Why Daniel Levine is Wrong About Everything

war is overWell, he’s not. But that’s the title of his new blog. (Apparently he is challenging me for the title of “Most Contrite Fallibilist.” He’s even taken the nom de plume of “Wrongzo.” Bastard.)

For his first substantive post, “What should we mock about when we mock about guns?” he parodies my attempts to articulate a boring solution to the gun debates. He, rightly, turns the attention away from guns and towards inequality and precarity. Here’s the money quote:

“So, guns, whatever. Take away the fear and hatred that drives the hierarchical-individualist worldview (and its purity norms, on which a future discussion) and probably we have guns that police occasionally use against sociopaths and hunters use to get game meat, and boltcutters I only use on my back gate. The fight is with hierarchy, not guns.”

I can’t help but agree. (The wrongest thing about that blog is its title.) Some things that Wrongzo suggests but doesn’t say:

1. Wrongzo believes that value assessments and risk profiles are malleable. So, if we win the right political battles or transform our economy in appropriate ways, we might someday render individualists or hierarchists extinct. Even though I’ve spent a long time trying to work out and defend this thesis, I don’t know that I’m convinced it’s true. What if we’re just built differently, if not in the genetic and cogntive pluralism way, then in a way that leads to diverse cognitive styles being cultivated within any community? (For instance, a functioning community is always going to have some contrarians.)

But my suspicions and hopes here largely reflect a prejudice in favor of pluralism. As I say in my second post, “it’s important to acknowledge that they do see some facts more clearly we do.” And it’s true that the individualist notices different elements of the problem than the solidaridist: that’s why Radley Balko is such a boon to American political punditry. I’ve not yet figured out what hierarchists are good for, but I do worry that hierarchy and tradition are intrinsic to any account of solidarity, but we only notice the hierarchical and irrationally traditional elements when we see them in others with whom we disagree. But that’s what I do: worry.

2. Wrongzo believes that outsider derision can change things, citing Appiah. I was highly critical of this element of Appiah’s thought when I reviewed his book:

Here, then, is the problem that Appiah’s project must suppress in order to succeed: honor codes work best when they are unacknowledged, and they are best changed when they are not the object of direct study or overt deliberate manipulation by outsiders. Moral revolutions that are predicated on honor code changes are most likely to succeed when the transition does not appear to be the work of self-conscious elites, even if it probably is. This would probably help explain some other details suppressed in Appiah’s account, like why debates about slavery and racism did not end with the Atlantic slave trade or the American Civil War.

Again, I want to be wrong, but ultimately, you can only maintain the claim that “we mock because we love” so long as a reasonable person would see “hick-shaming” as a loving remonstration and not othering. Our chosen subalterns are the urban poor; conservatives pretend to represent the rural and suburban poor. Given the discourses and practices of coastal elites, I don’t see much evidence that hick-shaming will do anything other than tweak the subalterns of our competitor elites. In contrast, the evidence suggests that what Braman and Kahan call “identity vouching” is better able to get things done. That’s why “only Nixon can go to China” and why President Obama receives harsher criticism from African-Americans like Cornel West than he does from white progressives. What we need to engineer is a collaboration with gun owners.

There’s another serious core to the argument: what do we give up when we take up the cultural cognition attempt to negotiate a détente between gun owners and gun haters? I want to say more about this is a future post more critical of the “cultural cognition” perspective, but for now, go read Levine’s blog!

Update: Wrongzo responds:

But when we laugh with someone, we importantly laugh at our shared frailty and vulnerability and failure. We are saying that we are unwilling to give a charade of honor and weight to the human stupidity they have shown, but that ultimately that stupidity connects us, rather than dividing us.

…I am laughing because I ultimately want social reconciliation, for all the romance of class war. The hierarchs are hurting. So, for all the mean-ness of the last post, ultimately, laughter is the proposed weapon because it holds the hope of everyone saying, “wow, that was a fucked way of setting things up, let us do something different now.


