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Monday
Feb202017

"Fake news"--enh. "Alternative Facts presidency"--watch out! (Talk summary & slides)

My remarks, rationally reconstructed, at the AAAS Panel on “Fake News and Social Media: Impacts on Science Communication and Education” (slides here).

1. Putting the bottom line on top.  If one is trying to assess the current health of science communication in our society, then he or she should likely regard the case of “fake news” as akin to a bad head cold.

The systematic propogation of false information that President Trump is engaged in, on the other hand, is a cancer on the body politic of enlightened self-government.

2. Conjectures inviting refutation. I’ll tell you why I see the “alternative facts presidency” as so much more serious than “fake news.” But before I continue, I want to issue a proviso: namely, that everything I think on these matters is in the nature of informed conjecture. 

I will be drawing on the dynamic of identity-protective reasoning to advance my claims (Flynn et al. 2017; Kahan 2010). Because we have learned so much about mass opinion from studies featuring this dynamic, it makes perfect sense to suspect this form of information processing will determine how people react to fake news and to the stream of falsehoods that flow continuously from the Trump administration.

But we should recognize that these phenomena are different from the ones that have supplied the focus for the study of identity-protective reasoning.

Other dynamics—including ones that also reflect well-established mechanisms of cognition—might support competing hypotheses.

Accordingly, it’s not appropriate to stand up in front of you and say “here is what social science tells us about fake news and presidential misinformation . . . .”  Social science hasn’t spoken yet. Unless he or she has data that directly address these phenomena, anyone who tells you that “social science says” this or that about “fake news” is engaged in story-telling, a practice that can itself mislead the public and distort scholarly inquiry.

I will, for purposes of exposition, speak with a tone of conviction.  But I’m willing to do that only because I can now be confident that you’ll understand my position to be a provisional one, reflecting how things look to me at the Bayesian periphery of a frontier that warrants (demands) empirical exploration. Once valid studies start to accumulate, I am prepared to pull up stakes and move in the direction they prescribe, should it turn out that the ground I’m standing on now is insecure.

3.  Models.  I’m going to use two simple models to guide my exposition.  I’ll call one the “passive aggregator theory” (PAT).  PAT envisions a credulous public that is pushed around by misinformation emanating from powerful economic and political interest groups.

That model, I will contend, is simply wrong.

The truth is something closer to the second model I want you to consider.  This one can be called the “motivated public theory” (MPT).  According to MPT, members of the public are unconsciously impelled to seek out information that supports the view of the identity-defining group they belong to and to dismiss as non-credible any information that challenges that position. 

Where the public is motivated to see things in an identity-reinforcing way, it will be very profitable to create misinformation that gives members of the public what they want—namely, corroboration that their group’s positions are right, and those of their benighted rival wrong.

In my view, that’s what the fake news we saw during the election was all about.  Some smart people in Macedonia or wherever set up sites with scandalous—in fact, outright incredible—headlines to direct traffic to websites that had agreed to pay them to do exactly that.  Indeed, every fake news story was ringed with classic click bait features on overcoming baldness, restoring wrinkled skin, curing erectile dysfunction, and the like.

On the MPT account, the only people who’d be enticed to read such material would be people already predisposed to believe (or maybe fantasize) that the subjects of the stories (Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, for the most part) were evil or stupid enough to engage in the behavior the stories describe. The incremental effect of these stories in shaping their opinions would be nil.

Same for those predisposed not to believe the stories.  They’d be unlikely to see most of them because of the insularity of political-news networks in social media. But even if they saw them, they’d dismiss them out of hand as noncredible.

On net, no one’s view of the world would change in any meaningful way.

4. Empirics. Consider some data that makes a conjecture like this plausible.

a. In the study (Kahan et al., in press), ordinary members of the public were instructed to determine the results of an experiment by looking at a two-by-two contingency table.  The right way to interpret information presented in this form (a common one for presenting experimental research) is to look at the ratios of positive to negative impacts conditional on the treatment.  The subjects who did this would get the correct answer.

But most people don’t correctly interpret 2x2 contingency tables or alternative formulations that convey the same information. Instead the simply compare the number of positive and negative results in the cells for the treatment condition. Or if they are a little smarter, they do that and look at the number of positive results in both the treatment and the untreated control.

Anyone following that strategy would get the “wrong” answer.

The design also had an experimental component. Half the subjects were told that the 2x2 summarized results—better or worse complexions—for a new skin-rash treatment.  The other half that it reflected the results—violent crime up versus violent crime down—of a law that permitted citizens to carry concealed weapons in public.

In the skin-rash condition, the likelihood of getting the answer right turned only on the Numeracy (quantitative-rezoning proficiency) of the subjects, regardless of whether were right-leaning or left-.

click me for better look!But in the gun-control condition, high-numeracy subjects were likely to get the answer right only  when the data, properly interpreted, supported the position that was dominant in their ideological group. When the data, property interpreted supported their ideological rival’s position, the subjects highest in Numeracy were no more likely to get the answer correct than those who were low in Numeracy. Essentially they used their reasoning proficiencies to pry open a confabulatory escape hatch to the logic trap they found themselves trapped in.

As a result, the highest Numeracy subjects were the most divided on what the data signified.

This is a result consistent with MPT.  If it captures the way that people reason outside the lab, then we should expect to see not only that members of opposing affinity groups are polarized on contentious empirical issues. We should expect to see the degree of polarization between their members increasing in lockstep with diverse citizens’ science comprehension capacities.

And indeed, that is what we see (Kahan 2016).

b. Now consider the significance of this for fake news.  

From this simple model, we can see how identity-protective reasoning can profoundly divide opposing cultural groups.  Yet no one was being misled about the relevant information. Instead, the subjects were misleading themselves—to avoid the dissonance of reaching a conclusion contrary to their political identifies.  

Nor was the effect a result of credulity or any like weakness in critical reasoning. 

On the contrary, the very best reasoners—the ones best situated to make sense of the evidence—were the ones who displayed the strongest tendency toward identity-protective reasoning.

