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Sunday
Feb242013

What sort of vice is overstatement?

I don't really know, but I'm sure the sort of character deficiency that overstatement indicates is even more serious if someone who indulges in it doesn't recognize or acknowledge having done so, feel regret about it, thank the friends who pointed it out, and resolve to try to avoid recurrence.

My post on the "false & tedious defective brain meme" contained some regrettable elements of overstatement.

Before grappling with them, I want to start by extracting from the post the points that I do want to stand by and that I'm quite willing to defend in engaged discussion with others. They are essentially two: (a)  that "defective rationality" accounts of polarization over policy-relevant science are ill-supported; and (b) that the frenetic and repetitive prorogation of these accounts in wide-eyed, story-telling modes of presentation demeans serious public discussion and distracts thoughtful people from thoughtful engagement with this serious problem.

These are strong claims but I want to advance them strongly because I feel they are right and important, and because I believe that obliging people to confront them, to the extent that I can, will advance common understanding -- either by helping people to see why views they might hold should be abandoned or, if it turns out I'm wrong (I certainly accept that I might be), by fortifying the basis for confidence they can have in them once they've dealt with evidence that seems to suggest a very different explanation for the difficulty we face.

Here are the elements of the post that I now recognize to be in the nature of regrettable overstatement:

  • The singularity and certitude with which I advanced my alternative explanation. In fact, I feel the position I articulated--one I & others have been engaged in elaborating theoretically and testing empirically for a sustained period--is the best one for the phenomenon I mean to address, viz., conflict over societal risks and related facts. But there are other reasonable and plausible hypotheses (ones that are also much more subtle than the "our brains make us stupid!" trope); also many open questions, the investigation of which can furnish evidence that warrants revising the degree of confidence a reasonable person can have that the position I advanced, and not these others, is correct. It is disrespectful of other researchers and thoughtful appraisers of research to carry on as if this were not so. The cast of mind I displayed also demeans the enterprise of empirical inquiry by evincing the vulgar attitude that science is about reaching "final" and "conclusive" answers to difficult questions. Intrinsic to science's way of knowing is recognition of the permanent provisionality of what is known; expressing oneself in a manner that obscures or denies this not only risks misleading people but is ugly. One can have and communicate conviction in favor of, and can passionately advocate action based on, one's beliefs without concealing that what one believes is necessarily based on one's best understanding of the currently available evidence.
  • The thoughtless conflation of discrete and complex matters. I meant to be addressing something particular: polarization over risks and other policy-relevant facts in controversies like climate change, gun control, fiscal policy, etc. But I wrote in a manner that invited the interpretation that  I was discussing something much more general. Motivated reasoning, biased assimilation, and the like are not confined to these matters; the dynamics involved in attitude polarization won't reduce to the single one I was giving. The carelessness generality with which I presented my views injected an air of grandiosity into them that is embarrassing as well as potentially misleading.
  • Reckless imprecision in criticism.  I framed my argument as a criticism of science journalists. Often science journalists do, I think, deliberately frame as evidence of defects in human rationality--and in particular, as inconvenient leftovers in the evolution of the "brain"-- findings of decision science that don't bear any such interpretation. I am quoted often in articles that squeeze themselves into this template even though I don't see "cultural cognition" that way at all, and have been careful to emphasize in my discussions with writers that polarization originating in cultural cognition reflects unusual, correctible conditions inimical to reason (by analogy: if you can't see after someone shines a bright light in your eyes, that doesn't mean your eye is "defective"; it means that the normally reliable faculty of sight is disabled by the flashing of intense bursts of light into your face). I should have noted, though, that many science journalists don't make this mistake.  And even more important, many of those who do are only transmitting truly awful scholarship being performed by researchers (and scholarly synthesizers) who exploit the peculiar fascination with "brain" centered explanations. It's really a huge injustice to express dissatisfaction with science journalists (whose craft skills should in fact be mined for insights into how to improve science communication in multiple sectors of our society) for this regrettable spectacle, which continues notwithstanding high-profile exposure of the defects in methods still routinely used in many such studies.  (Oh-- just to avoid compounding my problems: I don't mean to say that all neuro-science studies that feature fMRI use these bogus methods. Indeed, some of the coolest studies I've ever seen are based on fMRI used as a distinctively discerning measure in connection with inspired experimental designs. See, e.g., this.)

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Reader Comments (5)

Thank you for your willingness to engage my critique, and I commend your acknowledgement of your errors while standing by some of your opinions -- and you're even open to improvement on these thoughts. It's why I keep coming back to this blog, and they are characteristics I actively try to cultivate in myself.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterColin Doms

Overstatement is not a vice.

Actually, to some degree I consider overstatement to be an important component of analysis: We need to sometimes lapse into overstatement to explore the boundaries of what is and isn't valid.


Unwillingness to correct for overstatement is not something I would call a vice, necessarily, but it is something that undermines logical analysis. In fact, I think it is the single biggest "tell" for motivated reasoning.

IMO - your willingness to risk overstatement in conjunction with your commitment to exploration of what may or may not be overstatement - are commendable (even if I don't always agree with your conclusions in that regard).

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I just want to add that I wrote my comment before reading Colin's.

The fact that we both wrote those comments (separately), connoting a similar reaction to your willingness to engage (and I would add openness to critique), I think says something powerful. Such a quality is rare, and further, it is something that I have found to be more or less non-existent in the blogosphere.

You are not just paying lip service to the concepts you are exploring.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

For what it's worth, I wouldn't have made a fuss over it, it didn't seem that big a deal to me. Everyone has a right to be wrong every now and then. The trick is to shrug, agree, thank the person for helping out, and change what you say and do in future. That is, after all, the entire purpose of debating with people who hold different opinions. It ought to be routine. Expecting a major mea culpa after a minor error tends to reduce people's flexibility.

But I'm glad to see that you're open-minded to alternatives. It's impressive ethics.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV: I agree w/ you -- & I don't go out of my way to call attention to everything I say that I regret, or to every acknowlegement of regret I express.

But here @Colin told me how I looked to him; I glanced back and agreed I saw something unattractive: an insinuation that I alone know things worthy of being considered, a sentiment that conveys disrespect to other scholars trying to answer complicated questions, and that risks preempting reflection on the part of readers. What *I* have to say in fact is not interesting except in relation to interesting alternatives (of which "our dumb brains" is *not* one).

I'm happy to have the chance to cast off such an unappealing presentation of myself.

February 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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