The NRA’s “expressive-rope-a-dope-trick”

The NRA gets science communication.

In fact, it understands something that many groups that at least purport to be committed to promoting constructive public engagement with the best available scientific evidence don’t.

Of course, it uses what it understands for a purpose very distinct from promoting such engagement. Indeed, it uses its knowledge about how diverse, ordinary people ordinarily come to know what they know about decision-relevant science in a manner that effectively impedes their convergence on evidence essential to their common welfare.

This makes the NRA a truly evil entity—a kind of syndicalist element subversive of the Constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science.

But one can still actually learn something from seeing what it knows and what it does.

The point the NRA gets—and that many other groups that I think have admirable aims don’t, and that makes them tend to do a bad job—is that effective communication of decision-relevant science depends on the quality of the science communication environment.

The science communication environment is the sum total of cues, influences, and process that enable people to recognize as known by science so many more things than they could possibly form a meaningful understanding of for themselves. The number of things that fit into that category is immense—from the contribution that antibiotics make to treating diseases to the validity of modern telecommunications technologies they rely on to transmit data, from the reliability of their vehicle’s GPS systems to the public health benefits of pasteurization of raw milk, from the nontoxicity of pressed wood products manufactured subject to state and federal formaldehyde limits to the nutritional value of food products (massive amounts of them in the US) that are prepared with GM technology.

One of the most vital constituents of the science communication environment is the existence of authoritative networks of certification.

I’m talking, really, just about the role that the utterly ordinary, every-day communities individuals inhabits—the ones that comprise their neighbors, their friends, their trusted coworkers, and myriad professions they rely on, from doctors to auto mechanics to accountants to insurance adjusters.

These communities are flush with reliable, valuable guidance that individuals can use to determine what’s known to science.  Of course, they are also coursing with bogus information too—unsupported and unsupportable claims about the dangers of everyday products (“watch out—cell phone radiation causes brain tumors!”) and absurd claims about health remedies (“ach—don’t do chemotherapy for your breast cancer; yoga will do the trick!”)

People sort out one from the other—again, not because they are experts on the claims that are being made what science knows, but because they are experts at something else: figuring out who actually knows what they are talking about, and can be relied upon to transmit the best available evidence in a reliable and accurate manner.

This is the key to understanding why the transmission of knowledge tends to have a culturally insular quality to it.

The communities of certification people tend to resort to orient themselves appropriately with respect to decision-relevant science are ones made up of people who share basic outlooks on the good life.  People enjoy spending time with people like that and tend to form important projects with them. They can read those people more easily—and distinguish the genuinely knowledgeable from the bullshitters among them more readily—than they can when they are engaging people whose cultural orientation is very different from their own.

We live in a society that tolerates and celebrates cultural diversity (a fact that is actually essential to the progress of scientific discovery), and therefore the number of communities people rely on to perform this certification function is large.

But that’s generally not a problem.  These communities are all in touch with what science knows.  They all generally lead their members to the same conclusions.

Indeed, if there was a community that consistently misled its members on what science knows, the members of that group, given how important decision-relevant science is to their own well-being, wouldn’t last very long.

Nevertheless, every once in a while a risk or other policy-relevant fact becomes engaged in antagonistic cultural meanings that convert positions on it, in effect, into badges of membership in and loyal to opposing cultural groups.

When that happens, members of diverse cultural groups won’t converge on the best available evidence.  Instead—using the very same normal, and normally reliable cues to ascertain what’s known to science—they will polarize.

The stake that any ordinary person has in protecting the status of, and his or her standing in, one of these groups tends to exceed the significance of the stake that person has, as an individual, in forming scientifically informed personal beliefs. As a result, individuals, in this circumstance, will predictably engage information in a manner more reliably geared to forming beliefs that match the ones the position identified with their group than the ones most supported by the best available scientific evidence.

Indeed, in these circumstances, individuals endowed with the capacities and dispositions most strongly associated with science comprehension will use these abilities in an opportunistic fashion to serve the goal have to conform the evidence the encounter or actively seek out to the position that is predominant in their cultural group.

These antagonistic meanings can be likened to a form of pollution in the science communication environment.  Their existence disables the faculties that ordinary members of the public use to recognize what science knows.

That’s what the NRA knows.  That’s the insight into the science of science communication that it ruthlessly exploits—not to promote convergence on the best available evidence but to cultivate a state of persistent, knowledge-disabling antagonism.

The NRA is in the business of science miscommunication.  And its most potent weapon is not the dissemination of studies that purport to show that crime rates go down when people are allowed to carry concealed handguns.

It’s the steady stream of pollution that it emits into the science communication environment through actions calculated to sustain and invigorate the culturally antagonistic meanings that surround guns in American society.

Really, the NRA is an ingenious science communication environment polluter.

It’s most creative, successful, and insidious technique involves what I will call the “expressive-rope-a-dope” maneuver.

This trick involves proposing a law that in fact has zero behavioral consequence but that is bristling with cultural meanings that one can expect to antagonize another cultural groups.  The effect is achieved, though, not by antagonizing the other group (I suppose the NRA or some other group using this tactic might take pleasure in that) but by provoking the opposing group into denouncing the law in terms that are similarly suffused with culturally assaultive language.

