Now, you might be thinking that it might just be me who thinks that's what the phrase means, but it's not.
(idiomatic, in the negative, by extension) To be overwhelmed by detail to the point where it obscures the overall situation. [Wikitionary]or
When you are too close to a situation you need to step back and get a little perspective. When you do you will notice there was a whole forest you couldn't see before because you were too close, and focusing on the trees.or
Simply that you have focused on the many details and have failed to see the overall view, impression or key point. [Urban Dictionary]
: to not understand or appreciate a larger situation, problem, etc., because one is considering only a few parts of it [Merriam-Webster, with an American formulation]
All are as I say. But it's also a really easy metaphor to grasp, right? Look at this photo of a forest from in among the trees. I've got no idea what's going on here.
Well, it's actually very relevant.
Consider, for instance, the question of prison reform. There are lots of different ways of looking at criminal justice. That's true of a lot of things. But with prisons many people have quite different views of not only the goals but the actual logic... why there is imprisonment at all is disputed. It's not even clear to me that people want the same outcomes. But it is universally agreed that groups like Maori or African-Americans in NZ or the US respectively are disproportionately arrested, jailed and sentenced. Which begs the question: why?
How should we go about answering this question? A very natural approach would be to go out there and talk to Maori or African-Americans (especially men). But they might be stuck in their own experiences confronted with inescapable little truths and don't hold the forest. So, don't talk to them? Maybe let's go talk to some... I don't know.. criminologists?
So we're talking to a bunch of criminologists who are giving us an appropriately zoomed out view. We presupposed that they'd tell us about the Forest and what we're getting matches those beliefs. But all the ones we're talking to are suggesting, just for sake of argument, that the reason we're looking for is that Maori men are violent thugs and African-American men are terrifying brutes. This... sounds wrong. Are we talking to the right criminologists? How can we tell? Who do we ask?
We have decided to approach a statistician, let's call them Jordan. We learn that what we should do is draw up a list of different criminologists and talk to a random sample of criminologists. Jordan tells us that such a list probably doesn't exist but it'd be easy enough to grab a bunch of universities and ask all the criminologists in a random subset of those (if there are any). That would, Jordan assures us, probably work. But Jordan also tells us that we were wrong to not talk to the Maori and African-American men. Just because they might tell us about trees doesn't mean (a) they will or (b) that the trees are important too.
I make Jordan the hero of this contrived example because I control every aspect of it and therefore can. But it's a real point. It truly is, and not just with prison reform, unclear who talk to or how to talk to them. Often consultations are conducted for policy or law changes but who gets in touch is not treated as being problematic (when it so often is). And the reasons we'd talk to people can be in conflict. Like, in this example, I massively profiled Maori and African-Americans... I am sure there are a great many who are criminologists... but the people who will only talk about trees do have something to say. We need to synthesise it. At the same time, if we were to fixate too much on the zoomed in experiences we'd miss other details. I have an example of this.
So, obviously America's a pretty screwed up place. It's got a very militarised approach to policing which is very decentralised... not like here where the idea that police aren't "civilians" is absurd or where there is only one police force for the entire country. And, as a result, we do need to exercise caution but it's plausible that the reason so many black Americans are shot and killed by the people who are meant to help them is a training issue. That is, once you're in a situation with police officers you, as an American, face a disturbingly high probability of being shot and killed by public servants. And when you, as an American, are an ethnic minority (especially if you're black) you are vastly more likely to end up talking to the police in the first place. Which is to say, American cops are trigger happy and the American public is racist enough that more black Americans are shot and killed by cops than would be expected based on population size.
It's really important to develop some kind of appreciation for the expectations and beliefs that members of the black American community have about police and criminal justice more generally. These expectations and beliefs shape how they live their entire lives. But if this is theory is correct, we'd miss that American cops shoot (to kill?) too much full stop in favour of seeing a racialised component in the decision to shoot were we to not zoom out. And this hypothesis is potentially an explanation for a finding in a paper I have not read and do not know how much serious attention it got (predatory journals are a thing, for instance). Or it might not at all for obvious reasons you'll notice when you read it. But the kind of finding that this paper reached is only possible by zooming out. Yet, notice in its last paragraph:
If, for instance, blacks use their lived experience with police as evidence that the world is discriminatory, then it is easy to understand why black youth invest less in human capital or black adults are more likely to believe discrimination is an important determinant of economic outcomes.We've got to obsess about trees and forests.
It seems to me that the standard approach is to let the forests dominate the serious conversations by the policy wonks. This is actually a good idea as far as it makes people complain about neglecting, and hence putting front and centre, the trees. (This is a clumsy metaphor at this point.) It'd probably be more useful to bite the bullet and spend about half the time on each because public outrage probably doesn't affect the conversations the wonks had the day before too much. But the reverse order is much less useful because no-one's signing up to fight for zoomed out academic discourse, it's not sexy and is actively trying not to be.
Frankly, it might be best to let these kinds of conversations be organised by two people. One a philosopher. The other a statistician. Remove is useful. And sometimes the tree is simply that you're in the field yourself.