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Wednesday
Mar022016

Incentives and politically motivated reasoning: we can learn something but only if we don't fall into the " 'external validity' trap"

Read this ... it's pretty coolFrom revision to "The Politically Motivated Reasoning Paradigm" paper. Been meaning to address the interesting new studies on how incentives affect this form of information processing.  Here's my (provisional as always) take.  It owes a lot to helpful exchanges w/ Gaurav Sood, who likely disagrees with everything I say; maybe I can entice/provoke him into doing a guest post! But in any case, his curiosity & disposition to acknowledge complexity equip him both to teach & learn from others regardless of how divergent his & their "priors."

6. Monetary incentives

Experiments that reflect the PMRP design are “no stake” studies: that is, subjects answer however they “feel” like answering; the cost of a “wrong” answer and the reward for a “correct “one are both zero. In an important development, several researchers have recently reported that offering monetary incentives can reduce or eliminate polarization in the answers that subjects of diverse political outlooks give to questions of partisan import (Khanna & Sood 2016; Prior, Sood & Gaurav 2015; Bullock, Gerber, Hill & Huber 2015).

The quality of these studies is uneven. The strongest, Khanna & Sood (2016), uses the PMRP design. K&S show that offering incentives reduces the tendency of high numeracy subjects to supply politically biased answers in interpreting covariance data in a gun-control experiment, a result reported in Kahan et al. (2013) and described in Section 4.

PSG and BGHH, in contrast, examine subject responses to factual quiz questions (e.g., “. . . has the level of inflation [under President Bush] increased, stayed the same, or decreased?”;“how old is John McCain?,” (Bullock et al. 2015, pp. 532-33)). Because this design does not involve information processing, it doesn’t show how incentives affect the signature feature of politically motivated reasoning: the opportunistic adjustment of the weight assigned to new evidence conditional on its political congeniality.

Both K&S and BGHH, moreover, use M Turk worker samples. Manifestly unsuited for the study of politically motivated reasoning generally (see Section 3.3), M Turk samples  are even less appropriate for studies on the impact of incentives on this form of information processing. M Turk workers are distinguished from members of the general population by their willingness to perform various forms of internet labor for pennies per hour. They are also known to engage in deliberate misrepresentation of their identities and other characteristics to increase their on-line earnings (Chandler & Shapiro 2016). Thus, how readily they will alter their reported beliefs in anticipation of earning monetary rewards for guessing what researchers regard as “correct” answers furnishes an unreliable basis for inferring how members of the general public form beliefs outside the lab, with incentives or without them.

But assuming, as seems perfectly plausible, that studies of ordinary members of the public corroborate the compelling result reported in K&S, a genuinely interesting, and genuinely complex, question will be put: what inference should be drawn from the power of monetary incentives to counteract politically motivated reasoning?

BGHH assert that such a finding would call into doubt the external validity of politically motivated reasoning research. Attributing the polarized responses observed in “no stake” studies to the “expressive utility that [study respondents] gain from offering partisan-friendly survey responses,” BGHH conclude that the “apparent gulf in factual beliefs between members of different parties may be more illusory than real” (Bullock et al., pp. 520, 523).

One could argue, though, that BGHH have things exactly upside down. In the real world, ordinary members of the public don’t get monetary rewards for forming “correct” beliefs about politically contested factual issues. In their capacity, as voters, consumers, or participants in public discussion, they don’t earn even the paltry expected-value equivalent of the lottery prizes that BGHHG offered their M Turk worker subjects for getting the “right answer” to quiz questions. Right or wrong, an ordinary person’s beliefs are irrelevant in these real-world contexts, because any action she takes based on her beliefs will be too inconsequential to have any impact on policymaking.

The only material stake most ordinary people have in the content of their beliefs about policy-relevant facts is the contribution that holding them makes to the experience of being a particular sort of person. The deterrent effect of concealed-carry laws on violent crime, the contribution of human activity to global warming, the impact of minimum wage laws on unemployment—all of these are positons infused with social meanings. The beliefs a person forms about these “facts” reliably dispose her to act in ways that others will perceive to signify her identity-defining group commitments (Kahan in press_a). Failing to attend to information in a manner that generates such beliefs can have a very severe impact on her wellbeing—not because the beliefs she’d form otherwise would be factually wrong but because they would convey the wrong message about who she is and whose side she is on. The interest she has in cultivating beliefs that reliably summon an identity-expressive affective stance on such issues is what makes politically motivated reasoning rational.

