Tag: Donald J. Trump

Can March for Science participants advocate without losing the public’s trust?

As the March for Science nears, questions about whether scientists can and should advocate for public policy become more important. On one hand, scientists have relevant expertise to contribute to conversations about public policy. And in the abstract, the American public supports the idea that scientists should be involved in political debate. On the other hand, scientists who advocate may risk losing the trust of the public. Maintaining that trust is imperative for scientists, both to be able to communicate public risks appropriately and to preserve public funding for research. The Conversation

Little existing research had tested how audiences react when confronted with concrete examples of scientific advocacy. Led by my colleague John Kotcher, my colleagues and I at the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication devised an experiment to test these questions in the summer of 2014. Our results suggest there is at least some tolerance for advocacy by scientists among the American public.

Testing a scientist’s perceived credibility

We asked over 1,200 American adults to read the biography and a single Facebook post of a (fictional) climate scientist named Dr. Dave Wilson. In this post, Dr. Wilson promotes his recent interview regarding his work on climate change. We varied the message of this statement to include a range of advocacy messages – from no advocacy (discussing recent evidence about climate change) to clear advocacy for specific policies to address climate change.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/8c24n

We found that perceptions of Dr. Wilson’s credibility – and of the scientific community more broadly – did not noticeably decline when he engaged in most types of advocacy.

When Dr. Wilson championed taking action on climate change, without specifying what action, he was considered equally credible as when he described new evidence on climate change or discussed the risks and benefits of a range of policies. In fact, perceptions of Dr. Wilson’s credibility were maintained even when he argued in favor of reducing carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants.

Only when Dr. Wilson advocated for building more nuclear power plants did his credibility suffer.

Advocacy received differently than partisanship

A nonpartisan message may be well-received.
AnubisAbyss, CC BY-NC-ND

Our study suggests that the American public may not see scientists who advocate for general action on scientific issues as lacking in credibility, nor will they punish the scientific community for one scientist’s advocacy. Yet this study represented only one case of scientific advocacy; other forms of advocacy may not be as accepted by the public. For example, more caution is required when scientists promote specific (unpopular) policies.

Most notably, our study did not test overtly partisan statements from Dr. Wilson. Our research participants saw it that way too; they rated all of Dr. Wilson’s statements as more scientific than political.

The March for Science, however, risks being seen as motivated by partisan beliefs. In that case, scientists may not escape being criticized for their actions. This is especially true if the march is seen as a protest against President Trump or Republicans. In our study, conservatives saw Dr. Wilson as less credible whether he engaged in advocacy or not. If conservatives see the march as a protest against their values, they may dismiss the message of the march – and the messengers – without considering its merits.

This risk is exacerbated when media coverage of the March for Science is considered. In our study, people saw Dr. Wilson promoting his interview in his Facebook post, but were not exposed to the actual interview in which Dr. Wilson made his case for a given policy. Nor were his actions disruptive; a single post on social media is relatively easy to skip or ignore, and Dr. Wilson could frame his interview in the way he liked.

The March for Science will be the opposite. If successful, the march will garner attention from news outlets, who may reframe the purpose of the march.

Balancing the advocacy message

So what can be done to limit accusations of partisan bias surrounding the march?

Researchers can aim for an inclusive message, avoiding the appearance of being just another interest group.
Adam Salsman, CC BY-NC-ND

One way marchers can minimize this possibility is by crafting an inclusive message that resonates with many people, stressing the ways science improves our society and protects future generations. However, the march’s similarity to other explicitly anti-Trump marches may make it hard to avoid a partisan connotation.

Moreover, in our research Dr. Wilson was portrayed as an older white male, matching cultural stereotypes about scientists; he may have had more freedom to engage in advocacy than would female or nonwhite scientists. An inclusive and diverse March for Science may challenge these traditional portrayals of scientists. While many (the authors included) would see that as a desirable objective in itself, it may complicate successful advocacy.

A goal of the March for Science is to demonstrate that science is a nonpartisan issue. It represents a unique opportunity for scientists to highlight the ways in which science improves our society. Scientists participating in the march should emphasize shared values with those who might otherwise disagree – such as the desire to create a better world for our children and grandchildren.

If the event remains a March for Science, rather than a march against a party or group, the chances increase that it will effectively focus attention on the importance of scientific research.

