light of the foregoing examples of ethnic bias in incarceration.  These are some potential reasons why such biases in our perception may, in fact, be brought to exist:

  • Our emotions take over.  In this instance, our subject is one where all but the most neutral of observers has a preconceived view.  It would be difficult for a person who describes himself as “white” to fail to have a slant to their perspective; there is such odium attached to active discrimination that one naturally is repelled by the concept.  Likewise, one who is self-described as “black” would face a similar and likely stronger influence, as this may be said to directly affect these observers, generating a forced absence of perspective.
  • The question presupposes the answer.  There was a well-known murder trial a century and more ago in the southwest.  There wasn’t enough evidence and the judge almost threw it out, but the jury came back guilty.  And when the foreman was asked later why they decided that way, his response was that “they wouldn’t have arrested him if he hadn’t done it.”  In this instance, we know that ethnic bias has a long and entrenched history; it would seem unreasonable to suppose that it doesn’t exist in the criminal justice system, long known by all to be corrupt.
  • We are instructed to believe the biases exist.  Whether in our training, reproducing as it does both the thoughts and the errors of those who came before us, or in modern media portrayal, which is pervasive, we are shown public perception as though it were absolute conclusion.  And yet, which of these factors can be said to have been truly and logically examined?
  • We are restricted by our language.  Our only tool for the expression of concept is the common language which we speak.  Even if we extend this to include all human language, there’s a very finite range of unique ideas that can be expressed, and very few of those can be precisely defined in a way that another can understand them merely from the words used for their description.  It is due to this factor that I object to the term “racism” as intrinsically misleading — and yet, few other terms are capable of expressing the concept in a way that’s readily understood.

Each of the four explanations listed seems plausible; each stands up both as logically consistent and as consistent with the facts as we know them under somewhat more rigorous investigation.  However, there is no actual logical proof; the concepts are too complex to admit of such.  Logic, it seems, is the wrong tool for our investigation — or at least we’ve taken it as far as it can go.  The next step would be to conduct studies designed to demonstrate the evidentiary weight of each postulate and go on from there.

And yet, doesn’t it seem as though we’ve demonstrated something already?

Alternative Logic

Scientists working on artificial intelligence have long recognized that the tools we’ve quantified as logic and reason are insufficient in themselves for manufacturing working models of intelligence.  The complexity of even the simplest of physical interactive operations can be staggering if all variables are left in place.  Therefore, simplified rules are imposed in order to generate functional behavior.

To many psychologists, on the other hand, this would hardly come as a surprise.  Humans lack the ability to constantly and consistently process all aspects of their perception of the world in decision-making; as a result, we rely on simplified methods of thought in order to form our operational models.  Anxiety disorders, including the obsessive-compulsive, tend to be the result of habitual overthinking.  In order to cope with reality, therefore, we truncate our reasoning through the habitual use of axioms in thought and the application of habit to life.

An example of this would be the classic airport connections problem.  Stated simply, a hypothetical traveler is proceeding from one point to another via aircraft, and there is no direct flight.  Given a limited number of possible connections, it’s possible to solve for the most efficient one-stopover route.  But let us say that there is no such solution, and that two or more stopovers are required.  Given the moderate number of available airports and flights, the apparently simple problem rapidly becomes highly complex.  Add in one more stopover and the complexity surpasses our ability to process using absolutes; we can easily find a good solution, but it’s nearly impossible to solve for the best.

In the real world, the introduction of travel hubs and the limiting factor placed on aircraft class relative to short flights, the problem simplifies itself a great deal, but in theory it remains somewhat complex.  One must apply ingenuity and a bit of rationality to simplification techniques in order to generate more ideal solution methods.

In order to address real-world problems of this nature, other methods of logic have been designed.  Discrete choice models are often employed in the statistics of planning, for example.  Possible world problems use a form of modal logic for their solution; subjective, many-valued, and paraconsistent logical systems have likewise been developed.  I do not intend to explore all of these in detail; nevertheless, it would be of value to observe certain of them in application.