Because biased information-search is also a consequence of identity-protective cognition, we should expect that people who reason this way will be much more likely to encounter information that reinforces rather than undermines their predispositions.

Of course, people might now and again stumble across “fake news” that goes against their predispositions, too.  But because we know such people are already disposed to bend even non-misleading information into a shape that affirms rather than threatens their identities, there is little reason to expect them to credit “fake news” when the gist of it defies their political preconceptions.

These are inferences that support MPT over PAT.

5. As I stated the outset, we shouldn’t equate the Trump Administration’s persistent propagation of misinformation with the misinformation of the cartoonish “fake news” providers.  The latter, I’ve just explained, are likely to have only a small or no effect on the science communication environment; the former, however, fills that environment with toxins that enervate human reason.

Return to the “motivated public theory.” We shouldn’t be satisfied to treat a “motivated public” as exogenous. How do people become motivated, identity-protective reasoners?

They aren’t, after all, on myriad issues (e.g., GM foods) on which we could easily imagine conflict—indeed, on whether there actually is in other places (e.g., GM foods in Europe).

click me, pls!A likely answer, my collaborators and I concluded in a recently published study (Kahan et al. 2017), is the advent of culturally toxic memes.

Memes are self-propagating ideas or practices that enjoy wide circulation by virtue of their salience.

Culturally toxic memes are ones that fuse positions on risks or similar policy-relevant facts to individual identities. The operate primarily by stigmatizing those who hold such positions as stupid and evil.

When that happens, people gravitate toward habits of mind that reinforce their commitment to their groups’ positions. They do that because holding a position consistent with others in their groups is more important to them—more consequential for their well-being—than is holding a positon that is correct

What an ordinary member of the public thinks about climate change, e.g.,  will not affect the risk that it poses to her or to anyone she cares The impact she as an individual consumer or an individual voter will be too small to make any real difference.

But given what holding such a position has come to signify about who one is—whose side one is on in a vicious struggle between competing groups for cultural ascendency—forming a belief (an attitude, really) that estranges her from her peers could have devastating psychic and material consequences.

Of course, when everyone resorts to this form of reasoning simultaneously, we’re screwed.  Under these conditions, citizens of pluralistic democratic society will fail to converge, or converge as quickly as they should, on valid empirical evidence about the dangers they face and how to avert them (Kahan et al. 2012).

The study we conducted modeled how exposure to toxic memes (ones linking the spread of Zika to global warming or to illegal immigrants) could rapidly polarize cultural groups that are now largely in agreement about the dangers posed by the Zika virus.

This is why we should worry about Trump: his form of misinformation, combined with the office that he holds, makes him a toxic-meme propagator of unparalleled influence.

When Trump spews forth with lies, the media can’t simply ignore him, as they would a run-of-the-mill crank. What the President of the United States says always compels coverage.

Such coverage, in turn, impels those who want to defend the truth to attack Trump in order to try to undo the influence his lies could have on public opinion.

But because the ascendency of Trump is itself a symbol of the status of the cultural groups that propelled him to the White House, any attack on him for lying is likely to invest his position with the form of symbolic significance that generates identity-protective cognition: the fight communicates a social meaning—this is what our group believes, and that what our enemies believe—that drowns out the facts (Nyhan et al 2010, 2013).

We aren’t polarized today on the safety of universal childhood immunization (Kahan 2013; CCP 2014). But we could easily become so if Trump continues to lie about the connection between vaccinations and autism.

We aren’t polarized today on the means appropriate to counteract the threat of the Zika virus (Kahan et al. 2017).  But if Trump tries to leverage public fear of Zika into support for tightening immigration laws, we could become politically polarized—and cognitively impeded from recognizing the best scientific evidence on spread of this disease.

Trump is uniquely situated, and apparently emotionally or strategically driven, to enlarge the domain of issues on which this reason-effacing dynamic degrades our society’s capacity to recognize and give proper effect to decision-relevant science.

6.  Trump, in sum, is our nation’s science-communication environment polluter-in-chief. We shouldn’t let concern over “fake news” on Facebook to distract us from the threat he uniquely poses to enlightened self-government or from identifying the means by which the threat his style of political discourse can be repelled.

Refs

CCP, Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication: An Experimental Investigation (Jan. 27, 2014).

Flynn, D.J., Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. The Nature and Origins of Misperceptions: Understanding False and Unsupported Beliefs About Politics. Political Psychology 38, 127-150 (2017).

Kahan, D. Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature 463, 296-297 (2010).

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012).

Kahan, D.M. A Risky Science Communication Environment for Vaccines. Science 342, 53-54 (2013).

Kahan, D.M. Culturally antagonistic memes and the Zika virus: an experimental test. J Risk Res 20, 1-40 (2017).

Kahan, D.M. The Politically Motivated Reasoning Paradigm, Part 1: What Politically Motivated Reasoning Is and How to Measure It. in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2016).

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Dawson, E. & Slovic, P. Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self Government. Behavioural Public Policy  (in press).

Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Polit Behav 32, 303-330 (2010).

Nyhan, B., Reifler, J. & Ubel, P.A. The Hazards of Correcting Myths About Health Care Reform. Medical Care 51, 127-132 110.1097/MLR.1090b1013e318279486b (2013).

.

 

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Reader Comments (28)

In my opinion, the mistake here is in seeing the two models, PAT and MPT as separate, as opposed to operating in manners that re-enforce one another and are subject to outside manipulation. Sure, "members of the public are unconsciously impelled to seek out information that supports the view of the identity-defining group they belong to and to dismiss as non-credible any information that challenges that position. " But this can be manipulated by outside forces. Marketers target customers, not only by targeting existing groups, but by creating an atmosphere in which those existing groups might want to incorporate owning a particular new product as an expansion of an existing consumer identity. Religious leaders can incorporate new cultural trends and lead their flocks to view them as either within or outside of the theological boundaries of their flocks.

