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.

The Progressive Paradox

Bob LaFolletteAt the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a broad consensus among reformers in the United States regarding the perniciousness of economic monopolies and winner-take-all politics. After that period of rampant growth and cronyism known as the Gilded Age, groups who had been disproportionately disadvantaged by political patronage and voter fraud began to organize their activities around the need for policies maximizing the inclusiveness and fairness of democratic procedures. This movement had a name: Progressivism. The goal was to improve the outcomes of democratic elections by creating mechanisms that would effectively hold representatives accountable to the informed interests and preferences of the electorate. This required both an alteration in the parties that supplied the representatives and the people who voted for them. The state-level changes included transparency requirements and anti-corruption oversights for elected representatives, suffrage and poll access reforms, while the political parties became quasi-state entities forced to submit their expenditures to public accountability, in exchange for which they received public funding. The electorate began to create spaces, both publically and privately funded, aimed at fostering broad deliberation prior to elections: Chautauquas, discussion clubs, and settlement houses like Chicago’s Hull House formed for the purposes of adult and immigrant education, issue identification, neighborhood organizing, and debate.

Peter Levine has argued that the accomplishments and pitfalls of the pre-Depression Progressive movement are best epitomized by Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette’s 1924 presidential campaign as the Progressive Party nominee. As governor and then Senator for Wisconsin, La Follette achieved singular victories in transparency, honesty, and accountability. “Until the last phase of his career, he spoke about little except political reform and generic rights for all consumers and taxpayers.” (Levine 2000, 22) Yet when the procedural reforms were enacted, they naturally created a situation which his successors used to enact substantive policies with regard to the regulation of industry (especially the railroads), funding (a ‘progressive’ state income tax), and to form environmental conservation agencies, complicated schemes for state life insurance, and agricultural subsidies. On the one hand, La Follette’s “political reform produced stronger, more efficient, and more representative government,” on the other hand, the electorate used  their increased involvement and accountability to demand “a massive increase in the powers of government, which (in turn) necessitated the use of expert administrators.” (Levine 2000, 25-6) In short order, the democratic gains were lost to a set of institutions who were no more accessible procedurally than their corrupt and exclusive predecessors, even as they were oriented, at least at first, towards the objectives of justice and the public interest arrived upon democratically.

The greatest irony of the American Progressive era is that the supremely democratic efforts of labor groups, community activists, and the deliberative elements of the public sphere accomplished unprecedented victories, but that these victories led to policy decisions that undermined the very democratic activities that made them possible. The potential for further ‘progress’ was dissipated as state-centric solutions to economic and social problems led to an increasing reliance on the institutions that make up what we now call the ‘administrative state.’ However, this is not simply a matter of kicking aside the ladder once we have ascended. The condition of possibility for future endeavors cannot be sustained without maintenance: public policies must appear, along with the officials who administer them, in public spaces where they can be understood, evaluated, and amended at will. This space must also be open for the appearance of unexpected individuals, encounters, and acts; the only thing that closes that space is violence.

The Progressive paradox was first identified as the ‘the curse of bigness,’ a phrase used by Louis Brandeis to describe the deleterious effects of the expansion and centralization of business and government. As organizations grow, they become increasingly inaccessible and procedurally rational. Their capacity to remain accountable to their constituents is inversely proportionate to their efficiency. Large institutions replace the public sphere, which provides opportunities for individuals to appear through deeds and speech, with a regulatory apparatus ruled by speech codes and language games. Expert bureaucrats rely on complicated schemes like insurance or subtle changes in promulgated regulations, which make it difficult for non-experts to engage as equals in ascertaining the relationship and judging their efficacy between policy measures and policy goals. We live in what Michael Sandel calls a ‘procedural republic,’ where both the forms of administrative power and the plural character of the citizenry prevent meaningful deliberation regarding the public good, which undermines collective action in support of thick cultural values beyond basic fairness.

