The Tyranny of Experience

Do you think angry, frightened, or scared people are the best decision makers?

I don’t, but maybe I am the only one.

Here is Chris Christie on the (precious few) fellow conservatives concerned about civil liberty abuses:

“You can name any one of them that’s engaged in this,” he said. “I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. … I’m very nervous about the direction this is moving in.”

He adds further

“I think what we as a country have to decide is: Do we have amnesia? Because I don’t,” he said. “And I remember what we felt like on Sept. 12, 2001.”

President Barack Obama greets New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's staff in Chief of Staff Jack Lew's office in the West Wing of the White House

Contrary to what Christie’s condescension suggests, I remember. But 9/12 wasn’t a day of clarity. It was a day of grief, grappling, and floundering. I’m not reassured that Christie plans on harnessing that to guide his decision-making.

It isn’t just Christie’s party.

Do you know who should probably have absolutely no say in any future gun control legislation? Any of the parents who lost children in the Newtown shooting. By virtue of their humanity, they are uniquely disqualified from being able to rationally think about the trade-offs involved. And when politicians willingly surrounded themselves with those parents, you should distrust their ability to weigh those trade-offs as well. No matter how smart you start off, surrounding yourself with the grieving will affect your judgment in a predictable direction (assuming you have a soul).

These men are either woefully ignorant of how their own minds work, or they are willfully manipulating themselves and the public.

It isn’t just politics.

Here is the Guardian reporting on the top five regrets of the dying. There are a thousand similar articles about what people who are experiencing physical and existential pain wish they had done with their lives. The implication is that we should live our own lives according to what people say when they are their least long-term-oriented and most frightened. That is stupid.

It isn’t just death.

Jenny McCarthy’s warnings about vaccines weren’t heeded because she was a well-respected member of the Singled Out cast (though her celebrity undoubtedly was necessary). Some unfortunate degree of credibility was assigned to her because she bore a reportedly autistic child. The single least reliable source for information about autism is likely to be the mother of an autistic child, but intuition somehow twisted that into a qualification. It’s no accident that a researcher with a notebook caught Typhoid Mary and not the mother who felt the most grief. (Plot twist: I think a grieving family did in fact hire the researcher, so there’s that.)

Experience is most useful when it gives us representative information we can interpret in an even-handed manner. The more emotionally charged the experience is, the more caution you should exert in drawing conclusions from it.

Postscript:

Did any of this seem uncaring toward the people who have gone through these experiences? I’m sorry about that, but it’s also kind of the point. I don’t want to live in a society where arguments are won on the basis of who is best able to find sympathetic victims who have suffered. My hope is to fight victim exploitation not victims.

Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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69 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Experience

  1. This is part and parcel with the whole “Compassion Theater” thing.

    The guy who says “let’s sit down, let’s make some models, let’s make some spreadsheets, let’s do some math” will come across as uncaring. The guy who talks about widows, talks about orphans, and gets choked up as he says “I will make sure that nothing ever happens like this again!” before passing laws mandating unionized officials be charged with throwing half-squeezed toothpaste tubes into 55-gallon drums with other half-squeezed toothpaste tubes will be seen as “caring”.

    And the latter guy will not have done anything. And the former guy actually has a shot, if anybody has a shot.

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    • Agreed.

      This really doesn’t only apply to politics though. It’s a much more universal phenomenon than that. To be honest, I include the political stuff because it’s publicly reported and can be reviewed by others, including those out of the country. If we continue to elect good theater-producers, I’m already resigned to that. I just want to get better at recognizing it in other areas of my life.

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      • I just want to get better at recognizing it in other areas of my life.

        Assume all of your previously-made decisions are stupid and derive everything backward trying to prove that notion correct, instead of the other way around.

        Anecdotally, you’ll probably find you’re doing somewhere between 10% and 37% of your life ass-backwards. Thankfully, 90% of that ass-backwardness won’t be important.

        (You’ll also find that another 10-37% is actually just a matter of taste, and hey, what the hell.)

        Really great post, by the way.

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    • Compassion theater implies people are doing things just for show, not for any deeper reason. That seems inherently dismissive and insulting. That people makes emotional arguments doesn’t mean they don’t have a reasonable argument, just that they are making a shallow argument. But i’m sympathetic to the rest of your comment. Lordy knows the entire health care reform debate was between people shouting emotional paranoid fears and other people talking about numbers,data, boring PDF’s about HC models and what has shown to work.

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      • Will- I am guilty of sacrificing some degree of truth for snark. It was a bit more multifaceted. But there were also town halls filled with people fighting tyranny and screaming.

        If there is a good use to emotional pitches it is to get people to pay attention to something. For the better or worse, really worse actually, many people won’t pay attention to squat unless they think it affects them or people like them. If it hurts weird people far away, then screw em. This leads to people not caring about parts of the drug war and property forfeture laws.

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      • Note that Balko does not really do overindulgent, long interviews about a single case where someone was falsely imprisoned and use that one instance to justify sweeping changes that affect much more than he has bothered to think about.

        Instead, his reporting is clearly intended to establish that what he is concerned about are patterns of behavior. He is closer to a researcher with a notebook.