What should we say when we talk about guns? (continued)

Some people will say that they’re unnecessary and dangerous. Others will say that they’re a tool for self-defense and self-sufficiency. That’s usually where the debate rests, except that the 2nd Amendment privileges the second group. If we want to make progress, we can offer better reasons, reasons that will be superior precisely because they are responsive to the reasons of our interlocutors. That means honestly trying to find the overlap in what appears to be an incommensurable set of assumptions.

Here’s Dan Braman and Dan Kahan, in an article on how to have a better gun debate:

For one segment of American society, guns symbolize honor, human mastery over nature, and individual self-sufficiency. By opposing gun control, individuals affirm the value of these meanings and the vision of the good society that they construct. For another segment of American society, however, guns connote something else: the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the well-being of strangers. These individuals instinctively support gun control as a means of repudiating these significations and of promoting an alternative vision of the good society that features equality, social solidarity, and civilized nonaggression.

As a result, Braman and Kahan propose a “big trade”: those who oppose guns should offer to recognize and respect the rights of gun ownership, effectively normalizing it, in exchange for universal registration. By emphasizing the responsibility and civic spiritedness of most gun owners, Braman and Kahan believe that we can better reach an agreement what that responsibility entails.

For Braman and Kahan, this is an extension of their cultural cognition work, but I’d put it a little differently, in terms of the interaction between esteem and social norms: rather than depicting gun owners as dangerous hicks, we give them esteem in exchange for esteem-worthy performances of self-abnegation and sacrifice, like giving up assault weapons and semi-automatics. Since less than 0.004% of all guns are used on other human beings in any given year, we should acknowledge that most people’s guns are not the problem.


by Flickr user deepwarren

It’s tempting to stage a cultural showdown around guns, to line up a set of  statistics and international comparisons and arguments: i.e. that carrying a gun probably increases the likelihood that you will be shot and killed. Lots of resources already go into advertising this fact, along with others. From a public health perspective it makes perfect sense to discourage gun ownership, but so long as many Americans treat guns as a central part of their identities, such discouragement will only have limited impact. Research suggests that our prior beliefs on guns will have an significant impact on the way that we process new data on gun deaths. That’s more evident in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, where tragedy and group polarization rule, but very little cross-cutting bipartisan dialogue takes place.

In “More Statistics, Less Persuasion: A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions,” Braman and Kahan offer evidence that risk perceptions are derivative of social norms and cultural-loaded meanings:

The risks that we face in our daily lives are far too vast in number and diverse in nature to be comprehended in their totality. Of all the potential hazards that compete for our attention, the ones most likely to penetrate our consciousness are the ones that comport with our norm-pervaded moral evaluations: it is easy to believe that ignoble activities are also physically dangerous, and worthy ones benign. Thus, “moral concern guides not just response to the risk but the basic faculty of [risk] perception” as well.

What this means is that how we process school shootings or firearm-related suicides will be largely dictated by our prior views on the social importance of guns. That’s why our responses differ so drastically: it’s not that some of us are dumb and some smart, some indifferent to suffering and some caring, but that we can only understand tragedy within a cultural framework, and that framework partially dictates which elements of the tragedy pop out as salient.

In particular, those concerned primarily with hierarchical forms of status and authority will relate to gun crimes differently from those egalitarians who abhor social statification, while those who favor individual autonomy will take up a different yet a third approach to evaluating and prioritizing risks than those who favor collective action. What Braman and Kahan show is that the facts and statistics that seem salient to us depend largely on where we fall on both the hierarchy-egalitarian axis and the individualism-solidarism axis.

Here, then, is the problem: most of the prohibition-type solutions are only going to receive support from those of us who are both egalitarian and in favor of collective action. This creates the potential for a coalition of interests between those who favor guns as a traditional prerogative of American citizenship, and those who see them as a symbol self-sufficiency and of man’s mastery of nature. You can’t simply eliminate those value profiles and risk-assessments from the electorate, and it’s important to acknowledge that they do see some facts more clearly we do. Instead, we should seek solutions that are more widely satisfying to traditionalists. Politicians understood this long ago and captured it in the canard that gun safety regulations should respect the rights of “hunters and sportsmen.”

