Bias: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature

“Kahan’s argument about the woman who does not believe in global warming is a surprising and persuasive example of a general principle: if we want to understand others, we can always ask what is making their behaviour ‘rational’ from their point of view. If, on the other hand, we just assume they are irrational, no further conversation can take place.”

Does Cultural Theory predict its own rejection?

Commenter ‘riskviews’ recently suggested:

I would guess that Grid-Group Theory would predict that it would not itself be widely accepted.
In fact, I belive that if it WERE widely accepted, then that would prove it false.

There are a few possible responses to this interesting proposition.

First, riskviews could be right. Cultural theory has been explored in many different academic fields, but not widely accepted in the way some other social science concepts have been. In particular it does seem to suggest a perspective that requires self-critique. This may be difficult.

Second, it may be that one way of achieving this is to somehow rise above the four cultures as described by Cultural Theory and see them as partially complete perspectives. Michael Thompson proposes that there may be a fifth cultural worldview- that of the autonomous ‘hermit’ – which does not enter into the coercive ways of organising and disorganising that the other four take for granted. So far from being widely accepted, Cultural Theory may be only narrowly accepted by a small section of society, which recognises ‘what’s really going on’ and then chooses to reject cultural bias. (For the record, I don’t find this line of thought very helpful).

Third, it may be argued that the four cultural biases only pause to reflect on their own partial nature when their proposed solutions to complex problems fail to have the desired effect. This kind of failure can be seen as a catalyst for better solutions which take account of something like Cultural Theory. This is the approach of Marco Verweij’s latest book, Clumsy Solutions for a Wicked World. The subtitle is optimistic about the possibility of accepting CT’s analysis and using it in policy formulation: ‘How to improve global governance’. Most writers on Cultural Theory seem to take the position that a wider understanding of its analysis might lead to better social outcomes. So, far from predicting its own rejection, Cultural Theory tends to argue for its own increasing adoption as a solution to a variety of problems.

Fourth, and this is my position, Cultural Theory, like many social science theories, can be seen not so much as a set of propositions to be believed, accepted, or verified, but more as a set of tools for thinking with. It’s quite possible to use it without accepting it. The matter then to be verified is not the theory itself but the further insights it gives rise to.

I hope I understand what is meant by the suggestion that if CT were widely accepted, that would prove it false. My take on this is that the theory claims there are four mutually incompatible ways of organising around truth claims. To accept this, would be (perhaps) to recognise the incompleteness of one’s own cultural worldview, and therefore to step outside it in a way that would call into question whether it really existed in the first place. Actually, I don’t agree with this. I think self-reflection is possible to an extent, both for individuals and for organisations. This is helped by that fact that however biased ourselves and our institutions may be, they still rub up against the world as world, not as pure fantasy. As Richard Ellis says, a cultural worldview is  ‘a prism that biases the way one experiences the world, not a prison that shuts one completely off from that world’ (quoted in Verweij 2011:205).

So what do you think? Does cultural theory predict its own rejection?

“God is a Brazilian” – risk perception in Brazil

Brasilia by night: Flickr - babasteve

John Adams of Imperial College London produced  a new preface for the Brazilian translation of his important  book Risk. His very interesting analysis of the social construction of risk is strongly informed by Grid-group cultural theory:

“I have been increasingly impressed by the ability of cultural theory to bring a modicum of order and civility to debates about risk. It is not a typology for pigeonholing participants in debates about risk. Occasionally one encounters a pure type, but most of us are too complex and multi faceted to be captured by a simple label. It does however provide a useful framework and vocabulary for describing the attitudes encountered in discussions about the best way to approach an uncertain future. It helps people to introspect about their own biases and prejudices.”

You can read the whole preface at John Adams’ web site.

Bias, learning to walk at the edge of Chaos

This is a guest post by Meika, for which, many thanks.

Cambridge-based researchers recently published a study providing experimental data which supports the idea that the human brain lives “on the edge of chaos”.
Its press release ends:

According to [co-author] Kitzbichler, this new evidence is only a starting point. “A natural next question we plan to address in future research will be: How do measures of critical dynamics relate to cognitive performance or neuropsychiatric disorders and their treatments?”

Well, taking that ‘cognitive performance’ a bit more specifically to include learning, and learning to walk in particular, the following story leads in an interesting direction for us fourculture fans.
Five years ago… Continue reading