No-stake PMRP designs seek to faithfully model this real-world behavior by furnishing subjects with cues that excite this affective orientation and related style of information processing. If one is trying to model the real-world behavior of ordinary people in their capacity as citizens, so-called “incentive compatible designs”—ones that offer monetary “incentives” for “correct” answers”—are externally invalid because they create a reason to form “correct” beliefs that is alien to subjects’ experience in the real-world domains of interest.

On this account, expressive beliefs are what are “real” in the psychology of democratic citizens (Kahan in press_a). The answers they give in response to monetary incentives are what should be regarded as “artifactual,” “illusory” (Bullock et al., pp. 520, 523) if we are trying to draw reliable inferences about their behavior in the political world.

It would be a gross mistake, however, to conclude that studies that add monetary incentives to PMRP designs (e.g., Khanna & Sood 2016) furnish no insight into the dynamics of human decisionmaking. People are not merely democratic citizens, not only members of particular affinity groups, but also many other things, including economic actors who try to make money, professionals who exercise domain-specific expert judgments, and parents who care about the health of their children. The style of identity-expressive information processing that protects their standing as members of important affinity groups might well be completely inimical to their interests in these domains, where being wrong about consequential facts would frustrate their goals.

Understanding how individuals negotiate this tension in the opposing “stakes” they have in forming accurate beliefs and identity-expressive ones is itself a project of considerable importance for decision science.  The theory of “cognitive dualism” posits that rational decisionmaking comprises a capacity to employ multiple, domain-specific styles of information processing suited to the domain-specific goals that individuals have in using information (Kahan 2015b). Thus, a doctor who is a devout Muslim might process information on evolution in an identity-expressive manner “at home”—where “disbelieving” in it enables him to be a competent member of his cultural group—but in a truth-seeking manner “at work”—where accepting evolutionary science enables him to be a competent oncologist (Hameed & Everhart 2013). Or a farmer who is a “conservative” might engage in an affective style of information processing that evinces “climate skepticism” when doing so certifies his commitment to a cultural group identified with “disbelief” in climate change, but then turn around and, join the other members of that same cultural group in processing such information in a truth-seeking way that credits climate science insights essential to being a successful farmer (Rejesus et al. 2013).

If monetary incentives do meaningfully reverse identity-protective forms of information processing in studies that reflect the PMRP design, then a plausible inference would be that offering rewards for “correct answers” is a sufficient intervention to summon the truth-seeking information-processing style that (at least some) subjects use outside of domains that feature identity-expressive goals. In effect, the incentives transform subjects from identity-protectors to knowledge revealers (Kahan 2015a), and activate the corresponding shift in information-processing styles appropriate to those roles.

Whether this would be the best understanding of such results, and what the practical implications of such a conclusion would be, are also matters that merit further, sustained emirical inquiry. Such a program, however, is unlikely to advance knowledge much until scholars abandon the pretense that monetary incentives are the “gold standard” of experimental validity in decision science as opposed to simply another methodological device that can be used to test hypotheses about the interaction of diverse, domain-specific forms of information processing.

References

Bullock, J.G., Gerber, A.S., Hill, S.J. & Huber, G.A. Partisan Bias in Factual Beliefs about Politics. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 10, 519-578 (2015).

Chandler, J. & Shapiro, D. Conducting Clinical Research Using Crowdsourced Convenience Samples. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology  (2016), advance on-line publication at http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-021815-093623.

Everhart, D. & Hameed, S. Muslims and evolution: a study of Pakistani physicians in the United States. Evo Edu Outreach 6, 1-8 (2013).

Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015a).

Kahan, D.M. The expressive rationality of inaccurate perceptions of fact. Brain & Behav. Sci. (in press_a).

The Politically Motivated Reasoning ParadigmEmerging Trends in Social & Behavioral Sciences, (in press). 

Kahan, D. M. (2015b). What is the “science of science communication”? J. Sci. Comm., 14(3), 1-12.

Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Dawson, E., & Slovic, P. (2013). Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self Government. Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 116.

