Friday, October 3, 2014

Public reason is our best hope for survival

It doesn't rain but it pours. I mentioned only few days ago that I had not seen much commentary on some of the disturbing implications behind Cass Sunstein's book Nudge. Now that he has a couple of new books out, it seems as if commentators are focusing on some of the same issues which have been disturbing me. Reflecting on yesterday's post while driving around, it occurred to me that Sunstein is a little like a kid with a new toy which happens to be a chain-saw. It's neat and can be both fun and useful but it should be treated with care and caution.

Its not that what Sunstein is saying about nudging is wrong. Its that it is dangerous and he is not demonstrating due caution to what can go wrong. He appears an exemplar of what Thomas Sowell calls the Self-Anointed - those undoubtedly high IQ individuals who overestimate their own intelligence and wisdom to the detriment of everyone else. In fact Sowell wrote a whole book documenting the resultant disasters arising from the inclination of the Self-Anointed to appropriate decision-making on behalf of others, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy by Thomas Sowell.

Not so foolish by Steven Poole focuses on a somewhat different argument. Poole wishes to refute the idea underpinning Nudge and its ilk that people are a portfolio of irrationalities and biases. The implication of the worldview of other people as being irrational is that they are fundamentally unqualified to make good decisions. This becomes the groundwork for the idea that others with a higher IQ, who are wiser or more informed should be allowed to make decisions on behalf of those poor deluded irrational darlings.

Poole raises some important points but I think he misses several issues that are as or more important.

Poole starts out with a summary of the recent attacks on the assumption of man as a rational decision-maker.
. . . the news from popular psychology, neuroscience, economics and other fields is that we are not as rational as we like to assume. We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors. We prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.


This is a scientised version of original sin. And its eager adoption by today’s governments threatens social consequences that many might find troubling. A culture that believes its citizens are not reliably competent thinkers will treat those citizens differently to one that respects their reflective autonomy. Which kind of culture do we want to be? And we do have a choice. Because it turns out that the modern vision of compromised rationality is more open to challenge than many of its followers accept.
Poole then has a long discussion about the consequences of defining rationality too narrowly. I think he is materially correct and has some great examples but I don't think that definitions are the primary weakness of the camp wanting to proclaim the fundamental flawedness of human decision-making.

I think the rationality critics go wrong in the following ways.
1) They fail to take into account that people's objectives differ from one another and over time. Decisions that appear irrational in one context appear rational in another. One's objectives create an internal framing that shapes how one approaches a decision. By not taking into account individual objectives, the irrationalist camp fails to acknowledge the agency of their fellow man and how unlikely it is that all people will have identical goals, prioritized in the same way, pursued in the same fashion, at the same time.

2) They ignore the issue of tactical and strategic decision-making. Some decisions that are tactically detrimental are strategically beneficial. Some decisions that are tactically beneficial are strategically detrimental.

3) They fail to address how Perceived Risk and Uncertainty drive decisions. If I live in a very uncertain environment, I am likely to have a very high time discount, i.e. I put a premium on immediate gratification or return. Consequently, I am unlikely to invest much in an activity, no matter how high the objective return might be, if that return is beyond my planning horizon. It is obvious between countries (say someone living in Haiti versus in Indiana). It is less obvious but still apparent when comparing within a country (say a fifteen year old considering to save for a rainy day versus a fifty year old). It is least apparent, but just as real, between individuals of near identical backgrounds (say two fifty year-olds, one concerned about perceived future inflation rates versus a second not concerned about inflation). In the latter case we are dealing with what Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as The Black Swan, conceivable but not quantifiable future events with a low probability but a high consequence.

4) They underestimate the role of trust in factual determination. High trust societies extend a lot of credence to others of the in-group in order to save time and effort vetting the quality of information. This has some small cost at the tactical level (bad information or assumptions work their way in to any system) but tends to be outweighed by the aggregate efficiency that such trust enables.