But what kinds of policies does this respect entail?

In my last post, I emphasized the importance of taking full prohibition off the table for safety reasons, and I linked to two kinds of suggestions for gun control that seem like reasonable accommodations with the many civic-minded gun owners in the country: the federal legislation recommendations from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the Op-Ed by Craig Whitney, “A Way Out of the Gun Stalemate.”

To this, let me add the state and local initiatives suggested by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which are in many ways more important, such as better mental health reporting and ammunition controls and licensing. Many of these are things that need not be resolved nationally to be effective: for instance, California single-handedly improved ballistics recognition by requiring guns sold in the state to “micro-stamp” their serial numbers onto shell casings. That program should be expanded to other states.

A lot of the pushback I received last week was tied to the fact that places like Japan and Great Britain have had reasonable success with prohibitions. Certainly this is true, but it seems to ignore both that those places started off with a very different gun culture, and that they are geographic anomalies, islands of dense populations with a lot of ethnic homogeneity. We have 310,000,000 of the damned things, and we’ve had many failures over the years trying to curb that numbers’ growth. We should try something different.

(Always a good reminder: Timur Kuran’s and Cass Sunstein’s “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation.”)

Cultural Cognition is Not a Bias

Some recent posts by Dan Kahan on the subject of “cultural cognition” deserve attention:

(Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.)

There’s no remotely plausible account of human rationality—of our ability to accumulate genuine knowledge about how the world works—that doesn’t treat as central individuals’ amazing capacity to reliably identify and put themselves in intimate contact with others who can transmit to them what is known collectively as a result of science.

Indeed, as I said at the outset, it is not correct even to describe cultural cognition as a heuristic. A heuristic is a mental “shortcut”—an alternative to the use of a more effortful, and more intricate mental operation that might well exceed the time and capacity of most people to exercise in most circumstances.

But there is no substitute for relying on the authority of those who know what they are talking about as a means of building and transmitting collective knowledge. Cultural cognition is no shortcut; it is an integral component in the machinery of human rationality.

Unsurprisingly, the faculties that we use in exercising this feature of our rationality can be compromised by influences that undermine its reliability. One of those influences is the binding of antagonistic cultural meanings to risk and other policy-relevant facts. But it makes about as much sense to treat the disorienting impact of antagonistic meanings as evidence that cultural cognition is a bias as it does to describe the toxicity of lead paint as evidence that human intelligence is a “bias.”

Look: people aren’t stupid. They know they can’t resolve difficult empirical issues (on climate change, on HPV-vaccine risks, on nuclear power, on gun control, etc.) on their own, so they do the smart thing: they seek out the views of experts whom they trust to help them figure out what the evidence is. But the experts they are most likely to trust, not surprisingly, are the ones who share their values.

What makes me feel bleak about the prospects of reason isn’t anything we find in our studies; it is how often risk communicators fail to recruit culturally diverse messengers when they are trying to communicate sound science.

The number of scientific insights that make our lives better and that don’t culturally polarize us is orders of magnitude greater than the ones that do. There’s not a “culture war” over going to doctors when we are sick and following their advice to take antibiotics when they figure out we have infections. Individualists aren’t throttling egalitarians over whether it makes sense to pasteurize milk or whether high-voltage power lines are causing children to die of leukemia.

People (the vast majority of them) form the right beliefs on these and countless issues, moreover, not because they “understand the science” involved but because they are enmeshed in networks of trust and authority that certify whom to believe about what.

For sure, people with different cultural identities don’t rely on the same certification networks. But in the vast run of cases, those distinct cultural certifiers do converge on the best available information. Cultural communities that didn’t possess mechanisms for enabling their members to recognize the best information—ones that consistently made them distrust those who do know something about how the world works and trust those who don’t—just wouldn’t last very long: their adherents would end up dead.

Rational democratic deliberations about policy-relevant science, then, doesn’t require that people become experts on risk. It requires only that our society take the steps necessary to protect its science communication environment from a distinctive pathology that enfeebles ordinary citizens from using their (ordinarily) reliable ability to discern what it is that experts know.