Why it is a *mistake* to draw inferences about the (in domain) reasoning of experts from studies of motivated reasoning on the part of the general public
This is an excerpt from “ ‘Ideology’ or ‘Situation Sense’? An Experimental Investigation of Motivated Reasoning and Professional Judgment.” That paper reports the results of a CCP study designed to test whether judges are vulnerable to motivated reasoning.
As described in more detail in a previous post, the answer turned out to be "yes and no": yes when they assessed societal risks like climate change and marijuana legalization, on which judges, like members of the public, polarized along cultural lines; but no when those same judges analyzed statutory interpretation problems that were designed to and did trigger ideologically biased reasoning in members of the public who shared those judges' values.
This excerpt discusses the implications of this finding for the question whether scientists should be viewed as vulnerable to ideologically motivated reasoning when they are making in-domain judgments relating to climate change and other societal risks.
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C. Motivated reasoning, professional judgment & political conflict
... Sensibly, citizens tend to treat “scientific consensus” on environmental risk and other highly technical matters as a reliable normative guide for decisionmaking, collective and individual. But what makes it sensible for them to do so is that the method of inquiry scientists themselves use does not afford existing “scientific consensus” any particular weight. On the contrary, the entitlement of any previously supported proposition to continued assent is, for science, conditional on its permanent amenability to re-examination and revision in light of new evidence.
If, then, there were reason to believe that scientists themselves were being unconsciously motivated to discount evidence challenging “consensus” positions on issues like climate change, say, or nuclear power or GM foods, by their cultural outlooks, that would be a reason for treating apparent scientific-consensus positions as a less reliable guide for decisionmaking.
Various commentators, including some scientists, now assert that identity-protective reasoning has pervasively distorted the findings of climate scientists, making their conclusions, as reflected in reports like those issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Society, unreliable.
Obviously, the best way to test this claim is by conducting valid empirical studies of the scientists whose findings on risk or other policy-relevant facts are being challenged on this basis. But we believe our study, although confined to judges and lawyers, furnishes at least some evidence for discounting the likelihood of the hypothesis that climate scientists or other comparable experts are being influenced by identity-protective reasoning.
The reason is the connection between our study results and the theory of professional judgment on which the study was founded.
As explained, the theoretical basis for our study design and hypotheses was the account of professional judgment most conspicuously associated with the work of Howard Margolis. Margolis treats professional judgment as consisting in the acquisition of specialized prototypes that enable those possessing the relevant form of expertise to converge on the recognition of phenomena of consequence to their special decisionmaking responsibilities.
Margolis used this account of professional judgment among scientists to help explain lay-expert conflicts over environmental risk. Nonexperts necessarily lack the expert prototypes that figure in expert pattern recognition. Nevertheless, members of the public possess other forms of prototypes—ones consisting of what expert judgments look like—that help them to recognize “who knows what about what.” Their adroit use of these prototypes, through the cognitive process of pattern recognition, enables them to reliably converge on what experts know, and thus to get the benefit of it for their own decisionmaking, despite their inability to corroborate (or even genuinely comprehend) that knowledge for themselves.
Nevertheless, in Margolis’s scheme, the bridging function that these “expertise prototypes” play in connecting lay judgments to expert ones can be disrupted. Such sources of disruption create fissures between expert and lay judgment and resulting forms of public conflict over environmental risk.
Identity-protective cognition can be understood to be a disrupting influence of this character. When a fact subject to expert judgment (Is the earth heating up and are humans causing that? Does permitting citizens to carry handguns in public make crime rates go up or down? Does the HPV vaccine protect adolescent girls from a cancer-causing disease—or lull them into sexual promiscuity that increases their risk of pregnancy or other STDs?) becomes entangled in antagonistic cultural meanings, positions on that fact can become transformed into badges of membership in and loyalty to opposing groups. At that point the stake people have in protecting their status in their group will compete with, and likely overwhelm, the one they have in forming perceptions that align with expert judgments.
As we have noted, there is a striking affinity between the account Margolis gives of pattern recognition in expert judgment among scientists and other professionals and Karl Llewellyn’s account of “situation sense” as a professionalized recognition capacity that enables lawyers and judges to converge on appropriate legal outcomes despite the indeterminacy of formal legal rules. We would surmise, based on this study and previous ones, a parallel account of public conflict over judicial decisions.
Lacking lawyers’ “situation sense,” members of the public will not reliably be able to make sense of the application of legal rules. But members of the public will presumably have acquired lay prototypes that enable them, most of the time anyway, to recognize the validity of legal decisions despite their own inability to verify their correctness or comprehend their relationship to relevant sources of legal authority.
But just like their capacity to recognize the validity of scientific expert judgments, the public’s capacity to recognize the validity of expert legal determinations will be vulnerable to conditions that excite identity-protective reasoning. When that happens, culturally diverse citizens will experience disagreement and conflict over legal determinations that do not generate such disagreement among legal decisionmakers.
This was the basic theoretical account that informed our study. It was the basis for our prediction that judges, as experts possessing professional judgment, would be largely immune to identity-protective cognition when making in-domain decisions. By access to their stock of shared prototypes, judges and lawyers could be expected to reliably attend only to the legally pertinent aspects of controversies and disregard the impertinent ones that predictably generate identity-protective cognition in members of the public—and thus resist cultural polarization themselves in their expert determinations. That is exactly the result we found in the study.
Because this result was derived from and corroborates surmises about a more general account of the relationship between identity-protective reasoning and professional judgment, it seems reasonable to imagine that the same relationship between the two would be observed among other types of experts, including scientists studying climate change and other societal risks. Public conflict over climate change and like issues, on this account, reflects a reasoning distortion peculiar to those who lack access to the prototypes or patterns that enable experts to see how particular problems should be solved. But since the experts do possess access to those prototypes, their reasoning, one would thus predict, is immune to this same form of disruption when they are making in-domain decisions.
This is the basis for our conclusion that the current study furnishes reason for discounting the assertion that scientists and other risk-assessment experts should be distrusted because of their vulnerability to identity-protective cognition. Discount does not mean dismiss, of course. Any judgment anyone forms on the basis of this study would obviously be subject to revision on the basis of evidence of even stronger probative value—the strongest, again, being the results of a study of the relevant class of professionals.
At a minimum, though, this study shows that existing work of the impact of identity-protective cognition on members of the public has no probative value in assessing whether the in-domain judgments of climate scientists or other risk-assessment professionals is being distorted by this form of bias. Generalizing from studies of members of the public to these experts would reflect the same question-begging mistake as generalizing from such studies to judges. The results of this study help to illustrate that commentators who rely on experiments involving general-public samples to infer that judges are influenced by identity-protective cognition are making a mistake. Those who rely on how members of the public reason to draw inferences about the in-domain judgments of scientists are making one, too.
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Now here is one more thing that is worth noting & that is noted (but perhaps not stressed enough) in a portion of the paper not excerpted here: the conclusion that professional judgment insultates experts from identity-protective cognition (the species of motivated reasoning associated with ideologically biaed information processing) either in whole or in part does not mean that those experts are not subject to other cognitive biases that might distort their judgments in distinct or even closely analogous ways! There is a rich literature on this. For a really great example, see Koehler, J.J., The Influence of Prior Beliefs on Scientific Judgments of Evidence Quality. Org. Behavior & Human Decision Processes 56, 28-55 (1993).
Dynamics of cognition need to be considered with appropriate specificity--at least if the goal is to be clear and to figure out what is actually going on.