Trusted Sources

Dan Kahan has a really useful post up on the Cultural Cognition blog on whether motivated cognition (and cultural cognition) is a cognitive bias in need of debiasing through law. Dan situates his comments in the context of science communication:

“The amount of information it is useful for any individual to accept as true is gazillions of times larger the amount she can herself establish as true by valid and reliable methods (even if she cheats and takes the Royal Society’s word for it that science’s methods for ascertaining what’s true are the only valid and reliable ones).  Scientists, like everyone else, are able to know what is known to science only by taking others’ words for it.  There’s no way around this. It is a consequence of our being individuals, each with his or her own separate brain . . . .”

The point generalizes: we are required to learn about most complex systems and events though intermediaries.  It makes sense – it is both efficient and useful – to rely on intermediaries who will see as salient those particular pieces of information that we ourselves are disposed to want to highlight. Cultural cognition describes this “biased” assimilation process, but isn’t itself an error of thought.

The problem that results is that having trusted particular sources (and consequent worldviews), we become less able to see what others’ see.  We are thus led to believe that others are biased, while we remain dispassionate observers. Can’t they see what we see?  Why are they so politicized?  As Orin Kerr snarks in one of our recent comment threads:

“When my side wins, it is a triumph of reason; when the other side wins, our reason is outnumbered by their mere exercises of power.”

(He’s made similar points before – but this comment thread had to do with the healthcare decision, and I’m trying to optimize our google search rank by mentioning the Supreme Court’s decision coming tomorrow in a post entirely about something else.)

Cultural cognition isn’t a bias, but it does create a collective action problem.  It’s the job of policymakers – and intellectuals with time on their hands – to try to work out a public solution. To be concrete, the Supreme Court, whatever it does tomorrow, could help by writing opinions that didn’t so obviously work to cater to our worst passions.

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1 Response

  1. Ken Arromdee says:

    “When my side wins, it is a triumph of reason; when the other side wins, our reason is outnumbered by their mere exercises of power.”

    My favorite counterexample to this snark is creationism. When the creationists win, it’s an exercise of power. When they don’t win, it’s an exercise of reason. And that’s completely true. It’s not just because everyone says that reason has won when their own side has won–rather, there actually is a difference between the two sides, and to say that one is motivated by reason and one is not is merely to speak the truth.

    Not every pair of sides is equal.

    (And if you are a creationist, I’m not interested in you derailing this conversation.)