3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this reflection, Stephen. Some excellent points. Let me comment on a few —

    1. I believe that one of the pre-requisites of the work that we do is that parties involved have some common. They agree that there is a problem; they agree on the facts, at least some of them; they are open to other interpretations, assumptions and recommendations. If there is no common ground, then I would agree that research, evidence, facts are useless.

    2. One of the problems you state is a lack of a “value consensus.” I would not go that fart. People may disagree about values, but at least they have to admit that other value sets are plausible and even reasonable, and not just completely wrong and objectionable. Research, or even joint problem solving and decision making, is futile.

    3. “…peoples’ values are not derived from facts.” That’s not a research conclusion; that is true from the nature of values and facts. Facts themselves are value-neutral. Values don’t come from facts. They come from socialization or, more cynically, to appeal to a certain audience. So Mitt Romney had different values as a governor and as a Presidential candidate since each situation called for a different set of values. What were his “real” values? Who knows?

    4. “…they tend to have a weak influence on subsequent decision-making or policy-making.” Global scenarios do. They prepare a group for change by exercising their imagination about alternative worlds, yet they rarely form the basis of specific decisions. Problem- or issue-specific scenarios, most of which we don’t know about because they are proprietary or secret, are reported to have a direct influence on decision making. See Wilkinson, A. & Kupers, R., “Living in the Futures,” Harvard Business Review, May 2013, 119-127 about her experience working at Shell.

    5. The role of research in politics is a complex one. A faculty candidate once described her research about Congressional committee hearings. Her conclusion was that the members had already made up their minds about how they were going to vote, but they needed some experts to tell them what supported their position. I think the title was “The Politics of Good Reasons” or something like that.

    6. And actors and decision makers are usually working on a set of different and sometimes conflicting criteria and constraints. In the public sphere, the two most important are working for the common good and working to build one’s own political capital. It’s rarely one or the other, but usually some degree of both. Fundamental research into the situation is, of course, most useful in working for the common good, and different research, political polling for instance, is more useful in working for one’s own political reputation. So, yes, in highly politicized situations, policy makers will select the facts to support their position, as the British diplomat said of the case to invade Iraq by the Bush administration.

    So IMO the bottom line is that we should work for people who are curious, open to learning with a hard and fast preconceived set of facts or decisions going in. Without that, you’re right. Research is useless…

    • Stephen McGrail

      Hi Peter,

      Wow, a fabulously detailed and insightful response!

      I agree with you on the importance of context, e.g. the behaviour discussed in my post may be more prevalent within highly politicised contexts. That’s a great point.

      Re: the issue of facts and values, on a basic philosophical level I agree. That is to say that you don’t get an “ought” from an “is” (Hume’s law). But an example might help to elaborate and explain what I meant in this post: Do people adopt conservationist values because they are exposed to data on biodiversity loss and/or on biodiversity threats, or do people who hold conservationist values pay more attention to such data and this reinforces their values? Research indicates that the latter is much more prevalent than the former. If that’s true then additional research on biodiversity loss/threats is unlikely to significantly drive an increase in conservationist values. Does that example help to clarify what I meant?

      On the issue of global scenarios Vs more issue/problem-specific scenarios, I’m less optimistic than you. Even the Shell case seems less clear cut the more that I read about it. E.g. Kees van der Heijden has stated in one of his papers that: “Since the mid 60’s Shell has invested heavily in promoting the scenario technique in the company. Throughout the 30 years that the company has been engaged in using scenarios it has proven difficult, except in a few celebrated cases [e.g. oil shock in the early 1970s], to come up with clear evidence of demonstrable links with improved strategic performance.” (This is from a paper entitled “Scenarios, Strategies and the Strategy Process” published in 1997). Also in Scenario: The Art of Strategic Conversations van der Heijden notes that groups within the companies whose interests weren’t served by the oil shock scenarios tended to ignore them (E.g. he states that Shell Marine paid very little attention to the oil shock crisis scenarios), whereas those whose interests and positions were aligned with them engaged strongly with those scenarios and used them internally.

      It sounds like I need to read that study on Congressional committee hearings. Can you recall the author’s name?

      thanks,
      Stephen

  2. There is not necessarily any solution — we have to confront the possibility that our species may be “a lost cause”.

    In January of this year, I gave a talk on this subject to the Lake Superior Free Thinkers in Duluth, MN titled “The Human Predicament — the Evolutionary Constraints to Critical Thinking”. As Reg Morrison wrote in his book “The Spirit in the Gene” back in the 90s, evolution gave our species the incredible capacity for logical, reasoned thought — which we rarely employ in making the most important decisions in our life.

    Critical thinking only works when it is not in conflict with our beliefs and our emotions. Emotions are driven largely by our genes — when you feel emotions, that seems to be your genes kicking in.Virtually all of human behavior is influenced by our genes. We quite clearly don’t have any genes for conservation. Even our politics is strongly influenced by our genes. There is a strong genetic component that determines if we are conservatives or liberals.

    And this is where things really get interesting. There is a good deal of peer-reviewed social science research that shows that conservatives are incapable of thinking logically about issues that conflict with their conservatives beliefs. Just look at the new crop of Republican presidential candidates in the US. Here we are in 2015 and to be a Republican candidate for president, you still need to be in denial of global warming.

    The most fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are open to new experiences and conservatives aren’t. Most importantly, liberals are much more open to changing their minds based on new facts/new information. Research results have a much greater chance of changing the mind of a liberal than of a conservative. Conservatives aren’t open to new experiences — that is what being a conservative is.

    The most amazing finding of all is that it is the best educated conservatives who are the least capable of logical thought and critical thinking. They are the most capable of rationalizing — of cherry picking out those facts and concepts that support their conservative beliefs. And there is no equivalence on the liberal side. It is the best educated liberals who are the most capable of logical reasoning.

    For 17 years I was an active member of an American forester discussion group (it started out in 1995 as SAF-News and evolved into Forestry Focus on Google groups). From the beginning, it was always dominated by free market conservatives. They sincerely believe that we have no environmental problems. For 17 years, I tried to reason with them — especially on the topic of global warming. I tried every approach I could think of. More scientific data only reinforced their beliefs. After 17 years, I gave up — but I do go back once in while to “rattle their chains”. Then, about a year later, I read “The Republican Brain” by Chris Mooney. It described exactly what I had been experiencing — all backed up with lots of peer reviewed research. I highly recommend the book to everyone.

    This is a true predicament, and it is not clear that there is any solution. And the fate of mankind literally sits in the balance.

    But this is a very rapidly evolving field of research, and we can all be hopeful. Right now, things aren’t looking very good.

    I’ve also posted this on Linked-In at https://www.linkedin.com/grp/post/1791214-5995093468043567106

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