Arendt, Antisemitism, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union Strike

I am one of those ideologically-impure liberals that worries a lot about public sector unions. On the one hand, I favor workplace democracy and collaboration; on the other hand, I worry about the fact that as union membership has declined, the majority of remaining union members haved tended to be at the top of the income distribution and to have many other forms of cultural and social capital as well. A public sector union member gets input into the functioning of government as a voter, plus they get input into our government as a union member concerned about their own labor conditions. What’s more, public-sector unions are not all the same: to my mind there’s a difference between a teacher’s union and a police or prison guard union, and I’m not willing to be univocal in my support for both. Still, my bias is generally in favor of teachers: I am one, after all.

Caption BelowI recently read an interesting factoid about teaching: in the 1960s, 2/3 of all households had school age children. Today, only 1/3 do. Attempts to verify these have been unsuccessful, although the percentage has certainly been dropping for a long time along with the birth rate. (I also learned that 39% of Chicago’s public school teachers send their own children to private schools.)

Looking at the responses to the Chicago Teacher’s Strike, especially the way it pits centrist technocratic Democrats like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel against old-school labor progressives, I suspect that the falling percentage of families with school-age children is part of the problem. Sure, everyone agrees that education is important, but fewer families actually have current need of a good education, and so for better or worse they have begun to look at the costs rather than the benefits of strong schools.

In my view, this decline allows an interesting analogy with Hannah Arendt’s account of the growth of anti-semitism in Origins of Totalitarianism, which itself is derived from Karl Marx’s essay on On The Jewish Question. Arendt argued that Jews had failed to take advantage of their political and economic power while it was still extensive enough to garner protection from the Christian majority. When their role as scapegoat creditors was centralized into big (non-Jewish) businesses and a few Jewish financiers, the long-ignored differences between Jews and Christians exploded to the fore, with genocidal results.

Arendt bases this theory on Tocqueville’s account of the downfall of the French aristocracy:

“the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any considerable decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country.”

Troublesome as inequality and oppression may be, inequality without the power to back it up is even worse. Arendt suggests that the Jews refused to occupy a designated space within the European political economy, instead “choosing” to remain aloof no matter which class individual Jews would otherwise occupy. (Of course, it’s not so simple, but to Arendt it seems that there was a coincidence between the Jewish desire for group survival and the nation-state’s interest in preventing assimiliation.) Yet according to Arendt this became a great problem when successful Jews sought acceptance and assimilation into the professions and intellectual elites:

“Central and Western European Jewries had reached a saturation point in wealth and economic fortune. This might have been the moment for them to show that they actually wanted money for money’s sake or for power’s sake. In the former case, they might have expanded their businesses and handed them down to their descendants; in the latter they might have entrenched themselves more firmly in state business and fought the influence of big business and industry on governments. But they did neither. In the contrary, the sons of well-to-do businessmen and, to a lesser extent, bankers, deserted their fathers careers for the liberal professions or purely intellectual pursuits they had not been able to afford a few generations before.”

Arendt called this “political ignorance” that blinded the Jews to “the political dangers of antisemitism.” Certainly they understood the costs of social discrimination; what they did not understand was the way this would morph under totalitarianism:

“Whenever equality becomes a mundane fact in itself, without any gauge by which it may be measured or explained, then there is one chance in a hundred that it will be recognized simply as a working principle of a political organization in which otherwise unequal people have equal rights; there are ninety-nine chances that it will be mistaken for an innate quality of every individual, who is “normal” if he is like everybody else and “abnormal” if he happens to be different. This perversion of equality from apolitical into a social concept is all the more dangerous when a society leaves but little space for special groups and individuals, for then their differences become all the more conspicuous.” (55)

To be unequal when equality is understood as equality before the law is a blessing; to be unequal when equality is understood as a social requirement for membership in the political community is quite a curse. The more that Americans attend to income inequality, the more they will worry about Wall Street bankers, certainly; but they also worry about the local inequalities, those they see at work in their own communities. Wall Street is far away for most Americans; yet everyone has a local government, and most Americans can observe that the cars that park in the teachers’ lot are nicer than their own, while simultaneously noting that teachers have shorter days and longer vacations.