Emily Vraga, Assistant Professor in Political Communication, George Mason University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Photo Credit: Balloon Juice

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For Rex Tillerson in Russia, stakes are high and outlook is dim

Donald Trump entered office in January vowing to improve US relations with Russia. Less than three months into his presidency, however, the prospects for a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to be as remote as they were under any of his predecessors.

The extent of tensions and disagreements between the United States and Russia will be on display on Wednesday when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a much anticipated encounter.

Where’s the love now?

Tillerson’s April 12 visit to Russia is the first by a top Trump administration official. A former oilman who made many trips to Russia while CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson is still learning the ropes as America’s top diplomat.

Just a few weeks ago, Tillerson’s trip was seen as a test of Trump’s commitment to developing a better relationship with Moscow. But after a week of diplomatic fallout following US military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the summit’s main goal now is to avoid a dangerous escalation of the situation in Syria and in US-Russia bilateral relations.

The US bombing came in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack on rebel-held territory in Idlib Province on April 4 that killed at least 80 civilians, including women and children, and sickened hundreds more. The United States and other Western governments claim the Assad regime was responsible. American warships in the eastern Mediterranean fired 59 cruise missiles against the military air base in western Syria believed to be where the attack originated.

Secretary Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Bonn, Germany in February 2017.
US Department of State

Russia called the missile strikes an act of aggression and a violation of international law. Assad remains Moscow’s main ally in the Middle East and one of its only allies outside the post-Soviet sphere.

Tillerson’s ties to Russia aroused scrutiny from both Democrats and Republicans during his confirmation hearings in January, and almost derailed his nomination. But since then he has emerged as one of the Trump administration’s strongest Russia critics.

He has called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to maintain a stockpile of chemical weapons following a 2013 agreement to disarm Assad of banned weapons, and suggested that the Russians may have been “outmaneuvered” by the Assad regime. The White House on Tuesday April 11 went further, accusing Russia of trying to cover up the attack.

Over the past week, Tillerson and other US officials have accused Russia of playing an increasingly disruptive role not just in Syria but also across Europe, just as it interfered in last year’s US presidential election.

Most difficult relations since the Cold War

In response to a surge of violence in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russia separatists, Tillerson is likely to remind Russian officials of their commitments under the 2015 Minsk agreement, namely the importance of enforcing the ceasefire. Pentagon officials have also accused Russia of violating an important arms-control agreement signed in the 1980s.

In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, “It is obvious that Russian-American relations are going through the most difficult period since the end of the Cold War.”

At Tuesday’s G7 meeting in Lucca, Italy, Tillerson said the reign of the Assad regime was “coming to an end,” and called on Russia to end its support for it. Continued support for Assad will only serve to embarrass Russia, he said, and make it irrelevant in the Middle East.

Still, Washington is sending mixed signals on how it plans to deal with Syria. The Trump administration does not yet have a clear policy regarding the conflict, or what the level of US involvement will be going forward. It is not yet clear whether last week’s strike will be a one off – a warning to Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people again – or whether it signals a broader strategic shift in the US approach to the civil war there, which is now in its sixth year.

Russia, on the other hand, is concerned that the US strike might signal the emergence of a more assertive foreign policy under the Trump administration. It could signal Trump’s willingness to use military force, and perhaps even a readiness to pursue military interventions and regime change. They see their interests clashing with the United States not just in Syria but possibly over North Korea and Iran as well.

What’s possible

So what can Tillerson achieve in Moscow? Neither government expects any breakthroughs on the issues that currently divide them. Russia has moved closer to Iran, Assad’s other main backer, and it is unlikely that the Kremlin will be willing to distance itself from the Assad regime.

A thaw in relations between the United States and Russia seems unlikely, and even common ground will be hard to find. Both countries increasingly see the other as an adversary, convinced that each is out to undermine the other.

The civil war in Syria has claimed more than 400,000 lives. Half the population has been displaced, and it has led to one of the worst refugee crises since the second world war. The latest ceasefire, reached in December 2016, is faltering, and UN-backed peace talks have accomplished little.

An end to the slaughter will require the active coordination of the United States and Russia. But, given current tensions between Moscow and Washington, this possibility seems more unlikely than ever.

Richard Maher, Research Fellow, Global Governance Programme, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

US airstrike on Syria: What next?

Make no mistake. The April 6 U.S. airstrike on Syria following Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon attack is a remarkable shift in President Donald Trump’s – and Washington’s – past policy.