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      • Vik- I like Balko. But one mans emotional plea is another mans research. Its more a matter of taste than anything else. I’m sure Jenny Mc would say she has plenty of data to back up her crappy arguments. In fact the gun control folks would say Newtown is just one data point that backs up all their data.

        I don’t necessarily disagree with your post. But i do think there is a style of arguing against something that consists entirely of saying someone is emotional or swayed by their feelings without discussing any of the actual merits. I’ve seen it a million times. Do people use emotional pleas to often; yes, but that is people in general and it isn’t any one particular group. There can be a valid reason that people are just trying to get some attention for something others have overlooked or don’t care about. But saying something is an emotional plea doesn’t address the arguments.

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      • I think we have to differentiate between emotional arguments. Not all are created equal. In a way, any moral argument is an emotional plea of sorts, or is hard to distinguish from an emotional plea. But someone like Balko, or the way that many – though not all – people talk about gun violence and gun control (“X number of people die a year!”) strikes me as quite difference to “Change the law for Corey Maye!” or “No More Newtowns!” (and proposing a bunch of laws that would not, in fact, have prevented Newtown).

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      • Will, Jay- Jenny Mc does have plenty of data ( all crappy but freedom of speech and all) to back up her wrong headed convictions. Of course there are different ways to phrase arguments, some better, some worse, some with more emotion, etc. But my point has been that pointing out “ewww icky feelings” or that someone is using an emotional argument doesn’t address whatever point they have. It is coming across as just a quick way to ignore someone without grappling with their point.

        People are only motivated to try to change something if they care a bit. You want something to change, start by making them care. Want the WOD to end, make them not only think you are correct but make them feel it is important enough to invest energy in.

        If you are against emotional arguments you should be against them when people you agree with use them not just people you already disagree with.

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      • one mans emotional plea is another mans research. Its more a matter of taste than anything else.

        I feel this is one very wise sentence followed by one very dangerous (and incorrect) one.

        I’m sure Jenny Mc would say she has plenty of data to back up her crappy arguments.

        That is fine. She needs to present it in the appropriate manner though. And there are too many other researchers who have done this and found the opposite.

        In fact the gun control folks would say Newtown is just one data point that backs up all their data.

        I agree! It totally is! It is data! Important data! But you should not visit the school, stay with the parents, and console the remaining children if you seek objectivity. There are people who should be doing all those things, because those people need support. But those same people cannot then later be asked next week whether we should spend money on school safety or infrastructure repairs.

        i do think there is a style of arguing against something that consists entirely of saying someone is emotional or swayed by their feelings without discussing any of the actual merits

        This is a good point, but it misses the intention of the post (which is probably my fault as its writer). You are not supposed to read this and think, “oh, I guess we shouldn’t do gun control because there was once an emotional plea related to it.” I am arguing against the use of emotional experiences as the only information relevant to a discussion.

        This is part of why I included the Guardian link.

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      • Is there a difference between the type of data that Jenny Mc has at her disposal and the type of data held by the medical profession?

        A measurable, quantitative difference?

        I understand the argument that it feels like they’re commensurate kinds of knowledge that each has at their disposal but we’re back to one of the problems with feeling things.

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      • I stopped reading after you said i had a wise sentence. Did you say anything after that? But seriously, people push causes by getting attention and trying to win support. Everyone who wants to change something does that. Sometimes that involves having telegenic blonds as spokespeople. I’m really anti-anti-vax, but they don’t do anything that other people don’t do. They go on tv and tell their stories. The real problem is they have been successful. Almost everybody responds to emotion so every group will weave emotion into their stories of why we should listen. Hopefully they have some good info.

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      • Yeah, I thought about bringing up Global Climate Change and talking about a handful of anecdotes about snowstorms in the winter and hot days in the summer and examples of the “so-called” scientists talking about the Climatic Research Unit email controversy but thought against it.

        Many commentators quoted one email in which Phil Jones said he had used “Mike’s Nature trick” in a 1999 graph for the World Meteorological Organization “to hide the decline” in proxy temperatures derived from tree ring analyses when measured temperatures were actually rising.

        So we’ve got examples of scientists colluding. What more do you need?

        My data, after all, is my data. And it feels like it’s just as good as yours.

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      • , I’m a bit more sanguine than you. You cannot get elected to office by literally carrying around a puppy everywhere you go. There are some manipulations people will see through. I just want us to grow that capability.

        Your point that we shouldn’t make sure to see through the emotional manipulations of the other, hated side while ignoring those on our preferred side is valid. One of the biggest problems with a knowledge of cognitive science is that you will simply use it to selectively disqualify evidence you don’t like.

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      • ,
        Is there a difference between the type of data that Jenny Mc has at her disposal and the type of data held by the medical profession?

        Yes. It’s not my field, or I would have something better than what follows.

        There have been more than 2 peer-reviewed articles that have attempted to discover a link between vaccinations and autism failed. (It’s actually much more than 2, but I haven’t looked, so I will be conservative.

