Debates about invisibility appear in the social sciences, literature, physics, and popular culture. Whether referring to camouflage, magical rings in the possession of hobbits, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, subatomic particles, or the social invisibility of marginalized groups, questions about the unseen drive research.
The latest issue of Social Research, edited at The New School’s Center for Public Scholarship and published through a partnership with Johns Hopkins University Press, engages in a multi-disciplinary examination of what makes the concept of invisibility so enduringly compelling. To complement the issue, CPS hosted a two-day conference at The New School as part of the Nth Degree Series. The event invited issue contributors to join scholars, writers, and even an illusionist, to think together about invisibility.
On the conference’s opening night, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene and writer Marina Warner hosted a keynote conversation. Prior to their event, The New School’s Stephanie Leone had a chance to talk with Greene, who suggested that getting comfortable with the concept invisibility is essential for scientists. “Invisibility is in many ways at the heart of what science is about,” he said. “We try to look out into the world and illuminate the things that you can’t see with the naked eye.” Whether investigating the composition of matter or the forces that hold together the universe, science has the tricky task of staring at the invisible and trying to give an account for the unseen.
The issue of Social Research makes a compelling case that the invisible similarly lays at the heart of questions in the social sciences and humanities. It does so by showcasing richly diverse research and disciplinary perspectives on the invisible. In its opening essay, Arien Mack—the Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research and editor of Social Research—introduces the concept of “perceptual invisibility,” which arises as an effect of cognitive processes. “Perceptual invisibility entails a failure to see what is before our open eyes,” Mack writes, “and is a partner to seeing what is not there or seeing more than is actually there to be seen.”
Mack’s essay provides several examples that demonstrate gaps between the eye’s ability to take in visual information and the mind’s ability to process it cognitively. A standout experiment is the now-famous “invisible gorilla” video. Viewers watch a video clip and are asked to perform a complex counting task. Partway through the clip, a person in a gorilla costume dances across the frame.
As Mack explains, “Approximately half the viewers who do not know anything about this video prior to doing the task fail to see the gorilla even though eye movement records show that they may have been looking directly at it.” The experiment demonstrates the power of what Mack has called inattentional blindness. When the brain focuses on an assigned task, even the most glaringly visible of objects can disappear from perception. The mind’s capacity to filter information renders invisible what would otherwise be obvious to individuals.
But what about instances in which invisibility is precisely the desired end? What happens when it is individuals themselves who want to disappear? To address these questions, one can turn to some of the world’s longest-standing mythological traditions. As the University of Chicago’s Wendy Doniger explains, stories featuring characters that seek the ability to vanish are almost as old as literature itself.
“Being invisible is one of the great human fantasies,” said Doniger, a Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at UChicago’s Divinity School. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that stories about invisibility have a long and complicated history.
In a conversation about her essay for Social Research, Doniger pointed out that the trope of invisibility appears again and again across cultures. By examining a range of traditions, it becomes possible to identify variations and similarities in representations of invisibility’s uses and misuses.
Doniger first described the Western tradition of invisibility, beginning with Plato and ending with Claude Reins’s The Invisible Man. She suggested that in the context of this tradition, “People who make themselves invisible are doing it to become powerful and often to do evil.” Speaking generally, she added that the Western tradition is one in which “the fantasy of invisibility is one of power.”
But one of Doniger’s central assertions in the essay is that the portrayal of invisibility as a source of power is not universal. She emphasized that, in the Sanskrit tradition, invisibility often becomes a way for women to avoid the power and predation of men. Female characters wear masks, create doubles of themselves, and find other ways to use invisibility as a means to escape harm.
“Invisibility has different uses for different genders,” Doniger said, “it’s about power for men and it’s about the evasion of power for women.” In this account, which depends upon the weaving together of multiple cultural perspectives, a subtler and more varied picture of invisibility expands our understanding of the role it plays in the history of literature.
Invisibility’s importance in the area of mythology is matched by its importance in the realm of public policy. In several familiar cases, invisible laws and structures become the building blocks of entire ways of thinking. Laws of unintended consequences formulated equally by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, or notions of divine providence that preceded those laws, emerged from attempts to grapple with and understand invisible forces. Viewed from this perspective, the social sciences attempt to make visible the abstract forces that hold society together in order to observe, measure, and manipulate them.
As Social Research contributor and the Harvard University Law School Professor Cass Sunstein put it, “It’s intriguing to think that many social practices are product of human interaction, but not human design.” In Social Research, Sunstein joins with Oxford University Said Business School’s Bent Flyvbjerg to reflect on one proposed invisible but felt forced: the hiding hand.
Initially proposed by economist Albert Hirschman, the notion of the hiding hand is based on the idea that when individuals plan large projects in advance, they have a tendency to underestimate the amount of difficulties and uncertainty involved. As a result, planners tend to be overly optimistic in their appraisals of cost and time. Hirschman’s idea is that there is an observable countertendency to this optimism: a hidden reservoir of spontaneous creativity that helps us overcome our overconfidence and resolve complications as they emerge.
As Sunstein explained via email, “The hiding hand idea is that people don’t see obstacles to the success of plans, and so they go forward, but they also don’t see their own creativity, which can overcome those obstacles.” For this reason, Sunstein and Flyvbjerg describe the hiding hand—as Hirschman’s renders it—as the benevolent hiding hand.
This hypothesis is quite different from previous conceptions of an imperceptible order quietly orchestrating society’s affairs, but it has a providential assurance that somehow, in the end, the best laid plans will turn out fine. Sunstein and Flyvbjerg’s article challenges this assertion.
This, they argue, is a matter of statistics and rules of inference. Hirschman’s proposal was based on a very small sample size, and as the authors explain, “he was in no position to establish whether this belief could be empirically substantiated.” Such a precarious method is very significant when it comes to forming and appraising estimates and proposals for large, expensive projects.
In their analysis of Hirschmann’s work, Sunstein and Flyvbjerg find little to corroborate his original hypothesis. In fact, they found compelling evidence of a contrary force: a malevolent hiding hand. “Thus the benevolent hiding hand, which is Hirschman’s topic, has an evil twin, the malevolent hiding hand, which also hides obstacles and difficulties, but in situations in which creativity does not emerge, or emerges too late, or cannot possibly save the day.”
Planners activate the malevolent hiding hand by “deliberately underestimat[ing] difficulties/costs and overestimate creativity/benefits.” In other words, they cook the books to the detriment of competing project proposals, often in order to secure funding. In doing so, they are counting on as-yet-unseen twists of good fortune to deliver them to desired outcomes.
As Sunstein and Flyvbjerg write in their conclusion, “The theoretical implications of our findings are clear. The idea of a benevolent hiding hand is a special case, and as an effort to capture reality it is misleading or even a distraction. The malevolent hiding hand is pervasive, and it is a case of the planning fallacy writ large.”
Yet Sunstein and Flyvbjerg remain optimistic: “This does not prove the uselessness of cost-benefit analysis as such […] The task is to improve it, not to abandon it.” Improvement involves making the invisible visible, by making forecasters and planners accountable when projects fail to meet the estimates that justified their funding, but also by subjecting estimates in general to external scrutiny before allocating funds.
Across disciplines, the essays in Social Research demonstrate the importance of engaging with comparative ideas about invisibility—not just to understand societies, but also to improve them.
The Center for Public Scholarship publishes two issues of Social Research each year. Please see the CPS website for other events, initiatives, and programs. Information about past and upcoming Nth Degree Series events at The New School is available at the series’ homepage.