Check Availability for 2008

Happy New Year! The New York Times is off to a good start, featuring Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein explaining on New Year’s Day how most of what we will react to in the coming year will be the effect of an availability cascade, sort of the availability heuristic on steroids. The availability heuristic, identified by Tversky and Kahnemann, is the cognitive phenomenon by which people base their estimate of the frequency or likelihood of an event occurring by how easily it is brought to mind.

The focus was on global warming alarms, and in that arena, according to the article, the brokers of the cascade will be the “what social scientists call availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil fuels.” The point is that even if greenhouse gases are warming the earth, and even if it that warming is dangerous (concede both for the sake of what follows), most of what gets cited as an effect of global warming is not evidence of global warming. For example, while some ice in the poles is melting, at other spots, it is at record thickness. Again, this is not to minimize global warming; it is to take stock of what is and what is not evidence of a trend.

My particular peeve in the availability cascade is the corporate governance “crisis.” I will be doing my best to assess whether I’m matching the correct evidence to the correct conclusion, and I wish the same to everybody else for the New Year. In the meantime, I’m stocking the cellar with canned food and bottled water in honor of the 100th anniversary (on June 30) of the Tunguska event.

See you at AALS.

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3 Responses

  1. Whoaa there Mr. Lipshaw – are you aware that that NY Times article you linked to could be construed as not 100% supportive of the global warming message and was in fact kind of mocking of Al Gore?

    If so…Kudos!!

  2. Credit where credit is due: the way you write it, it sounds like Kuran and Sunstein who was writing the article in the Times. It was not, it was John Tierney, and his article was, on the face of it, not that different from a common blog post (Here’s something in the news, and let me demonstrate my craftiness by connecting it to some received wisdom, in order to further my own ideology.)

    Other credit where it could be given: Holman Jenkins of the WSJ had written a very similar column last month on the occasion of the Nobels. He directly referenced Kahneman/Tversky whereas Tierney did not.

    Of course, once you see availability bias in one domain, you should start to see it just about everywhere. Back in 2005, I posited that the blogosphere as we know it showed the same patterns of information cascades (see The New Gatekeepers). People point to something just because others are pointing to something. Like Kuran/Sunnstein, I suggested that better feedback and more deliberation was a remedy. I anticipated something like Digg, but naively assumed that something like it would be used to drive quality, rather than serve as a positive-feedback-reinforcement echo chamber.

    As for poor Mr. Gore, we wonder whether the “availability entrepreneur” tag will stick. At ten syllables, it’s two longer than the old “inventor of the Internet,” and as the founder of Current TV it’s clear he’s an entrepreneur more of what’s available than what is scarce. But I don’t see it become pejorative anytime soon. Even the most noble of us peddle inductive reasoning all the time (one point makes a line!) and the former Vice President is hardly the poster child for it. Was he jumping the gun in the report of the 1997 White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, which he chaired? It recommended, amongst other things, that “the FBI and CIA should develop a system that would allow important intelligence information on known or suspected terrorists to be used in passenger profiling without compromising the integrity of the intelligence or its sources.”

  3. Jeff Lipshaw says:

    Valid point. It was an article by Tierney, but it relied extensively on Kuran and Sunstein. My first sentence was not clear.