        There have been 0 peer-reviewed articles that attempted to discover a link between vaccinations and autism and succeeded. There once was a study that found a link, but all but one author of that paper has disavowed the study, and the journal it was published in retracted the paper.
        ——
        A better person than I would read the papers and explain them here, but this is quantitative, measurable, verifiable evidence against the vaccines-cause-autism hypothesis.

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      • Yes, I might ask rhetorical questions, but I tend to assume others are not. If a student asks me a rhetorical question, and I answer, the worst that happens is I look like a douche, which is inevitable anyway. If a student asks a genuine question and I assume it is rhetorical, then that’s a huge problem.

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      • Whether Jenny Mc data is good isn’t really the point. ( it isn’t but that isn’t the point) If you are against emotional arguments then you likely should be against them when used by your allies not just when used by others. People aren’t usually good at this. Plenty of people here make emotional arguments when it suits them. There is nothing inherently wrong about that. Most of us have emotions. And i’ll repeat again, if you want to mobilize people for some change you want then you will need to show them why it is important and build their energy. That takes more than data, it takes stories.

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      • As I’ve admitted elsewhere in these comments, I’m ok with emotional experiences being used if
        1. People are not really aware of what is going on and need to be informed.
        2. The information value of the experience is greater than the prejudicial value.
        3. Whatever else you guys get me to agree to but haven’t yet.

        If you are against emotional arguments then you likely should be against them when used by your allies not just when used by others.

        Yes, this is a danger. It’s actually the biggest danger.

        Plenty of people here make emotional arguments when it suits them. There is nothing inherently wrong about that.

        I will submit that it’s part of a pattern that leads to bad decisions.

        And i’ll repeat again, if you want to mobilize people for some change you want then you will need to show them why it is important and build their energy. That takes more than data, it takes stories.

        Yes, that is true. *I* just don’t want to be one of the people who is motivated in that way. I don’t want to make every decision based on the most recent story I heard.

        Edit: I’ve admitted elsewhere in these comments, that this is a difficult thing. We do think in stories, so putting the most poignant ones into proper context perhaps impossible. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try.

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  2. I have to disagree, Vikram. At least in part.

    I think the question comes down what, exactly, it is we are talking about.

    “The single least reliable source for information about autism is likely to be the mother of an autistic child, but intuition somehow twisted that into a qualification.”

    For instance, if we are talking about what it is like to live with an autistic person, I can think of few better sources. If we are attempting to understanding how autistic people understand the world around them, the mother is likely a better source of information than someone who has never interacted with an autistic person. If we are attempting to understand the root cause of autism… well, maybe, maybe not. Look no further than our own Rose, who has educated herself quite extensively on her son’s condition, such that she is probably one of the better sources of information on it, perhaps better than your run-of-the-mill doctor who has never encountered it. Sure, he’s got M.D. after his name, but isn’t that just a designation of a series of experiences, albeit one’s focused around education?

    Let’s look at gun control. The question is not one of tyranny vs freedom, but of competing interests. How do we balance the right to bear arms with the right of individuals to be free of gun violence? Well, we’ll want to get into the costs and benefits of each of those. And the Newtown parents can speak quite aptly to the costs. They shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all, but it should be part of the equation. Perhaps you would want to put their perspective up against that of someone who was denied access to a gun and suffered for it, perhaps by being unable to protect himself against an assailant. That is another experience, no?

    Because if we reject people with firsthand experience, than we can pretend that experience doesn’t exist. “Everyone should have whatever guns they want! What could go wrong? No, I’m sorry, no responses from the people of Newtown, please.” This has often been done, and continues to be done, when we look at different -isms… racism, sexism, etc. Because we so often dismiss or ignore the voices of the people who are the targets of it, those who experience it, it becomes easy to assume or pretend it does not exist. Is that really preferable?

    Experience shouldn’t be a trump card. But it shouldn’t be a disqualifier either.

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    • if we are talking about what it is like to live with an autistic person, I can think of few better sources.

      Conceded. I wrote my sentence purposely bluntly with the intent to jar the audience out of a typical thought pattern. I appreciate your cleaning up the mess I made here in the comments.

      the Newtown parents can speak quite aptly to the costs.

      We disagree here. For them, the costs are infinite. For a variety of reasons, we can’t use infinity in our calculations. That doesn’t mean we use zero instead. It means we go on the internet and figure out how many kids were killed in that and similar incidents and leave it at that. I don’t have to talk to anyone who’s lost a child to know it’s a bad thing.

      Perhaps you would want to put their perspective up against that of someone who was denied access to a gun and suffered for it, perhaps by being unable to protect himself against an assailant.

      To be honest, I wouldn’t want to have a personal interview with that sort of experience either beyond verifying it as a genuine instance of such a case.

      Because if we reject people with firsthand experience

      I think it’s important to clarify that I make a distinction (in this post only) between experience (including its emotional contours) and information. I want to know exactly how many people died on 9/11. I want to know how many people have died in school shootings. Or other kinds of shootings. What I don’t want to know is precisely how the mother who found her kid with his brains splattered felt. It’s enough to know that it is unimaginably bad and that we should construct public policy to avoid those situations.