Khanna, Kabir &  Sood, Gaurav. Motivated Learning or Motivated Responding? Using Incentives to Distinguish Between Two Processes (working), available at http://www.gsood.com/research/papers/partisanlearning.pdf.

Prior, M., Sood, G. & Khanna, K. You Cannot be Serious: The Impact of Accuracy Incentives on Partisan Bias in Reports of Economic Perceptions. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 10, 489-518 (2015).

Rejesus, R.M., Mutuc-Hensley, M., Mitchell, P.D., Coble, K.H. & Knight, T.O. US agricultural producer perceptions of climate change. Journal of agricultural and applied economics 45, 701-718 (2013).

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Reader Comments (19)

One sort of reversal in identity-protective forms of information processing might be seen in tracking the thinking of many American "conservatives" on a mandate for having health insurance (where it went from "personal responsibility" to "tyranny" over a period of a few years). Another would be looking at how jurists on SCOTUS viewed the issue of states' rights in Bush v. Gore compared to their prior views on the issue.

Another type of reversal might be with the Kansas farmer, where the extent of protective information processing related to climate change expands and shrinks relative to context (strongly present when considering the direct political implications of climate change, absent when considering about the agricultural implications).

But perhaps, in both cases, that isn't so much a "reversal" but a metamorphosis in the first case and a detour in the second.

IMO, the most interesting type of reversal would be to see a transformation where, within a particular context, there is a shift from an active engagement identity-protective cognition to a commitment to what is really the diametric opposite; good-faith engagement across identity-groups in a manner that embraces a framework of seeking shared interests rather than the reinforcement of positions. I happen to think that there is a set of practices that can enhance the likelihood of that sort of "reversal." The problem, IMO, is that there is precious little will to implement those practices, precious little vision/faith that anything other than sameosameo can be manifest, and and precious little recognition that the existing patterns of identity-protective engagement, that serve us well in some situations, fail to serve us in situations of long-term risk assessment and mitigation such as with climate change.

March 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua--

book yourself a ticket to Palm Beach, Miami, Ft Lauderdale or Key West

Take in some spring training baseball while there

March 3, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

One interesting thing that the evidence you reference suggests is that when the "payoff" is more immediate and more tangible, as would be the case in Floridian communities that are directly threatened by sea level change, the effects of identity-protective cognition are mitigated.

One obvious question is whether the outcomes you're pointing to are only possible to achieve when the impact of the risks are more direct and tangible., and don't require an evaluation of low probability high impact events over a multi-generational time horizon (as is the case for most people w/r/t climate change)?

In that sense, it's interesting to think about an experimental paradigm where the "payoff" for getting past identity-protective cognition is more direct and tangible.

March 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-- but in fact, *what impact* can any individual's actions make? None. In Fla., too, what any voter, consumer, arguer etc. has no meaningful impact on her exposure to risk; it's all up to collective processes that will be responsive to actions in aggregate, which will do what they do no matter how any individual inside of it decides to act.

People act to *be* who they are. What actions are consistent with their identity -- that is part of their social meaing environment. If they can *be* who they are, they are happy to contribute to collective goods notwithstanding the utter immateriality of their individual contributions-- to reciprocate the good will in the behavior of others doing the same. But if you can't be who you are & contribute, you won't. And you'll be no worse off for not doing so.

Or just book yourself a flight to NC, Texas, Ga, NE Fla, La, ... you'll see what sorts of person are able to be there in relation to the very same individual actions that people in SE Fla are taking & that the people in those regions will suffer if they don't engage in collectively.

The tragedy of the science communications commons is an instance of the general collective action problem of pathological social meanings...

But having said this, yeah, I agree with you. If there's nothing else one can counterpoise against the identity-expressive value people get from taking positions on an issue like climate change, it's a lot harder to decontaminate their social-meaning environment...

March 3, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"One interesting thing that the evidence you reference suggests is that when the "payoff" is more immediate and more tangible, as would be the case in Floridian communities that are directly threatened by sea level change, the effects of identity-protective cognition are mitigated."

Who feels threatened by 6 inches?
:-)

"Or just book yourself a flight to NC, Texas, Ga, NE Fla, La, ..."