5) They discount the impact of limits and constraints. A poor person has fewer resources to buffer against unexpected events which in turn can have very high consequences and therefore may rationally overinvest in insurance or other actions that protect them from the consequences of an unexpected event. Taking a day off to go to the doctor's office to deal with that bad cut might put your job at risk if you are very poor so you "irrationally" make do with a big band-aid. If you are in a white collar profession, the risk of losing your job for going to the doctors is remote and therefore you do go. Is one more rational than the other given their respective constraints?

6) They undervalue the importance of narrative coherence. We seek to understand things in a fashion that validates our understood narrative. That predisposition is useful when there is a lot of noise in the system. By being predisposed to affirm the accepted narrative, we are essentially filtering out variant noise. It is only when there is sufficient disconfirming evidence to the narrative, and the consequence of an incorrect narrative is sufficiently large that it forces us to expend scarce cognitive resources to adjust or completely change the established narrative.
There are other important issues beyond the basic idea of nudging and Poole raises some of them.

Short-circuiting the principle of consent of the governed is one of those issues. When a select group is allowed to frame choices in a fashion likely to lead to a predictable outcome it essentially disenfranchises individuals. Usually not on a decision-by-decision basis, but in aggregate. Everyone certainly wishes to be the one to do the framing. It is the lifeblood of marketers. But as long as the economy is reinforced by principles of free choice and competition, then there is an evolutionary pressure to stay within certain boundaries of framing. You can't get away with as much framing if you have a competitor who is seeking to unmask you. The naivete of Sunstein is that allowing governments, which are inherently resistant to competition, the power to frame undermines the principle of the consent of the governed. Poole touches on this:
Nudging is far from being a dystopian tool of state mind control: we remain free, after all, to make the ‘wrong’ choices. Yet there is something troubling about the way in which it is able to marginalise political discussion. Is it always irrational to eat fatty food? What about organ donation: should we always be happy about doing that? These are murky questions and opinions might differ, but the architects of choice never have to consult the public about them. Thus the attempt to bypass our reasoning selves creates a problem of consent, a short-circuiting of democracy. Why bother having a political argument if you can make (most) people do what you want anyway?
All the complaints of political gridlock today reflect a desire to impose a choice on others without having to go through the work of arguing and convincing. All the checks and balances created by the Founding Fathers were precisely to make it hard for legislation to occur without material social consent and agreement.

I like this description of reasoning as being a product of community discourse and debate.
Indeed, even as he calls the ‘worship’ of reason a ‘delusion’, Jonathan Haidt celebrates humans’ ability to reason together. ‘If you put individuals together in the right way,’ he writes in The Righteous Mind, ‘such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.’

Combining reasoning individuals ‘in the right way’ is important, so as to avoid the irrational effects introduced by phenomena such as group polarisation or informational cascades. Yet we are all familiar with various examples of the right way to combine individuals into public bodies capable of high-level reasoning: scientific societies, universities – even, sometimes, government debating chambers. Indeed, reasoning is the social institution whose reliability underwrites all the other civil and political institutions of civilised life.

And so there is less reason than many think to doubt humans’ ability to be reasonable. The dissenting critiques of the cognitive-bias literature argue that people are not, in fact, as individually irrational as the present cultural climate assumes. And proponents of debiasing argue that we can each become more rational with practice. But even if we each acted as irrationally as often as the most pessimistic picture implies, that would be no cause to flatten democratic deliberation into the weighted engineering of consumer choices, as nudge politics seeks to do. On the contrary, public reason is our best hope for survival. Even a reasoned argument to the effect that human rationality is fatally compromised is itself an exercise in rationality. Albeit rather a perverse, and – we might suppose – ultimately self-defeating one.
I think the cultivation of civility, tolerance and a love of discourse is the easiest and fastest way for us to continue development and prosperity. Those who seek to circumvent discussion, verbal competition and exploration of new ideas which might be uncomfortable in the status quo are the ones who pose the greatest threat to the commonweal.

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