Politicians today, by and large, do not actually arise out of a charismatic group of grassroots organizers without serious financial backing, or, as is true of Trump,self funding mechanisms.

As a retro thought experiment. What if you had a giant pot of funding and were in control of a membership list for a group that provided hunter gun safety classes? Was it inevitable that this end up as an effective lobbying organization for deregulation of gun purchases by nearly anybody? Or could it have been used to promote the idea that only those who were well trained, and had an actual need for guns ought to own guns in the use relevant categories. Only group trained hunters get hunting rifles. Highly trained SWAT teams get assault rifles. IMHO, traditional rural/city biases could be exploited to deny gun ownership to many who now possess them. The reason that the NRA became such an effective lobby for expansion of gun ownership seems to be the direct result of linkage to gun manufacturers.

Similarly, there is a big rural/urban divide between those who do or do not see their personal economic well being as directly connected to fossil fuel exploitation and use. I do not agree that people see that "What an ordinary member of the public thinks about climate change, e.g., will not affect the risk that it poses to her or to anyone she cares The impact she as an individual consumer or an individual voter will be too small to make any real difference." In fact, some of the policy mechanisms that might be employed to combat climate change, say an overall carbon tax higher gasoline and desel fuel taxes and thus prices, or regulations that diminish coal mining or coal fired power plant usage do have very real and quite disproportionate impacts on different groups of people.

The underlying scary truth that Trump was able to tap into is that the established system really is rigged against the little guy. The idea of throwing a monkey wrench into that system was so appealing that differentiating between the connections between wealth and power enjoyed by Hillary Clinton as opposed to Donald Trump seemed minor by comparison.

In 2008, the Obama campaign was able to make change appear to be associated with hope.

In my opinion, the way forward is not in fighting numerous brush fires in the form of alternative facts here and there, but rather in addressing the huge underlying issue:

Who owns the future?

February 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Dan -

=={ The systematic propogation of false information that President Trump is engaged in, on the other hand, is a cancer on the body politic of enlightened self-government. }==

You are being overly dramatic. There's nothing to see here. Just move on. As NiV has explained downstairs, you have to understand that:

Trump is honestly expressing the beliefs of a large subset of the American population...

(my bold)

So when Trump tweets:

Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days - now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!

He is just honestly expressing the beliefs of a large subset of the American public that public health officials are incompetent. What the hell is wrong with him doing that??

Or when he tweets that:

Something very important, and indeed society changing, may come out of the Ebola epidemic that will be a very good thing: NO SHAKING HANDS!

He is just honestly expressing the beliefs of a large subset of the American public that if we stop shaking hands we can make a very important and needed change in our society.

Or when he tweets that:

A single Ebola carrier infects 2 others at a minimum. STOP THE FLIGHTS! NO VISAS FROM EBOLA STRICKEN COUNTRIES!

He is just honestly expressing the beliefs of a large subset of the American public that the answer to the threat from Ebola to STOP THE FLIGHTS!!!!

Or when he tweets that:

Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!

He is just honestly expressing the beliefs of a large subset of the American public that there are "many cases" that show the causal link between vaccines and AUTISM.

When Trump tweets that:

Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism....

He is just honestly expressing the beliefs of a large subset of the American public that inoculations cause autism.

And when he Tweets that:

Autism rates through the roof--why doesn't the Obama administration do something about doctor-inflicted autism. We lose nothing to try.

He is just honestly expressing the beliefs of a large subset of the American public that there is nothing to lose from changing vaccination protocol to stop doctor-inflicted autism.

There is just nothing to see here. Just keep moving along. One day you will realize, as does the head of the House Space, Science, and Technology committee, that:

Better to get your news directly from the president,” Smith said. “In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

Stop being so dramatic. Don't be a snowflake. Trump is just honestly championing the beliefs of a large subset of the American public - a subset that has been treated so unfairly by the mean mainstream media and left wing autocrats. It's actually a very fun development. We can just sit back and watch all those silly leftists who think that the president shouldn't honestly express the beliefs of a large subset of the American public.

Stop listening to those fake scientists who just hate Trump. Better to get your news and your science directly from the president.

February 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

Ad the end of you post, you have:


Trump ===> Culturally Motivated Public ==> demand for misnformation ==> Opportunistic misninformers


I would suggest a different model:


Culturally motivated public ==> demand for identity confirming information ==> Opportunistic [mis]informers (e.g., Trump)

February 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Essentially they used their reasoning proficiencies to pry open a confabulatory escape hatch to the logic trap they found themselves trapped in."

As we discussed on a previous occasion, it's the other way round.

People conserve mental effort. If they already know the answer, they won't devote a lot of mental calculation to doing it properly and will lazily go with what is obvious. Only when they don't know the answer, or especially when the obvious conclusion conflicts with what they know do they pull out the full Bayesian toolkit and pay the price (mental effort) of doing so.

That's why the low numeracy people have a lower probability of getting it right even when the correct answer conforms to their priors, and why the low and high numeracy probability of correctness are roughly the same when it's the obvious answer that conforms. If people are simply substituting their prior belief in place of uncomfortable news, why wouldn't all of them do it all the time? Why would it make any difference that there were different ways to interpret the data?

It's not the people who get the answer wrong when the right answer is politically uncomfortable who are using an escape hatch, it's the ones who are getting it right when it's the obvious answer that is uncomfortable.

But it's an easy one to test. Pick a topic that isn't politically contentious, but where the subjects already know what the "right answer" is. I predict that the high-numeracy subjects will only pull out the Bayesian machinery when the obvious answer conflicts with what they already know, even though it isn't threatening to their political identity.

Oh, and by the way, I can't think of any better way to turn science toxic than by having scientists openly taking sides in a nakedly partisan political fight with the elected President. Seeing what scientists say conflicting with their political identity, your own identity-protective motivated reasoning hypothesis predicts that they'll stick with their identity and simply conclude scientists are now partisans for the opposition. (It's well known that both journalists and academics are predominantly liberal, to an extent that is extremely unlikely to happen by random chance. What would a Bayesian conclude?) That'll make it a lot easier for Trump to justify defunding them.