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      • Infinity doesn’t follow from that line of argument. In statistics, we have incident magnitude. Columbine High School massacre, April 20, 1999, 13 dead (not counting the suicides of Klebold and Harris) and 24 wounded. In the Aurora incident of July 20, 2012, 12 people were killed and 70 injured. Sandy Hook, Dec. 14 2012, 27 dead, 2 wounded. The list is very long, putting too fine a point on this will only engender the usual responses.

        But if we look at the total number of deaths by gunfire, they’re going down on a per-year basis. Good news, everyone! Not really. They’re separate domains, X bar and incident magnitude. Same problem appears in epidemiology, hantavirus outbreaks, two people die in one tiny corner of New Mexico and the CDC goes into overdrive.

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      • But doesn’t this beg several questions?

        We know that death is bad because we’ve experienced death. Or we know people who’ve experienced death.

        I’m fortunate… I have experienced very little death in my life. The closest person I’ve known who has died was my grandmother and she had already lived beyond what the doctors gave her. Is it not possible that I might look at death differently than someone who has more traumatic experience with it? Such that I might consider certain risks more acceptable because, well, my experience with death wasn’t devastating?

        And what about things that are not so obvious? Should we do more or less to curb drug use in inner cities? Are crime rates, joblesness, single-family homes, etc. the only cost of drug use? Should we not concern ourselves with things that cannot be measured, are very hard to measure, or can only be measured by proxy?

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      • To elaborate/clarify/summarize(???), we know that certain things are bad BECAUSE experience has taught us that. But if we so distance ourselves from experience, it is possible that we begin to think, “Well, it ain’t that bad.”

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      • Perhaps not with death, but I have firsthand experience with people who think the parents of special needs children need to stop whining and get over it.

        We certainly shouldn’t drown ourselves in it. Moderation is best. It should be one piece of a multi-piece puzzle.

        “The parents of Newtown offer us valuable information on how gun violence can damage a community. Let’s put that in conversation with all these other data points, both for and against gun control, and come to a reasoned approach that effectively seeks our goals.”

        Of course, that requires articulating goals… something we do far too rarely.

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      • Perhaps not with death, but I have firsthand experience with people who think the parents of special needs children need to stop whining and get over it.

        Yes, that strikes me as a better example to support your point.

        But that doesn’t mean we open the floodgates. It means that where information is lacking, we distribute it. When politicians are saying “9/11 widows need to stop whining and get over it”, then it will apply to that case too.

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      • Is anuone arguing to open the floodgates?

        Hmm. It might be more accurate to say that I am saying close the gates and only make exceptions when relevant information needs to be gathered. Ivory towers have their negatives, but people fail to notice that you actually do can get a good perspective of what’s around from a tower, and you won’t get so overly focused on the first unusual thing you see.

        If they are, do they genuinely believe it to be the ideal course?

        I tend to be trusting of people’s motivations unless they shown otherwise. I think these politicians are generally using bad arguments because they think they will lead to good. My hope is that they at least internally realize they are bad arguments, but as I said, it can be impossible to dissociate yourself from that. Once you talk to one Newton parent, your ability to make certain kinds of judgments will be effected, and probably not because you additional evidence but because you have an emotional input that skews your vision.

        Or are they just being self-serving because what lies behind those particular flood gates aid their cause?

        Why can’t it be both? I think Chris Christie and Obama (to use only two examples of the four) think they are fighting for good causes. It’s also self-serving for both of them, but they excuse themselves because they think it’s also good for others. And they believe that people won’t be convinced with real arguments, so even if they have them, they’ll stick with the stories of widows, orphans, and dead kids.

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  3. Stalin once observed “One death is a tragedy. A million is just a statistic.”

    Is Experience such a tyrant as all that? The plural of anecdote becomes data according to the rules of statistical sampling and probability. Doesn’t take very many anecdotes, either. It just has to be a representative sample and we can derive margins of error from them. But most people with opinions on this subject are blissfully unaware of how statistical sampling works, having scraped through Algebra II by the skin of their teeth.

    I’ll tell you whom I distrust, the mathematically illiterate who don’t understand fractions. They’re ratios of numbers, not some slice of goddamn pie in your sixth grade homework. Every incident increments the numerator. You can wave your hands and make the denominator as large as you wish, you’re not going to change the number of people killed at Sandy Hook School and those parents are uniquely qualified to shame the politicians who won’t act to keep guns out of the hands of crazies. Those politicians aren’t mathematicians. The only numbers they understand are vote counts.

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    • The problem with anecdote is that humans seem to be limited by our heritage into feeling like there are only a few hundred or so people we should know (our ancient tribal sizes), so if we read about thirty people (taken from the entire country) affected by some particular thing, we feel that the odds of it happening are about 1 in 10 instead of 1 in 10 million. Another problem with this is that as a person researches a particular malady, they just learn more and more personal stories of those who have it, and our intuitive sense of odds becomes even more divorced from the reality.

      The press makes this problem much worse by sensationalize the freakishly rare stories because they seem more newsworthy. Regarding mass murders, one scholarly article found that press reports and public perceptions were completely at odds with the statistics because ordinary mass murders (which involve three or more victims) are almost entirely family related (guy in mobile home kills family – self), drug deals gone bad, or robbery related. Those stories appear all the time in your local news but don’t merit national coverage because they’re too commonplace. As a result, the public perception of mass murder is horribly skewed toward the least commonplace events, perpetrators, and weapons.