For Arendt, the backlash of resentment comes when those with a privilege lose the power to enforce it. The aristocrats tried to keep their privileges without preserving the authority to organize their communities, and they lost their heads; the Ancien Régime gave way to the centrally-administered bureaucracy. Teachers are no longer trusted to evaluate their own success or failure; more and more of their lesson plans are legislated or provided by centralized textbook publishers. Fewer families depend upon teachers than ever before, and those who do have political power don’t trust the public schools in large urban school districts like Chicago, New York City, or Washington, DC. In these and many other ways, the job of teaching K-12 education is being de-professionalized, in large part because we’ve tried to demand that education solve all of our problems and it simply cannot.

Perhaps this comparison is not the right one, but what I notice is that labor solidarity is increasingly exclusive of the least-advantaged. Especially during times of increasing unemployment, I worry that solidarity with laborers will not include those most in need. Unions are no longer primarily sources of solidarity between the lower and middle-class and a means of stepping into the middle-class; now they are sources of solidarity within some elements of the upper-middle class, i.e. those who are well above the median income in the United States. In this sense, public sector labor unions appear to command economic power while failing to achieve the cross-class solidarity that would legitimize that economic power for those who are worse-off. The resentment that emerges, then, appears to be driven by the demographic constitution of the union itself. As Arendt pointed out, rights without the power to protect them are useless: when you need them, they’re not there.

Even as teachers are losing political power, it appears that the political power of labor solidarity has an unfortunate tendency to accumulate among those who already have it. In the US, the people who most need unions don’t have them: Walmart workers; nurses and home health aids; agriculture and construction workers. Meanwhile, the people who least need unions get them: folks with graduates degrees and guns. Soon, perhaps, it will just be those with guns who can prevent the legislative undermining of their rights to collective bargaining.

(Continued in the next post, Public-sector unions as Public Work: The Case for Teachers)

Typologies of Philosophical Personalities

There’s a somewhat disused trend of identifying philosophical methods or schools by the personalities required for them. I associate this with Karl Jaspers’s Psychology of Worldviews and Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, but there are precursor typologies in Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and William James. It largely fell by the wayside in the second half of the twentieth century in the Anglo-American tradition, as the analytic tradition lumped us all together; other ways of splitting the discipline took hold. Still I see echoes of it in BLS Nelson’s discussion of four kinds of philosophers: the programmist, informalist, syncretist, and lone wolves. Check it out. (My own predilections run towards syncretism.) The beauty of such typologies is that they capture both methodological and normative pluralisms without giving rise to either nihilism or relativism.

There are also some great quips, like this:

Refutation of the deeper forms of skepticism was not very high on Quine’s agenda; if there is a Cartesian demon, he waits in vain for the naturalist’s attention.

The Teleological Paradox in Utilitarianism and Education

In my brief response to Community College Dean a few weeks back, I said something that I think is pretty obvious, but that is often ignored:

humanities advocates spend so much time fighting the instrumental approach to education [because] you’ve got to pretend like time doesn’t matter, or else the education won’t work.

Consider the classic paradox of hedonism articulated by Henry Sedgwick: across a whole range of domains, you cannot maximize utility if you take the maximization of pleasure as the motivation for engaging in activities that tend to be pleasurable. Your motivation matters. Even a hedonist has to have projects, and those projects are only reward to her if she takes them on for their own sake and ignores the utility she will gain.

For instance: being in love increases your utility, but if you approach a potential partner with an offer of mutual hedonism, he will rightly suspect that you are not seeking long-lasting love. “I really want to have a relationship with you, not because I think you’re awesome, but because I think it will make me happy and this seems like a good way to do it” is no way to fall in love; the potential partner will rightly say, “That’s weird, I don’t want to be loved selfishly, I want to be loved for myself.” You might think that you are then lying to your partner when you claim to love him for himself, but in fact we are impressively good at catching such lies. We have to really take that “for-himselfness” of loving seriously, to the extent that we’d even be miserable if our lover dies, in order to garner the hedonistic benefits of loving. The rational hedonist courts just this sacrifice.

