August 2, 2011

Science and public policy: The Social Animal

This summer my colleagues at Michigan State University recommended that I read David Brooks' The Social Animal. Brooks' book merges a narrative of love, life, and career with research about what drives us as humans (the social animals, of course). This relates to our work with climate change, because much of Brooks' research is about how we form values and make decisions. Unlike the economics model of rational behavior, Brooks argues that humans are much more complex and driven by unconscious motivations (not necessarily "animalistic" motives, but rather neurological pathways that have been shaped by both evolution and social/environmental factors). So while public policy tends to rely on economic models of rationality, instead we should look at how people actually work to improve public good. This sort of social science-based analysis is useful for anything from political to public health campaigns. For example, something I've been hearing lately (including in this book) is that to be a good parent, you don't have to be perfect. Social scientists have shown that being "good enough" is really "good enough" to raise a child. So instead of a hypothetical public safety campaign to track your child's every movement with a GPS tracker, a Brooks style campaign might be something like "You can't teach them everything: equip your child with the tools to decide for themselves" (uh-oh, have I been watching too much Mad Men?).

There are downsides to Brooks' approach. One, as pointed out by biologist H. Allen Orr, is that Brooks actually relies too much on over-simplified scientific explanations. Boil it down even further, and it sounds like Brooks might be advocating for policy based on science (in this case, social science), which we know is problematic! Orr writes,
There can, of course, be no doubt that a decent grasp of human nature is a prerequisite for decent public policy. (A policy that assumes, for example, that people mostly want to give away their possessions would not be the most promising.) And there can also be no doubt that a decent grasp of science can help us figure out a thing or two about human nature. (So that’s how people trade goods in a behavioral economic experiment.) But there’s a serious question of whether a scientific understanding of human nature is the main thing that matters. It seems peculiar to believe that a more sophisticated understanding of, say, the genetics or biochemistry or evolutionary basis of human nature will provide special insight into the human condition and thereby allow us to—finally—shape successful public policy. Why, to put it differently, is it so easy to imagine a society that knows very little if anything of the new sciences of humanity but that is exceedingly happy and another that knows all about these sciences but that is thoroughly miserable?
It is exceedingly difficult to broadly characterize populations of people, even with top-notch social science research. A blog post that sums this up well questions whether people (using the example of climate change deniers and scientists) are even inhabiting the same social reality anymore:
What many techno-scientists fail to understand - and thus find most frustrating - about dealing with climate change deniers is that the denier has no real interest in engaging at the scientist’s level of reality.
Others offer solutions to complex problems through deliberative decision-making, which we are finding very useful at MSU Extension. Consider this description of so-called "wicked problems" like climate change, and how to approach them:
Luckily, social scientists have been studying this sort of mess since, well, since 1970. Techniques exist that will allow moderately-sized groups with widely divergent agendas and points of view to work together to solve highly complex problems. (The U.S. Congress apparently doesn't use them.) Structured Dialogic Design is one such methodology. Scaling SDD sessions to groups larger than 50 to 70 people at a time has proven difficult--but the fact that it and similar methods exist at all should give us hope. 
Here's my take on things: our biggest challenges are no longer technological. They are issues of communication, coordination, and cooperation. These are, for the most part, well-studied problems that are not wicked. The methodologies that solve them need to be scaled up from the small-group settings where they currently work well, and injected into the DNA of our society--or, at least, built into our default modes of using the internet. They then can be used to tackle the wicked problems.
As I've touched on before, what all of these "new models" of science and society show is that the Enlightenment vision of rationality is no longer applicable to today's public policy problems. So maybe Brooks has it wrong that "more science" can solve our problems, but I believe he's onto something, which is that we need more than economics, cost-benefit analyses, and risk assessments to create policy.


  1. Every policy has to have an implicit model of human nature. The dangers of "scientizing" that model, as opposed to using folk or common sense models, is that scientific models limit the set of experts qualified to speak on public policy. Right now, policy is in large part owned by economists, who, IMO, have very flawed models of the human nature in 'homo economicus'. But using models based on neuroscience or evolutionary biology may be no better, if the models do not translate well into concrete policy suggestions. More problematically, while we can appeal against economics with morality, or justice, or law, there is no appeal against that which is determined to be right by Science. This is a situation profoundly worrying for those concerned about democracy or equality.

    ((also, did you get the links to "Reality as a Failed State" and "Wicked Problems" from the Prevail Project twitter? ))

  2. Right on. Economic is on its way down, if Crow and Sarewitz have their way. Of course, the problem bothering me right now is how to deal with this incredibly complex world in a way that makes policy sense- then again, I haven't quite finished The Social Animal- but I'm not holding my breath for easy answers.

    Also, yes!

  3. Yay! My tweeting has done something useful, for once.

    I don't get the faith in economics, given that basic prerequisites, like rationality and perfect information, clearly don't hold for actual human beings in actual markets. Something like Maslow's hierarchy of needs is far more instructive, even if it has less evidence. Of course, the economists have all that data...

    Maybe we need charts and graphs.

  4. Here's the strange thing: you posted this the same day as I came across another post on climate change. I bookmarked both so I could come back to them when I had a clear head, and oddly, you touch on the same themes I found in the other one here:
    Have you seen it?

  5. The author of the "cool dudes" article, Aaron McCright, is one of my former professors at MSU. So yeah, I've been keeping abreast of this and the internet buzz around it, and find it quite interesting!