Archive for the 'Cultural Cognition' Category

Another Realm in Which Expertise Matters: GOTV Software Development

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

Here are a couple of items I found interesting because they relate to what I do for my day job: web application development. It turns out that along with overpaying for advertising and buying a lot of polls that mispredicted the electoral outcome, the Romney campaign also hired a bunch of inexperienced technologists who made common mistakes on their way to under-delivering a custom get out the vote (GOTV) web application called Orca: Inside Team Romney’s whale of an IT meltdown.

Jumping to the end of the article:

IT projects are easy scapegoats for organizational failures. There’s no way to know if Romney could have made up the margins in Ohio if Orca had worked. But the catastrophic failure of the system, purchased at large expense, squandered the campaign’s most valuable resource—people—and was symptomatic of a much bigger leadership problem.

“The end result,” Ekdahl wrote, “was that 30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of [get out the vote] efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters). Wrap your head around that.”

What made this especially interesting to me is that for the past several years I’ve been learning a lot about the DevOps movement, which solves exactly the kinds of problems the Romney campaign experienced with Orca. If you look around at which companies have done best at iterating their web applications quickly and scaling up successfully (well-known companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, along with smaller start-ups like Etsy), they’re all using a particular set of practices.

Those practices are the result of an explicitly scientific approach. It’s the same process that Karl Popper described as conjectures and refutations. One can think of the old-school, non-agile, inadequately tested approach to software development that the Romney consultants used as the equivalent of a scientific conjecture. The failure modes that approach leads to are a refutation. If you’re proceeding scientifically, and are treating your ideas as falsifiable, you junk that approach and replace it with one that the people using science have found to be superior. If you’re the Romney campaign’s consultants, though, you ignore what those poindexters are saying and proceed on the basis of your gut feeling.

Contrast this with the Obama campaign, which actually hired people who knew what they were doing: When the Nerds Go Marching In.

We now know what happened. The grand technology experiment worked. So little went wrong that Trammell and Reed even had time to cook up a little pin to celebrate. It said, “YOLO,” short for “You Only Live Once,” with the Obama Os.

When Obama campaign chief Jim Messina signed off on hiring Reed, he told him, “Welcome to the team. Don’t fuck it up.” As Election Day ended and the dust settled, it was clear: Reed had not fucked it up.

The campaign had turned out more volunteers and gotten more donors than in 2008. Sure, the field organization was more entrenched and experienced, but the difference stemmed in large part from better technology. The tech team’s key products — Dashboard, the Call Tool, the Facebook Blaster, the PeopleMatcher, and Narwhal — made it simpler and easier for anyone to engage with the President’s reelection effort.

GOTV software isn’t very important in and of itself. In the rare case that it makes the difference in who gets elected, it would be hugely important (obviously), but that probably didn’t happen here. Obama probably would have won this election without his superiority in GOTV software.

But as a reflection of a fundamental difference in how Romney and Obama (and, to some extent, the modern Republican and Democratic parties that they represent) approach the business of actually governing, I think this story actually is important. Reality matters. Conforming your mental model of the world to the best available scientific understanding is a much better way to get difficult things done than just squeezing your eyes shut and wishing very, very hard that the universe will conform itself to your desires.

Kahan on the Need for a Science Communication EPA

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

From a talk Dan Kahan gave this past spring, summarizing his views about science communication:

Changing One’s Mind

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Keith Kloor posts today with some examples of people who were sailing along with one belief and then, despite the headwind created by motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, managed to tack and sail off in a completely different direction: The Conversion.

Among the examples:

  • Confessions of a Climate Change Convert – D.R. Tucker, a Republican who went from skeptical to alarmed about global warming after he read the latest IPCC report.
  • Prominent atheist blogger converts to Catholicism – Leah Libresco, who went from having a loudly outspoken belief that there is no God at all to believing that in fact there is one, and Catholicism is the faith that brings her closest to Him.
  • Mutation Butts and Schooled! – Dan Piraro of the “Bizarro” comic, who posted a strongly worded warning on his blog about the dangers of genetically modified food last Saturday. Some commenters on his blog expressed disappointment and encouraged him to educate himself more about the GMO issue, and two days later (yesterday), Piraro posted an item in which he retracted his earlier comments.

