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September 03, 2012

The Knowledge Problem

It has been a dark and somewhat gloomy weekend in our little corner of western Maryland. For days, thick clouds have covered up the sun and the air is hushed and heavy with pent up energy. There are storms to the north, west, and south of us, but here you can almost feel the emptiness when you venture out of doors: everything is silent, waiting for something to rush in and fill the void.

Fall is coming. It's my favorite season, not the least because of the stark contrast between crisp, dry Indian summer days and ones like this, where an ancient sadness seems to fill the air. It feels like anticipatory grief, that odd mourning that precedes long deployments; a natural bracing for the death of summer and cold, barren landscape that will soon replace the view outside my office window - at least until Spring sends the chipmunks out of their toasty tunnels to forage for whatever it is chipmunks like to munch on April mornings.

The garden was gorgeous a few weeks ago - full of pink and purple yarrow and riots of black-eyed Susans and the deep, rich purple spikes of the butterfly bushes I planted at the beginning of August, teeming with brilliant butterflies and industious bumblebees. I imagine it would light up again for me, if only the sun would come out, but under this thick, overcast sky everything looks slightly moth-eaten and past its prime.

It feels so different, writing here. I loved our little house in the woods: glimpsing the lake, glistening and cool and green between the trees, and watching fat squirrels and ribbon snakes darting along in the shade under the stone wall. Our new house is filled with sunlight. I don't love it as fiercely as I did our old place but I am happier here, I think. And my husband is home. At the end of each day he walks through the front door and folds me into his arms and we decide what to have for dinner. There's a predictability to that, to the little rituals of married life, that has been missing for so many years.

I stayed away from my computer this weekend and dreaded returning to it on Monday. The toxicity gets to me sometimes - the charges and countercharges, the accusations of lying, of bad faith, of racism. Somehow we're supposed to revel in it all, to be unaffected by the nastiness.

I'm not sure we should be, though. It's hard enough to wade though the philosophical arguments without the added burden of inferring malign motives to people we'll never really know, usually on no evidence. The idea that we are getting a clear picture from openly partisan campaign ads or blog posts or op-eds is nothing short of delusional. Still, we have to make up our minds and to do that, we have to separate the infinitesimally tiny grains of wheat from the mounds of chaff. How do we do that?

Over the last few election cycles, fact checkers have multiplied like unmatched socks in the laundry room. They're everywhere we turn, but far from clarifying the confusion, they seem to be making it worse:

... this year the MSM will righteously strike back against “Post-Truth Politics” through rigorous fact-checking, followed by a manly, non-balanced, yet authoritative calling out of transgressors for the liars that they are. James Fallows and Jay Rosen, among others, have heralded this great new day. One problem, of course, is the ease–rather, the constant temptation–of presenting debatable policy issues as right/wrong fact issues, a problem emphasized by dissenter Ben Smith yesterday. Another is the way what Smith calls “the new pseudo science of fact-checks” opens up a giant sluice for the introduction of concealed bias, especially when “facts” are fed to the fact-checkers by the competing campaigns.

But a simpler problem is that the MSM’s fact-checkers often don’t know what they’re talking about. For example, the oft-cited CNN-”fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:

The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare rolls as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.”

Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.

I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future.

But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all. Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive.

The blog princess deals with the knowledge problem a lot in her day job. Software - especially the kind of software we build - is fraught with complexity issues. We're trying to take extremely complicated tasks and make them simpler; to make hard decisions, easier. Is that even possible? Perhaps, but I'm a skeptic. Or we try to make hard decisions more accessible to people who haven't taken the time or effort to try to understand the nature of the problem they're trying to solve.

This is the problem with fact checkers: they can't possibly be knowledgable about complex political questions, but they have to be in order to do their jobs. So they take short cuts. They look for evidence that confirms their hypotheses and when they find it, they stop looking - and learning - about this issue. They don't have the time or energy to master the subject they're supposedly educating us about.

But the knowledge problem doesn't just affect fact checkers. It's true to an even greater extent of voters.

We turn to them because we don't have time to understand the myriad issues thrown out during election season in all their complexity. Arguably, no one person really can (though this doens't stop morons on both sides of the aisle from expecting just that of the candidates).

I understand those who are suspicious of "the establishment"; who think that reading a few newspaper articles, op-eds, or blog posts somehow bestows a deep understanding of thorny issues on which there is frequently no consensus, even among experts who have studied them for decades. I understand them because I share their suspicion: it's only human nature to suspect the powerful of abusing their power.

But I suspect the grassrootilicious element in both parties even more, because I know for certain that the vast majority of them don't really understand half the issues they get so passionate about. That little observation won't endear me to most readers, I know. But I include myself in that vast tarpit of political ignorance.

The thing is, I have a healthy suspicion of my own understanding. And I don't understand the mindset that gives credence to what - to me - seems like a incredibly ludicrous idea: that Everyman is better able to make decisions on complex issues than those who are immersed in those issues 24/7. That we should trust people who know nothing (or close to nothing) more than those who have made it their business to know a lot. That the grassrooty element is somehow above the venality and human weaknesses exhibited by Teh Establishment: bias, emotion, passion, greed, laziness.

I don't buy it - not for a single moment. It's a fantasy.

I'm not arguing for blind trust of those in power. What I'm arguing for is equal opportunity skepticism...and perhaps just a little humility. We don't like uncertainty. We like our lines clear cut, and we like to know who to root for (and against). That's what this election is about - aligning the cheering sections with their respective champions. Making us feel an illusory sureness unmatched by reality.

But uncertainty is perhaps the most accurate representation of our actual knowledge that exists, uncomfortable as it may be. We take a risk every time we vote for men or the policies they claim to support. The truth is that even the best policy will be implemented by flawed human beings and no one is smart enough to guarantee success.

