Cultural Cognition is Not a Bias

Some recent posts by Dan Kahan on the subject of “cultural cognition” deserve attention:

(Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.)

There’s no remotely plausible account of human rationality—of our ability to accumulate genuine knowledge about how the world works—that doesn’t treat as central individuals’ amazing capacity to reliably identify and put themselves in intimate contact with others who can transmit to them what is known collectively as a result of science.

Indeed, as I said at the outset, it is not correct even to describe cultural cognition as a heuristic. A heuristic is a mental “shortcut”—an alternative to the use of a more effortful, and more intricate mental operation that might well exceed the time and capacity of most people to exercise in most circumstances.

But there is no substitute for relying on the authority of those who know what they are talking about as a means of building and transmitting collective knowledge. Cultural cognition is no shortcut; it is an integral component in the machinery of human rationality.

Unsurprisingly, the faculties that we use in exercising this feature of our rationality can be compromised by influences that undermine its reliability. One of those influences is the binding of antagonistic cultural meanings to risk and other policy-relevant facts. But it makes about as much sense to treat the disorienting impact of antagonistic meanings as evidence that cultural cognition is a bias as it does to describe the toxicity of lead paint as evidence that human intelligence is a “bias.”

Look: people aren’t stupid. They know they can’t resolve difficult empirical issues (on climate change, on HPV-vaccine risks, on nuclear power, on gun control, etc.) on their own, so they do the smart thing: they seek out the views of experts whom they trust to help them figure out what the evidence is. But the experts they are most likely to trust, not surprisingly, are the ones who share their values.

What makes me feel bleak about the prospects of reason isn’t anything we find in our studies; it is how often risk communicators fail to recruit culturally diverse messengers when they are trying to communicate sound science.

The number of scientific insights that make our lives better and that don’t culturally polarize us is orders of magnitude greater than the ones that do. There’s not a “culture war” over going to doctors when we are sick and following their advice to take antibiotics when they figure out we have infections. Individualists aren’t throttling egalitarians over whether it makes sense to pasteurize milk or whether high-voltage power lines are causing children to die of leukemia.

People (the vast majority of them) form the right beliefs on these and countless issues, moreover, not because they “understand the science” involved but because they are enmeshed in networks of trust and authority that certify whom to believe about what.

For sure, people with different cultural identities don’t rely on the same certification networks. But in the vast run of cases, those distinct cultural certifiers do converge on the best available information. Cultural communities that didn’t possess mechanisms for enabling their members to recognize the best information—ones that consistently made them distrust those who do know something about how the world works and trust those who don’t—just wouldn’t last very long: their adherents would end up dead.

Rational democratic deliberations about policy-relevant science, then, doesn’t require that people become experts on risk. It requires only that our society take the steps necessary to protect its science communication environment from a distinctive pathology that enfeebles ordinary citizens from using their (ordinarily) reliable ability to discern what it is that experts know.

2012 is NOT the Most Expensive Election in History, in GDP-adjusted Terms

Last year, I suggested that liberal objections to Citizens United were partly justified by predictions about its effects that I didn’t see as probable. As the election draws to a close, we can begin to say whether the consensus view or my own views were accurate.

Here goes: as a percentage of GDP, this is simply a cheaper election than 2008.

When I looked at this question a year ago, I used estimates by this firm that showed that the 2012 elections would cost $7 billion dollars. Now the Center for Responsive Politics says the election will actually cost about $6 billion. (Note that this includes down-ticket races, not just the Presidential eleciton.) Combined with the revised and increased GDP numbers, the “massive increase in spending” hypothesis doesn’t look to have been supported this year, and 2010 looks like more like a blip than the start of a trend. Here’s what the cost-curve looks like:

There’s still plenty of room to discuss the ways that Super PACs affect the elections. Surely the increased attention to primaries (as rent-seeking money has been crowded out of general elections) might account for the ideological stripe and quality of candidates currently running for office. That said: never attribute to corporate malfeasance that which is adequately explained by citizen apathy.

Chesterton’s Fence

I try to defend conservatism sometimes. I also like Chesterton. Here’s one reason why:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am A Catholic

Snark Polemics and Contrite Fallibilism

Most people who know me in person would at least consider using the term “snarky” in their description of me, which is why John Barnes’ polemic against “snark” troubled me so:

 It’s a currently fashionable powerful rhetorical weapon that allows the uninvolved and the never-to-be-involved to discredit people who do, or attempt – anything at all.  Not just those who compete or create or dream or make or struggle in the larger world, but even those who merely try to understand or happen to feel some appreciation.

Ouch! But wait… is this what we mean when we say that we are snarky? I always thought of “snark” as a predilection for using the “snide remark” that “bites and scratches” like Lewis Carroll’s imaginary beasts. Yet for Barnes this could just as easily be simple “sarcasm” which he reserves for frequent good use in his polemic against “snark” itself! In fact, he uses “snark” to name that brand of negativity that is definitionally incapable of good use, among all the other forms of negativity that are not (and what a wonderful list!)

By snark I don’t mean just any old negative attitude.  Negativity comes in many flavors, some of them wonderful at the right time in the right place, others at least occasionally worthy as a dash of flavoring in a complex attitude: anger, bitterness, bitchiness, bloody-mindedness, brutal honesty, calumny, contumely, cynicism, despair, depression, ennui,  envy, fucking bloody-mindedness, ferocity, gibes, gracelessness, hatred,  hatefulness, harassment, insult, intemperance, ingratitude, incredulity,  irony, and that’s all the farther I want to go until we get down far enough into the alphabet to find snark (it’s somewhere between skepticism and snobbery).  Snark is the one that is truly good for absolutely nothing and should be considered grounds for putting people on the list, in preparation for crossing them off.

