How to reach the South Pole before your rivals do

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It’s 100 years since the British explorer Captain Scott reached the South Pole only to realise his rival Roald Amundsen had just beaten him to it. On the return journey he and his party died, but not before writing about it in journals, thus creating an enduring myth of ‘heroic failure’.

In his ‘Message to the Public’, Scott saw his party’s demise as the result of improvident weather:

“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last”

 Amundsen for his part was typically phlegmatic about his own achievement as contrasted with Scott’s:

“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”— from The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen

So which was it, luck or judgement? Amundsen clearly didn’t believe in luck. For him it was all down to the planning. This anti-Fatalist stance certainly paid off, but of course it was an appraisal made after the event.

The irony to this little tale is that in 1928 while Amundsen was attempting to rescue another explorer whose air ship had gone missing near the North Pole, his own seaplane went missing. The wreckage was found but Amundsen’s body  never was. So which was it this time: bad luck or bad judgement?

Amundsen's Latham 47 sea plane, shortly before its disappearance in 1928
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Why do People play the Lottery?

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Well, why do they? It’s the kind of question only those who don’t do it would bother asking. I admit I’m one of them. The lottery is a mystery to me – self-evidently daft,  like a slow-motion version of taking a pile of cash and setting fire to it. Why would anyone do it?

One way of answering this kind of question is presented by science journalist Jonah Lehrer: let’s ask some behavioural economists!

The chief conclusion is as follows:

In two experiments conducted with low-income participants, we examine how implicit comparisons with other income classes increase low-income individuals’ desire to play the lottery. In Experiment 1, participants were more likely to purchase lottery tickets when they were primed to perceive that their own income was low relative to an implicit standard. In Experiment 2, participants purchased more tickets when they considered situations in which rich people or poor people receive advantages, implicitly highlighting the fact that everyone has an equal chance of winning the lottery.

An Unsafe Bet

Jim Orford has a book out entitled An Unsafe Bet? The Dangerous Expansion of Gambling and the Debate we should be having. In it he identifies eleven commonly used discourses of gambling. Of these six discourses broadly support the liberalisation of gambling and five support the increase of restrictions on gambling. Orford is fairly relaxed about this typology and even says: ‘Other people would no doubt produce a different list’ (123).

This to Fourcultures is as a red rag to a bull, so here goes.

Source: Orford 2011:124

False Signal?

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“My father told me the oceans were limitless, but that was a false signal.”

NYT on collapsing fish stocks in the South Pacific.

In Mackerel’s Plunder, Hints of Epic Fish Collapse

 

Science communication and conservative values

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Roger Scruton‘s recent article in Prospect Magazine provides an interesting illustration of what Dan Kahn and Chris Mooney have been discussing on their respective blogs. (Kahn blogs regularly now at the Cultural Cognition Project and Mooney writes at the Desmog Blog.)

The topic of their discussion: Is it possible to take the polemics out of science communication, and if so, how?

Scruton’s article, Nature, Nurture and Liberal Values, reviews three recent books on neuroscience and discusses the moral and philosophical implications of these new inflections of the nature/nurture debate, from a highly intelligent conservative perspective:

“The real question raised by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is not whether those sciences can be refuted, but whether we can accept what they have to say, while still holding on to the beliefs that morality demands of us.”

This, it seems to me, is exactly the kind of question Kahn and Mooney are discussing. Scruton’s statement, though, begs the question that conservatism reviles: whose morality? This is where Cultural Theory comes in, suggesting as it does that there is more than one worldview, more than one morality, and that therefore, more than one kind of reconciliation is required between science and morality, between descriptive and normative claims. However, the promise of Cultural Theory is that this is not an endless pluralism, or a morally bankrupt relativism, but rather a constrained pluralism. Yes, there are competing cultural worldviews. No, they are not endlessly differentiated. We can map them.

Scruton’s latest book, Green Philosophy, provides a kind of conservative re-imagining of the environmentalist terrain that he seems to think has been left almost entirely to the egalitarian left for the last thirty years and more. It’s a philosophical restatement of that old question, why should the devil have all the best music? Why should so-called ‘environmentalists’ keep the environmental high ground to themselves? One way of looking at this might be to hypothesise that conservatives might be more receptive to ‘environmentalist’ subject matter if they think it will make the world a more conservative place. This will probably not take the polemics out of discussions about climate change policy – quite possibly the reverse – but it might just help to end the rather strange situation in which some political groups and leaders simply deny/resist/ignore climate change and other environmentalist causes célèbres and try to make them disappear.

