Thursday, March 11, 2010

George Monbiot :

Yesterday in the Guardian Peter Preston called for a prophet to lead us out of the wilderness. "We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince … We need to be taught to believe by a true believer." Would it work? No. Look at the hatred and derision the passionate and persuasive Al Gore attracts. The problem is not only that most climate scientists can speak no recognisable human language, but also the expectation that people are amenable to persuasion.

In 2008 the Washington Post summarised recent psychological research on misinformation. This shows that in some cases debunking a false story can increase the number of people who believe it. In one study, 34% of conservatives who were told about the Bush government's claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were inclined to believe them. But among those who were shown that the government's claims were later comprehensively refuted by the Duelfer report, 64% ended up believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.


Normblog worries that Monbiot goes "too far" in that :

That people are sometimes resistant to being persuaded of what is true (when it is indeed true) is readily observable. But a theory purporting to explain why they must be resistant to persuasion is something else. It risks opening on to suggestions of an alternative method of 'winning' them over. There is no democratically acceptable alternative method. Sometimes you can persuade people, other times not. Welcome to the real world.

But there's more to be said than that. Daily, science is going to turn out evidence of human decision making being irrational : affected by unconscious environmental cues, learned associations, chemical triggers, partisan feelings etc. Yet our belief in democracy is fundamentally, philosophically, committed to humans as rational and free decision makers. What should we do when this commitment becomes scientifically untenable?

Will this, itself, become a reason for politicians to reject science? To deny the results of psychological research in favour of an unjustifiable faith in human agency? Will someone come up with a philosophical compatibilism? (As in "don't worry, decisions are still free and rational even though we can now see their causes"? But how sustainable will this be as we also discover better ways to manipulate beliefs?)

We have always sought to persuade. Sometimes we succeed. And sometimes we don't. But what happens when it becomes clear that persuasive power is mere "engineering", available to the highest bidder?


zby said...

These discoveries don't change the political system - they only show how it works. They can be used to manipulate it - but it can also be used to make it better. The rationality of the voters always was questioned (at least since Thukydides) and people pondered how to improve the decision process. Now we can try to base that improvement attempts on science.

Oli said...

I was happy and impressed to see this post from GM, as this is a key issue I've been thinking about for a couple of years now.

However, it's a shame that GM doesn't make the obvious, final, genuinely challenging step of doubting his own rationality.

I am convinced that we all need to recognise two things:
1. At best we humans are only mildly rational creatures.
2. We must continue to strive to be more rational creatures.

Why point 2?

Well, I've recently realised my simple answer to this question:

The consequences of our actions matter (and not just our intentions) therefore we must find ways to reasonably attempt to predict the consequences of our actions before we act. Rationality (to me) is the name for the collection of tools that we use to most effectively attempt to make such predictions in order to behave ethically.

So, giving up on rationality would mean giving up on any role for consequentialism and thereby dangerously reducing ethics into an issue of intentions.

That's why philosophy, science and any other attempts to improve our rationality should always be recognised as fundamentally ethical projects.

However, at the same time I am deeply concerned about how illusory our rationality appears to be and how confident most people are about their own rationality.

John Powers said...

Talking about "science" gets me in a muddle especially when social sciences are lumped in. I do think that social sciences are "science" but not due the same sort of weight and permanence of the natural sciences.

Adam Curtis did a remarkable documentary exploring Public Relations among other things called "The Century of Self." One of the conclusions I drew from it is that the science underlying efforts to manipulate people doesn't have to be particularly sound for efforts to manipulate people to have great effect.

There is so much that science tells us nothing much about.

This week I saw a piece in Scientific American dealing with a study of decision making and negotiation when "sacred values" are in play. I liked seeing the notion of "sacred values" being taking seriously. But the inclusion of such a concept would hardly seem "scientific" to most folks.

Science values quantity over quality. I agree very much with Oli that philosophy and science are fundamentally ethical projects, but do not think that ethics is a scientific pursuit.

Studies like the one in the Scientific American have something to tell us about how we reasonably might proceed towards developing some accord with others who don't share our ideas of what's sacred. But science has little to say about what to consider sacred.

The big difficulty in coping with climate science is the implications challenge our way of life which to varying degrees we hold sacred.

John F. Kennedy memorably said in 1961: "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind." We haven't made much progress on ending war in the 50 years hence. I don't think the reasons are because people don't rationally understand that generality, but rather the urge to war appeals to "higher" values as irrational as that may seem.

Justice and fairness don't have such a good track record, but I"m convinced that if anything is to be done in an appropriate response to global climate change they are even more central to the decision making process than is science.