Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fear and fairness: Impediments to knowledge

Most issues in politics are more complicated than most partisans think. It is usually hard to know enough to make a truly informed decision among competing policy choices. To make matters more complex, competing policy choices are almost always backed by either by (i) different sets of facts and spin, and/or (ii) insufficient information for a reasonably informed decision. 

Most voter opinions on most issues are based on a combination of false facts and personal political ideology or morals. Personal political ideology-morals, e.g., liberalism and conservatism, fosters false fact beliefs in most people. That is an inherent aspect of the largely intuitive biology of human cognition. Most policy choices are therefore overwhelmingly subjective-emotional and error prone relative to what's best for the public interest.

To be more objective-rational than subjective-intuitive, personal policy choices need to be based as much or more on unbiased, unspun facts and reason, than on subjective personal ideology or morals. Unfortunately for average citizens there are several major barriers that make access to unbiased facts difficult or impossible. Two barriers are fear and fairness.

The fear barrier
For people with deeply held political beliefs or ideology-morals, it can be frightening or impossible to honestly face facts. Unbiased facts are independent of personal beliefs and they often undermine personal beliefs. An excellent way to avoid facing facts is to block the work or research needed to obtain relevant facts about an issue. That is a tactic that conservatives have used, sometimes to great effect. It is not clear if liberals resort to this fact-blocking method.

Examples of research killing include a very successful effort by pro-gun politicians, mostly conservatives, gun manufacturers and the pro-gun lobby to squelch federal funding for research into the public health impacts of gun ownership. That coordinated effort began in 1996, three years after an article in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that gun ownership was a risk factor for homicide in the home. Groups such as the NRA continue to block federal funding for research.

Conservatives have also blocked or tried to block federal funding for (i) independent, objective analysis of various technical issues to inform congress and (ii) NASA’s research on climate science based on false arguments.

Efforts to block research that conservatives believe would undermine their ideology are based more on fear of what unbiased facts would show than anything else. There is no other obvious credible explanation.

The fairness barrier
Obtaining unbiased data often requires controlled experiments with different groups, control and/or experimental groups, being subject to different conditions. Controls are usually needed for comparing the effect of one test condition with another. Without controls, it is hard or impossible to objectively measure and compare one condition or policy choice with another. Despite the need for controls in experiments or policy option tests, resistance sometimes crops up because it is perceived to be unfair to treat different groups of people differently.

The Wall Street Journal reported an example of fairness barrier interference with research and how it can be overcome at least sometimes. A researcher was interested in seeing if there would be academic and attendance differences between students attending an urban high school who received a free lunch compared to students who didn’t. The researcher wanted to randomly pick students who would get the free lunch but the school blocked the research arguing it was unfair to not give all students a free lunch. Fairness blocked research.

A few months later the researcher went back to the same school but informed administrators that he had only enough money to give half the students a free lunch and the administrators could pick who got the free lunches. The administrators suggested randomly picking which students got the free lunches and which didn’t. The researcher got his experiment because it was framed as sufficiently fair from the point of view of the people with the power to allow or block the research.

Again, the relevance of the subjective-intuitive nature of human cognition to politics makes itself abundantly clear. The open question is whether American society is ready to accept the basic nature of how our brains see and think about the world and conclude it is time for a different, smarter way of doing politics.

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