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      • See above for an analysis of Freakishness. There’s a way of describing that in the statistics. Outer space is largely empty. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be on the lookout for asteroids on their way toward us. Tons of space dust sinks into our atmosphere all the time, we’re headed into just such a dust cloud now, what with the upcoming Perseid meteor shower.

        We can wave our hands and look at X bar and conclude everything’s just fine. It won’t save us from the problem of incident magnitude. We have demonstrably proven more than one person in the USA is crazy enough to shoot up a theatre or a school. When they start shooting, they shoot A Lot. Crouch under the table and contemplate your tidy X bar chart then, reassure yourself this is just a Freakish Abnormality.

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  4. “Reason is the servant (or slave) of the passions”-David Hume

    Humans are emotional creatures. An emotional appeal is a lot easier to make than an appeal to reason, judgment, facts, etc. It is also hard to tell when someone is being sincere in an emotional appeal or making a cynical move and is shedding Crocodle tears.

    You have some good points but I don’t think there is any way in a democracy to remove people with emotional stakes from policy decisions. Whether this be the friends and family of people who died in September 11, Newton victims, or anyone else. A lot of policy is wrapped up in human emotion. Should gay couples be the last group of people who have any say in gay marriage debates? Is there a bright line we can establish for when people with emotional stakes should and should not be part of the policy discussion? I suspect if people made these decisions, it would fall under ideological viewpoints and conveniences.

    And I generally agree with you about how emotion can sometimes or often lead to not-great or actively bad policy. I’ve noticed that my friends who are parents have started posting a lot more Amber Alerts on their facebook page. This is often done under an emotional appeal of “Come on, if it were your kid, you would want people to do the same.” I can go on all day about how Amber Alerts are more successful as theatre than child protection and most Amber Alerts are issued for situations when the child is not in danger. IIRC most of them end up being for custody disputes that go horrifically wrong and the real dispute is between ex-spouses. But the Amber Alerts will continue to be posted on facebook no matter how many studies come out that say the system largely does not help. A lot of people will point to the one or two cases they know where the system did what it was supposed to do.

    Everyone on the Internet likes to claim that the plural for data is not anecdote but most people (including myself probably) seem incapable of letting data trump anecdote. Especially when the data leads to policy or decisions that strike us as being cold-hearted and uncaring.

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    • You have some good points but I don’t think there is any way in a democracy to remove people with emotional stakes from policy decisions.

      I don’t really care so much for democracy’s sake as for our own. If I am the only one who walks away better able to identify manipulations of extreme experiences, then I’ll be happy. Ideally, I’ll drag one or two of the audience along with me though.

      This stuff applies to poker hands too. I’ve seen people get beat badly in one hand and let that dictate what they do for the next hour as if the cards have stored memory. It’s the same exact phenomenon, except without political labels. Or dying.

      Should gay couples be the last group of people who have any say in gay marriage debates?

      There are different levels of emotions. Not to disparage their engagement in the issue, but I haven’t seen gay couples be grief-stricken by their inability to get married in a way that would make them insane. Its a matter of degree, but degree matters.(TM)

      Is there a bright line we can establish for when people with emotional stakes should and should not be part of the policy discussion?

      This is a good question. Nothing is perfect, but I would have to say that anyone who has lost a family member or close friend due to a particular problem is likely to overestimate the importance of curtailing that problem relative to other problems.

      most people (including myself probably) seem incapable of letting data trump anecdote

      Yes, I don’t really see much of a way around it. It’s not that there are good people in the world who use data and bad people who use anecdote. It’s simply how we *all* process information. We need to be just as if not more careful of the phenomenon in ourselves as in others. We need to recognize that it is hard to let data win but then do it anyway.

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      • “If I am the only one who walks away better able to identify manipulations of extreme experiences, then I’ll be happy. Ideally, I’ll drag one or two of the audience along with me though.

        This stuff applies to poker hands too. I’ve seen people get beat badly in one hand and let that dictate what they do for the next hour as if the cards have stored memory. It’s the same exact phenomenon, except without political labels. Or dying.”

        If this is your broader point, I agree. We should be more methodical in our decision making that relying on extreme experiences.

        To take your poker analogy further, I always say it is better to play right and lose than to play wrong and win. If you play right over a large enough sample, you’ll come out on top. Play wrong over a large enough sample and you’ll lose, potentially big.

        Of course, we determined the right and wrong ways to play via experience, albeit not isolated incidents, but repeated iterations.

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      • I always say it is better to play right and lose than to play wrong and win.

        This is getting a bit fine-grained, but I would personally never say it that way. It opens the way to excuses that you keep playing right, but keep losing. Ultimately, what is playing right is known from its winning. That cannot be forgotten.

        I prefer to say somewhat more clumsily, “Don’t regret making the best decision you could with the information you had available at the time.” Conversely, don’t take too much comfort in winning based on what was at a bad decision at the time.