Scruton spoke about his book at the RSA recently (audio available), with Matthew Taylor chairing.

A typology of disagreement

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How are differences of opinion to be characterised?

That is to say, if there is more than one opinion, what is its status in relation to the others? Are there different types of difference of opinion? It’s hard to write about this matter because as soon as we do so we resort to language that is essentially metaphorical. These metaphors condition our thought and tend to beg the questions. So, for instance, to use the term conflicting opinions or competing opinions or incommensurable opinions is to assume that conflict, competition or incommensurability is a given. Of course, ‘opinion’ itself is a matter of opinion. One person’s opinion is another person’s fact. Even the term difference is somewhat metaphorical. What if it turns out our opinions don’t actually differ, after all? Perhaps by means of  Hegelian synthesis or some such trick, they can be reconciled to one another.

Michael Ruse, author of Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, has written about the ways in which we can characterise the debate between science and religion.  He identifies four approaches, namely:

  • Warfare
  • Independence
  • Dialogue
  • Integration

The contribution of this post is to suggest that these are not merely choices freely made but are pathways already prescribed by social circumstances. We can’t just wake up in the morning and decide that today the relationship between science and religion will be conflictual, and that tomorrow it will be dialogical. The social environment in which the relationship exists conditions to a large extent the way it is characterised. Our pre-existing assumptions and ways of organising make particular lines of reasoning seem ‘natural’ rather than ‘forced’. This point matters because of our tendency to see things as being ‘just the way they are’, without further reflection. If science and religion appear to be in conflict, we tend to jump straight to ontology (‘they just are in conflict – that’s how it really is’), without reflecting on our epistemology (‘how do we know how it really is?’). It is hard to see how the likes of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers could stop being combative, or how the likes of the Catholic Church could stop trying to be all-encompassing. Notice that method and conclusion amount to the same thing.

The relationship between the four approaches identified by Prof Ruse can be clarified by means of Grid-Group Cultural Theory, under which rubric much thought has already gone into the cultural biases, or worldviews which shape our disagreements. Viewed in this context the religion/science debate tells us as much about the institutional framework of the debate as it does about the truth of the matter.

Approach     Metaphor     Typical institution       Cultural Bias

Warfare            Competition    the market                            Individualist

Independence Isolation          courtroom/prison              Fatalist

Dialogue          Consensus       deliberative democracy     Egalitarian

Integration     Nested Truth    bureaucracy                         Hierarchical

The dialogue approach is in the spirit of deliberative democracy, or of Jurgen Habermas’s communicative action.

The Integration approach is in keeping with Donald Davidson’s ideas expressed in his seminal article ‘On the very idea of a conceptual scheme’. Differences of opinion are subordinated to a hierarchical concept of Truth.

The independence approach is in keeping with Thomas Kuhn’s concept of separate paradigms, or the idea of separate (perhaps overlapping) magisteria.

Finally the warfare approach is closest to an understanding of knowledge as competition, with the survival of the fittest and ‘the marketplace of ideas’.

My suggestion is that these types of disagreement don’t just apply to the science and religion debate, but to all disagreements. Michael Ruse has successfully described the totality of parsimonious ways in which a disagreement may be characterised in any field. These relate closely to the ideal type worldviews or cultural biases of Cultural Theory. An interim conclusion is that while you can have any facts you like, your choice of difference of opinion is strictly limited (Prof Marco Verweij’s ‘constrained relativism‘ perhaps).

Equality and Hierarchy in Denmark

Hedeby
Hedeby, probable site of the first school in Denmark

Further reflections on the concept of horizontal and vertical teaching methods.

A recent edition of the journal Social Analysis (55.2, 2011) is entirely devoted to the contrast between hierarchical and egalitarian pressures on Danish Society.

The introduction begins with a discussion of the work of the anthropologist Marianne Gullestad (1946–2008). Gullestad developed a theory of Scandinavian social life based on the two dichotomies of hierarchy-equality and individualism-holism , which she derived from Louis Dumont (Dumont, Homo æqualis Paris: Gallimard, 1977). It continues:

“Our ethnographies suggest that simple dichotomies between egalitarianism and hierarchy or between individualism and holism do not hold.” (p.13)

One of the articles, by Karen Fog Olwig, focuses specifically on education in Danish kindergartens: ‘Children’s sociality: the ‘Civilizing’ Project in the Danish Kindergarten’.