And so we're back to character and integrity and the vivid contrast between public and private behavior, ad campaigns and actual performance records. I think we've chosen about as well as we call this election season: not a perfect human being and almost certaintly not a wholly unselfish one. I'm not sure such a thing even exists, or that if it did that kind of person could win an election.

That used to be enough for us. I don't know what it says that we keep looking for something more: a hero who is far more accomplished and honest and intelligent than Everyman, who somehow manages not to make us feel inferior. Who convinces us that he's just like us (though of course he's not). That he shares all our values - disparate as they may be. That he understands (and has personally experienced!) every unique tribulation the human condition has ever suffered, because we all know that the fear of death is not as scary as the fear of losing a job. It's not enough to have experienced fear, or grief, or loss. We want someone who has experienced these emotions for the same reasons.

It's not reasonable, but then most of us - the electorate - are not entirely reasonable. And yet this is how most of us make decisions, isn't it? The facts take a back seat to our feelings.

Is this a good thing? Discuss amongst your ownselves.

Posted by Cassandra at September 3, 2012 09:22 AM

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I find it easy to trust an elected official in any area where I'm personally ignorant (WMD, say) as long as I generally trust his honesty (if the doubt is about faraway facts) or his agreement with me on some basic goals (if the doubt is about the efficacy of a plan).

As for fact-checkers, they quickly degenerated into opinion-checkers and lost their usefulness. A rigorous fact-checker might have a strong bias, but if he's good at his job it won't show and won't affect his work even secretly. An opinion-checker would find it almost impossible to do good non-partisan work while laboring under a bias. Thus, of course, the history of the New York Times for at least the last few decades.

Posted by: Texan99 at September 3, 2012 03:30 PM

Would you define "the knowledge problem" as you are thinking about it? There are a whole host of problems with knowledge, and I'm not sure I understand which one you are struggling with at the moment.

One of the problems is outlined in the Meno: let us say we want to know something we don't know. How do we begin our inquiry into it? We don't know what it is we don't know -- so how will we know it if we find it?

Strangely, it often seems like we do. Mathematical knowledge is a clear example: when we do work out the right answer, we have a surprising sense of "Yes! That's right!", even though we didn't have any idea of what the right answer ought to look like when we started.

Socrates thought (if Plato reports accurately) that this meant that in some sense we always already knew the right answer; perhaps in a previous life. We just needed to remember it.

That answer hasn't been satisfying to subsequent generations, but there's some sense in which it must be true. We have to know what the right answer is in order to recognize it when we come across it. Somehow, it seems like we do this. How we do it is quite a mystery.

Posted by: Grim at September 3, 2012 06:38 PM

Would you define "the knowledge problem" as you are thinking about it?

There are several dimensions, but the one I refer to most in this post is the difficulty of explaining/understanding complex public policy issues to a public with limited time and attention spans.

Let's take abortion. It's a fairly straightforward issue on the surface, yet I've encountered a fair number of people who truly don't understand that if Roe were reversed tomorrow, that wouldn't end abortion as a practice.

It just wouldn't, because most abortion law is state law. Abortion wouldn't become illegal nationwide (it's shocking how many people and how many ads pretend that's what would happen, but this is just plain silly).

A second area of wide public ignorance surrounds various contraception methods. How many people truly understand the differences in how emergency oral contraceptives work? Some (a few) are actual abortifacients. Others work by inhibiting ovulation. Yet they are all widely talked about as though they were a pharmaceutical form of abortion, and they're not.

How many folks understand how an IUD works? Very, very few - that's how many. So how do ordinary people evaluate claims from both sides about these methods?

Answer: they can't, really, because they don't have enough information and we can't rely on activists on either side to be honest brokers wrt information.

The way I see the knowledge problem work in my field is that there are a very small number of people who are paid to understand the details of various technical questions. I have been asked questions that I had to do at least a day of research (and sometimes several days) before I could understand the fundamentals and all the ramifications of various proposals. It's not enough to understand how things currently work - you also have to trace out and understand the effects of different proposals.

And then you have to figure out a way to explain extremely complex issues to someone who hasn't done the research you just did, and who isn't really interested in understanding it. Except they have to, to make an informed decision. Luckily, there's not a huge emotional component to most of the technical decisions we make. But in politics, many issues are fraught with emotion.

Simply stated, the issue is: how can voters make decisions from a position of ignorance? What do they need to know?

Well, first of all they need to understand the proposal or law under discussion as it is written. That alone is a formidable task.

Secondly, they need to understand how that law or proposal will work in the real world (IOW, how is it likely to be implemented in the real world? What effect will it actually have? Does that effect align with the intended purpose?) Another formidable task.

Last Friday I started to pose two debate questions, both hypotheticals. The first one went something like this:

You know what you believe wrt Issue X - your opinion is presumably grounded either on some moral or ethical principle, or some utilitarian outcome you wish to achieve. The question is: which is more important?

That the law itself be moral and ethical? Or that it be effective (hopefully, that it achieves moral and ethical ends)?

Would you support a law grounded in a moral or ethical principle you disagree with, but which produced results that align with your values (IOW, motivated society to behave in ways that are more responsible/moral/ethical)?

Posted by: Cass at September 4, 2012 07:27 AM

The answer is that it depends. Is the law based on a moral or ethical principle that I disagree with in form, or in essence? In other words, do I disagree with it because it is framed in a way I don't like (e.g., it is a version of a principle I might accept except that it is framed as an Islamic legal principle, and I don't wish to live in an Islamic state), or is it one I disagree with because I think it's immoral per se?

I might accept the one ("Resolved: it is pleasing to Allah that X, therefore X") but not the other ("People who not-X will have their children killed in the public square").

Posted by: Grim at September 4, 2012 09:34 AM