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April 16, 2006

Around the Op-Ed Pages this Sunday

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Hodge Podge

Here are some thoughts about a number of related op-eds that I came across this Sunday morning.

From the LA Times last week (and the Boulder Daily Camera today) is an interesting op-ed by Francis Fukuyama about the perils of thoughtful public intellectualism. Here is an excerpt:

Seven weeks ago, I published my case against the Iraq war. I wrote that although I had originally advocated military intervention in Iraq, and had even signed a letter to that effect shortly after the 9/11 attacks, I had since changed my mind. . .

But apparently this kind of honest acknowledgment is verboten. In the weeks since my book came out, I've been challenged, attacked and vilified from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Many people have noted the ever-increasing polarization of American politics, reflected in news channels and talk shows that cater to narrowly ideological audiences, and in a House of Representatives that has redistricted itself into homogeneous constituencies in which few members have to appeal to voters with diverse opinions. This polarization has been vastly amplified by Iraq: Much of the left now considers the war not a tragic policy mistake but a deliberate criminal conspiracy, and the right attacks the patriotism of those who question the war.

This kind of polarization affects a range of other complex issues as well: You can't be a good Republican if you think there may be something to global warming, or a good Democrat if you support school choice or private Social Security accounts. Political debate has become a spectator sport in which people root for their team and cheer when it scores points, without asking whether they chose the right side. Instead of trying to defend sharply polarized positions taken more than three years ago, it would be far better if people could actually take aboard new information and think about how their earlier commitments, honestly undertaken, actually jibe with reality — even if this does on occasion require changing your mind.

Of course, in such a polarized state of affairs, people reading Fukuyama’s warning will simply interpret it to mean that their opponents are the ones who are ideological and unwilling to change their minds!

Along these exact lines, the New York Times has an interesting op-ed by Daniel Giblert, a professor at Harvard, on how people use information to confirm/deny that which they already believed. Here is an excerpt:

Much of what happens in the brain is not evident to the brain itself, and thus people are better at playing these sorts of tricks on themselves than at catching themselves in the act. People realize that humans deceive themselves, of course, but they don't seem to realize that they too are human. . .

A Princeton University research team asked people to estimate how susceptible they and "the average person" were to a long list of judgmental biases; the majority of people claimed to be less biased than the majority of people. A 2001 study of medical residents found that 84 percent thought that their colleagues were influenced by gifts from pharmaceutical companies, but only 16 percent thought that they were similarly influenced. Dozens of studies have shown that when people try to overcome their judgmental biases — for example, when they are given information and told not to let it influence their judgment — they simply can't comply, even when money is at stake.

And yet, if decision-makers are more biased than they realize, they are less biased than the rest of us suspect. Research shows that while people underestimate the influence of self-interest on their own judgments and decisions, they overestimate its influence on others. . .

In short, doctors, judges, consultants and vice presidents strive for truth more often than we realize, and miss that mark more often than they realize. Because the brain cannot see itself fooling itself, the only reliable method for avoiding bias is to avoid the situations that produce it.

When doctors refuse to accept gifts from those who supply drugs to their patients, when justices refuse to hear cases involving those with whom they share familial ties and when chief executives refuse to let their compensation be determined by those beholden to them, then everyone sleeps well.

Until then, behavioral scientists have plenty to study.

In addition, the Washington Post has a defense of nuclear power by Patrick Moore, a former Greenpeace founder who apparently became disaffected. And the NYT has an op-ed by James Lincoln Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, which complains about the public’s and policy makers’ blunt endorsement of hybrid automobile technologies. Each is fairly nuanced and raises complicated points, which, if you agree with Fukuyama and Gilbert, may be more likely to be spun as wedge devices in ideological battles among people whose views are hardened irrespective of data or argument, rather than considered on their intellectual merits. For my part, I do think that argumentation matters and that many people are open to new information, analysis, and the related evolution of their thinking on policy issues. But this probably does not fully extend to many of the loudest, most certain, and strident commentators that sometimes seem to dominate public debates.

Posted on April 16, 2006 08:40 AM


Along these lines, there was a recent National Journal Congressional Insiders Poll about about AGW (I just became aware of it today thanks to a colleague). I've posted the PDF on my web page, since I couldn't quickly find a link to the original.

The poll asks two questions, one about science, and one about various energy and emissions-related policy options. One take-home message of course is be the sharp partisan difference on what the science says about AGW. What constitutes the "scientific facts" is conditioned by your particular frame.

Looking a little more closely, two additional points jump out at me:

1. As far as the first poll question is concerned (the science question), the democrats are much more certain and unified. Compare percentages (98% vs. 77%) and also confident and/or aggressive language (e.g., "beyond a shadow of a doubt," "no controversy," oil and coal-industry funded scientists, etc., vs. "respected scientists from both sides of the issue," and "a preponderance of evidence in this [presumably human cause of GW] direction"). This is perhaps consistent with the Frank Luntz observations that the window of opportunity to dispute the science (for better or for worse) appears to be closing.

2. When we switch to the second poll question (the policy options question), we find a lot of shared values and room for compromise. For example, increased spending on alternative fuels has very broad support, and it looks like there might also be enough political will to move on higher fuel efficiency standards, whereas a higher gasoline tax appears to be off the radar of both sides for the moment. Roger, I can picture you saying that when you focus on options, and in particular put lots of them on the table, you are likely to identify points of agreement even in an extremely polarized debate. Then you can craft strategies based on this commonality.

Posted by: Chris Weaver at April 17, 2006 10:00 AM

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