This is the example of the ever-expanding carbon footprint of the average global warming believer, yes? Demonstrating that what people say they believe and what they reveal through their actions that they actually believe can be very different...?
:-)

March 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Who feels threatened by 6 inches?
:-)

Have you ever been to Florida? Having been to Florida before, I don't actually blame them for being worried. The state's average elevation is 100 feet, and most of it is underlain by really porous limestone. Property owners there probably don't know if their well is going to get salt in it.

People were already paranoid about sinkholes and saltwater intrusion before. It was already costing real money. Anything that makes a known liability worse is just nasty.

March 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

==> Who feels threatened by 6 inches?

Donald Trump, apparently.

March 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Property owners there probably don't know if their well is going to get salt in it."

So far as I know, that's down to over-extraction, not rising sea level.

Rain and river water enters the aquifer at a certain rate, and flows out again or is extracted at another rate. The boundary between the bubble of fresh water under land and the sea moves with the changing balance of flows. Extract too much, and the flow keeping the salt out of the aquifer slows or reverses. It's got nothing at all to do with climate change.

But that's the same story as with most of this stuff. Coastal erosion, floods, deposition of silt, and fresh water supply have always been issues for humanity. We've got a lot better at the civil engineering of the infrastructure needed, but it's still an on-going problem requiring continual maintenance. However, it's all down to well-known processes of hydrology and geology - sea level rise and climate change have got little if anything to do with it, and probably won't make any detectable difference.

But since everyone knows that nowadays it's a lot easier to get funding if you stick a "climate change" tag on it, that's what civil engineers do. They get to use some of that political money for propping up their coastal defences budget, make it look like they're "taking action on climate change" which looks good to people who like that sort of thing, and lessen the political pressure for the same. You use the climate change funding to do all the stuff you intended and needed to do anyway.

Businesses dependent on political funding find out what the politicians want, and try to offer it. Neither side has any motivation to examine the truth of matters too closely - the politicians are happy with superficial feelgood appearances and businesses are OK with it so long as they get paid. And I'm sure the more cynical climate sceptics derive a lot of private amusement from getting the climate change believers to pay them for their coastal infrastructure. :-)

"Donald Trump, apparently."

OK, you've got me curious. What are you talking about?

March 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Joshu/@NiV:

Damn. I lost my $10K bet w/ @Joshua that NiV was Scalia

March 5, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Interesting theory, Dan. I think I'm flattered! :-) So who did Joshua bet that I was?

March 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

==> What are you talking about?

An oblique reference to Trump apparently thinking that his YOOOOODGE penis is a qualifying criterion for Americans to use in assessing his candidacy.


==> So who did Joshua bet that I was?

Not Scalia?

Pay up, Dan.

March 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Rain and river water enters the aquifer at a certain rate, and flows out again or is extracted at another rate. The boundary between the bubble of fresh water under land and the sea moves with the changing balance of flows. Extract too much, and the flow keeping the salt out of the aquifer slows or reverses. It's got nothing at all to do with climate change.

If it's flux-controlled, you're right. If it's head-controlled, it can be much worse than that. Expert opinions differ on which it is - no consensus here. And how many people know the difference? :-)

So as far as a lay citizen is rightfully concerned, there is absolutely no truth to the matter. There is only risk. If human uses are great enough, whether the inland boundary condition is flux-controlled or head-controlled may even turn out to itself be a matter of policy!

Businesses dependent on political funding find out what the politicians want, and try to offer it. Neither side has any motivation to examine the truth of matters too closely - the politicians are happy with superficial feelgood appearances and businesses are OK with it so long as they get paid. And I'm sure the more cynical climate sceptics derive a lot of private amusement from getting the climate change believers to pay them for their coastal infrastructure. :-)

Yep, pretty much. It seems to me that arguing this practice is wrong is equivalent to arguing that the government shouldn't be in the practice of hedging its own bets. I believe it should be, so I don't have a problem with it.

March 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

"If it's flux-controlled, you're right. If it's head-controlled, it can be much worse than that. Expert opinions differ on which it is - no consensus here"

Interesting stuff! Thanks!

"And how many people know the difference? :-)"

How can anyone have a scientific opinion on the matter without knowing? Many claim to, though. We're having this conversation, after all.

"If human uses are great enough, whether the inland boundary condition is flux-controlled or head-controlled may even turn out to itself be a matter of policy!"

