Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Risk Perceptions

Via Matt Ygelsias, FLG found this site and in particular this paper. Since FLG's time horizons theory is so interwined with risk perceptions, he found the article fascinating. The authors, Dan M. Kahan and Donald Braman, write:
Our theory of cultural cognition synthesizes these two bodies of research and generalizes them. We propose that the various mechanisms of belief formation identified by contemporary social psychology are likely to generate risk perceptions skewed along cultural lines in the manner posited by Douglas and Wildavsky. But we see nothing distinctive about attitudes toward environmental protection in this regard. Criminal laws, economic regulation, and public health policies all regulate activities that are ripe with culturally infused social meanings. The same mechanisms of belief formation—from cognitive dissonance avoidance to affect to biased assimilation to group polarization—should thus induce individuals to conform their beliefs about the empirical efficacy of such policies to their cultural evaluations. As a result, seemingly empirical debates over all manner of public policy will be guided by the invisible hands of conflicting cultural worldviews: hierarchic and egalitarian, individualistic and solidaristic.

That's interesting and all, but FLG still thinks that time horizons is a more useful tool for trying to bridge these gaps. Not because it's more accurate, but because it minimizes normative claims. Sure, most people have an initial reaction that being short-term focused is somehow bad, but FLG thinks one can make strong arguments why being short-term focus in many cases is entirely justified. When it comes to hierachical/egalitarian, individualist/solidarisitc, there's less common ground. At least FLG thinks so. You either are or are not hierachical. It's not something that can be reasonably debated. Or rather, FLG thinks there'd be less progress over that debate rather than trying to balance short versus long run costs and benefits.

(Or, perhaps, to be completely honest, it might be that FLG merely likes the time horizons theory because in it the more liberal position, short-term, as he mentioned above, has a more negative connotation; whereas in the Kahan & Braman matrix the more conservative positions have a more negative connotation. FLG can't rule that out.)

But this bugs FLG:
Public disagreement about the consequences of law is not just a puzzle to be explained but a problem to be solved. The prospects for enlightened democratic decisionmaking obviously depend on some reliable mechanism for resolving such disputes and resolving them accurately. Because such disagreements turn on empirical claims that admit of scientific investigation, the conventional prescription is the pursuit and dissemination of scientifically sound information.

The hope that democracy can be enlightened in such a straightforward manner, however, turns out to be an idle one. Like most heuristics, cultural cognition is also a bias. By virtue of the power that cultural cognition exerts over belief formation, public dispute can be expected to persist on questions like the deterrent effect of capital punishment, the danger posed by global warming, the utility or futility of gun control, and the like, even after the truth of the matter has been conclusively established.

Imagine—very counterfactually—that all citizens are perfect Bayesians. That is, whenever they are apprised of reliable information, they readily update their prior factual beliefs in a manner that appropriately integrates this new information with all existing information at their disposal. Even under these circumstances, conclusive discovery of the truth is no guarantee that citizens will converge on true beliefs about the consequences of contested public policies. For while Bayesianism tells individuals what to do with relevant and reliable information, it doesn’t tell them when they should regard information as relevant and reliable. Individuals can be expected to give dispositive empirical information the weight that it is due in a rational-decisionmaking calculus only if they recognize sound information when they see it.


But second and more important, any special resistance scientists might have to the biasing effect of cultural cognition is beside the point. The issue is whether the discovery and dissemination of empirically sound information can, on its own, be expected to protect democratic policymaking from the distorting effect of culturally polarized beliefs among citizens and their representatives.

Why does this bug FLG? Well, FLG objects to claim implicit in this train of thought that empirical fact can lead to truth. Facts are devoid of meaning. Only humans can interpret the relevance, and more importantly the meaning of facts.

As FLG has written a gazillion times, empirical facts can be true or false. Fine. No problem there. Even if sometimes it's difficult to ascertain the truth or falsehood of some presumably empirically verifiable claim. But once you then go from a fact to a policy recommendation, then you are always ascribing value.

To return to FLG's favorite example:
Water is wet is true by definition. It's almost tautological. But if you take that fact and tell somebody who is going swimming to bring a towel, then you are also saying that being dry is better than being wet.

Consequently, FLG doesn't see the idea that empirical fact alone should be some sort of irrefutable decider of public policy. In fact, the very idea makes FLG shudder.

Before anybody thinks FLG is some sort of kook. He's not saying empirical fact is irrelevant or worthless. It's crucial. And confirmation bias is a massive problem. But empiricism, by itself, is entirely worthless. FLG guesses if we all as a society permanently agreed how our society should be ordered in great detail, then it could be a mere empirical question. If we all agree that being dry is better than being wet, then obviously recommendations to bring a towel are entirely uncontroversial.


Galatea said...

*is better than being wet

I assume you mean, otherwise we are getting rather more Orwellian than the rest of the argument seems to indicate.

I realize I'm asking you to make a value judgement here, but regardless: would you prefer a more empirical process? Esp. one in which, even if we as a society did not agree on 'how it should be', we at least had detailed and achievable ideals towards which each party - or even each politician - might honestly drive.

Enjoying the blog quite a bit.

FLG said...

Oops. Fixed that. Thanks.

As to more empirical process, I conflicted.

On one hand, I'd like, to choose one example, right-wing talk radio to be more open to empirical evidence rather than cherrypicking data for cheerleading and attack god modes.

On the other hand, if you look at Ezra Klein, he's very empirical, but often seems completely blind to his own value judgments. I think he thinks public policy really is an entirely empirical question and that disagreements are a product of insufficient empiricism.

Glad you like the blog.

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