You might also go to church to increase utility, but folks would think you were crazy if you went to church and said, “Hi! I’m here not because I have faith in the particular doctrines of this institution, but because I’ve been told that belonging to a community of religious inquiry will increase my utility.” Worse, like a bad Pascalian wager, you’d lose your Sabbath and you wouldn’t get the (mundane) benefits! So it is that the rational hedonist, motivated only by happiness, even courts irrationality!

Now, there’s a similar problem for education: if we instrumentalize education by treating it like a set of skills and practices, or even worse, as the acquisition of discrete knowledge, then the real benefits (especially of college education) will be lost. The real benefits of education are soft skills that are hard to “acquire” in that discrete sense. Habits of mind that enable analytic writing, close reading, critical thinking and problem solving skills cannot be learned unless the student takes a long detour through irrelevant material. So there’s a similar teleological or motivational problem to the one facing the hedonist: you have to read the Classics for their own sake in order to become a better advertising executive, even though reading the Classics isn’t directly relevant to advertising. Following Sedgwick, , T. M. Scanlon calls this the “teleological paradox” in a long footnote to What We Owe to Each Other, which can be described thus:

though the telos in question may depend on factors within an agent’s control, that does not mean that it is rational for the agent to target it and make it in that sense a matter of active demand.

In many areas, you must do things that are only instrumentally-related to your goal in order to accomplish your goal. The risk, however, is that this process of divergence from the goal might actually become counter-productive or self-deceptive: how will we know if the instrumental means supplants the true goal entirely?

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. In metaethics, there is a response to the teleological paradox and the problem of self-deception: R. M Hare’s “two-stage” or “two-level” utilitarianism. In the first stage, our ordinary lives, we take on ordinary justifications for our projects. But every so often we reflect on the value of particular methods and motivations, and during this reflective second-stage we tweak them from the perspective of the overarching goal. Maybe we only do this at the level of institutions or laws. So, instead of saying “You should have a family because it will bring you pleasure,” we normally just advocate family life for the normal, intuitive reasons that preserve love and loyalty as ultimate ends. But at the level of policy, we still ask questions like, “Should we incentivize large or small households?” or “Should we give tax breaks for children or not?” That second stage allows us to take on the utilitarian perspective for the purposes of improving our projects. So the teleological problem dissolves, so long as we’re able to willfully blind ourselves to our ultimate motivations: we get to be utilitarians some of the time, but when it matters we can be fathers and mothers, lovers and church-goers, citizens and consumers, etc.  Virtue and deontology are then sublimated under a utilitarian perspective, called to bear when they’re best suited to some basically utilitarian goal.

The same solution works for education. In the classroom, the library, and the lab, we can embrace wasteful irrelevance, detours into difficulty, and the rigors of basic research. Then later, at the level of syllabus-construction, course-design, academic policy, project funding, or tenure-line evaluations, we can ask: “What are the instrumental educational goals that we’re trying to accomplish? What is the best (most efficient, most effective) method for achieving those goals?” Yet because we are not fundamentally committed to any particular major or method of instruction, we can also ask: “How many Classics majors do we really need? Can we get the same benefits from Philosophy or Anthropology?” The close, careful reading of abstruse literature, abstract and irrelevant mathematical work, or the cultivation of the jargonistic language of High Theory all become tools, but tools we take up as if they are ends in themselves.

The key to this process is that at the administrative or policy level we have to seriously believe that these projects matter: we have to actually commit ourselves to the claim that studying the Classics (or Philosophy or Anthropology) is more useful than studying Accounting, even if what we want are more accountants! That may seem odd or self-deceptive, but the evidence suggests we have no other choice: when we study the data and look at the Collegiate Learning Assessment, we end up concluding that the most useful education is the one that focuses on the least useful work.

So, even though we’re pure instrumentalists at the policy level, as instrumentalists, we become committed to the rejection of instrumental approaches. Not always, not if better evidence comes along, but for the time being, given our current knowledge, etc. We become instrumentally non-instrumental. When we are in front of the classroom or when we are advising students about majors, we should discourage an instrumental relationship to education. And that means that we have to discourage instrumentalism when we are deciding which programs to fund, too.