Neil Levy: Deferent strokes for Deferent Folks

Philosophy professor Neil Levy has a new article out in a preprint form: “Science gone wild: explaining irrational beliefs,”

https://www.academia.edu/25071947/Science_gone_wild_explaining_irrational_beliefs?email_work_card=title

which explains philosophically why we’re wrong to feel comfy about the climate.

[Why do so many professors feel the need to write scientific papers explaining what’s wrong with us? Why don’t they just accept that we don’t agree with them? Maybe we could invent a pronoun for ourselves and get them prosecuted for hate crimes?]

Ever since his encounters with the Cliscep mob here and here Professor Levy has been wondering how a group of people as obviously intelligent and well-informed as Paul Matthews, John Shade, Ben Pile, Barry Woods, Brandon Shellenberger, Ian Woolley, John Ridgway, Andy West, Jaime Jessop, George Cruickshank and me, could be so wrong. We’ve tried to explain in a couple of articles here and here but with no success.

He rejects the explanation that we’re thick, possibly because of our lively debates on the Oxford University Practical Ethics blog, which ended with him threatening to delete comments by deniers. (It didn’t happen. Possibly someone at Oxford University remembered that the whole point of philosophy is that you don’t delete opposing points of view. You attempt to rebut them.)

Professor Levy’s new article acknowledges that there’s nothing wrong with our reasoning, referencing several times Kahan, and places the blame for our incorrigible cussedness elsewhere:

The available evidence suggests that the views of those who reject the scientific consensus are the product neither of distinctive personality traits nor of a deficit of information or of reasoning skills. On average, conservatives who reject the expert view on global warming or on evolution do not reason any worse than liberals who accept it. In fact, those who reject the consensus most strongly may be on average betterinformed and more capable reasoners than those who accept the consensus. I shall suggest that the explanation lies elsewhere, in conservatives’ epistemic individualism and their patterns of deference. Epistemic individualism becomes pathological when it not constrained by appropriate deference. 

The first third of the article is a canter through the psychological literature on individual and group reasoning, with much of interest, if you like that sort of thing. Then comes:

Explaining the rejection of the scientific consensus (1): Epistemic Individualism.

If group deliberation is very much more powerful than individual, why do many come to reject the consensus views of relevant experts? In this section, I will examine a tempting answer to this question: we are epistemic individualists, who attach more value to the product of our individual deliberation than is warranted (and very much less to group deliberation). I will suggest that epistemic individualism does indeed play a role in explaining why some people reject the expert consensus, but the role it plays is secondary. While epistemic individualism is a genuine phenomenon, it is too broadly shared to explain the differencebetween those who reject the expert consensus and those who accept it. Epistemic individualism, I will argue, plays a supporting role, with different patterns of deference the star of the show.

And further on in the argument:

The overestimation of the value of individual reasoning seems to provide a straightforward explanation of the rejection of scientific expertise. Given the widespread overvaluation of individual reasoning over group deliberation, individuals who reject the scientific consensus may do so, in part, because they judge that they are at least as well placed to evaluate the evidence (for climate change, or for the safety and efficacy of vaccines, say) as the scientists who together form the consensus. They may prefer their own assessment over that of the experts, because they (rightly) take the latter to be the product of collective deliberation, while holding (wrongly) that individual deliberation outperforms or is at least as powerful as collective. But given that group deliberation is often very much more successful than individual, why is it the case that we overestimate the relative worth of individual deliberation?

The well-supported (in the literature, though not on this blog) hypothesis that climate sceptics tend to be conservative, and Kahan’s findings that we’re not more ignorant than climate believers, seem to be at odds with our lack of deference to domain experts. (Conservatives are supposed to bow down to authority, right?) Levy is to be congratulated for tackling this paradox head on, while acknowledging that accusing us of being differently-made epistemically won’t hack it, because we’re all the same under the skin, epidermically. That is, we all start out as epistemical individualists and end up bowing to group pressure. But why?

Levy’s answer is that we differ in our deference; we defer differently:

I suggest that the explanation of the different views of different groups lies in their patterns of deference. Despite our epistemic individualism, we do defer. In fact, our deference is a central fact about us. It explains our epistemic success, and thereby our success as a species… In any case, there is ample evidence that we do defer: most of us accept the findings of science across multiple domains in which we lack competence to assess them for ourselves. Epistemic individualism is not, in fact, sufficient for wild science: cognition becomes wild science only when epistemic individualism is not constrained by group deliberation and appropriate deference. Whereas deference on one side appropriately constrains epistemic individualism, on the other short chains of deference cause the emergence of wild science.

In the above extract Levy has jumped the gun rather, introducing the idea of “appropriate deference” (i.e. to those who are worth being deferred to) as opposed to “epistemic individualism… not constrained by group deliberation” based on “short chains of deference” causing “the emergence of wild science.”