As president-elect, Trump’s Middle Eastern concerns centered on defeating the Islamic State and depicted Syria’s millions of refugees as potential extremists and a threat to U.S. borders. The president now justifies American attacks on Syrian airfields as a “vital national security interest of the U.S.

Trump himself said that Tuesday’s ghastly chemical attacks changed his mind on the Assad regime. Just as suddenly, U.S.-based Middle Eastern experts and key foreign leaders have approved this U.S. policy move. Some Syrians, too, are showing appreciation for “Abu Ivanka,” or the “Father of Ivanka.”

Moreover, the U.S. airstrikes may have involved some strategic thought and multilateral diplomacy, two central aspects of foreign policymaking not previously associated with the Trump administration. The choice of the airfield for attack was a limited, comparatively low-stakes target. Both Russia and Syria had advance knowledge from the U.S. of the attack.

Syrian and Russian outrage at the U.S. involvement is an expected response to this first open major American military action against Assad since the 2011 civil war began. But that doesn’t mean the conflict will necessarily entangle the U.S. more deeply. Indeed, Russian frustration with the particular nastiness of its ally’s chemical attack may make the US strike a relief to President Vladimir Putin because it signals to Assad that he had better be careful about how he tries to reassert control over Syria. That signal, however, need not undermine Assad himself.

A one-time thing?

So what comes next for U.S. policy?

Was this a one-off U.S. intervention reflective of Trump’s interest in doing “something” in response to a particularly shocking event?

Or did Trump wish to look strong after critiques of his foreign policy during a visit by China’s President Xi Jinping or distract attention from his overall low approval ratings?

We don’t know, because the U.S. leader has shown limited consistent attention to foreign policy.

The easiest guess? Trump’s lack of prior expertise in the Syrian crisis, his moves back toward the U.S.‘ more typical globalized outlook and apparent genuine shock at Assad’s brutality may signal a real shift. Yet, even if so, it is unlikely founded on a broader policy vision. The problem of what Trump does when faced with a complex global challenge, without the background and fully staffed bureaucracy to respond rapidly, has been raised appropriately by journalists and pundits. We have seen no sign so far that the White House has a strategy on Assad larger than the air strike.

Of course, Assad, Putin and Iran’s leadership do have such strategies. They involve continued strengthening of the Syrian strongman’s power.

The long-term, entrenched nature of these countries’ commitments casts doubt that the U.S. for now will take bigger steps to undermine Assad’s recently improved position in Syria. The Trump administration has expressed indifference toward complex diplomacy. Indeed, greater U.S. determination to adopt a multipronged, multilateral effort to weaken Assad or crush Syrian opposition might make defeating the Islamic State harder. It would embroil Trump in a problem that proved too vexing for the extensive brainpower and experience of the Obama administration. And it might risk long-term, unpopular military engagement, with greater responsibility for state-building, like what bedeviled Washington a decade ago in Iraq.

Moreover, in terms of broader U.S. military involvement, Syria today is not a clear analogy with Iraq in 2003. The absence of a prior attack on U.S. soil, the longer-term plan of U.S. policy advisers to topple Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government and that government’s lack of powerful international allies are all key factors that facilitated American military escalation in Iraq that are not present in Syria.

Syrians, and people who care about Syria, might hope that a U.S. airstrike leads to new, international, creative efforts to try to alleviate Syrians’ suffering. We all know that President Trump is quite capable of actions that surprise. Could a sustained American commitment to stop Assad’s killing be such a surprise? Such a commitment would require not quick attacks but subtle diplomacy, with the credible threat of force as one policy lever among many. It’s unlikely, but with Donald Trump, it is hard to know for sure.

David Mednicoff, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Director, Middle Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Photo Credit: Ah Tribune

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Republicans fumble ACA repeal: Expert reaction

Editor’s note: The fight didn’t last long. Moments before a scheduled vote on March 24, House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act. It was a surprisingly swift defeat for a legislative priority talked up by Republicans since the day Obamacare first passed. We asked congressional scholars what the retreat means – and what comes next.

Trump legslative agenda now in serious doubt

Richard A. Arenberg, Brown University

President Trump and the Republican Congressional leadership have suffered a stunning defeat. The inability of the new president and his GOP majority to pass the American Health Care Act in the House places in question their ability to accomplish their central campaign promise of repealing Obamacare. It also creates significant obstacles for the remainder of the Trump legislative agenda, especially the planned tax cut.

