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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Intentions are only part of the picture

I am no great fan of empowering the police to intervene in our citizens lives. I look at the current wave of outrage regarding police killing with a great deal of ambivalence. The deaths are a culmination of a host of circumstances and addressing police over reach will not be fixed easily. Drawing attention to these killings using protests is a step toward holding those responsible accountable. However, I believe it is reasonable to consider taking a broader view of who is accountable.

We need to remember who the police are and why they are employed. They are agents of the state and employed to enforce the law. The more laws and rules we have, the more we will need to employ police to enforce them. The more we desire to the state to micromanage the affairs of its citizens, the more intrusive the it becomes, through the actions of its enforcement agents which include the police.

At the most simple level, we need to understand that not all undesirable behaviors should be prohibited using the power of the law. However, that concept seems to be ignored as we increasingly embrace the view that many if not all undesirable actions should be curbed primarily via the use of state force.

Attempts to curb the use of alcohol resulted in an unmitigated failure which are understood under the term Prohibition. Prohibition (capital P) resulted in expansion of state powers, corruption of law enforcement, and creation of powerful crime syndicates. While prohibition of alcohol has all but ended, we have not abandoned a variety of other prohibitions (small P) including various drug prohibitions. They have has the same effects as alcohol prohibition and have been equally unsuccessful and perhaps even more destructive in terms of unintended consequences.

Prohibitions in general have resulted in resulted in expansion of police powers (all in the name of the war on drugs) and have served as the basis for civil seizure statues (blogged on earlier). The death of Eric Garner would not have happened if not for the state of NY heavily taxing cigarettes and creating incentives for creation of an underground economy.  Professor Stephen Carter is cited by Ilya Somin (Professor of Law at George Mason University) in the Washington Post (Link):
On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you.
I wish this caution were only theoretical. It isn’t. Whatever your view on the refusal of a New York City grand jury to indict the police officer whose chokehold apparently led to the death of Eric Garner, it’s useful to remember the crime that Garner is alleged to have committed: He was selling individual cigarettes, or loosies, in violation of New York law…..

The problem is actually broader. It’s not just cigarette tax laws that can lead to the death of those the police seek to arrest. It’s every law. Libertarians argue that we have far too many laws, and the Garner case offers evidence that they’re right. I often tell my students that there will never be a perfect technology of law enforcement, and therefore it is unavoidable that there will be situations where police err on the side of too much violence rather than too little. Better training won’t lead to perfection. But fewer laws would mean fewer opportunities for official violence to get out of hand.It’s not just cigarette tax laws that can lead to the death of those the police seek to arrest. It’s every law. Libertarians argue that we have far too many laws, and the Garner case offers evidence that they’re right.

As Carter notes, “activists on the right and the left tend to believe that all of their causes are of great importance. Whatever they want to ban or require, they seem unalterably persuaded that the use of state power is appropriate.” But we should always remember that “[e]very new law requires enforcement; every act of enforcement includes the possibility of violence.” If we really want to curb police abuses, we should think carefully about whether all the laws we have on the books are really worth killing for.

All powerful tools have the potential to do great good or great harm.  

Politics, transparency, and appealing to our emotional brains

"It is hard to reason someone out of belief they did not reason into".  I am not sure where I heard this quote. I know it was not mine but I do not who to credit it to. However, it really summarizes what I observed in the last political season.

When the campaigns began, candidates for the most part tried to take the high road, appealing to the voters on the basis of intellect and reason. I came to realize that these appeals were directed to what Kahneman and Tversky called system two, our cognitive brains. However, as the campaigns progressed and became more competitive, the focus of ads changed. The term often used by the commentators was "going negative". I realized that going negative simply meant changing from focusing on the cognitive brains of voters to their emotional brains or what Kahneman and Tversky called system one.

It only makes sense to do this given the role that our emotional brains play in decision making. Politics will always ultimately be decided by emotion. We are emotional creatures. Move something into the political realm and this is what you should expect. Don't be surprised when this happens.