In another article, “…But Back To Gun Control”, my objective is not to discern absolute truth but rather to establish the relative validity of a proposition by determining whether it can be reasonably argued.  This is a form of many-valued logic, in which a proposition can be registered not merely as true or false, but alternately with such values as “possible”, “arguable”, “likely”, or “unlikely”.  Employing such values is no stretch to the human intellect, since we employ them in our own lives every day — but applying them to social problems in a rigorous and quantifiable method would have extreme value.

To use our original example in this article, that of ethnic bias within the American criminal justice system, we should return to our summation above.  It is demonstrable that those who identify themselves (or are identified) as “black” have a far higher likelihood than “white” of being imprisoned, per capita.  The immediate conclusion seems to be that the evident major cause is ethnic bias – racism – within the system.  Analysis, however, strongly suggests other causes at work, as follows:

  • Poverty.  Incarceration rates weight heavily toward the impoverished.
  • Mental Illness.  Incarceration rates weight heavily toward the mentally ill.
  • Drug Use.  Incarceration rates weight heavily toward drug use, even where drugs are not related to the crime for which the conviction was made.
  • Low IQ.  Those with lower IQ scores are more likely to be incarcerated.
  • Self-determination.  People who believe themselves to have violent natures are far more likely to be convicted of a violent crime.

There are certainly other factors, but the above provide us with a workable framework.  Each is not merely arguable but demonstrated; each has statistical evidence to back it up, and the cumulative other-cause totals entirely outweigh that of purely ethnic bias.  Nevertheless, there remains certainly some correlation.

Each of the first four factors is arguably connected to ethnic bias in civil life.  The poor are more likely to become imprisoned; members of ethnic minorities are, arguably, less well-off in general.  Likewise, the poor who are mentally ill are less likely to receive treatment in our society.  Drug use follows the disenfranchised.  Poverty equates with lower opportunity; poor education follows, and that results in a lower IQ — again, not due to a lack of raw intelligence, but a lack of education.  These connections seem axiomatic.

The fifth factor, that of self-determination, is likewise arguably connected, especially under the “Subcultures of Violence” mentioned above.  I won’t explore this aspect in detail here; it’s enough to accept that it is arguable.  However, it should be observed that, as the problem has its origins in self-perception, the best direct approach to counter this is likely that of indoctrination.

The application of this principle toward the other factors seems reasonable.  Again, under the reduced rational burden of “arguable”, it seems probable that much that is perceived as ethnic bias could be addressed through indoctrination of all parties involved.  Put simply, racism in this country could probably be eliminated within an extremely short time by the simple expedient of denying its existence on the grounds that, as a concept, it is invalid.

Bear in mind that this is a deliberate simplification of a complex social issue.  This does not, however, negate the conclusion; we as humans continually simplify (as observed above).  On the other hand, the application of that conclusion as a solution may be complex.  Moreover, that it is not necessarily invalid does not confirm it as a hypothesis; using tools such as these, certainty is always problematic.

Still, therein lies the value of transient referential frames for use in the determination of perspectives in which to view social issues.  We can, by shifting our point of view, and by employing tools properly suited to the task at hand, readily generate non-instinctive potential approaches to problems that otherwise seem too complex or incomprehensible to even come to terms with.

The development of a valid system of perspective transforms and analysis is still in its infancy.  We’ve managed to employ Krupke semantics to deal with modal logic; subjective and many-valued logic are valuable tools in their own right.  Integrating them, however, and generating rules for their employment in game-theory models of real-world problems remains problematic.

But this is a step in that direction.


  1.  “Principle Of Relativity”, Albert Einstein et al, 1952
  2.  “Prison Inmates at Midyear 2009 – Statistical Tables”, West et al, Bureau of Justice Statistics
  3.  “Results from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health”, Beaver et al, published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences

  4.  Actually, it does, from time to time.  Even physics can be subject to the bias of an observer seeing what he wishes to see.  You might enjoy reading about Blondlot’s N-rays for an example.

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