These kinds of analysis would benefit from a consideration of the Cultural Theory typology in which besides hierarchical (vertical) and egalitarian (horizontal) approaches to education there are also Individualist and Fatalist institutional arrangements.

More generally, it’s possible to be suspicious of comparative national analyses which reify types of behaviour and then seek to apply them to national population groups, as though distinctive national characteristics were so easily demonstrated in this manner.

My concern here is that analyses which identify national characteristics do less to clarify those characteristics than they do to reinforce a kind of nationalist essentialism. This reassuring thought – that we’re doing the right thing when we organise along national lines – seems to me to have had its high point in the mid to late Nineteenth Century with the development of modern nation states, and then another peak after the Second World War with the rise of post-colonial independence movements. It is getting another airing in our time as part of a collective anxiety about globalisation. Most recently, the decline of European currency forces a rethink of national economic arrangements. The national is being renegotiated and redefined.

I’m arguing here that the process of identifying national characteristics is at least partly born from a certain cultural anxiety regarding national identities in an era of globalisation. So to argue that some nations have particularly ‘vertical’ teaching methods and that this impacts on governmental effectiveness, as do the authors of the study previously mentioned, reveals something about the context and preoccupations of the research itself. There is a market for clients (broadly construed) who are interested in reinforcing their ideas about the social reality, the solidity, of nation states.

Analyses inspired by the Cultural Theory approach of anthroplogist Mary Douglas instead start from the assumption that cultural differences are to be found as much within social groups as between them. That is to say, the cultural biases inherent in institutions operate at all scales, from the household (Gullestad’s ‘kitchen table society‘) to the global. This is not to deny the possibility of empirically observable national characteristics, but to contextualise them in a series of nested (Hierarchical), or competing (Individualist), or incompatible (Fatalist), or wholistic (Egalitarian) scales. An interest in identifying the dominant scale (natonal, supranational, something else?) reveals a Hierarchical cultural bias.

Where can Cultural Theory aid these kinds of investigation?

First, as mentioned, it identifies, parsimoniously, a further two ‘ideal types’, beyond ‘horizontal’ egalitarianism and ‘vertical’ hierarchy.

Second, it allows for a questioning of national characteristics as particularly national.

Third, following on from this, it renders visible contesting social forces within societies and institutions. So for example, where Hierarchical approaches to social organisation appear dominant, Cultural Theory can show how they may not be quite as dominant as seen at first sight (because they fit within a dynamic of contested worldviews), and it can show where the possibilities of change lie in already existing institutions and relationships.

To end on the idea of anxiety about national identity in an era of globaliisation, two books are particularly helpful on this:

David Held and Henrietta L. Moore, eds (2008) Cultural Politics in a Global Age: Uncertainty, Solidarity and Innovation. Oxford: Oneworld.

 Henrietta L. Moore (2011) Still Life: Hopes, Desires and Satisfactions. Cambridge: Polity.

References

Bruun, Maja Hojer; Jakobsen, Gry Skrædderdal; Krøijer, Stine (2011) Introduction: The Concern for Sociality—Practising Equality and Hierarchy in Denmark, Social Analysis, Volume 55, Number 2, Summer, pp. 1-19. [http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/sa.2011.550201]

Louis Dumont (1977) Homo æqualis Paris: Gallimard.

Explaining Political Judgement

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Fourcultures has previously reviewed the work of Perri 6 , Professor of social policy at Nottingham Trent University.  The Institutional Dynamics of Culture (which he edited with Gerald Mars) remains the most important compendium of sources on Mary Douglas’s cultural theory.

His latest book is Explaining Political Judgement, which looks to be a very thorough explanation of the relevance of Cultural Theory to the kinds of decisions made during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and to the social sciences more generally.