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      • Vikram,

        They say that the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Perhaps we all have this problem for certain issues.

        Or we are all capable of putting on ideological blinders and ignoring the big picture. For example, a lot of people who really care about the NSA seem to be turning a blind eye towards Russian treatment of homosexuals. Russia has basically declared open season on LGBT people and they are still getting props for giving Snowden asylum.

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  5. I’ve got only a minute or two to write this, but as vehemently as I object to Christie’s positions and rhetoric on this issue, I can’t agree with your thesis here either, at least not as applied in this case. To me, it really depends on how someone is trying to use their emotional experience. If they’re trying to say that you need to agree with them about the causes of a particular problem that they experienced which is susceptible to scientific study, then absolutely I agree with you. But more often than not, including in this instance, emotional experiences are used as a way of showing the extent of the effects of something in a relatable way. It’s essentially an argument that in evaluating a tradeoff, X deserves greater priority because of the especially pernicious impact it has on its victims. It’s an insistence that said emotional impact be taken into account in determining which priority to choose or which tradeoffs to make. Most of all, it’s an argument that “this is the consequence of X; your policy makes X more likely or doesn’t fix that problem – how do you intend to deal with those consequences?”

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    • Thanks for this comment. I hear you, and I think you have a point. But I don’t think it is Christie’s point.

      Christie was not simply reminding us of the consequences of terrorism. His accusation that anyone who disagreed with him had forgotten 9/11 was not a genuine belief that anyone had actually forgotten. He knows very well that civil libertarians are aware of 9/11. He wants them to explain it to the widows and orphans because it would make good tv, not because it effectively illustrates the consequences of X.

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  6. One issue is that there are many circumstances where it’s difficult for us to imagine the depth of suffering going on, and only personal experience can illuminate it. For example, the idea that the police came to the wrong house on a drug bust may not seem much worse than an unfair parking ticket until you read a first-person account of having your house invaded by police in the middle of the night, your family terrorized, and your entire sense of “home” changed forever. Couple that with statistics on how many such busts occur and the reader is much more informed on the scope and emotional cost of the problem. Likewise for understanding what it’s like to be chronically uninsured during the health-care debate, for example. Perhaps in an ideal world we’d have MillBot the Utilitarian robot spit out a ticker with the total costs broken down by resource, emotional, opportunity, etc. and we’d run some optimization over all the potential policies, but these things are notoriously hard to quantify, and so individual representative personal experiences may be all we have.

    I’m less certain when it comes to comparing deaths, but I think a similar calculus still applies. We think differently about 100 deaths from old age versus from suicide versus from grisly homicide. The family and community of the victims also reacts differently to these events, and on and on for the ripple-effects they send out. This may even be hard-wired in us, as suggested by studies with young children being strongly effected by concepts of fairness and merit. Emotional appeals can be manipulative just like any other evidence – maybe more so – but that doesn’t mean they are worthless in helping us understand the emotional cost of a phenomena or the value of a corresponding policy.

    I will say that I totally agree with your interpretation of Christie’s provocation, which I also thought was extremely shallow and manipulative. This kind of appeal happens so frequently in the security vs. liberty debate that I really hoped Paul had a prepared response along the lines of : “I have no doubts that the families of 9/11 victims value our constitution and the liberties it enshrines just as deeply as anyone else. I’ve spoken to them in the past and will continue to do so on this very important issue.“. I feel like that would be a more sensible response than saying that testimony from the families can only poison the debate.

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    • One issue is that there are many circumstances where it’s difficult for us to imagine the depth of suffering going on, and only personal experience can illuminate it.

      Yes. And 9/11 is the exact opposite of one of those circumstances. So was Newton, or someone on a deathbed, or having a child with a condition you can’t seem to do anything about.

      The lawyers out there have a similar notion to the one I am trying to get across. IANAL, but my understanding is that for them, evidence has potentially both probative and prejudicial value. Some evidence is highly prejudicial but not very probative. This sort of stuff is generally inadmissible in court, and I think we should similarly recognize these kinds of evidence and compartmentalize them carefully because they can create grave danger if not contained.

      the idea that the police came to the wrong house on a drug bust may not seem much worse than an unfair parking ticket until you read a first-person account of having your house invaded by police in the middle of the night, your family terrorized, and your entire sense of “home” changed forever

      Hearing that sort of story does not make me reflexively want to get rid of the police. I don’t see it as prejudicial. This is not the sort of extreme experience that I am saying we should maintain some emotional distance from.

      (Of course, if *my* house were the one invaded, then I would have no emotional distance, and you would be right to think that I might not be able to properly weigh that problem against other competing problems fairly.)

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      • Yes. And 9/11 is the exact opposite of one of those circumstances. So was Newton, or someone on a deathbed, or having a child with a condition you can’t seem to do anything about.

        I understand your argument to try to balance informative and prejudicial aspects of evidence, that is an elegant way of looking at it, but it’s still not clear to me why 9/11 falls so neatly into the prejudicial category? It seems to me quite likely that 9/11 families suffer in a significantly different way than if those victims had died of old age or stroke or even a car accident. Hearing their perspective on that grief and how it has impacted their life seems just as relevant as someone describing their experience with a police break-in. I don’t see the obviously distinction between these two examples. Really, the only way to be certain if testimony is prejudicial or informative is to actually listen to it; of course, we would then be affected by any prejudicial power it may have.