Indeed. It seems to me that the factors supposedly creating head-controlled conditions (surface drainage, wetlands, uncontrolled extraction) - basically increasing flux to maintain a fixed level despite rising sea level - are all factors subject to civil engineering. If surface drainage schemes basically empty out excess water above a certain fixed height, then it seems a (relatively) simply remedy to re-engineer them to empty it out at a higher level. It seems to me like a rather artificial assumption to assume the engineers won't.

Although I suppose in a sense that's just what we're talking about getting funded: the routine drainage system maintenance and update that the civil engineers would have done anyway.

"Yep, pretty much. It seems to me that arguing this practice is wrong is equivalent to arguing that the government shouldn't be in the practice of hedging its own bets."

Oh, I don't have a problem with it. I just think it means you can't necessarily tell what people 'believe' from their funding applications. :-)

March 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

The same sorts of confounding issues that NiV points out for Florida are true on the west coast as well. As a political matter, having businesses that concerned about climate change impacts on their operations is useful in driving political change. It cross-cuts the usual political boundaries. The effects of ocean acidification on shellfish such as oysters is such a case. Commercial shellfish operations grow larger and more rapidly maturing Pacific oysters. In beds that are in as much as they can make them, stripped of plant life. These are more vulnerable to acidification than the smaller slower native Olympic oysters. Which evolved to handle phenomenas of upwellings of more acidic waters that are found on the Pacific Northwest coast. So as it conveniently turns out, for the purpose of taking climate change seriously, these oyster operations were the first to be impacted by further increases in acidity.

You have to look at trajectories. Both heavily pumping Florida groundwater and the sea level rising leaves the area doubly doomed.
There are places in the world where warming may be seen as a very good thing.

In Florida's case, I question whether or not people really have accepted climate change. Developers may be accepting changes that allow them to develop, and cash out. Existing homeowners may be able to hang in there in their homes.

In Florida, isn't anything that is not about a staged retreat and eventual evacuation really a form of denial?

Are Dan's payoffs good? Maybe I should try a bet on something. In the case of NiV I am not so grandiose as to propose Scalia. I have wondered if NiV was an abbreviated version of the Nullis in Verba that used to post on Chris Mooney's old blog, The Intersection.

March 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Reading the paper of Gaurov Sood, what I'd infer is that the payment for answers inspires in people the same sort of "please the boss" behavior that they would employ with the boss at work. I don't think that this implies that they agree with the answers that they've chosen to give. In fact the idea that they feel under pressure to do so leaks out in their responses to questions about the structure of the study, which indicates that the more they feel forced to go against the grain of their own beliefs, the more the whole thing pisses them off.

On the other hand, I also don't agree with Dan Kahan's statement: "In the real world, ordinary members of the public don’t get monetary rewards for forming “correct” beliefs about politically contested factual issues. " People may not get actual cash, but their interest goes beyond identity to economics. As Bill Clinton's statement "It's the economy, stupid" demonstrates, politics is all about the perception of economic gain. A chicken in every pot is an old fashioned expression of this value. Sometimes indirect value is enough. If one is not going to get ahead, sometimes it is enough to know that those other people (and/or corporations) are even more screwed.

What I think seems to be missing from these discussions is what motivates the motivated reasoning in the first place. I do not think that people are simply collecting and processing ideas that randomly pass by them.

A long term view of history would demonstrate that our current polarization is not new and should not seem unexpected. Similar events have occured at other moments in history when income gaps were at their highest. I think that there are considerable parallels between our current political campaigns and those between Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft and Debs in 1912 http://www.amazon.com/1912-Roosevelt-Debs---Election-Changed/dp/0743273559/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1457446565&sr=8-1&keywords=1912. Donald Trump has been compared to the rise of Huey Long.

I think that historically we should see the era after WWII in the US as one that was uniquely homogeneous (for white males). The war experience was unifying, the GI Bill expanded educational opportunities, the US was unscathed by war and had its industrial base intact, TV brought pretty much the same news into every living room. But this was not unbiased. With the aid of the media, Rosie the Riveter was shoved back into the kitchen, civil rights for racial minorities was slow in coming, homosexuality never even publicly mentioned, and at least initially, the Vietnam War was supported.