The result of the violent collision of these meanings is a mushroom cloud of toxic, culturally partisan recrimination that blankets the public in the radiation of identity threat.  Whatever science content is being transmitted by anyone’s messages is drowned out but the much clearer, much more intense, much more consequential signal that the positions at stake here are ones that are symbols of membership your group; deviate from that position at your peril!

Consider two examples of the NRA using this trick.

The first involved its campaign to push for adoption of “stand your ground” self-defense laws.  These laws state that a person needn’t retreat before using deadly force to repel a threat of death or great bodily harm.

From the beginning, the enactment of these laws has drawn high profile, incensed denunciations of “wild west,” “shoot first,” “vigilante justice”—along with completely untenable, absurd claims about how this “sharp turn in American law” increased homicide rates.

The simple truth is that these laws were not a departure, radical or otherwise, from existing law. The right to “stand one’s ground” had been the majority rule in the U.S. for over a century, and was already on the books in most of the states that adopted them!

The absurdity of media reports blaming “relaxation” of self-defense standards for increased homicides was comically inflated by the incompetence of publicity-hungry scholars pedaling econometric models purporting to quantify how much “reducing the legal price” for homicide in states that never changed their law increased the “return” on resorting to deadly violence!

The aim of getting states to enact them wasn’t to create a legal safe haven for individuals who forgo a physical one in lieu of blowing away a deadly attacker—a scenario that one is hard-pressed to find instances of except in lawschool hypotheticals.

Rather, as I’ve discussed previously, the effort was a calculated strategy to reactivate the focus of a long dormant, largely sectional conflict between proponents of opposing cultural styles—one stressing values such as individual honor and self-reliance and the other the democratic ideal of reasoned, nonviolent resolution of conflict and the duty of universal concern, on the other—who saw the contest over enactment of these laws as symbolic contest between their competing visions.

Mission accomplished for the NRA, which has parleyed the recurring attacks on “stand your ground laws”—the most recent in connection with the Trayvon Martin case, in which that law played no role in the defense theory—into a sense of indignation and defiant pride on the part of those who recognize in the tone and idiom of the critiques contempt for their identities.

The second involves legislation now pending in Missouri that would make it a crime for federal agents to enforce federal gun legislation in the state. The NRA is not playing an open role in backing the legislation, but it frequently orchestrates symbolic legislation of this sort behind the scences. Predictably, the law has provoked a ear-splitting clang of alarm bells from NRA critics in the national media warning that the legislation, if passed, will become a model for “nullification” of federal gun laws across the Nation.

They should save their breath.  Such laws are a dead letter under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  There is zero likelihood that any state prosecutor would even try to enforce one, much less that a federal court (to which any such prosecution would be subject to “removal” or transfer under federal law) would uphold its constitutionality.

But of course, the contrived panic is music to the NRA’s ears.  It supplies them with even more vivid and dramatic materials with which to feed the sense of cultural encirclement that drive those whose identities are promiscously assaulted by gun-control advocates to donate money to the organization.

The biggest threat to the NRA isn’t gun legislation. It is apathy.

Gun ownership is the strongest predictor (not surprisingly) of resistance to gun control legislation.  Over time, the percentage of Americans owning guns as declined.

Halting that trend, the NRA recognizes, depends on sustaining the vitality of the cultural meanings that have always made guns so popular with a large segment of the American public.

The surest way to do that is to manufacture dramatic instances of expressive conflict over guns, thereby reinvigorating opposition to gun control as a symbol of cultural identity and bombarding the communities in which that cultural style is prevalent with the signal that having a strong position against regulation of guns continues to be something that those whom they interact in their daily lives will use to judge their character.

But there is in fact a way effectively to oppose this strategy.

The expressive-rope-a-dope maneuver requires a dope—a loud, aggressive, ill-informed opposition that doesn’t get that the laws its attacking are purely expressive, or that the contribution those laws make to maintaining the gun as a symbol of identity depends on attacking them in culturally assaultive way.

Don’t do that. Don’t take the bait. Don’t give the NRA what it wants by pretending symbolic gestures have real and dire consequences and then making opposition to them the occassion for amplifying the signal of cultural hostility that fills otherwise ordinary citizens with resentment and fury.

There’s no meaningful political theater if only half the cast shows up.

Indeed, this is something that lots of groups that are committed to promoting constructive engagement with decision-relevant science could benefit from learning.  The NRA isn’t the only group that knows how to rope dopes.

This assumes, of course, that the groups getting roped really want to protect the quality of the science communication environment from culturally partisan meanings.

Some of them likely value the chance to engage risk issues in a manner that fills the science communication environment with culturally partisan meanings.

If so, then they aren’t being dopes when they snap at the bait and make their own contribution to the toxic fog of cultural recrimination surrounding the American gun question or other issues that feature persistent polarization over decision-relevant science.

In that case, they are being tapeworms of cognitive illiberalism, just like the NRA.

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