        Yes, Christie is simply appealing to fear and emotion when referencing 9/11, but civil libertarians really should be talking to 9/11 victims to get a better understanding of the pro-security argument.

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      • It seems to me quite likely that 9/11 families suffer in a significantly different way than if those victims had died of old age or stroke or even a car accident.

        I would agree, but replace the “likely” with “beyond obvious”. If it were only likely, and there was anyone around who felt like what those widows and orphans wasn’t that big a deal, then I’d agree with you that those people should go talk to them or read a book or two about them. The rest of us were there though. We remember it was awful.

        I don’t see the obviously distinction between these two examples.

        You’re right that this is a good exercise to perform. Here’s my attempt:
        ——
        It’s blindingly obvious knowledge to everyone that 9/11 widows and orphans had the people closest to them taken out of their lives for what seemed to be no reason at all. Losing someone close leads to grief, but losing someone when there is no prior expectation that anything might happen to that person anytime soon is incredibly painful. Most of the victims were people in desk jobs where there loved ones assumed they would be safe and naturally return. For the orphans, they lose a parent who they had expected to have around for most of their lives and particularly to guide them through childhood. And, again, for no apparent reason at all.

        That much is apparent without needing to interview any relatives of victims.

        With the drug raid gone bad, it isn’t clear without additional information whether the police simply knocked on the door and disturbed your sleep and you had to get out and tell them they had the wrong house or if you thought you and your family were going to die and they shot your dog. (And actually, all that can be communicated as I just did without needing to actually meet the victim.)
        ——
        As I’ve said elsewhere, I think people *should* meet and support the victims and spread their stories. That goes for 9/11 and everything else. It’s just that the people who are closest to those stories are unlikely to be the best people to put those experiences in the proper context. Perhaps if you were able to interview every person who was subject to a bad drug raid and also every police officer’s family who lost someone on a drug raid, you’d have a more full picture. If it were me though, I think I’d just go crazy unable to balance out everyone’s grief.

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      • The eyewitness is the worst witness, so I was told by my lawyer, who handled a fair number of capital murder cases. You’ve avoided addressing the obvious: the most prejudiced people in a given situation are not the immediate families of the murdered. It’s the rest of us, the people who stood aghast, watching the televisions as the Twin Towers went down, saw the pictures of those children come out single file from Newtown. The people who didn’t get all the facts, the people who weren’t on the juries, the people who won’t trust the juries to sort things out, the rushers-to-conclusions, the Weeping Willies and the Talking Heads, all too willing to get in front of the camera and babble about what they know naught of.

        You can’t have it both ways, Vikram. Either you take the dispassionate view of the statistics, which include incident magnitude (a point you’ve ignored, which is fine by me) — or you can now backtrack and say we’d all go crazy if we looked at this too closely. Nobody ever went crazy looking at the facts. Plenty of people have gone crazy trying to ignore the facts, rolling their eyes to heaven and sublimating the evil in the world into the ether. Evil and Good appear in the world one incident at a time.

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      • , I find almost all of that convincing.

        Either you take the dispassionate view of the statistics, which include incident magnitude (a point you’ve ignored, which is fine by me) — or you can now backtrack and say we’d all go crazy if we looked at this too closely.

        I’m not sure I face that choice. Let’s say you work for the NIH and have to disburse funds for researching various diseases. I think they should pretty much look at statistics to determine where to best allocate dollars. There are reasons for that though. I think everyone has an essential idea that sickness is bad and more severe problems can be horrific. I find it unlikely that they are ill-informed of how bad leukemia is, so being forced to explain their decision to fund prostate candidates to leukemia survivors is a bad idea.

        If, on the other hand, I’m being asked to donate to help textile workers in Bangladesh, I probably would benefit from knowing more about their story because right now I know nothing about what it’s like to be a textile worker anywhere. It’s possible that I will hear something extreme that makes me forget that the money could have alternatively gone for immunizations in Nairobi, but without the story, I’m operating on nothing.

        My ideal would be to have field researchers go out and collect stories and tabulate them in a standard way that I could then digest myself.

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      • None of that follows from your point, that people close to a given situation are incapable of making reasoned decisions. You just don’t like that Christie fired a few well-aimed shots at the Libertarians.

        That’s what’s going on here and everyone can see it, especially that silly man Rand Paul, who as a member of Congress and a member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee knew about all this warrant-less spying and said nothing about it. The last thing anyone needs to hear is that stupid ass braying about Spying Without Warrants. Rand Paul knew and said nothing. He needs to STFU and get right on this subject. Let’s face a few facts, Vikram. The Libertarians are great when it comes to theory but their solutions are less great.

        Some while back I wrote about the NSA, saying NSA is neither a good guy nor a bad guy in all this. They do what they’re allowed to do in the context of the applicable laws — and that’s the problem. When Clapper lied to Congress, he was lying to people who not only knew he was lying, they already had the facts of the matter, the very people who could change the laws which prevented him from telling the truth.