“Explaining political judgement” lays out a full specification of a neo-Durkheimian institutional theory of political judgement, emphasising its causal mechanisms as much as its typology. It argues that political judgement is best understood as a form of thought style, and it proposes a set of measures for capturing thought styles in political decision-making. These styles are best explained, it argues, by the work of informal institutions shaping the ways in which decision-makers are organised. Those institutions shape judgement by quotidian ritual processes in meetings and exchange of memoranda etc. To make an illustrative case for the theory’s promise, plausibility and for its comparative merits over rival explanations in the social sciences, the book re-examines the evidence about decision-making by the US, Soviet and Cuban governments in the period immediately before and during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The case has been chosen to set the argument in direct comparative relationship with one of the great classics of the social sciences, Graham Allison’s “Essence of decision” (2nd edn, 1999, with Philip Zelikow). “Explaining political judgement” concludes with arguments about the prospects for the neo-Durkheimian approach generally.

 

 

 

The medium is the bias

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We don’t carry cultural biases around in our heads so much as encounter them in our environments. Humans require the flexibility to be able to engage with different cultural biases in different contexts. A person who is acculturated to be biased in one particular way will either gravitate towards that way of working or be somewhat handicapped in contexts outside of their cultural comfort zone. Imagine a right handed person working with their left hand: they can do it but it isn’t comfortable. Unfortunately we mostly aren’t even aware that we are operating in culturally biased environments and our flexibility is unconscious rather than reflective. Cultural theory offers a heuristic approach to recognising, naming and making sense of these cultural biases so that we can operate on a more ambidextrous manner.

A case in point: email. Here’s an excerpt from Johnny Ryan’s book on social networking:

“E-mail stripped away the accumulated layers of formality that had been observed in correspondence of the ink age:

‘One could write tersely and type imperfectly, even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense. The formality and perfection that most people expect in a typed letter did not become associated with network messages, probably because the network was so much faster, so much more like the telephone.’

Strict hierarchies were flattened, and the barriers between individuals at different levels of an organization’s hierarchy were minimized. Staff at ARPA now found that they could easily contact the Director, Stephen Lukasik, by e-mail. Similarly, Lawrence Roberts used e-mail to bypass principal investigators and communicate directly with contractors below them.

As e-mail spread throughout facilities connected to ARPANET, the rapid-fire e-mail exchanges between people at different levels of the academic hierarchy established new conventions of expression.”

The point is that in the 1970s the new medium of email effectively forced an Egalitarian cultural bias to be adopted inside an otherwise strongly Hierarchical organization. In the terms of Cultural Theory, email is a Weak Grid medium.

The upshot of this is that if your organization relies heavily on one cultural bias or another (and nearly all do) it may be important to consider carefully the quality of match between the cultural bias of the medium and the cultural bias of the organization. For example it would probably be a bad idea for the monarch to use email, since the medium implicitly undermines the cultural power of the institution. It isn’t just that the medium risks trivialising the sender, The medium actually implies particular social relationships which may or may not be conducive to the sender’s institutional arrangements.

Note that the English monarchy has intuitively understood this. If you want to contact the Queen in 2011 you have to write a letter.

The official website says:

“If you wish to write a formal letter, you can open with ‘Madam’ and close the letter with the form ‘I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant’. This traditional approach is by no means obligatory. You should feel free to write in whatever style you feel comfortable.”

…as long as it’s snail mail. This is just as well, since if you tried to tweet the Queen (which you can’t) the formal closing would take up over half of your 140 character allowance.

Conversely, those seeking to change cultural biases could do worse than to ‘bring the war to the enemy’ by seeking to force them to use culturally inappropriate media to convey their messages.

Unlike the Queen, Prince William has a Twitter account. When I looked it had 27,387 followers. This figure contrasts rather sharply with the number of followers the monarchy is supposed to have (many millions in several Commonwealth countries). In other words the very use of a Weak-Grid medium such as Twitter undermines the Strong-Grid hierarchical rationale of its user.

For those who do not operate in Hierarchical institutions these examples of blue-bloods using the Internets may serve to illustrate the horror with which many who defend a Hierarchical worldview look at contemporary social change. This horror can be hard to understand – isn’t it an over-reaction? Well, no. While most of us just see Twitter and Facebook. For the Hierarchical worldview these are further evidence of the end of civilization as we know it – and they are not wrong.

Sources:

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/03/from-the-first-email-through-the-well-and-usenet-a-pre-history-of-social-networking.ars/2

Johnny Ryan 2010 A History of the Internet and the Digital Future. London: Reaktion and Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

http://www.royal.gov.uk/HMTheQueen/ContactTheQueen/Overview.aspx

It matters who presents the message

unsafe area

Who would you trust to tell you what the risks are?