Is that what you planned to do? Who exactly are you trying to persuade with this, and of what?

--

"He is just honestly expressing the beliefs of a large subset of the American public that if we stop shaking hands we can make a very important and needed change in our society."

Hysteria is just so much fun, isn't Joshua? :-)

February 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Joshua--I think identifying Trump as a strategic misinformation supplier is also correct. But at some point on the way to his becoming president he also started to shape & not merely exploit the dispositions of a motivated public. Plenty of interest groups are struggling to shape dispositions in this way; but none is situated to do so as effectively as Trump now is...

February 21, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@NiV--
a. Why isn't skin cream version of covariance-detectio problem the control you propose?
b. I 0.5 agree w/ you about scientists opposing Trump. But there is a wicked problem here: (i) oppose & risk amplifying the cultural-struggle signal; (ii) don't oppose & let an authoritarian have his way in the devaluing of facts as currency of enlightened policymaking. If he were *merely* a charlatan, ignoring him would be best form of opposition. But he is not merely that; he is the President of U.S.

February 21, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

I also question the "demand for misinformation." I guess I don't really know what that means.

I see a demand for identity confirming information {when the issues are identity polarrizing}, which then can be exploited by information providers who have an identity - related agenda, either with information or misinformation.

February 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

=={ (ii) don't oppose & let an authoritarian have his way in the devaluing of facts as currency of enlightened policymaking. )==

Where is the evidence for how scientists can effectively prevent that from happening? NIV does have a point that opposition can be counterproductive, and in the end enhance Trump's goal of expanding his power through exploitation of the public's search for identity-confirming information.

Opposition from scientists can enhance his ability to undermine the authority of the evidence that is inconvenient for the identity-confirmation of those who identify with Trump. Scientists who opposed may only feed the view that scientific opposition to Trump's message is politically motivated, politically correct, snowflake hysteria. He can attack the scientists, and thereby strengthen the authority of the "evidence" (I. E., misinformation) he wants to promote. That is exactly what he did with Ebola.

The question is whether scientists have any actual power as to whether or not to "let" Trump do what he wants to do. If you can't control someone, then you can't determine whether or not to "let" her do something.

This is a parallel to your analysis of the dynamics around consensus messaging, IMO.

February 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Why isn't skin cream version of covariance-detectio problem the control you propose?"

Because nobody knows, as a prior belief, whether the skin cream is effective.

If the set up starts: "To practice her experimental technique, a student conducted the following experiment to determine whether aspirin relieves headaches..." then the reader already knows what the answer is supposed to be. Some might suspect a trick question, but a lot of people will know what outcome is expected, and if they're lazy, may be more inclined to skip the hard thinking. But does mystery hand cream X work as advertised? Well, I'm a lot less certain.

You could think of it as a question of looking at the gap between your priors and the required significance, and then picking an experiment to supply a likelihood ratio just sufficient to fill the gap. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. You need a huge likelihood ratio - extreme confidence in the correctness of the result - to overcome the smallness of your prior. Ordinary claims only require ordinary evidence; and so you might argue that trivial claims only require trivial evidence. You might not have a lot of confidence you're not making a mistake by being sloppy, but you don't need much to fill in the gap between your prior and the 'confirmed' belief.

My point is that the two hypotheses have the same outcome in politically divisive cases, because you're changing two things at once. They could be doing this because of the cognitive dissonance, or because they think they already know the answer. You want a control case where you have the "already know" condition, but not the "identity conflict" condition. If you can show that you don't get the effect unless you change the "identity conflict" condition, your evidence will be much stronger.

"I 0.5 agree w/ you about scientists opposing Trump. But there is a wicked problem here: (i) oppose & risk amplifying the cultural-struggle signal; (ii) don't oppose & let an authoritarian have his way in the devaluing of facts as currency of enlightened policymaking."

I understand perfectly. Climate sceptic scientists have had exactly the same problem for the past couple of decades. If you make a big deal of the politics, people assume you're only being sceptical because of your political identity. However, if you don't mention the politics, it's very hard to explain how you think the situation has come about.

What I would recommend is to simply not bring Trump into it. I see absolutely no problem with a scientist presenting the empirical evidence on vaccination not causing autism, or there being no risk of an Ebola pandemic from allowing flights from countries where there are outbreaks. You do have to be more careful than usual about checking your evidence and arguments for rigour, since trying to support a politically contentious claim with invalid evidence or arguments will lead people to suppose you're trying to mislead for political effect. But if your evidence stands up on its own, then that's a politically neutral proposition.

And as I keep pointing out on the motivated reasoning, people don't simply substitute their prior beliefs whenever the evidence conflicts with it. They require an excuse to justify it to themselves. It is a case of, as you once said: "*Can* I believe this?" versus "*Must* I believe this?" People faced with politically uncomfortable claims will devote a lot more effort to trying to knock them down, and find the flaws in them, but if they cannot find any, they will reluctantly accept them. That's why people of low scientific literacy are less polarised - they are less capable of finding reasons to reject an uncomfortable conclusion.

I don't propose ignoring it. But scientists need to treat it impartially, using the scientific method. Don't give the impression of having prejudged the issue. Don't treat people challenging a scientific claim as any kind of "opposition". Acknowledge valid points when they make them. And treat it as a joint search for the truth, with them helping you to figure out what kind of evidence is necessary and sufficient to persuade them, and then you providing it. If they identify genuine flaws and holes in the argument, fix them or fill them in. Keep going until you have a case they can't break without resorting to blatant illogic, and then if anyone asks about it, point to your case and point to what your opponents claim to be their best argument against it.

There will always be some people you can never reach, but the attempt to do so will very often be extremely persuasive to any onlookers. In contrast, any attempt to shut them down or shut them out will prove persuasive for *their* case that you can't win the argument scientifically and so must resort to cheating and silencing the opposition. Besides anything else, it's very unscientific.