        Of course Christie is right: we do need a working national security apparatus. Only an idiot would say otherwise — and Rand Paul is not merely an idiot, he’s a substantial part of the problem. He knew and did nothing. Now he wants to come out and tell us he’s against such things? He is nothing but a greedy, opportunistic little Robespierre and so are all his little buddies. Them’s the facts and if Rand Paul won’t come to New Jersey to talk to Christie’s constituents, who just might want some mechanism to prevent another 9/11 on the basis of having lost people, then let Big Chris serve that grifter weasel Rand Paul a nice hot cup of STFU.

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  7. Kazzy already hit many of my initial thoughts in his comment above, but this post also strikes me as an instance of the very phenomenon VB is complaining about. The stated problem is the power of emotional appeals, which derive their strength by establishing sympathetic identification at the expense of reason. Moreover, the inclusion of Chris Christie demonstrates that the problem is not just people with direct experience, but third parties who invoke those powerful emotions to create that same sympathetic identification.

    That said, VB’s argument is founded on a few potent anecdotes, selected to elicit an emotional response. But rather than using Jenny McCarthy’s status as a mother to inspire sympathetic concern, it uses her former notoriety to inspire contempt for her experience and irritation with her current prominence in the vaccination debate. There is no data to quantify the impact of McCarthy’s public persona (relative to, e.g., Andrew Wakefield). There is nothing to substantiate the claim that such appeals are granted disproportionate weight, or that they are uniquely destructive to the public discourse. It is merely an invitation to share in the emotional experience of righteous indignation. Perhaps, then, this rhetorical style is not as destructive as the OP suggests?

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    • I have to grant this is an intriguing idea. I will nevertheless mount a defense because I don’t think applies to this particular post.

      a few potent anecdotes, selected to elicit an emotional response

      Thus far, my anecdotes include:
      1. Chris Christie’s remarks about civil libertarians
      2. Obama’s appearance with Newton parents
      3. Articles about regrets of the dying
      4. McCarthy’s anti-vaccination efforts
      5. The lasting effects of bad beats in poker games (in the comments)

      #1 has not really gotten Christie much condemnation outside of the blogosphere. Other than civil libertarians themselves, I’m not sure most people even know Christie made the comments. Also, I don’t think my writeup is intended to make you feel angry at Christie.

      #2 I actually do *not* have much of a considered position of gun control. I selected it solely because I wanted a Democratic example to balance out things. (I admit that you as a reader have no way of knowing that was why I did it though.) Also, I don’t think anyone condemned Obama for appearing with Newtown parents. He was criticized for wanting gun control.

      #3 I think is my savior. Surely you didn’t think I am attacking trite articles in an emotionally charged way. Why would I have included it if my intention was something other than trying to illustrate the point I said I was trying to illustrate?

      #4. I think this is where your argument is at its strongest. However, my point does not rest on whether McCarthy’s persona is more impactful than Andrew Wakefield in the vaccine debate. Rather I simply claim she is more impactful than other celebrities of similar stature who do not have autistic kids. As far as claims go, I think that is one that is quite likely to be true.

      #5. Again, totally not an emotionally charged description.
      ——
      Really though, I think it all depends on the reader, if the reader feels riled up as they read the OP, then you are right. However, even then, if they recognized it, they are better off for it (assuming that they take that detection capability with them later).

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  8. From farther up:

    I agree! It totally is! It is data! Important data! But you should not visit the school, stay with the parents, and console the remaining children if you seek objectivity. There are people who should be doing all those things, because those people need support. But those same people cannot then later be asked next week whether we should spend money on school safety or infrastructure repairs.

    Well, they can be asked. But we should be pretty clear about the expectation that they’d be biased in response.

    One of the problems here is expectation correction. You throw a lot of articles about terrible things up and you’re priming people, plain and simple. Psych researchers take lots of classes on experimental design so that they can learn to avoid priming people as much as possible. If that’s difficult, they then try to correct their influence on their subjects in a neutralizing direction; if you must prime your subject, you want to inform them how they might be primed before you quiz ’em, if you want least inaccurate results.

    Political strategists read all that stuff, too, but they’re taking away the opposite lesson. They’re not trying to avoid priming people, they’re trying to prime people. They’re not going to try to do expectation correction… that’s the whole point of the exercise, to screw up people’s expectations.

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  9. This is downright depressing. If no one who has lost a child can speak to what caused that death, can rally and make laws against it…
    There will NEVER be peace in the Middle East.
    There would never have been peace in Northern Ireland.

    There are places in this world where no one can have the Ivory Tower perspective.

    To say that their experiences invalidate their opinions is to leave no one able to fix anything!

    In Israel, you don’t find many folks who haven’t lost someone to terrorism. Probably in Palestine it would be hard to find someone who hasn’t lost something to the apartheid (probably a house, possibly fruit trees, quite possibly a child).

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  10. Likewise, if you want to understand whether racial discrimination is a serious problem or not, you need to build some models, do the math, and come up with a good estimate of its economic costs. Reading about Emmett Till or Martin Luther King is just going to lead to emotional overreaction.

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