For climate change, an easy place to start would be the transition between the Carter administration to that of Reagan. Under Carter, we were making great progress on alternative energy research. Federal funding for that came to a screeching halt with Reagan, when interest shifted to such things as Star Wars military efforts instead. To accomplish this governmental transition, much political effort was put into realigning Southern Democrats into supporters of the Republican Party. I think that this move also demonstrates that people's social identities can lag behind their own belief system. I believe that this also offers hopeful possibilities that groups of people can be educated and motivated to see issues in new ways and to make new alignments accordingly, even though I disagree with the policies of this right wing group.

But in the case of climate change, we had a fossil fuel industry very interested in continuing business as usual, without governmental regulation that they would deem excessive. And on the flip side, environmentalists that saw climate change as a justification of their desire for a simpler, less materialistic back to nature movement.

Given that these corporate forces also want to reduce the impact of the federal government overall, avenues towards making the transition to a carbon neutral society something that could resonate with people in need of good jobs was effectively closed off. Key information was withheld.

We have two easily definable political tribes. Perfect fodder for an “us vs. them” two party political system.

I do not believe that people's motivated reactions to information presented can be analyzed without acknowledging and also studying those powerful forces carefully positioning issues to resonate with existing identities, expanding those identities into a recognizable and organizer group and using those newly honed identities to win elections.

I would agree with Gaurov Sood's statement in his online bio here:

"he found that many partisans today hold negative stereotypes about supporters of the main opposing party, that partisan affect--especially toward one’s own party--is only modestly founded in policy preferences"

I think that most people are mostly interested in their own economic futures.

In the Pacific Northwest, the slogan (presumably well reserched by fossil fuel entities) for those supporting the building of coal ports is "Jobs, Now!". People rallying in support of those ports care about construction jobs. They do not care about longer term effects of pollution, including mercury that can contaminate fish, blowing back at them, or climate change, or ocean acidification, or even the fact that once built, coal ports are largely an automated system consisting mostly of conveyor belts. These are people severely squeezed by the current economic system, Jobs Now! hits that immediate concern.

Expressing a disbelief in climate change also gives them an opportunity to strike back at their opponents, pesky environmentalists. As with supporting Trump, it is a means of expressing anger with the existing conditions and saying #**!!*!! to those who they've been led to believe are excluding them. It does not help that some environmentalists are so naive as to have proposed such things as providing support for birdwatching as a viable economic alternative.

We haven't succeeded in presenting approaches to climate change and the needed improvements in infrastructure as a real economic alternative. The fossil fuel industry has played a considerable role in insuring that that does not happen.

March 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Interesting interview with Gaurav Sood here: http://gppreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/MDIInterviewArticle6.pdf

He seems like an interesting, open to what the data says person. I'm hoping that distance from the Hoover Institute will improve his attitude towards markets.

March 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

"In Florida, isn't anything that is not about a staged retreat and eventual evacuation really a form of denial?"

No, but I don't expect believers to accept that for many decades to come, if ever. It reminds me of the time back in the 1970s when everyone "knew" that over-population and pollution were going to bring about a global civilisation-ending apocalypse before the end of the 20th century. I still meet people even today who think Professor Ehrlich was absolutely right - he just got the timing a bit off.

There are a few aspects to life in Florida related to climate change that may require a bit of civil engineering to fix - just as there are many other aspects unrelated to climate change that will also need fixing. Over a fifty or hundred year timescale, they can be built in as the infrastructure is renewed routinely. Most civil engineering projects are built with a 40-year lifetime in mind. In 40 years time they'll just build the next one a bit bigger than they otherwise would have.

You only have to look at places like Venice of The Netherlands to know what's technologically possible. They've lived like that in Venice for 600 years! And Florida is not going to turn into Venice with 6 inches of sea level rise.

But people believe what they want to believe. There's something about "end of the world" predictions that appeals to human psychology at the deepest levels, and always has. It's about the search for significance in one's life, I suspect.

"Maybe I should try a bet on something. In the case of NiV I am not so grandiose as to propose Scalia. I have wondered if NiV was an abbreviated version of the Nullis in Verba that used to post on Chris Mooney's old blog, The Intersection."

Well done! You win! Perhaps Dan will send you a T-shirt? ;-)

NiV was a common abbreviation that many other people used when they couldn't be bothered to spell it out in full. Joshua knows me from places like Professor Curry's place, where it was frequently used.

