What is the Best Antidote to Environmental Irrationality?

The material well-being of a democratic society depends on its ability to rationally manage a nearly limitless variety of often competing risks. - Dan Kahan, 2006
The material well-being of a democratic society depends on its ability to rationally manage a nearly limitless variety of often competing risks.
– Dan Kahan, 2006

Environmental rationality of course.  But ever wonder how it is that some members of society, even experts, can hold such polar opposite views on the dangers of climate change, guns, nuclear energy, terrorism, or legalization of drugs?  Perhaps I’m naive, but I find it baffling that seemingly intelligent and well-intentioned people on the political left and right can observe the same facts and reach such vastly different conclusions about the risks to individuals and society writ large.  I posted previously my thoughts and concerns about society’s increasing obsession with conspiracy theories and environmental hysteria.  And I link to a very entertaining Penn & Teller Bullshit clip on the rise of environmental hysteria – well worth the viewing – that sort of reinforces my point.

So how does society rationally function in an increasingly irrational environment filled with seemingly irrational actors?  And how does government reconcile and ably govern within the penumbra of such contrasting cultural visions for society.  This is the question of the century and one that must be addressed in the midst of some very challenging social, economic, and environmental issues facing our times.  This is a tall challenge – but not nearly as tough as understanding why so many find Pee-wee Herman entertaining.

As a self-professed policy nerd, I’m a huge fan, bordering on a Roady, of Cass Sunstein, former head of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama Administration. Sunstein’s contribution to the advancement of public policy and deliberative policy-making are what Edison’s were to the advancement of electricity and the light bulb.  Here’s a fun youtube clip of Sunstein surviving Colbert and a more serious clip here at the Brookings Institute discussing his new book, Simpler: The Future of Government.

Sunstein’s Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle, is bar none one of the best expositions on the influence of risk perception and human cognition on law and public policy.  Sunstein, a proponent of using cost-benefit analysis in formulating public-policy, starts with the premise that humans invariably seek to maximize their own utility, guided by their perception of risks and benefits.  Broadly generalizing, Sunstein divides humans into two categories, the rational- and irrational-weigher of information.  Because policy making is prone to being influenced by irrationality and the public’s distortion of risks, Sunstein believes the solution is to promote the use of independent regulatory entities that are somewhat insulated from these corrupting, illiberal influences.  While I love Sunstein’s brilliance, his theory doesn’t drill down into explaining the oft irrational behavior of seemingly rational people.

Which leads me to my next favorite scholar.  One of the best critical reviews of Sunstein’s theory, Fear of Democracy: A Cultural Evaluation of Sunstein on Risk – a must read for any public policy major or budding policy nerd – is advanced by Dan Kahan of Yale Law, who argues that how individuals perceive risk is permeated by the individual’s cultural world view which, in turn, affects their emotional appraisals of putatively dangerous activities, comprehension and retention of empirical information, and disposition to trust competing sources of risk information.  In essence, an individual’s perception of risk is shaped by their view of how society and its actors should behave, i.e., their vision of the ideal world.  This phenomenon, known as cultural cognition, according to Kahan, “not only helps explain why members of the public so often disagree with experts about matters as diverse as global warming, gun control, the spread of HIV through casual contact, and the health consequences of obtaining an abortion; it also explains why experts themselves so often disagree about these matters and why political conflict over them is so intense.”  Calamitous misfortunes, such as Three Mile Island, and the media’s propensity to sensationalize the impacts of such disasters largely distort public judgement and the individual’s perception of the actual risks of such events.  Think also the 1989 Alar scare2011 arsenic and apples, and 2011 BPA in baby bottles, to name a few.  Kahan views this phenomena as a particularly formidable obstacle for democracies such as ours.  Excerpt:

The integrity of such a society’s commitment to self-governance depends on its ability to fashion procedures that are genuinely deliberative, open and democratic.  And its obligation to reconcile popular rule with respect for individual dignity and freedom requires it to find a mode of regulation and a strategy of regulatory discourse that deflect the ambitions of competing cultural groups to claim the law as theirs and theirs alone.

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A theory of risk perception that incorporates cultural cognition is teeming with insights on how to structure risk communication; by linking risk perception to cultural values, it identifies myriad new strategies for managing public impressions of what risks are real and what risk mitigation strategies are effective. But at the same time that such a theory makes the prescriptive dimension of risk regulation more tractable, it makes the normative dimension considerably harder to assess. If risk disputes are really disputes over the good life, then the challenge that risk regulation poses for democracy is less how to reconcile public sensibilities with science than how to accommodate diverse visions of the good within a popular system of regulation. Fear itself may indeed be what democratic societies, or at least pluralistic ones, most have to fear — not because governmental responses to risk are likely to be irrational, but because risk regulation is inherently fraught with the potential for illiberality.

Good stuff.  Because an approach of regulatory insulation ignores competing cultural values and perceptions, Kahan believes that insulating regulatory decision-making from popular opinion is not consistent with and can actually undermine important democratic principles.  Kahan continues,

[E]ven those who share Sunstein’s confidence in experts wary of granting them the political insulation he and other irrational-weigher theorists advocate. Just as consultation breeds trust in expert risk regulators, the perception that such officials are remote and unaccountable erodes it.  Ironically, then, the greater the degree of political insulation, the law affords to expert regulators, the less likely popularly responsive institutions of government are to invest those regulators with power to begin with or to respect their decisions as final.

Case in point is the ongoing debate over climate change.  Climate science is extremely complicated and, as I’ve argued previously, the public does not have the bandwidth to sift through the myriad of facts and theories for or against man-made climate change.  Because of the politicization of this topic and the perception by many, right or wrong, that EPA is too insulated and unaccountable to the public, a large segment of society will remain skeptical of any climate regulation that comes out of the agency.  This holds true for other controversial and complicated environmental issues including, e.g., protecting endangered species and cleaning up polluted waterways degraded by excessive nutrients and pharmaceuticals.

So how does society control for environmental hysteria, on one extreme, and environmental denial, on the other?  Those who fear too much and those who fear too little?   While culture cognition may help us better understand and civilly communicate our core disagreements, it doesn’t get us any closer to solving them.  Notwithstanding, if democratic societies, such as ours, are to engage in thoughtful, balanced, rational governance – deliberating and adopting normative laws narrowly tailored to fix society’s big problems – its leaders must be committed to greater deliberative fidelity that persuades and reassures the public of the correctness of their actions.  This requires more credible voices and demands that conservatives and liberals, alike, rebut those irrational voices within their respective dialectic camps.  As the late Patrick Moynihan once quipped, “You are entitled to your own opinion – but not your own facts.”   Otherwise, the political acrimony, chicanery, and mistrust in Washington DC and elsewhere – not to mention the problems – will only continue.

As a SoCon, I have come to understand and accept the fact that world is a very complicated place, some have a greater propensity for fear than others, complicated decisions are not always black and white, and the world will never transform into the ideal place that I believe it ought to be.  However, in the midst of the tumult of competing cultural world views, government must chart its course for rationally governing and resist the ambitions of one cultural group’s claim over the other.  And it must govern in such a way that minimizes the paralysis of fear and maximizes society’s capacity to cultivate and produce the best virtues that humanity has to offer through freedom, ordered liberty, and justice for all.