After a short detour into The Art of Rhetoric, Barnes finally concludes that what he so detests can be defined as ignorant knowingness (“somewhere between skepticism and snobbery”):

Snark is a dishonest reduction expressed with knowningness.

This thing he describes is indeed terrible: I’ve often written of the epistemic and social problems with contempt and the refusal to admit one’s own fallibility, of the effort to reduce the irreducible complexity of the world to a single variable, and of the dangers of tricking oneself into believing one’s own hype. But this is not snark!

The problem with Barnes’ definition of snark is that it defines the failing in terms of the honesty and accuracy of the interlocutor. Thus, it usually only applies to the Other: we are cynical or bloody-minded or incredulous. It is only they who are snarky. (Barnes admits that he has erred in the past, but he repents. I recall a similar scene from Augustine’s Confessions involving the theft of some pears.)

As a definition, Barnes’ offers us all we need to know that the thing defined is wholly without value. It simplifies, it does so inauthentically, and then it pretends to knowledge but is in fact ignorant! How detestable! Yet “snark” in the traditional sense does not mean a refusal to listen or learn from those who may or do know more. Barnes has redefined the word to mean that. I think ignorance is bad, too, but why not decry ignorant knowingness and leave snark, which has another meaning that was working perfectly well, out of it?

I’m not trying to be prescriptive about the meaning of the word, but when I find a someone claiming a meaning for a word I was using with seemingly good understanding among several different communities, I feel like they’re being prescriptive with me.

A Metafilter comment called forth the very best possible response, a few lines from Foucault’s interview with Paul Rabinow on the problem with polemics:

Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.

Here Barnes exercises the privilege of an author with many readers: to define the portmanteau “snark” as he would like. But we are given no possible response; if we prize snark but define it differently, then he has already said, “But that is not what I mean!”

Certainly we cannot deny Barnes’ his argument, insofar as it describes a real thing in the world. He’s done a wonderful job of describing a certain feeling that others evoke in us, the feeling that they’d rather be secure in their ignorance than take the time to consider us as equals. But though the thing he describes is bad, why call it snark? I can’t help feeling that it’s because it allows him to tar knowledgeable “snide remarks” with the brush of ignorant knowingness. Perhaps that’s not fair, but that’s how it feels.

In rhetoric there is a technique of using overly precise or nonstandard definitions as a part of an overall equivocation, or to take advantage of this definition to troll others in a supposedly blameless way, for example:

“by ‘bloggers’ I mean stupid people, no relation to members of the Blogspot community.”

I cannot say for certain that Barnes is using this technique, but it does appear so. The polemic form almost always leads to this effort to ontologize one’s own view of the world, to exclude before inquiry, to define others as unworthy of inclusion. The real question, here, is whether we can ever finally complete the project of defining as worthless that part of the world that we would like to exclude, whether it is the part that includes our critics, our partisan enemies, those who practice our profession differently, or those whose tastes diverge from our own. These in-groups and out-groups depend upon the Other being the perpetrator of negativity they do not have a right to deploy, and so if we could finally show that their crimes justify their exclusion, our work will be complete. We will be safe. Justice will come when it is “just us.”

I hope you can see the irony.

I grew up snarky because I attended a fundamentalist Christian school, where appeals to authority and to expertise were used to justify falsehoods and injustice. My female classmates were treated as second-class students, their dress and comportment closely controlled, their futures circumscribed by their duties to the family. Evolution was denied because of its conflict with the inerrant Word of God. Political disagreements were reduced to the question of abortion and religiosity. In such an environment, “snark” is a tool for denying authority’s legitimacy. Without access to the truth, a child can only respond to the absurdities being preached by those supposedly in-the-know with something “between skepticism and snobbery.” I didn’t know better, I “knew” less: I knew what they said wasn’t true, but had barely an inkling what was.

Barnes would probably agree, but perhaps too he would say that adults should put away childish things. Now that we know, now we too can preach, but from the perspective of truth. I’m not so sure: adults who take on the role of polemicist, of expert, are far too likely to fall into the temptations of inerrancy and arrogance. Our proper role is the skeptic’s, not the priest’s. Snobbery is the priest’s emotion; skepticism is all we have left. We should as often aim our snide remarks at our own authority as at those of others. Though there is room for warm “appreciative thinking” to temper the cold skepticism of “critical thinking,” we must always avoid the “worshipful thinking” that appreciation threatens to become.

We ought, with CS Peirce, adopt a contrite fallibilism: “that we can never be absolutely sure of anything, nor can we with probability ascertain the exact value of any measure or general ratio.” And we ought to snark at those who forget it.

But hey! Maybe I’m wrong to prize “snark” in this way. If so, and I am lucky, perhaps Barnes (or another reader) will help me see my error.

Logic Ruins Everything

George Orwell supposedly* wrote that

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

  • A piece is journalism if and only if someone does not want it printed.
  • Orwell does not want public relations printed (as if it were journalism.)
  • Orwell is someone.
  • Printing a piece (as if it were journalism) is printing something.
  • Someone does not want public relations printed.
  • ∴ Public relations is journalism.

* Actually, it may have been William Randolph Hearst: “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.” After all, this is a more useful distinction for a publisher: advertisers are revenue streams, while journalists are expenses.