March 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Gaythia, I find your commentary wonderfully insightful.

How can anyone have a scientific opinion on the matter without knowing? Many claim to, though. We're having this conversation, after all.

I don't think people are claiming to have a scientific opinion on the matter, though. I think Gaythia's right about the economic interest; I think property owners are claiming to have a stake in the outcome, and thus feel entitled to their civic opinion being heard about what government's role ought to be in responding to the perceived threat. By and large their opinions aren't scientifically motivated at all; they just want their government to BE RESPONSIBLE (tm). That's been Dan's point as well.

Problem is, having people being civically engaged does not suffice to translate science into scientifically sound policy. Just for example, can you imagine the brouhaha if someone were to leak that the FL state government was considering instituting water withdrawal quantity restrictions to keep the system in a flux-controlled state? You'd have people screaming about "property rights" and "takings" and "eminent domain" and "just compensation" in 5 seconds flat!

March 10, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

"I don't think people are claiming to have a scientific opinion on the matter, though."

In my experience, a lot of people do. They claim that this is what the "scientific consensus" says, and that people are being "deniers" - irrational, anti-science, etc. - to disagree with it.

Exactly the same thing happened in the evolution debate. I was pro-evolution, but I found myself being annoyed out of all proportion by the people purportedly on the same side as me, who claimed to have a scientific belief in evolution, but clearly had no understanding of how it actually worked or what the evidence for it was. Their arguments were all along the lines of "thousands of experts say...", which is about as unscientific as you can get. And yet they were all perfectly convinced they were being scientific and rational, calling themselves sceptics and suchlike, and extremely contemptuous of the scientific ignorance of anyone who didn't agree - even people who disagreed for scientifically valid reasons like not having seen the evidence. It's an interesting phenomenon.

But it isn't as simple as saying that the politics is distorting people's beliefs about science. People are equally scientifically ignorant on lots of subjects, while equally convinced they are knowledgeable about science. What the politics does is to bring in the contempt, and the name-calling. It becomes a shibboleth - a belief that you have to have to be a member in good standing of civilised society; with contempt at one's laughable and ridiculous ignorance if you don't hold to it. Science is used as a source of authority - and disagreement is compared to disbelief in the world being round or Newton's the law of gravity. However, challenge anyone to explain the evidence for Newtonian gravity itself in more than superficial detail (for example, how can it appear to act instantaneously at a distance?) and they all shrug. And nobody thinks any the worse of them for that. It's not a subject of political contention.

Some people say that scientists have become the new priesthood, but it's not really true. When the politics doesn't care, the pronouncements of scientists are of little weight or interest. But politics can set up scientists as infallible authorities when it chooses, and beat political opponents over the head with accusations of being 'unscientific'. Even Dan, who has no political axe to grind here, regards it as an issue of "scientific communication" rather than simply the expression of civic opinions.

"Problem is, having people being civically engaged does not suffice to translate science into scientifically sound policy. Just for example, can you imagine the brouhaha if someone were to leak that the FL state government was considering instituting water withdrawal quantity restrictions to keep the system in a flux-controlled state? You'd have people screaming about "property rights" and "takings" and "eminent domain" and "just compensation" in 5 seconds flat!"

The problem is that people's political worldviews cause them to cast the science into their own political framework, and assume thereby that the framework itself is supported by the science.

What you describe is in fact a well-known economic (and political) problem - the tragedy of the commons. One political perspective sees the only solution to be regulation. The other political perspective sees the solution as being a matter of property rights. You grant people ownership rights to the water under their property, and when water crosses the boundaries a payment needs to be made. If you extract enough water that the water table drops, drawing water across the boundaries from your neighbours, you have to pay them for it.

Such a solution has its own problems, of course, but as a counter-alternative it illustrates how people fit the science into their political worldview. The same issue applies to the climate change debate. There are, in fact, non-regulatory free-market solutions to the climate change problem (assuming it is a problem). But nobody considers them, because the science is only a means to an end. People are really fighting over the policy, not the science. For those of an authoritarian mindset (in the non-pejorative sense of the word), the real goal is upholding the state's right to regulate, and water management is no more than a justification/excuse. People genuinely believe or disbelieve in the science, but they care about it, and expend effort on learning about it, only because of the policy implications.

March 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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