From Piraro’s mea culpa (which I guess is the wrong phrase, since he didn’t actually apologize):

I’m not embarrassed that I was wrong and had to change my story. That’s the best thing about being an open-minded, reason-based person instead of, say, a politician; you don’t stick to erroneous beliefs in the face of new evidence for fear that people will think you are fallible. If everyone lived this way, the world would be much less ignorant, as I am today thanks to information given to me by some of my Jazz Pickles. Thanks!

“Jazz Pickles” is Piraro’s term for his regular blog commenters. Go Jazz Pickles! :-)

Climate Wars Roundup

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Several climate change news items have crossed the radar screen lately, and even though at the moment I’m more obsessed with the influence of leprechauns on the outcome of the women’s Laser Radial class in Weymouth, I wanted to note them in passing.

  • Muller knows BEST that Watts is wrong – Martin Lack blogs about Richard Muller’s recent (continuing) movement in the direction of acknowledging that global warming is real and (this is the new-for-Muller part) demonstrably caused by humans. Lack also discusses Anthony Watts’ apparent attempt to lessen the impact of former-AGW-skeptic Muller’s apostasy by publicizing his (Watt’s) own as-yet-unpublished counter-study, claiming that half the observed global warming can be explained by inappropriate siting of ground measurement stations, or something like that. For myself, I’ll just observe that: 1) Muller is an actual scientist, while Watts is a former TV weatherman and blogger who apparently prefers not to provide his actual academic credentials, so this is a bit of an apples-vs.-oranges contest; and 2) people who sound very much like they know what they’re talking about point out that we’re not reliant on ground stations alone for much of the recent data being analyzed by folks like Muller; we have these things called satellites.
  • Apparently the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee had hearings today on climate change and extreme weather events. Judith Curry likes what she heard from this guy: John Christy’s EPW testimony. And Roger Pielke, Jr., did not like what he heard from this guy: IPCC Lead Author Misleads US Congress. Suzanne Goldenberg, whom I consider an unreliable witness, even while I agree in broad terms with her concerns about bequeathing an impoverished planet to the next, oh, 50 or 100 human generations, offers this ideologically congenial take on the proceedings: Scientists Warn Congress About Disastrous Effects of Climate Change.
  • Just over five months after his previous HuffPo blog entry (in which he took credit for releasing the Heartland documents, while possibly lying about how he came by the infamous “strategy memo”), Peter Gleick has posted again: The Real Story Behind the Fracking Debate. To which I can only say: And I should trust that you are telling me the truth about this issue exactly why?

Apropos of all that, I wanted to close with the following quote that Martin Lack highlighted in his piece above. It’s by James Hoggan, and apparently is part of the marketing materials for Hoggan’s book, Climate Cover-Up:

Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed… There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.

I think that’s really important. But I suspect I’m thinking about different people than Hoggan was when he wrote it.

What Does Dan Kahan Think of Mooney’s ‘The Republican Brain’?

Friday, July 27th, 2012

If you’ve followed my regular ravings about Dan Kahan, Chris Mooney, and Mooney’s book The Republican Brain, you will not be surprised to know that I found the following article, just posted on Kahan’s blog, fascinating: What do I think of Mooney’s “Republican Brain”?

As it turns out, I don’t feel persuaded of the central thesis of The Republican Brain. That is, I’m not convinced that the mass of studies that it draws on supports the inference that Republicans/conservatives reason in a manner that is different from and less reasoned than Democrats/liberals.

The problem, though, is with the studies, not Mooney’s synthesis.

Dan Kahan really is just spectacularly awesome.

Voosen on Krosnick on Public Perceptions of (Climate) Scientists Who Advocate

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

There was an interesting article from Paul Voosen in Greenwire the other day: Climate: Scientists struggle with limits — and risks — of advocacy. I came across it on Judith Curry’s blog (Just the facts, please). Voosen talks about a not-yet-published study by Stanford psychologist Jon Krosnick:

Krosnick’s team hunted down video of climate scientists first discussing the science of climate change and then, in the same interview, calling for viewers to pressure the government to act on global warming. (Out of fears of bruised feelings, Krosnick won’t disclose the specific scientists cited.) They cut the video in two edits: one showing only the science, and one showing the science and then the call to arms.

Krosnick then showed a nationally representative sample of 793 Americans one of three videos: the science-only cut, the science and political cut, and a control video about baking meatloaf (The latter being closer to politics than Krosnick might admit). The viewers were then asked a series of questions both about their opinion of the scientist’s credibility and their overall beliefs on global warming.