Finally, I'd remind anyone wanting to take part to pay attention to mainstream climate scientist Tom Wigley's dictum: "No scientist who wishes to maintain respect in the community should ever endorse any statement unless they have examined the issue fully themselves." (See here for the context. In case you don't know, Tom Wigley was the former head of the Climatic Research Unit at UEA that got hacked in Climategate.) The position he sets out in his letter is one that earned him considerable respect among climate sceptics, even though he's firmly on the side of the consensus and a major figure at the IPCC. Had he published his letter openly at the time, rather than having the world only find out about it when it was leaked, he'd have got a lot more respect.

Scientists should all learn the lesson of Tom's letter. Be aware that scientists *can* be biased and partisan. (I'm a scientist - and I assume you'd say so of me, yes?) So before you endorse (as a scientist) any of these potentially politically contentious statements Trump is causing trouble with, check the evidence, yes?

February 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Joshua-- you are right. "Demand for identity-affirming information" would be better thatn "demand for misinformation"

I think scientists need to tread carefully so they don't become ensnared in miscommunicators' "rope-a-dope" -- not the same thing as "against consensus messaging"

February 22, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@NiV-- I suspect the threat scientists are responding to is that Trump & R congress will slash funding to federal science agencies, including NSF, particularly in connection w/ climate change & other politically contentious issues

February 22, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Prof. Cahan - by the simple expedient of substituting "Christian faith" for "vaccines-autism link" you will observe that your characterization of president Trump as "propagator of toxic memes" is factually incorrect. Just because a president appears to believe in something doesn't transform his belief into state policy. Rather, and by your own model, your characterization of the president as toxic meme propagator is much more likely (and I speak here as a mathematical modeler) to result in shifting the opinion of supporters of president Trump not otherwise inclined to question the efficacy of vaccinations into doubting it, in yet another demonstration of the doctrine of unintended consequences. This cannot possibly be the intent of your polemic - unless you are deliberately trying to force a large portion of the public into scientifically untenable positions in order to more easily ridicule them. If the latter is your intent, it should be clearly stated. Thank you.

February 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

P.S. to previous note

Glancing through accompanying slides I stopped at #41, fluoridation, and #50, propagator, where both words are spelled with impeccable political correctness (see meme "grammar is racist"). I admit at that point I stopped reading (so cannot represent I proof-read the rest) and wondered if the problem stops with your slide-preparer or extends to the general audience for presentations of this type.

February 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

"@NiV-- I suspect the threat scientists are responding to is that Trump & R congress will slash funding to federal science agencies, including NSF, particularly in connection w/ climate change & other politically contentious issues"

Probably, but that's not a scientific issue and shouldn't be represented as such.

If a president supports action on climate change, he'd change priorities to push more money to climate science and anyone who can squeeze a reference to climate change in their grant proposal. Given finite resources, that necessarily means directing money away from other applications. That's been happening for quite a few years, and they didn't complain. If you don't think decisions on what science is to be done should be left to politicians, then don't use public money to fund science.

It's public money. That's what politicians are elected to decide. There are lots of interests groups who all want a slice of public money - health, defence, welfare, education, infrastructure, pensions, taxpayers, ... - scientists are only one of the many worthwhile things to spend on, and you're already all spending a lot more than you've got coming in. That can't go on forever. The public get to decide spending priorities by electing the politicians to enact their will. It seems their priorities have changed. That's democracy.

And if funding is all you want, if any climate scientists want to switch to researching along more climate sceptical lines, Trump would probably be happy to fund that! That's how government-funded science works.


However, besides their own personal interests being at stake, there is still a good point being made here about "facts as currency of enlightened policymaking" that's worth defending. I think if you don't force people to choose between being a Trump-supporter and listening to science, there's a lot of scope for finding things to agree on.

On climate science specifically - for example - there are a lot of projects that climate sceptics would support. Improving the instrumentation is something sceptics have been calling for for a long time. Improving software and data quality, archiving procedures, supporting 'open science', and professional auditing and verification/validation of models, data, and methods are all things sceptics have supported, and even devoted considerable voluntary efforts to. Those are all things that (in theory!) climate scientists should support too, and will improve the science without taking any stance on conclusions.

Sell it as improving the science. The critics and outsiders have complained about scientists being biased and sloppy, so tell them you're going to fix that. Include critics systematically as a part of the process, in accordance with the scientific method. And then spend some time on educating people - so they can't so easily be influenced by politics, and are are more able to judge the evidence.

You can do it in such a way that Trump can claim to have "cleaned up science" while you get paid for improving all those little processes that you never had the time or funding priority to fix before. (Like proper backups!) The educational effort can be sold as getting ordinary citizens more involved in science, giving them more of a say in the debate. That's also something that could resonate with Trump's message.

The President is good at propagating memes, so give him some good ones that will both fit with his political agenda as well as helping science (being careful to not turn off too many liberals). He's a lot more likely to pass on word from a 'Scientists for Trump' movement, and is (clearly!) not especially fussy about what he passes on. You can use that. And it's a lot more likely to make him well-disposed to you and your funding stream than protest marches burning him in effigy ever will be. All you have to do is give him scientific messages he can support, and tell everyone he supports science, and he will likely do so just to fit himself into the flattering narrative.

Do you see what I mean? It might mean you 'holding your nose' politically, but not turning it into a political confrontation, and giving Trumpians ways to support science without giving up their identity would fit a lot better with your research on what works in science communication.

February 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Speaking of the threat from Donald's illiberalism:

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/2/22/14658062/donald-trump-illiberalism-losing

February 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-- thanks again. Very interesting story.

I think American commentators have trouble figuring out whether they should trust intuitions about what authoritarianism feels like at its incipience. It would be interesting to hear interpretation of Trump from reflective people who've observed authoritarian subversion of liberal institutions

February 23, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/11/10/trump-election-autocracy-rules-for-survival/

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.cnn.com/cnn/2017/01/16/opinions/trump-following-authoritarian-playbook-ben-ghiat/index.html

February 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

I read another interesting article recently about why Trump's authoritarian tendencies don't presage an autocracy.... having trouble finding it again.... will keep looking.