I wonder what Christy and Spencer at the university of Alabama, or professor Judith Curry, or professor Richard Lindzen, would make of the idea that they’ve been practising “wild science”? And what makes my “chain of deference” to the above shorter than, say, Joe Biden’s chain of deference to Michael Mann, Gavin Schmidt, or Greta Thunberg? Let Professor Levy explain: 

Acquiring behaviour through imitation is a kind of deference to others… This epistemic deference is not blind. Even from a very young age, children show a preference for informants who show signs of being benevolent and competent; scrutiny of informers intensifies around the age of four.

After a lengthy discussion of infants and Australian explorers who failed to benefit from the superior wisdom of the natives, we come back to Kahan and his awkward finding that conservative climate sceptics are not stupid:

Thus, conservative Americans who lack the capacity to come to an informed judgment with regard to evolution and climate change adopt the views of better informed and more capable conservatives. This disposition to defer to those who are better informed but share our general outlook is probably an extension of our early-emerging disposition to use benevolence as a cue to reliability; rightly or wrongly, people see those with whom they share a political outlook as those who are benevolent toward them and their interests. Conservative Americans (for instance) may thus come to their anti-consensus views on these topics in precisely the same way in which their liberal counterparts come to their views: by deferring to those they rightly take to be more knowledgeable than (as well as well disposed toward) them.

Here Levy is justly accepting the reasonable default position that the same explanatory schema must apply to both sides in an argument, suggesting that he is light years away from a Lewandowsky, who believes that cognitive wonkiness is for thee but not for me.

But then:

Both sides are disposed to acquire their beliefs by deference to those who are (somewhat) more competent than them. For conservatives, though (and on this question), chains of deference end in ‘merchants of doubt’ (Oreskes & Conway 2010), or maverick scientists (to the extent to which there is a distinction to be drawn between these scientists and the merchants of doubt). They do not defer to scientists, or to their think-tank intermediaries or more local representatives, because while they exhibit cues of competence they fail to pass tests for benevolence. 

Uh-oh. All the benevolence I felt for Levy up to then dissolves when he claims that I have acquired my beliefs from the oil and tobacco companies cited by Oreskes and Conway, when I should have been deferring to “scientists, or to their think-tank intermediaries or more local representatives,” but haven’t been, “because while they exhibit cues of competence they fail to pass tests for benevolence.” 

There’s a grain of truth here, which I’ll reveal, though it’s not much use to Professor Levy because it’s not been peer reviewed. When I first became interested in the climate thing, I looked around, and happened on a discussion at Climate Audit on sea temperature measurements and the problem of the passage from oaken buckets to leather buckets, (or possibly vice versa.) I can’t say that I understood it, but at least I could see that Steve McIntyre and his cronies were benevolent – light-hearted even. I then turned to RealClimate, where Gavin Schmidt offered an introductory essay on the basics of climate science “that even my great aunt can understand.” I read it, and didn’t understand it. It’s possible that Gavin’s great aunt’s IQ exceeds mine by a parsec or two, but that’s no excuse for being so snotty about it. Gavin, I decided, was not being benevolent.

Professor Levy continues:

Liberals are epistemically luckier: they are disposed to defer to the most competent individuals and institutions (or, perhaps more typically, to more competent individuals and institutions, who defer to the most competent) because these individuals and institutions pass tests for benevolence as well as for competence.

I’ve omitted the hugest hole in his argument, which is the absence of any definition of the consensus opinion on climate, vaccination, or evolution. Is it the consensus view that vaccination is utterly safe and has never caused a single blood clot? Is climate change going to kill us all? Did we descend from monkeys six thousand years ago? Levy doesn’t say. There are plenty of references for his assertions on the state of play in the psychology of belief, but nothing at all on scientific consensus. Consensus is what Levy thinks it is. and what he thinks it is, he doesn’t tell us. Socrates would have made mincemeat of him.

I am the very model of a modern academical

I analyse the reasons for divergence epistemical.

For my philosophic theorising I don’t need no reference

‘Cos I’m fairly overflowing with the proper sort of deference..

The quote above about the luck of the liberals stopped me in my tracks. I’m a liberal, by the kind of vague criteria applicable in this kind of vague pseudo-philosophical debate. So, according to Levy, I should count myself epistemically luckier because I am disposed to defer to the most competent individuals and institutions (or, perhaps more typically, to more competent individuals and institutions, who defer to the most competent) because these individuals and institutions pass tests for benevolence as well as for competence. 

Well I don’t. Defer I mean. I think (therefore I am the lucky one, dixit Descartes.)

We’ve all read 1984 I suppose, and are pretty fed up with references to that venerable screed. But I must say that the idea of being lucky to be able to defer to more competent individuals and institutions, who defer to the most competent, doesn’t do it for me. You can kiss Greta’s arse if you like Neil, but I won’t.

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May 1, 2021 at 04:11AM

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