The conflicting demands by factions in the health care debate have laid bare huge fissures in the Republican caucus – fissures which had been masked by apparent unity in the wake of Trump’s surprising election. Further, the failure of this first test of the Trump administration and its allies on the Hill raises serious questions about Speaker Ryan’s ability to bridge those gaps.

The bill, pulled by the Speaker before it could suffer defeat on the House floor, contained more than US$880 billion of tax reductions over 10 years.

GOP leaders have been counting on that reduction to the revenue base to permit a large tax reform bill to be passed using the reconciliation process. Reconciliation would permit the tax bill to be passed in the Senate with a simple majority, foreclosing the possibility of a Democratic filibuster.

However, in order to qualify under Senate rules, that bill must be revenue-neutral. The plan to use the tax reductions contained in the American Health Care Act was one of the main reasons that the Republican Congressional leadership convinced Trump to undertake the health care bill first.

The wisdom of that strategy will come under severe scrutiny in the White House in the days ahead.

Will the GOP ever get its act together?

Christopher Sebastian Parker, University of Washington

By now, the GOP should should be tired of this: public implosion.

Ever since the Tea Party showed up on the scene in 2009, the Republican party slips on every banana peel in sight. The fight between the party’s moderate wing and the more reactionary one, led former Senate Minority Leader, Bob Dole (R-KS), to say that neither he, nor president Ronald Reagan, could get elected in today’s GOP.

This was followed by the ouster of former House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA), who was primaried by Tea Party candidate Dave Brat in 2014. Why? He was perceived as too moderate. He was the first sitting majority leader to lose since 1899.

This was followed by the GOP resignation of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in 2015 because, he, too, was perceived to be too moderate

Now this. The Freedom Caucus is responsible for the current public rift in the GOP. What’s that old saying? “Be careful what you wish for.” Well, the GOP got its wish to govern, and they’re blowing it.

Richard Arenberg, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy and Political Science, Brown University and Christopher Sebastian Parker, Professor of Political Science, University of Washington

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scientists’ march on Washington is a bad idea – here’s why

The April 22 March for Science, like the Women’s March before it, will confront United States President Donald Trump on his home turf – this time to challenge his stance on climate change and vaccinations, among other controversial scientific issues. The Conversation

But not everyone who supports scientific research and evidence-based policymaking is on board. Some fear that a scientists’ march will reinforce the sceptical conservative narrative that scientists have become an interest group whose findings are politicised. Others are concerned that the march is more about identity politics than science.

From my perspective, the march – which is being planned by the Earth Day Network, League of Extraordinary Scientists and Engineers and the Natural History Museum, among other partner organisations – is a distraction from the existential problems facing the field.

Other questions are far more urgent to restoring society’s faith and hope in science. What is scientists’ responsibility for current anti-elite resentments? Does science contribute to inequality by providing evidence only to those who can pay for it? How do we fix the present crisis in research reproducibility?

So is the march a good idea? To answer this question, we must turn to the scientist and philosopher Micheal Polanyi, whose concept of science as a body politic underpins the logic of the protest.

Body politic

Both the appeal and the danger of the March for Science lie in its demand that scientists present themselves as a single collective just as Polanyi did in his Cold War classic, The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory. In it, Polanyi defended the importance of scientific contributions to improving Western society in contrast to the Soviet Union’s model of government-controlled research.

Polanyi was a polymath, that rare combination of natural and social scientist. He passionately defended science from central planning and political interests, including by insisting that science depends on personal, tacit, elusive and unpredictable judgements – that is, on the individual’s decision on whether to accept or reject a scientific claim. Polanyi was so radically dedicated to academic freedom that he feared undermining it would make scientific truth impossible and lead to totalitarianism.

The scientists’ march on Washington inevitably invokes Polanyi. It is inspired by his belief in an open society – one characterised by a flexible structure, freedom of belief and the wide spread of information.

A market for good and services

But does Polanyi’s case make sense in the current era?

Polanyi recognised that Western science is, ultimately, a capitalist system. Like any market of goods and services, science comprises individual agents operating independently to achieve a collective good, guided by an invisible hand.

Scientists thus undertake research not to further human knowledge but to satisfy their own urges and curiosity, just as in Adam Smith’s example the baker makes the bread not out of sympathy for the hunger of mankind but to make a living. In both cases this results in a common good.