February 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Authoritarian subversion of liberal institutions", cont'd in the saga of your PC-afflicted slides: the two previously mentioned have been corrected; the only other one I noticed in a casual first pass was #18, Monte Carlo simulations - first two words are both capitalized. How is it not evident to you that PC is creeping totalitarianism? Or that it seems to be closer to your office than president Trump?

In fairness you start by stating your remarks are conjectures, and it may be unreasonable to expect precision alien to your field. Or, in the words of Aristotle (presumably the Nicomachean Ethics are still taught at your school):

" καὶ τὴν ἀκρίβειαν μὴ ὁμοίως ἐν ἅπασιν ἐπιζητεῖν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐν ἑκάστοις κατὰ τὴν ὑποκειμένην ὕλην καὶ ἐπὶ τοσοῦτον ἐφ᾽ ὅσον οἰκεῖον τῇ μεθόδῳ. καὶ γὰρ τέκτων καὶ γεωμέτρης διαφερόντως ἐπιζητοῦσι τὴν ὀρθήν: ὃ μὲν γὰρ ἐφ᾽ ὅσον χρησίμη πρὸς τὸ ἔργον, ὃ δὲ τί ἐστιν ἢ ποῖόν τι: θεατὴς γὰρ τἀληθοῦς. τὸν αὐτὸν δὴ τρόπον καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἄλλοις ποιητέον, ὅπως μὴ τὰ πάρεργα τῶν ἔργων πλείω γίνηται."

"..we must not look for equal exactness in all departments of study, but only such as belongs to the subject matter of each, and in such a degree as is appropriate to the particular line of enquiry.. A carpenter and a geometrician both try to find a right angle, but in different ways; the former is content with that approximation to it which satisfies the purpose of his work; the latter, being a student of truth, seeks to find its essence or essential attributes. We should therefore proceed in the same manner in other subjects also, and not allow side issues to outbalance the main task in hand."

February 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Ecoute -

=={ How is it not evident to you that PC is creeping totalitarianism? }==

Accepting for the sake of argument a (putative) increase in "PC" in our society (a determination which, of course, in the very least requires an objective definition of "PC" - something which is rarely, if ever, operationalized, IMO), by what means do you measure an increase in totalitarianism? I look at the arc of history and I see a decrease in totalitarianism, notwithstanding the noise of a Trump here and there amid the signal.

Surely, you must have a indisputable measure of increasing totalitarianism to make your statement unless..

I misunderstood and your contention is not that PC is actually increasing, and thus you shouldn't have to present airtight evidence of totalitarianism increasing?

And then, perhaps, I misunderstood in that your completely confident projection is merely opinion/fact confused speculation about what [will] happen if PC were to increase?

But my guess is that you do have a locktight measure of increasing totalitarianism...in which case I would request that you show locktight evidence of a causal relationship to increasing PC?

February 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Speaking of the threat from Donald's illiberalism:"

Interesting article - mostly for its lack of anything resembling evidence of illiberalism on Trump's part. The complaint seems to be that Trump isn't like other presidents and won't do what he's told. He thinks he's the boss, just because he was elected president. This is what the author defines as 'illiberal'. I think that says a lot more about the authors than it does Trump.

I mean, some bits of it are just weird...

"When Trump is frustrated, he turns on the system. As we spoke, examples of this tendency of Trump’s were already in abundance. There was the campaign, of course, where Trump responded to polls showing him behind by tweeting that if he lost, it would be evidence that the election was rigged."

Mmmm. And how many frustrated Democrats are now claiming the election was rigged by the Russians?! The lack of self-awareness is stunning!

"After US District Judge James Robart ruled against Trump’s travel ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries,..."

They were identified under the Obama administration as countries with particularly large numbers of ISIS fighters or as state sponsors of terrorism. Which they are. It has no more to do with them being "Muslim-majority" than the fact that most ISIS fighters and state sponsors of terrorism are Muslim. (Which is a point that people ought to be paying considerably more attention to. Sharia is a genuinely illiberal form of government, which Islam holds to be obligatory.)

"The background to Robart’s rejection of Trump’s ban was a festival of unforced errors on the Trump administration’s part. His team had drafted the executive order sloppily and without running it through the agencies that would typically refine this type of policy."

There was nothing wrong with the executive order. The objections were largely invented.

"It has both named fewer candidates to key roles and gotten fewer candidates confirmed than other administrations at this point in their terms."

Heh! You're kidding! Trump's been complaining loudly that it's because of the unprecedented obstructionism by Democrat politicans. Now Trump is being blamed for that...?

"I’m sitting in my office with Yascha Mounk having the kind of conversation that would have sounded insane two years ago, but has become commonplace now."

Commonplace, yes, but it still sounds insane.

And so on. I'm sure to a Democrat the entire article looks wonderful. But to an outsider, it simply looks insane.

--
"Accepting for the sake of argument a (putative) increase in "PC" in our society (a determination which, of course, in the very least requires an objective definition of "PC" - something which is rarely, if ever, operationalized, IMO), by what means do you measure an increase in totalitarianism? I look at the arc of history and I see a decrease in totalitarianism, notwithstanding the noise of a Trump here and there amid the signal."

Totalitarianism is a political system in which the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible. This includes speech and opinions, which are the subject of political correctness, speech codes, prosecutions and punishments for 'giving offence', tolerance of violence against those who 'give offence', and so forth. 'Political correctness' is a classic policy of totalitarianism, and the belief that society has a right and duty to regulate offensive speech is certainly a totalitarian belief, although a system that regulates speech but sets limits on its own power elsewhere isn't strictly totalitarian. It depends whether you see it as a binary or a spectrum.