Recognizing that voters respond at an emotional level to issues they may not fully comprehend on a cognitive level may be interpreted as believing that voters are stupid. The world is so complex and the amount of information out there to assimilate to understand the huge universe of issues is beyond the comprehension of any given human. When we run into situations where we do not have all the information to make deliberative decisions, we default to using our emotional brains.

The arrogant pricks out there use these circumstances to call the public stupid. I use these circumstances to highlight why certain decisions should not be moved into political spheres.

Truth and Error - Tragedy in Charlottesville

I am reading a book by Kathyrn Schulz entitled "Being wrong: adventures in the margin of error". The chapter I am reading now is Chapter 4: Our minds, part one: Knowing, not knowing, and making it up. At the same time I have been listening to and reading about the accounts from the campus of the University of Virginia that first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. I have realized that what is in Schulz's book is relevant to the events in Charlottesville.

Everyone who has read the accounts was mortified by just how awful the events described were. I have to admit that when my wife first told me about this and read me excerpts, I was very disturbed but there were elements to this story which began to remind me of the fantastic accounts of preschool molestations (nicely summarized in Wikopedia When the preschool molestation cases broke, which were high profile stories for more than a decade and resulted in likely innocent people spending substantial time in jail, I had a difficult time how people could report such stories, which were ultimately found to be false.

The UVA rape story now also appears to be coming unravelled. The account provided by "Jackie" turns out to be riddled with inconsistencies, so many that it is hard to fathom how a magazine such as Rolling Stone could have released such a story, without what appears to be very basic due diligence.

An explanation for these events may reside in our brains and how we remember. Our brains are much less than perfect in terms what and how we remember things. For example, in her book Schulz describes a woman who was literally blind to her own blindness. When asked to described an object placed in front of her, she would described it in detail. The problem was she was blind, literally. Despite this reality she created a detailed description of what she thought she saw and fully believed that object was there. She was blind to her own blindness. While these examples represented an extreme case of blindness to error and current state, we all seem to exhibit blindness to our own realities and errors. As Schulz notes:
In sum: we love to know things, but ultimately we can't know for sure that we know them; we are bad at recognizing when we don't know something; and we are very, very good at making stuff up.
Which now brings me back to the controversies in Charlottesville. It seems that what people recall, particularly the details of especially traumatic events in their lives, is almost always wrong when examined later in their lives. Schulz tells the story of Ulric Neisser, who vividly remembered the day the Japanese bombed Pear Harbor (oddly enough 73 years ago today). The narrative he carried with him was that of a radio announcer interrupting a professional baseball game, telling the story of the surprise attack. Only later did he realize that the details of the story he carried with him were wrong.  Professional baseball is not played in December.

Neisser went on to become a psychology professor and study memory failure, calling into question dogma about the veracity of recalled memories. As it turns out, our recollections of events such as the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster, and the Twin Towers disaster may seem vivid but are almost always wrong, despite feeling so right. The numbers are pretty staggering. Neisser studied the Challenger disaster, asking students details the day after it happened and then three years later. Less than 7% of the second reports matched the initial reports. 50% were wrong in 2/3 of their assertions and 25% were wrong in every major detail.

How does this relate to what has happened in Charlottesville? The story broke two years after the events happened, although even the timeline must be called into question. When something happened is simply another detail which may or may not be recalled correctly. How does one call into question the recollections of someone who suffered a traumatic event without accusing this individual of lying or making things up? It seems that the norm is to recall things with many errors and it should not come as a surprise that her account has serious inconsistencies. All accounts of events in the past will have errors and we will be blind to them.

Truth can only be verified by some sort of recording which is done at the time of the event which ideally can be done independent of human filtering. That is a reality we have to live with. We will be frequently wrong but unfortunately often not in doubt, even when we might be completely wrong.