There is a difference between bakers and scientists, though. For Polanyi:

It appears, at first sight, that I have assimilated the pursuit of science to the market. But the emphasis should be in the opposite direction. The self coordination of independent scientists embodies a higher principle, a principle which is reduced to the mechanism of the market when applied to the production and distribution of material goods.

Gone the ‘Republic of Science’

Polanyi was aligning science with the economic model of the 1960s. But today his assumptions, both about the market and about science itself, are problematic. And so, too, is the scientists’ march on the US capital, for adopting the same vision of a highly principled science.

Does the market actually work as Adam Smith said? That’s questionable in the current times: economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller have argued that the principle of the invisible hand now needs revisiting. To survive in our consumerist society, every player must exploit the market by any possible means, including by taking advantage of consumer weaknesses.

To wit, companies market food with unhealthy ingredients because they attract consumers; selling a healthy version would drive them out of the market. As one scientist remarked to The Economist, “There is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published”.

It is doubtful that Polanyi would have upheld the present dystopic neo-liberal paradigm as a worthy inspiration for scientific discovery.

Polymath Michael Polanyi.
Author unknown/Wikimedia

Polanyi also believed in a “Republic of Science” in which astronomers, physicists, biologists, and the like constituted a “Society of Explorers”. In their quest for their own intellectual satisfaction, scientists help society to achieve the goal of “self-improvement”.

That vision is difficult to recognise now. Evidence is used to promote political agendas and raise profits. More worryingly, the entire evidence-based policy paradigm is flawed by a power asymmetry: those with the deepest pockets command the largest and most advertised evidence.

I’ve seen no serious attempt to rebalance this unequal context.

A third victim of present times is the idea – central to Polanyi’s argument for a Republic of Science – that scientists are capable of keeping their house in order. In the 1960s, scientists still worked in interconnected communities of practice; they knew each other personally. For Polanyi, the overlap among different scientific fields allowed scientists to “exercise a sound critical judgement between disciplines”, ensuring self-governance and accountability.

Today, science is driven by fierce competition and complex technologies. Who can read or even begin to understand the two million scientific articles published each year?

Elijah Millgram calls this phenomenon the “New Endarkment” (the opposite of enlightenment), in which scientists have been transformed into veritable “methodological aliens” to one another.

One illustration of Millgram’s fears is the P-test imbroglio, in which a statistical methodology essential to the conduit of science was misused and abused for decades. How could a well-run Republic let this happen?

The classic vision of science providing society with truth, power and legitimacy is a master narrative whose time has expired. The Washington March for Science organisers have failed to account for the fact that science has devolved into what Polanyi feared: it’s an engine for growth and profit.

A march suggests that the biggest problem facing science today is a post-truth White House. But that is an easy let off. Science’s true predicaments existed before January 2 2017, and they will outlive this administration.

Our activism would be better inspired by the radical 1970s-era movements that sought to change the world by changing first science itself. They sought to provide scientific knowledge and technical expertise to local populations and minority communities while giving those same groups a chance to shape the questions asked of science. These movements fizzled out in the 1990s but echoes of their programmatic stance can be found in a recent editorial in Nature.

What we see instead is denial toward science’s real problems. Take for instance the scourge of predatory publishers, who charge authors hefty fees to publish papers with little or no peer review. The lone librarian who fought this battle has now been silenced, to no noticeable reaction from the scientific community.

Trump is not science’s main problem today – science is.

Andrea Saltelli, Adjunct Professor Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, University of Bergen, University of Bergen

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The art of a speech: President Trump’s speech to Congress

By Robert J. Garrison

Last night President Donald Trump delivered his first speech to a joint session of Congress. Here are a few of the observations that I precieved from the speech. 

First, this speech was meant to position President Trump to higher ground. What do I mean by higher ground? I mean, that President Trump gave the Democrats two options.

  • Work with President Trump to rebuild America on the few issues that they themselves agree on such as immigration reform, renegotiating trade deals, and infrastructure spending or
  • Come out and fight with him on everything.

The Democrats being so predictable, chose to come out and instead of saying while we disagree with President Trump on XYZ but we agree with him on ABC, choose to come out and fight with President Trump on everything! 

Last night I heard Sen Minority leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi come out and say that President Trump called for gutting education. Where the hell did they get that from? President Trump spent about 5 minutes on education and didn’t mention anything that could be perceived as “gutting education”. In fact, President Trump called education

…the civil rights issue of our time!

He also called for congress to pass an education bill that includes school choice to help disadvantaged children. Seems like more spending than gutting to me. 