I don't think there's definitive evidence for either an increase or a decrease - it's just changed who is setting the rules. Different groups are "in" and different groups are "out". There are different rules, but they're still applied as harshly and intrusively as ever.

People who like the new rules think totalitarianism has decreased, and those who are the victims of the new rules think it has increased. Chacun à son goût.

February 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

"Political correctness" was a term coined by Lenin. Best-known application is Lysenkoism under Stalin. Degrees of totalitarianism are measurable using political correctness as proxy, and using as a backtest the punishment meted out to dissenters. Recent example, a genius, James Watson - not dispatched to Siberia, literally, but turned into an "unperson" for speaking the truth.

Western civilization gave the world mathematics and science - and democracy. We cannot take any of it for granted, we are the current keepers and fighting against insidious attacks on it - recently I even came across someone claiming that it doesn't exist https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/09/western-civilisation-appiah-reith-lecture - is our duty. I know that president Trump is an unlikely champion of Western civilization, but truth is stranger than fiction because it isn't required to follow rules of verisimilitude. His fight against political correctness is a fight against totalitarianism and in that he has my unqualified support.

Thank you for welcoming me to your thread; here's a small parting gift: an app to rate toxicity (1 minus PC-value) of any meme, new today from Google http://www.perspectiveapi.com/

February 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

@Ecoute-- I thought you'd get me a spell checker

February 24, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Ecoute -

Sorry to see you go. If you do ever come back, I would appreciate it if you would take some time to describe the metrics you use to measure an increase in political correctness (using a definition of the term that isn't circular and partisan/agenda-driven), as a proxy for an increase in totalitarianism. it would also be great if you could provide a more direct (i.e., not a 'proxy") measure of increased totalitarianism (over a meaningful time period).

==} His fight against political correctness is a fight against totalitarianism and in that he has my unqualified support. {==

If you do come back, I would appreciate it if you could address how you reconcile your view that he is engaged in a "fight against political correctness" with his insistence that you can't fight jihadis if you don't call them Islamic terrorists, his campaign against wishing people 'happy holidays" as opposed to "merry Christmas," his campaign to make it easier to sue the media for libel, his reluctance to address right-wing terrorism, his advocating for punishing people for burning the flag, his reluctance to comment on Putin's murderous policies, his use of the power of his office to pressure government workers to report crowd sizes in ways that are consistent with his fantasies, the firing of government workers for criticizing his policies, his promoting his (suddenly found) religious commitment for the sake of political expediency, his enforcement of a policy that restricts a persons access to bathrooms on the basis of their gender at birth rather than their gender identity, his promotion to the highest levels of advisors someone who formerly ran a news organization that wants to sue people for describing that organization as white nationalist, etc., etc.

February 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"If you do come back, I would appreciate it if you could address how you reconcile your view that he is engaged in a "fight against political correctness" with his insistence that..."

I'd be happy to help. :-)

"you can't fight jihadis if you don't call them Islamic terrorists"

A large part of society forbids people pointing out the connection between terrorism and Islam. That's "political correctness". It gets in the way of attempts to address root causes.

"his campaign against wishing people 'happy holidays" as opposed to "merry Christmas""

Because "Happy Holidays" is the "politically correct" alternative used to avoid giving offence to members of other religions. Using it expresses support for the politically correct principle, or is done unwillingly by those who have caved in to it.

It's also perceived as anti-Christian, since nobody seems to care that Christians find it offensive to be told that "Merry Christmas" is offensive, but something like "I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah'. And if they say so, pray like our prayers, face our Qibla and slaughter as we slaughter, then their blood and property will be sacred to us and we will not interfere with them except legally" apparently isn't. Criticising that is 'offensively Islamophobic'.

"his campaign to make it easier to sue the media for libel"

There are two separate issues here: whether libel laws respect the right to free speech, and whether everybody has equal access to those laws.

Libel laws are nothing new, and were not introduced by Donald Trump. The only question being addressed was the special protection from them that the media get, that ordinary folks don't. What he said was:

"Well in England they have a system where you can actually sue if someone says something wrong," Trump said. "Our press is allowed to say whatever they want and get away with it. And I think we should go to a system where if they do something wrong -- I'm a big believer, tremendous believer of the freedom of the press, nobody believes it stronger than me -- but if they make terrible, terrible mistakes and those mistakes are made on purpose to injure people, and I'm not just talking about me, I'm talking about anybody else, then yes, I think you should have the ability to sue them."

The phrase "if they make terrible, terrible mistakes and those mistakes are made on purpose to injure people" is a clear recognition of the libertarian Harm Principle. The issue, as always with libel, is what constitutes 'harm'.

As it happens, Trump was wrong in that American libel law already allows for that. The main difference between our systems is where the burden of proof lays. UK law requires someone accused of libel to prove their innocence, while US law requires the accuser to prove guilt. I prefer the American system, but it does raise practical problems applying it for ordinary people without the deep pockets the media has.

But Trump, while clearly not having the libertarian dislike for libel laws, is by no means unusual or out of line with the rest of society. Given that what he was advocating is actually already the law, then if this counts as totalitarian, every previous government must have been just as totalitarian. I think it's more likely that people are suddenly looking for totalitarianism, and only now seeing it. It was always there.

"his reluctance to address right-wing terrorism"

This looks like some form of the 'false equivalence' argument. Most terrorism is Islamic. A small amount is left wing. A small amount is right wing. You should pay attention to it in proportion to its severity.

The politically correct brigade are reluctant to address Islamic terrorism (not to mention slavery, misogyny, and homophobia). What does that say about them?

In any case, free speech also implies the right not to say certain things if you don't want to. Your insistence that he must say this or that to be socially acceptable is what's "politically correct".

"his advocating for punishing people for burning the flag"

That, I agree, was a form of political correctness. He backed off from it when that was pointed out.

"his reluctance to comment on Putin's murderous policies"

As above.

"his use of the power of his office to pressure government workers to report crowd sizes in ways that are consistent with his fantasies"

He believed at the time the crowd comparisons that so obsessed the media were lying. Asking people not to lie isn't unreasonable.