Research from the Cultural Cognition project suggests the cultural identity of the presenter matters significantly to the public reception of a particular message about risk. In other words, we need our experts to be our experts, not the other side’s experts.

It follows from this that one way of reducing the polarization of debates on risk may be to provide a variety of views on an issue from within a particular cultural bias. Two examples of this in practice are presented below, one quite successful, the other less so.

Continue reading “It matters who presents the message”

Moving beyond a failure in the marketplace of ideas


The following is a guest post from Prof Dan Kahan in response to a previous post here, on Margaret Heffernan’s book, Willful Blindness.

4culture’s insightful post put me in mind of something important that in fact he has said explicitly before: Understanding the contribution that cultural influences have on our perceptions of risk (and like facts) cannot only explain but also improve our situation. If we know we have cultural “blind spots” & where they are, then we should be able to do something to reduce their dimensions even if we are constrained (not so unhappily!) always to be who we are and thus see what we see.

In that spirit:

Imagine a “cultural theory” response to the “marketplace of ideas” view of free speech. This view holds that “truth” can be expected to emerge naturally & rapidly take hold in society through the competition of ideas in a “free speech” market (associated with J.S. Mill; Justice O.W. HolmesJr., US S Ct; and others).

Cultural Theory helps to show why this laissez faire attitude toward transmission of knowledge is naive. Through biased search and weighting of evidence, people conform their assessments of information to their cultural values. Accordingly, even if the market of ideas furnishes them with an ample supply of information that it would be very much in their interest to accept and act on (because, say, they are more likely to die if they don’t), culturally diverse people won’t come to see it as true (or at least not nearly so quickly) if it denigrates the worldviews of some portion of them. This “cultural market failure,” Cultural Theory tells us, warrants some sort of corrective intervention. Some possibilities:

1. Affirmation framing

A cognitive rendering of Cultural Theory would say we are unconsciously motivated to resist information that threatens our cultural worldview. One way to mitigate the potential for bias inherent in this dynamic, then, is to try to strive to frame information in ways that affirm a plurality of worldviews simultaneously. Thus, when presenting information about climate change, it might make a lot of sense to give prominent billing to greater use of nuclear power or to the development of geoengineering, steps that are identity-affirming for individualists, rather than focus predominantly on carbon-emission limits, a policy that threatens individualists,

2. “Subsidize” hierarchy

Wildavsky believed that signature blind spots of each worldview meant that societies are most likely to prosper when they have a rich inventory of all worldview types. He was worried that in contemporary America, at least, hierarchy was being driven out by “the rise of radical egalitarianism” and so he proposed that hierarchists should be treated with respect and not vilified so that the value society gets from having hierarchical insight remains available. (Mary Douglas too was very anxious about the decline of hierarchy.) Actually, I think conspicuous efforts by egalitarians and individualists to find ways for hierarchical meanings to co-exist with theirs through adroit framing (point 1) is a way to subsidize; it puts a brake on the instinct to attack and also furnishes evidence to persons of hierarchical sensibilities that they are not under attack and thus promotes their full participation in public debate.

3. Puncturing culture-pluralistic ignorance

It turns out that people tend to overestimate how uniform & how strongly held positions on risk are within their cultural group & within opposing ones. This perception feeds on itself: because individuals sense that they will likely be put at odds with their peers if they take a dissenting view, they are less likely to form one and less likely to express it; such reticence amplifies the signal that views are uniform and strongly held, which increases the pressure to conform, etc. Well, one way around this is to promote (particularly in formal deliberative settings) a deliberative norm of acknowledging the “strongest counterargument” to one’s position. Such a norm gives people an “immunity” from sanction within their own group so they voice equivocation and dissent more freely. The voicing of equivocation and dissent mitigates the impression that views are uniform and strongly held; as that impression recedes, so does the pressure to conform . . . voilà!

I’m sure others can think of more ideas. But the point — as the post makes clear — is that Cultural Theory is not just a theory of bias but also a guide to possible debiasing as well. After all, wasn’t that what Douglas & Wildavsky were trying to provide us?

Related articles

Kahan, D. Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature 463, 296-297 (2010).

Sherman, D.K., Nelson, L.D. & Ross, L.D. Naïve Realism and Affirmative Action: Adversaries are More Similar Than They Think. Basic & Applied Social Psychology 25, 275-289 (2003).

Willful Blindness (fourcultures.com)

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