Why Daniel Levine is Wrong About Everything

war is overWell, he’s not. But that’s the title of his new blog. (Apparently he is challenging me for the title of “Most Contrite Fallibilist.” He’s even taken the nom de plume of “Wrongzo.” Bastard.)

For his first substantive post, “What should we mock about when we mock about guns?” he parodies my attempts to articulate a boring solution to the gun debates. He, rightly, turns the attention away from guns and towards inequality and precarity. Here’s the money quote:

“So, guns, whatever. Take away the fear and hatred that drives the hierarchical-individualist worldview (and its purity norms, on which a future discussion) and probably we have guns that police occasionally use against sociopaths and hunters use to get game meat, and boltcutters I only use on my back gate. The fight is with hierarchy, not guns.”

I can’t help but agree. (The wrongest thing about that blog is its title.) Some things that Wrongzo suggests but doesn’t say:

1. Wrongzo believes that value assessments and risk profiles are malleable. So, if we win the right political battles or transform our economy in appropriate ways, we might someday render individualists or hierarchists extinct. Even though I’ve spent a long time trying to work out and defend this thesis, I don’t know that I’m convinced it’s true. What if we’re just built differently, if not in the genetic and cogntive pluralism way, then in a way that leads to diverse cognitive styles being cultivated within any community? (For instance, a functioning community is always going to have some contrarians.)

But my suspicions and hopes here largely reflect a prejudice in favor of pluralism. As I say in my second post, “it’s important to acknowledge that they do see some facts more clearly we do.” And it’s true that the individualist notices different elements of the problem than the solidaridist: that’s why Radley Balko is such a boon to American political punditry. I’ve not yet figured out what hierarchists are good for, but I do worry that hierarchy and tradition are intrinsic to any account of solidarity, but we only notice the hierarchical and irrationally traditional elements when we see them in others with whom we disagree. But that’s what I do: worry.

2. Wrongzo believes that outsider derision can change things, citing Appiah. I was highly critical of this element of Appiah’s thought when I reviewed his book:

Here, then, is the problem that Appiah’s project must suppress in order to succeed: honor codes work best when they are unacknowledged, and they are best changed when they are not the object of direct study or overt deliberate manipulation by outsiders. Moral revolutions that are predicated on honor code changes are most likely to succeed when the transition does not appear to be the work of self-conscious elites, even if it probably is. This would probably help explain some other details suppressed in Appiah’s account, like why debates about slavery and racism did not end with the Atlantic slave trade or the American Civil War.

Again, I want to be wrong, but ultimately, you can only maintain the claim that “we mock because we love” so long as a reasonable person would see “hick-shaming” as a loving remonstration and not othering. Our chosen subalterns are the urban poor; conservatives pretend to represent the rural and suburban poor. Given the discourses and practices of coastal elites, I don’t see much evidence that hick-shaming will do anything other than tweak the subalterns of our competitor elites. In contrast, the evidence suggests that what Braman and Kahan call “identity vouching” is better able to get things done. That’s why “only Nixon can go to China” and why President Obama receives harsher criticism from African-Americans like Cornel West than he does from white progressives. What we need to engineer is a collaboration with gun owners.

There’s another serious core to the argument: what do we give up when we take up the cultural cognition attempt to negotiate a détente between gun owners and gun haters? I want to say more about this is a future post more critical of the “cultural cognition” perspective, but for now, go read Levine’s blog!

Update: Wrongzo responds:

But when we laugh with someone, we importantly laugh at our shared frailty and vulnerability and failure. We are saying that we are unwilling to give a charade of honor and weight to the human stupidity they have shown, but that ultimately that stupidity connects us, rather than dividing us.

…I am laughing because I ultimately want social reconciliation, for all the romance of class war. The hierarchs are hurting. So, for all the mean-ness of the last post, ultimately, laughter is the proposed weapon because it holds the hope of everyone saying, “wow, that was a fucked way of setting things up, let us do something different now.


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.