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Can We Make Judgments About Risk Based on Facts, Not Just Emotions? An Encouraging Test Case.
A civil debate about genetically modified food offers hope about our capacity to make judgments about risk based on facts, not just on our feelings.
I regularly highlight examples of what I call the Risk Perception Gap…when people worry too much about some things or not enough about others, and those perceptions leads to risky choices and behaviors all by themselves. The hope is that by describing this phenomenon and giving it an official name, and explaining the psychology of why it happens, these essays might help us all recognize the emotional nature of risk perception and avoid some of its dangers.
Examples of people worrying too much, or not enough, are everywhere. Ebola, vaccines, climate change, obesity… But it’s also instructive, and encouraging, when people get risk right, when careful open-minded consideration of the evidence produces judgments and decisions that more closely align with the evidence. It was inspiring to witness an example of that the other night, at a debate about genetically modified food.
Usually public forums about GM food are less debates and more just angry invective-laced arguments with lots of interruptions where GMO opponents repeat their values-based tribal beliefs and shout down anything that challenges their views. This one was different, and different in ways that should give us all hope about people’s ability to keep open minds and make choices based on what the bulk of the evidence seems to say.
The setting was a Intelligence Squared debate, part of a privately funded non-profit series created to “restore civility, reasoned analysis, and constructive public discourse to today’s often biased media landscape.” Teams of two debaters argue for or against a proposition in front of an audience, which then gets to ask questions. A moderator helps keep the discussion on point, productive, and civil. The audience is asked to vote before the debate starts, and again afterwards. The winner is the side that gained the most support between the first vote and the second.
The proposition was:
Genetically modified plants, the kind where genes are spliced from one species into another, as only modern agricultural biotechnology can do; for, against, or undecided? (You can see the full debate itself here.)
While there was a clear and passionate difference of opinion, the debate was largely about the evidence. The debaters didn’t yell at each other. They mostly didn’t interrupt each other. They mostly provided direct answers to questions, and when they tried to lapse into sales-pitch talking points the moderator cut them off. (More than once I wished this would be the way that political debates might be conducted.)
Importantly, the two participants who argued against agricultural biotechnology were not the scream-and-yell types who usually show up at public hearings and rallies about GMOs, spewing all sorts of wild and unsupported claims and shouting down anyone who disagrees their perspective. The opponents of the proposition were adamantly anti-GM advocates, but willing to respectfully debate the evidence.
The audience of a few hundred people included several well-known advocates of both sides. But it also included a lot of people who had come not to cheer for their side, but to actually learn more about GM food. Cheering for each side was robust, but when GMO opponents in the audience hissed at the opening statements of the “Pro” side, the moderator shut them down politely but firmly. (A woman who said she had attended dozens of these IQ2 debates told me that this was the first time the audience had tried that.) When the audience got to raise questions, aspects of the GM food issue unrelated to the proposition (e.g. what about those evil greedy corporations patenting seeds and genes?) were disallowed.
When the votes were revealed, what had been a relatively even split in the first poll – 32% for GM Food, 30% against, 38% undecided, had shifted dramatically. The final tally was 60% for, 31% against, and 9% still undecided. People who listened in or watched online could vote too, and a tally that had been overwhelmingly against the proposition before the debate also shifted, coming in at 51% in favor and 49% opposed. (Beware the online tally, of course. Those votes can be gamed by either side, and probably were.)
A closer look at the numbers is particularly encouraging. Half the people voted the same way both times. But half changed their minds, voting differently the second time. Most of these moved from Undecided to one side or the other (mostly to the pro side). But 15% of those who voted For or Against the first time changed THEIR minds! And most of those (12% of the overall population) had voted Against the first time, but changed to either For (9%) or Undecided (3%). (Here’s a graphic of those details.)
It would be naïve to make too much of this. It was hardly a definitive general plebiscite on GM food. The vote may not have even been about GMOs at all. We were asked to vote on who made a more persuasive argument, and the Pro team were markedly better debaters.
But some conclusions can be drawn. One is that the GMO issue doesn’t seem to be one of the classic polarized Right-Left culture war battles. There certainly are cultural affinities among those who most strongly oppose GM food. But GMOs seems to be a group identity issue only to one ‘side’, a small albeit passionately vocal group. The debate results support what most surveys find, that most Americans have barely heard about this issue, much less taken up a position for or against.
But the most hopeful conclusion may be that, despite the natural tendency humans have to quickly make up their minds about things, based largely on emotions, and then to stick to those views no matter what else they may hear, there are also plenty of people willing to find out more before they make up their minds, and who are willing to keep an open mind and carefully think things through. That is crucial if society is to make intelligent choices on a wide range of issues, beyond GMOs.
In a world where so many risk issues are decided by public passions based on very little information and a whole lot of gut instinct and emotion, this debate was a ray of hope that we can do better, that we can bring the power of human reason to bear on the challenge of making the healthiest possible choices. It was model of careful thinking about risk that we would all do well to try and follow.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.