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The American people are sick and tired of a do-nothing congress (See Gallup graph below). President Trump extended an olive branch to the Democrats and pleaded with them to work with him to find common ground. However, the Democrats have a big problem – the far left progressives.

approval-rating-congress-2017

The far left progressives are the loudest, most vocal wing of the Democratic party and they have made their intentions clear. They refuse to work with President Trump on anything and will fight him on every front. The Democratic party is being held hostage to a point that if any Democrat even says a compliment about President Trump they are raked over the coals for it. 

To be fair, this is the same climate that the Republicans also had during the Obama administration. However, there is one big difference, President Obama was a liberal ideologue (source?) and refused to work with Republicans on any form of compromise (source). President Trump is far from an ideologue. President Trump is a deal maker willing to give both sides what they want to work out a deal and that’s a huge difference.

Finally, the optics of the speech were excellently produced. You saw President Trump at his best. He came across as Presidential, powerful, and willing to work with both sides of the aisle. Also, the way he worked the guests into his speech was masterfully done. The one thing I noticed during the speech was how President Trump would clap with the rest of the chamber, which is something one rarely sees in a State of the Union.

The highlight of the night was when he spoke about the men and women of the military. When President Trump introduced  Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens, the camera turned to her and showed her with tears in her eyes as she looked up to the heavens.

Then something magical happened. The President of the United States went on to call him a hero and state that his name would be etched into eternity; and with a pause, he looked up to Carryn Owens and said: 

Thank you. Thank you.

The chamber broke into one of the longest standing ovation in the history of the State of the Unions. It was a touching moment.    

Below is the full video of President Trump’s address to congress.

Robert J. Garrison is a political and religious writer for The Systems Scientist. You can connect with him directly in the comments section, follow him on Twitter or on Facebook, or catch up on his articles in the Archives

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Can Trump resist the power of behavioral science’s dark side like other politicians?

More than two dozen governments, including the U.S., now have a team of behavioral scientists tasked with trying to improve bureaucratic efficiency to “nudge” their citizens toward what they deem to be higher levels of well-being.

A few recent examples include a push by the socialist French government to increase the numbers of organ donors, a conservative UK government plan to prevent (costly) missed doctor appointments, and efforts by the Obama White House to boost voter turnout on Election Day.

While the government’s use of our psychological quirks to affect behavior rubs some people the wrong way, most of us can agree that the above examples achieve positive ends. More organ donors mean more lives saved, fewer missed doctor appointments mean the government or health industry is more efficient, and increased voting means stronger citizen engagement in democracy.

But “nudges” themselves are value neutral. That is, they can be used to both achieve altruistic ends or more malicious ones. Just as behavioral science can be used to increase voter turnout, it can also be used to suppress the votes of specific individuals likely to favor the opposing side, as reportedly happened in the recent U.S. presidential election.

The nudge, in other words, has a dark side.

My research explores how behavioral science can help people follow through on their intentions where they make better or longer-term choices that increase their well-being. Because choices are influenced by the environment in which they are made, changing the environment can change decision outcomes.

This can be positive to the extent that those designing interventions have good intentions. But what happens when someone uses these insights to systematically influence others’ behavior to favor his or her own interests – even at the expense of everyone else’s?

That’s my concern with President Donald Trump, whose campaign appears to have exploited behavioral science to suppress the vote of Hillary Clinton supporters.

What’s in a nudge?

Behavioral science is a relatively young field, and governments have only recently begun using its insights to inform public policy.

The UK was the first in 2010 when it created its Behavioral Insights Team. In subsequent years, dozens of governments around the world followed, including Canada with its Behavioral Insights Unit and the U.S., which in 2015 officially launched the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.

The teams’ missions are all relatively similar: to leverage insights from behavioral science to make public services more cost-effective and easier to use, to help people make better choices for themselves, and to improve well-being.

In the UK, for example, the Behavioral Insights Team was able to persuade about 100,000 more people a year to donate their organs by tweaking a message people received when renewing their car tax. Here in the U.S., the Social and Behavioral Science Team helped the Department of Defense increase the amount of retirement savings accounts for service members by 8.3 percent.

These kinds of interventions have been criticized for unjustly interfering with an individual’s autonomy. Some even compare it with mind-control.

However, as I have pointed out elsewhere, our environment (and the government) is always exerting some influence on our behavior, so we’re always being nudged. The question is therefore not whether we will be nudged, but how and in what direction.