"the firing of government workers for criticizing his policies"

Depends who you're talking about. I think he fired the AG for not doing her job, is that the one you mean?

"his promoting his (suddenly found) religious commitment for the sake of political expediency"

I remember Obama and the Jeremiah Wright turnaround. Religion is a tricky subject in American politics.

I'm guessing you're trying to say that having to express Christian faith is another form of "political correctness" - stuff society insists you say to be socially acceptable - and that by doing so he's giving into it? Yes, I agree. It's the inverse of the "Happy Holidays" problem.

Political correctness has always been with us - it's just switched targets.

"his enforcement of a policy that restricts a persons access to bathrooms on the basis of their gender at birth rather than their gender identity"

No it doesn't. It rescinds Obama's enforcement of the opposite (temporarily, while the legal issues are properly considered), but doesn't impose any new constraints of its own.

The libertarian position would be that it's up to the owner of the bathroom. People should be able to decide who to invite into their own property. A lot of people have only a single bathroom in their house, that the men and women share. Other people are sensitive about it. Trump himself has expressed strong support for transgender rights, and said that in Trump Towers transgender people can use whichever bathroom they feel is appropriate. But he says it's not something the law should be placing constraints on, one way or the other.

As the letter put it:

Please note that this withdrawal of these guidance documents does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying, or harassment. All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment. The Department of Education Office for Civil Rights will continue its duty under law to hear all claims of discrimination and will explore every appropriate opportunity to protect all students and to encourage civility in our classrooms. The Department of Education and the Department of Justice are committed to the application of Title IX and other federal laws to ensure such protection.

"his promotion to the highest levels of advisors someone who formerly ran a news organization that wants to sue people for describing that organization as white nationalist, etc., etc."

White nationalism is "politically incorrect", and if an accusation sticks can result in society imposing a severe punishment, up to and including violence. Opponents of Breitbart routinely use this machinery of political correctness to attack them. So while it would probably be preferable to create a more liberal society where even white nationalists can say what they like without fearing more than the bad opinion of their neighbours, in the meantime it's probably not such a bad idea to at least discourage people from using it as a weapon.

It's one of the more noticeable characteristics of the totalitarian state. Once you have banned certain opinions, and enforce it with low standards of evidence, it becomes a very easy tool to attack someone with, and frenzies of mutual denunciation and condemnation are common, as everyone tries to direct the mob's attention to someone else first.

Rumours of having expressed "unsoviet opinions" in private are usually enough to get someone investigated, and once they're looking investigators can always find something. Other people dare not protest, because to support someone suspected of politically incorrect thought raises suspicions that you are a sympathiser yourself. And so it goes. The entire population can be controlled by a mere handful, because everybody is individually vulnerable, and because sticking together makes them more so. Any dissent is isolated.

Trump is being attacked for showing support to someone who has expressed politically incorrect views. If even Trump - as the billionaire President of the United States of America - can be forced to withdraw that support and surrender Bannon to the mob, then the message will be firmly established that nobody is safe. Express views that the arbiters of political correctness don't like, and nobody can or will save you. And thus the entire population may be controlled by a handful.

Hope that helps.

February 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Prof. Kahan - no, still no spellchecker for you, but an admission prompted by my conscience (yes, even mathematical modelers come equipped with one) bothering me for posting the inverse-PC algorithm in hopes you would waste your time testing the alleged toxicity in president Trump's memes - there is a very easy way to bypass the algorithm, as explained for example here: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603735/its-easy-to-slip-toxic-language-past-alphabets-toxic-comment-detector/?set=603724

Please think of it as a harmless prank, like MIT trolling Harvard-Yale football games. Seriously, I am a fan of your work, and while I can - I think - provide mathematical proof that your statistical analysis is not sound (and you do call it informed conjecture) it's simpler to quote you directly. This from your 2007 article in the Stanford Law Review:

"...Reasonable persons of all cultural
persuasions would desire that they be able to converge, notwithstanding their
cultural differences, on the best empirical knowledge available on how to use
law to promote their safety, health, and economic well-being. Expressive overdetermination
creates the conditions in which this is most likely to occur.
Knowledge always travels along cultural pathways....."

Knowledge does no such thing. Give people something that works, like satellite phones, and you don't need to explain special relativity or GPS satellite adjustment for continental drift. Somali pirates, Berber tribesmen, Afghan warlords of dubious scholarship will - and demonstrably do - use them to communicate. Or give people something that doesn't work, like your example, carbon trading emission schemes, and watch it (where applied, as in the EU), collapse into ignominious bankruptcy amid massive fraud.

Please let me know if you wish me to post here further, as I don't want to reinforce your cultural perception of all Trump supporters as invasive species of a particularly odious variety. If not, emails can be addressed to me at ecoute.sauvage at gmail.

February 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

"Give people something that works, like satellite phones, and you don't need to explain special relativity or GPS satellite adjustment for continental drift."

No, but the knowledge of how to work them, what buttons to press, and what the telephone numbers are of the people they want to call are conveyed culturally. Even experimental self-discovery relies to a large extent on bits of cultural background knowledge, like what 'buttons' are.

It obviously can't be *universal*, because knowledge has to come from somewhere originally. But apart from original discovery and invention, the vast majority is culturally transmitted.

"Please let me know if you wish me to post here further, as I don't want to reinforce your cultural perception of all Trump supporters as invasive species of a particularly odious variety."

i can't speak for Dan, but I've been much more of a pain for far longer, and he's never given a hint to me that I'm not welcome. Keep it on an intellectual plane, and I expect you'll be fine.

For the same reason the Trump-baiting isn't likely to persuade Trump-supporters they're wrong, but just further entrenches the political polarisation, the same applies to liberal-baiting (like my games with Joshua). Dan's pretty open minded, compared to a lot of people. These recent posts on Trump are pretty uncharacteristic, actually.

February 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Ecoute--feel free to post comments as often as you like.

February 26, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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