Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Following Politics Too Closely Makes You Stupid

I'm reading (and recommend) "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. As with his preceding book, "Fooled by Randomness" it deals in part with human limitations in predicting the future and, in particular, our inability to judge risk.

One of his themes is what others call the pull of narrative. As a species we like a nice story and we also wonder what happens next. It doesn't seem to matter how banal the story is (gossip or business plans) or how outlandish (soap operas or business plans). We are drawn in. Something is being shown or explained. We want to understand how the pieces fit together and to imagine what happens next. One of Taleb's points is that the narratives we see and invent for the world around us are not only false, they also lead us astray and cause us to miss what is actually occurring. A black swan is something that we do not see coming, but seems obvious once it has occurred and we create an appropriate narrative. The current financial meltdowns are a case in point. We will be paying for the debacle for generations. While the seeds were being sown many smart, and sometimes well intentioned, people gave us a story about how the financial instruments at the base of the crisis reduced risk. Now that credit markets are freezing, we have new stories that tell how greedy people acted blindly and exposed everyone to grave risks.

In political discourse the same human foibles apply and are even magnified. Every side is selling a story. The vehicle for the story is mostly TV and radio through ads and news stories. Each installment of the story must be communicated in about thirty seconds. Very occasionally a full minute can be used. Because the audience only observes intermittently, each installment must be repeated many times to make sure everyone keeps up. This is one of the origins of "talking points". Consistent messages are easier to remember. Constant repetition makes it more likely the message will be heard, and more likely the ideas will be accepted at face value (everyone is saying it). This leads to a slow accretion of fragments that fit into a consistent theme or story that the proponent hopes is persuasive.

In an odd way, the fragmentary delivery of political messages makes them more effective. Like the next installment of a soap opera, new talking points fill in a missing piece and lead us to wonder what is next. The abbreviated format force reduction of the message to slogans and codewords that mean more than the actual statement. These not only reinforce the story, they act as cheers to emotionally charge supporters who have accepted the truth of the underlying message. All sides engage in this but, in the United States, conservatives have been much more effective at this style of communication. They just have better slogans. There are keywords like "liberal" and phrases like "tax and spend". They are even better at adjectives. One recent ad talked about an opponent supporting "massive government", which has succeeded the epithet "big government". Each of these keys on a part of a larger narrative. Political narratives have existed for as long as the human race, but the modern form is based on commercial advertising and uses all the tools and techniques of that craft including testing and focus groups.

Political communication has been simplified to mere advertising, but the problems we face are not simple. There is essentially nothing that can be learned about a complex situation in thirty seconds. Regardless of the party or position, every ad you listen too is misleading. The same is true of the news stories. Simplified communication can communicate at most first order forces. Complex situations are often the result of many different forces, some of them quite removed from the obvious.

I take one ad, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pRHliGZl-o, as an example, not because there is anything special about it, but because there isn't anything special. It typifies the level of discourse. It happens to come out of the Republican camp. The ad shows gas prices going up, "the US has more oil resources than Saudi Arabia" but "85% of it is off limits" and the opposing candidate "voted against development of American energy".

The first level of skepticism should be the facts presented. Anyone who works with numbers about the real world knows how difficult it is to get valid numbers and that the numbers are usually based on simplifying assumptions. The statement that the US has more oil resources than Saudi Arabia presumes that we have a good idea about what those reserves are. For both the US and Saudi Arabia, we do not know about the reserves. Some of this is genuine ignorance (we haven't looked), some of it is global politics (the Saudi's have every reason to lie). It also depends on what you mean by "reserve". Does oil shale in Colorado count the same way as a typical Saudi oil field?

Moving past the "facts" we get to the implied world view. Implied is the notion that gasoline and oil are synonymous with energy and that lower gas prices are good public policy. Beyond that is the notion that opening the 85% of reserves that are off limits will reduce the price of Gasoline. None of these are particularly good assumptions for reasons that would take more than thirty seconds to explain.

After hearing a typical political ad or even candidate speech, you are actually more ignorant than you were before. You have been deliberately deceived and your emotions played upon to accept a world view that is questionable and policies that, if you investigated further, you might very well disagree with.

What to do then? Try to get real information. On the whole, books are much more valuable than any kind of daily/weekly/monthly news. But recognize that books can be commissioned as propaganda as easily as many other things. Trust authors who examine the situation dispassionately and who genuinely research all sides. If you are interested in oil, do not start with anything political. Instead, read science articles on exploration and estimation. On most subjects it is best to get a good grounding in the state of the information and its limitations, then move to issues of policy. At least you will recognize the blatant distortions.

Policy has to do with where we are and what we want for ourselves and the world. In terms of policy, it is not enough to have an intent, we must also examine the risks, the likelihood of failure, and strategies that have worked and failed in the past. Because each of us is in a different situation, wants different things, and weighs choices differently, your judgements on policy and tactics will differ from your neighbors.

If you do all this, you will be as well informed as you can. You will also be wrong on basic issues. The way you think the world works will be incorrect. There is no avoiding this. The world is a complicated place. We just do the best we can.

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