For a cohort of 548 respondents who either had a household income under $50,000 or no more than a high school diploma, the results were stunning and statistically significant. Across the board, the move into politics undermined the science.

The viewers’ trust in the scientist dropped 16 percentage points, from 48 to 32 percent. Their belief in the scientist’s accuracy fell from 47 to 36 percent. Their overall trust in all scientists went from 60 to 52 percent. Their belief that government should “do a lot” to stop warming fell from 62 to 49 percent. And their belief that humans have caused climate change fell 14 percentage points, from 81 to 67 percent.

Krosnick is quick to note the study’s caveats. First, educated or wealthy viewers had no significant reaction to the political call and seemed able to parse the difference between science and a personal political view. The underlying reasons for the drop are far from clear, as well — it could simply be a function of climate change’s politicization. And far more testing needs to be done to see whether this applies in other contexts.

I was glad to see Voosen go on to discuss the study’s implications with Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project. As a Kahan fanboy, I was already saying, “yeah, but…” as I read the interpretation Krosnick appears to be applying to his study’s results, and it was good to see Kahan’s perspective represented in Voosen’s article, even if he (Kahan) was characteristically circumspect about getting into a detailed criticism of a study that he hasn’t seen (since it hasn’t actually been published yet).

We’re still arguing about whether the elephant is more like a writhing snake or a solid tree trunk or a flapping sail (No! It’s like an elephant!), but it’s good to get some data to help us focus on the elephant’s actual characteristics.

People Are Not the Same

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

How do you make sense of someone different than yourself? How do you bridge the gap between your worldview and theirs? It’s worth doing, but it’s hard. (Witness the ongoing labors of the commenteriat.)

Law professor Dan Kahan has some really interesting thoughts on this. In a recent comment on the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare (What I have to say about Chief Justice Roberts, and how I feel, the day after the day after the health care decision), Kahan wrote about how pleased he was that Roberts took the position he did. It wasn’t just that Kahan liked the outcome (though he did). It’s that by the way he arrived at it, Roberts helped communicate the importance of judicial neutrality.

I admire the Chief Justice for displaying so vividly and excellently something that reflects the best conception of the profession I share with him. I am grateful to him for supplying us with a resource that I and others can use to try to help others acquire the professional craft sense that deriving and applying neutral of constitutional law demands.

And I’m happy that he did something that in itself furnishes the assurance that ordinary citizens deserve that the law is being applied in a manner that is meaningfully neutral with respect to their diverse ends and interests. They need tangible examples of that, too, because is inevitable that judges who are expertly and honestly enforcing neutrality will nevertheless reach decisions that sometimes profoundly disappoint them.

But Kahan goes beyond that, and it’s the next part that was most fascinating to me. Kahan turns his attention on himself, and his reaction to Roberts’ ruling.

As I said, I admire Chief Justice Roberts and am grateful to him for reasons independent of my views of the merits of Affordable Care Act case. I honestly mean this.

But I am aware of the awkwardness of being moved to remark a virtuous performance of neutral judging on an occasion in which it was decisive to securing a result I support. Or at least, I am awkwardly and painfully aware that I can’t readily think of a comparable instance of virtuous judging that contributed to an outcome that in fact profoundly disappointed me. Surely, the reason can’t be that there has never been an occasion for me to take note of such a performance—and to remark and learn from it.

I have a sense that there are other members of my profession and of my persuasion and outlook on generally who share this complex of reactions toward Chief Justice Roberts’s judging.

I propose that we recognize the sense of anxiety about ourselves that accompanies our collegial identification with him as an integral element of the professional dispositions that his decision exemplifies.

It will, I think, improve our perception to harbor such anxiety. And will make us less likely to overlook– or even unjustly denounce–the next Judge whose neutrality results in a decision with which we disagree.

Lots of other great stuff at Kahan’s blog recently. I also really enjoyed Nullius in verba? Surely you are joking, Mr. Hooke! (or Why cultural cognition is not a bias, part 1) and The cultural certification of truth in the Liberal Republic of Science (or part 2 of why cultural cognition is not a bias).

Kahan is onto something, and I appreciate his enthusiasm in pursuing and sharing that something. He betrays a gentle human spirit, a willingness to consider the legitimacy of the other person’s point of view, that I find admirable.

Here’s another gentle human spirit, the late Mitch Hedberg, dealing with a nightclub heckler in a way that affirms both of their humanity:

There are differences that divide us. But there’s common ground, too, if we’re willing to look for it.