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I want to use some smaller issues to illuminate a larger
issue.  The small issues are global warming and clean energy
generation.  The larger issue is "social epistemology": how
do we know what we know, how do we make public decisions,
and what can we do to improve our collective intelligence.

With global warming, we've seen some interesting
maneuvers from our conservative friends, exploiting the
inevitable uncertanties in science to stall any attempts
at fixing real problems.

And yet, while the left likes to think of itself as "the
reality-based community", in some areas (e.g nuclear
power) I think you can see a tendency to exaggerate
problems and cherry-pick facts that rivals the right.

Evaluating data is hard, and we all often fall back on a
kind of tribalism, choosing to believe what we hear from
"our side", choosing the facts that support a belief, and
avoiding engagement with facts that challenge them.

Now, that alone is practically a bland truism, the stuff
of New York Times op-ed columns (by people who aren't
named Krugman)-- even someone who nods in agreement at
that line may be unable to see when they're falling into
the same trap (and yes, I expect to be accused of showing
the same symptoms).

Finding some better ways of dealing with these traps is
the problem that really interests me-- if we could crack
this one, then we'd have solutions for most of the
others, and "global warming" might really seem like a
minor issue.

So that's my manifesto in outline.  I hope to flesh it
out and re-write it over time (though at the moment
taking back Congress in 2014 seems like a more
immediate problem).

At the outset, I should probably say that while I am
indeed saying "both sides do it", I don't want to slide
into "false equivalence".  If it seems to you like the
Right is responsible for some of the biggest Big Lies of
our times, I can see why you feel that way...

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Comment Preferences

  •  One of the biggest problems here (0+ / 0-)

    is the tendency to propose, and even enact, policy without having any idea how to tell whether or not it's working. All parts of the political spectrum are subject to this, but it's always worse in whoever is in power at the time. All too often such checking gets inferior substitutes because people are asking the wrong questions.

    The worst, of course is "how congenial is this policy to the people/groups who proposed it"; this is completely meaningless, since the very fact that they proposed the policy means that it's congenial to them. It says absolutely nothing about whether it's working.

    But a close second is the pseudo-evaluation that tries to answer a much easier question than the one that needs to be asked. Often this takes the form of coming up with a pseudo-objective [1] measure that claims to measure the desired outcome, but provides no convincing evidence that it does. An obvious example is the tendency to evaluate education policy solely in terms of test scores.

    A related trap is focusing exclusively on one possible outcome and treating it as the be-all end-all of the policy. Viewed purely as a public-health measure against alcoholism, Prohibition was actually quite successful. Problem is, it was the kind of success captured in the phrase "the operation was a success, but the patient died".

    [1] A common form of pseudo-objectivity is assigning numeric labels to what amount to little more than indefinite statements of personal preference and than pretending that those labels, simply by virtue of being numerical rather than verbal, actually represent the outcomes of a well-defined measurement process.

    Unfortunately when smart and educated people get crazy ideas they can come up with plausibly truthy arguments. -- Andrew F Cockburn

    by ebohlman on Sun Feb 23, 2014 at 04:39:20 AM PST

    •  Two problems: (1) politics (2) measuring success (0+ / 0-)

      Hm, a lot of interesting material here...

      To my eye you're talking about two different problems.

      One is a matter of incentives, where people involved in the
      political process judge policy ideas by their political effects,
      rather than whether they serve the greater good.

      The other is the difficulty of crafting parameters you can use to
      measure success-- a classic one is the GDP.  We know that an
      increasing GDP correlates fairly well with a number of positive
      effects, but we also know it doesn't capture everything
      (e.g. environmental impacts of industrial practices... or any
      other sort of long term impact, really). Asking "what will this do
      to the GDP?" is a good question, but it shouldn't be the only
      question.

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