Wednesday, May 13, 2015

rule of law: elite, establishment politics, psyops, and livestock management methods

Kahneman |  Another scholar and friend whom I greatly admire, Cass Sunstein, disagrees sharply with Slovic’s stance on the different views of experts and citizens, and defends the role of experts as a bulwark against “populist” excesses. Sunstein is one of the foremost legal scholars in the United States, and shares with other leaders of his profession the attribute of intellectual fearlessness. He knows he can master any body of knowledge quickly and thoroughly, and he has mastered many, including both the psychology of judgment and choice and issues of regulation and risk policy. His view is that the existing system of regulation in the United States displays a very poor setting of priorities, which reflects reaction to public pressures more than careful objective analysis. He starts from the position that risk regulation and government intervention to reduce risks should be guided by rational weighting of costs and benefits, and that the natural units for this analysis are the number of lives saved (or perhaps the number of life-years saved, which gives more weight to saving the young) and the dollar cost to the economy. Poor regulation is wasteful of lives and money, both of which can be measured objectively. Sunstein has not been persuaded by Slovic’s argument that risk and its measurement is subjective. Many aspects of risk assessment are debatable, but he has faith in the objectivity that may be achieved by science, expertise, and careful deliberation.

Sunstein came to believe that biased reactions to risks are an important source of erratic and misplaced priorities in public policy. Lawmakers and regulators may be overly responsive to the irrational concerns of citizens, both because of political sensitivity and because they are prone to the same cognitive biases as other citizens.

Sunstein and a collaborator, the jurist Timur Kuran, invented a name for the mechanism through which biases flow into policy: the availability cascade. They comment that in the social context, “all heuristics are equal, but availability is more equal than the others.” They have in mind an expanded notion of the heuristic, in which availability provides a heuristic for judgments other than frequency. In particular, the importance of an idea is often judged by the fluency (and emotional charge) with which that idea comes to mind.

An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by “availability entrepreneurs,” individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a “heinous cover-up.” The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.