For example, when you sit down to dinner, the size of your plate can make a big difference in how much you eat. Studies show you’re more likely to consume less food if you use a smaller plate. So if the government is handing out the dinnerware, and if most us wanted to avoid overeating, why not set the default plate to a small one?

But now let’s consider the dark side: a restaurant might hand out a small plate if it means it can charge more for less food and thus make more money. The owner likely doesn’t care about your waist size.

Any intervention based on behavioral science is therefore neither good nor bad. What matters is the intention behind it, the aim which the nudge is ultimately supposed to help achieve.

Potential for abuse

Take the case of what Cambridge Analytica – a company founded in 2013 and reportedly funded by the family of billionaire conservative donor Robert Mercer – did during the election. This team of data scientists and behavioral researchers claims to have collected thousands of data points on 220 million Americans in order to “model target audience groups and predict the behavior of like-minded people.”

Essentially, all that data can be used to deduce individual’s personality traits and then send them messages that match their personality, which are more likely to be persuasive. For example, highly neurotic Jane will be more receptive to a political message that promises safety, as opposed to financial gains, which may be more compelling to conscientious Joe.

So what’s the problem? In and of itself, this analysis can be a neutral tool. A government might want to use this approach to provide helpful information to at-risk populations, for example by providing suicide prevention hotlines to severely depressed individuals, as Facebook is currently doing. One might even argue that Cambridge Analytica, first hired by the Cruz campaign and later by Trump, was not acting unethically when it sent such personalized messaging to convince undecided voters to support the eventual Republican nominee. After all, this is what all marketing campaigns set out to do.

But there is a fine ethical line here that behavioral science can make easier to cross. In the same way that people can be influenced to engage in a behavior, they may also be discouraged from doing so. Bloomberg reported that Cambridge Analytica identified likely Clinton voters such as African-Americans and tried to dissuade them from going to the ballot box. The company denies discouraging any Americans from casting their vote.

Beyond hiring the company, the Trump administration has a direct tie to Cambridge Analytica through chief strategist Steve Bannon, who sits on its board.

Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, talks about what his company does.

How might Trump nudge?

So far, it’s unclear whether or how the Trump administration might use behavioral science in the White House.

Trump, like most Republicans, has emphasized his desire to make government more efficient. Since behavioral science is generally a low-cost intervention strategy that provides tangible, measurable gains that should appeal to a business-minded president, Trump may very well turn to its insights to accomplish this goal. After all, the UK’s Behavioral Insights Team was kicked off under conservative leadership.

The White House Social and Behavioral Science Team’s impressive interventions have led to hundreds of millions of dollars in savings across a variety of departments and at the same time increased the well-being of millions of citizens. The future of the team is now unclear. Some members are worried that Trump will use their skills in less benevolent ways.

Trump’s apparent use of Cambridge Analytica to suppress Clinton turnout, however, is not a good sign. More broadly, the president does not seem to value ethics. Despite repeated warnings from government ethics watchdogs, he refuses to seriously deal with his innumerable conflicts of interest. Without the release of his tax returns, the true extent of his conflicts remain unknown.

And as we know from behavioral science, people frequently underestimate the influence conflicts of interests have on their own behavior.

In addition, studies show that people can easily set aside moral concerns in the pursuit of efficiency or other specific goals. People are also creative in rationalizing unethical behavior. It doesn’t seem to be a stretch to imagine that Trump, given his poor track record where ethics is concerned, could cross the fine ethical line and abuse behavioral science for self-serving ends.

A virus and a cure

Behavioral science has been heralded as part of the solution to many societal ills.

Behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, co-authors of the book “Nudge” coining the term, have been strong advocates of using the field’s tools to improve government policy – when the intentions are transparent and in the public interest.

But might the current administration use them in ways that go against our own interests? The problem is that we may not even be aware when it happens. People are often unable to tell whether they are being nudged and, even if they are, may be unable to tell how it’s influencing their behavior.

Governments around the world have found success using the burgeoning field of behavioral science to improve the efficiency of their policies and increase citizens’ well-being. While we should continue to find new ways to do this, we also need clear guidelines from Congress on when and how to use behavioral science in policy. That would help ensure the current or a future occupant of the White House doesn’t cross the line into the dark side of nudges.

The Conversation

Jon M Jachimowicz, PhD Student in Management, Columbia University

Photo Credit: Keyword Suggest

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.