On Juggernauts and Jabberwocks (or System Thinking)

Hunting of the Snark Plate 8 by Henry Holiday in Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark

“We have to go by what the system says.’

What or who is this infernal “system?” Nobody can say. How convenient to have a nameless, faceless entity to hide behind whenever someone challenges data. “The system” is the presented as the ultimate authority. No human person has authority to examine or override data or decisions. Hence, bad data and bad decisions are allowed to go unchallenged because they are shrouded in mystery and anonymity.

The person who spoke those words to me works at Bank of America, and “the system” has calculated my mortgage interest using bad data that was manipulated by a human person. The error cannot be challenged because “the system” is part of a circular argument.

Me: I want to challenge bad data.
Bank of America: We have to go by what the system says.
Me: These numbers are incorrect.
Bank of America: In the next billing cycle, the system will update your statement with correct information.
Me (next billing cycle): There were no corrections; these numbers are still wrong.
Bank of America: The system does not make a mistake, so the numbers are correct.
Me: But you acknowledged that the statements were incorrect as a result of human error. Where is the correction?
Bank of America: We have to go by what the system says.

If someone wanted to implement a scheme to move assets from one place to another without being assigned blame (to steal money undetected), such a “system” of obfuscation is the perfect mechanism. Challengers will be so frustrated by the challenge process that they will give up. Challengers that persist will not be able to bypass the gatekeepers, who probably really believe that “the system” is always right.

I thought that perhaps nobody at Bank of America uses a calculator, but I realized that is not the point. I will never be able to reach the person with the calculator because the system of obfuscation is institutionalized.

How many institutions are able to deflect challenges under the shield of a “system?” I submit that Bank of America’s “system” method of deflecting inquiry is conceptually the same mechanism that disempowers citizens of cities like Flint while they suffer great harm without recourse. A “system” is a subterfuge, a substitution for legitimate authority which conceals the absence of the valid exercise of expert judgement while it also frustrates discourse. Bank of America passed my phone call from one associate to the next, some cowardly refusing to stay on the line and explain my issue to the next associate to take the call. Similarly, Flint residents have dealt with an opaque and obtuse Department of Health that was unresponsive to individuals and which put out misleading information to the public.

My dispute with Bank of America is like the Flint citizens’ dispute with their governance in that in both cases, those with authority are rendering decisions that are not based on empirical facts. The “facts” may be altered to fit the decisions, or the truth may simply by pushed aside or discounted, in some cases when those in authority do not have the expertise to use evidence to inform their action or inaction. The good news for laypersons is that those with authority do not have a monopoly on science or mathematics.

I am not a banker or an accountant, but I can use my working knowledge of mathematics to calculate finance charges, once I know the methodology that is being used. In the absence of specific guidance from Bank of America, it is possible to research the normative practices of the mortgage banking industry and reverse engineer prior account statements to derive the correct formulas. That is what I did.

Most Flint citizens are not civil engineers or environmental scientists, but a lack of academic credentials does not render one powerless. Citizens can research the normative water utility treatment practices and study evidence found in reports to determine what water treatment practices are likely in use. That is what they did.

Learning the truth is not the end of the battle. I must convey my findings to Bank of America in such a way that whoever receives my report will be convinced that it is correct and compelled to take action to repair my account. I am fortunate that federal law prescribes dispute protocols which force Bank of America to go through the motions of reviewing my claims. There is no fixed dispute protocol for public health or environmental claims. Citizens of Flint must create an infrastructure of their own to give their evidence a public hearing to motivate or compel change.

Does this mean that our society places a higher value on monetary assets than on public health assets? Perhaps. I think it just means that multiplication is monolithic, whereas science is multifaceted and has more fissures to shelter iniquity. In both cases, the most apt symbolic image for citizens who would challenge authority is the inequality operator.

Illustration by Henry Holiday (originally 1876), Plate 8 in The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits by Lewis Carroll, MacMillan and Co, Limited, St. Martin’s Street, London, 1931. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons).