Need for Epistemic Standards for Evidence and Arguments in Governance

2 Jul

Explicit standards for evidence and argument are critical in a competitive system where competing groups have palpable incentives to withhold information, monger stilted information, use irrelevant information, or use any tactic to win.


Different branches of the US government use different epistemic standards.

The US judicial system uses the adversarial system in which each of the parties presents its case to a neutral party (judge or jury). Each side is supposed to furnish evidence in support of its argument, and an ‘impartial’ judge decides on what evidence is better in terms of its applicability and strength.

The adversarial system is a competitive system that relies on the sparring parties to furnish evidence. Like any competitive system, the sparring parties have incentives to withhold information from each other and misrepresent information. The system relies on the ‘other’ party to excavate any such violations, and sometimes on the neutral party. There are some other formal procedures to limit the kind of evidence that can be presented (though some are rooted in alternate theories) and procedures for sharing corroborative evidence. There are also formal procedures as to what kind of arguments can be presented.

The adversarial judicial process inarguably uses the strictest standards of evidence amongst any branch of government.

While the legislative process is largely a ‘competitive’ system, it has no formal epistemic standards limiting the kind of evidence or arguments that can be presented. The strength of the evidence presented, its applicability, etc. are either ‘judged’ by ‘citizens’ (substantially mediated by media) or by members of the other competing party.

The problem with legislative branch is not only that it is a competitive system, but that is a corrupt, special interest driven competitive system. The system provides little incentive to the members to judge the evidence impartially with the nation’s best interests in mind.

There are no epistemic standards that hold back the executive branch except for some loose constraints that tie those standards to the marketability of a particular policy decision.

Congress also uses the ‘Inquisitorial system’ when it conducts ‘Congressional Hearings’ to ‘investigate’ a particular issue. Of course, due to partisanship pressures, the inquisitorial system often uncomfortably borders on ‘inquisition’.


One way to correct the problem would be to create governance structures that explicitly involve independent bodies that judge the strength and applicability of evidence presented.

Opining About the Perils of Opinions: The Opinion Poll Model of Policy Making

29 Jun

Public opinion is central to the democratic political process and it has never been more important that today, when opinion poll numbers are constantly cited in the media to buffet policy choices. It behooves us hence to foremost understand opinions and the process of opinion change, and then to think critically about whether the causal mechanism driving ‘opinion change’ are commensurate with the expressed ideals of ‘democracy’.

What is the value of an ill-considered opinion from a person with limited knowledge of the facts? Close to none, one would expect. But apparently, it is worth much more in a policy debate on the Hill if sound bytes by politicians quoting poll numbers to buffet the validity of their issue positions are anything to go by.

Courtesy significant advances in sampling methodology, communication technology, and computational technology, one can now conduct a nationwide Opinion Poll cheaply (relatively) and quickly. Every major media company, from New York Times to Fox News, now publishes stories about the ‘findings’ from the polls with unerring frequency and drops these numbers casually on near about every policy issue, let alone questions like, ‘What should Paris Hilton eat for breakfast?’

Given the important role that media has in ‘framing’ the issue (Iyengar), and the fecundity of the polls, news media now often cites figures from opinion polls as part of a story on an issue and asks politicians to defend their policy choices (in six seconds or less) given the poll numbers. Correspondingly politicians increasingly cite poll numbers on issues as corroboratory evidence for or against a policy direction.

Where do opinions come from?

In a culture that values ‘individual expression’ above everything else, it isn’t surprising that people offer opinions on issues they know little to nothing about an issue. Funnily, and as has been extensively documented in Political Science literature, people not only offer opinions about what they know nothing about, they also offer opinions about non-existent (phantom) issues. (Lippman, 1993 and others) Krosnick et al. have posited a more benevolent interpretation of ‘phantom opinions’ arguing that these opinions originate from ‘violation of communication norms’. Even if Krosnick is right, there is wide agreement within the field that the general public which makes it to the voting booth and gleefully casts its vote (a behavior strongly based on overall opinion) is deeply ignorant about most issues.

Leaving aside ‘phantom opinions’, let us try to understand where opinions come from. “Every opinion is a marriage of information and values-information to generate a mental picture of what is at stake and values to make a judgment about it” (Zaller, 1991). It is important to notice how Zaller uses the term ‘information’ which he describes later in the paper as whatever political information a person consumes via media or other ways. By limiting himself to political information, Zaller mistakenly assumes that political opinion making sits in an isolated bunker – only affected by relevant political information – in people’s minds. Neuman in his book, ‘Common Knowledge’ has persuasively argued to the contrary. Leaving Neuman’s objections aside, it is easy to surmise that information has generally little to do with facts of the case. Secondly, we have yet to tackle how much of the opinion is driven by ‘values’ and how much of it is driven by ‘information’ but it seems intuitive that the mix would vary depending on a variety of factors ranging from the issue at hand (opinion on a value issue like abortion would inarguably have higher percentage of ‘value’ as compared to one on economic policy), need for cognition (people with higher need for cognition would use more ‘information’), cognitive ability, amount of information, etc.

Normative Questions

Since the publication of American Voter (Cambell et al.), and Converse’s later explications (1964, 1970), which described the average American voter as apathetic, and largely ignorant about major issues, political theorists have grappled with the threat that an uninformed voter poses to the claims of normative superiority of democracy. If democracy was to be claimed as a ‘normatively superior system’ in itself, without resorting to claims about its superiority as an instrumental good that provided ‘better governance’, it was important for the political theorists to argue that voters voted their interests – a claim which was no longer possible in lieu of evidence that pointed to widespread ignorance. The more severe threat that the theorists are rightly concerned about, is whether the democratic system can continue to deliver its benefits if the voters ceased to vote ‘their interests’ given a lot of benefits in the system are predicated on that assumption. While the conjecture is open to empirical analysis, we can theoretically analyze the value of an ‘opinion’ in an ideal democratic model.

The value of an expressed opinion in a democracy is directly proportional to its ability to tap into a voter’s ‘real interests’, best understood as ‘interests’, as understood by the voter, under ‘full knowledge.’

Ideal Opinions, Opinion Aggregation

Value of opinion cannot be pried apart from the system in which it is used. The composition of ‘ideal opinion’ would vary according to the system. Since we are talking about a democracy, let’s analyze its composition here.

The value of an opinion in a discussion is if it reveals a hitherto unknown piece of information. In a poll where you are asked to furnish your ‘considered preferences’ that benefit is lost to some degree. One can argue that there is indeed some knowledge hidden in the choice but since a poll weighs considered choices equally with ill-considered ones, and because we don’t know what led to the final choice, it is impossible to argue whether democratic majorities do bring forth collective knowledge. The only condition in which the scenario would hold is when a majority of the voters vote for the ‘right’ preference.

Let us now assume ‘full-information’ and the only variable as ‘value system’. If there is a ‘common’ universally accepted value system, then there is little value in soliciting opinions from everybody. It is when you start thinking about ‘averaging’ across value systems, a tenuous concept at best, that you need to think about soliciting opinions from others. Polling populace on a fixed choice of politicians is an impoverished way to go about tapping into ‘people’s will’.

Perhaps the way to tackle the problem is by actually breaking this down into a two-step problem – information maximization and ‘averaging’ over values. I believe we have the scientific community to address the former, but I do not have the answer to the latter but perhaps informed deliberation – which involves ‘public exchange of reasons’ – about consequences would be one way to approximate that.

Notes on Partisanship

25 Jun

Manipulating the Median Voter Theorem

It is commonly touted that elites are far more partisan than the rank and file. One would have thought that in accordance with the median voter theorem, a simple majority voting model for single dimension issue space proposed by Duncan Black and later popularized by Anthony Downs, the elites would be under pressure to have public ideological profiles that appeal to the median voter.

This seemingly ‘irrational’ behavior of the elites can be explained in a variety of ways—average voter, which includes only the people who do vote, is on average more partisan than an average eligible voter, an average ‘voter’ chooses a candidate based on vague personality and party cues rather than specific issue position cues (to which they are largely unaware), voter’s issue positions are incestuously linked to the positions outlined by the candidates that they ‘like’, and the fact that elites gerrymander the multi-dimensional issue space so that the salient issue(s) on which an average voter votes are ones on which they have positions similar to the ‘median voter’.

Party and Partisanship

While the overall impact of parties has waned over the years, the party ‘line’ exercises more control on candidate’s professed positions. In this world of continuous media coverage, there is increasing pressure to present a consistent party approved stance. At the other end, there is a strong self-selection process, precedent, and certainly fear of how each ‘off-message’ comments would be interpreted in media, that is driving an assembly line in which generally only candidates who profess abiding faith in party ideology succeed in the primaries.

There is a certainly an increasing gap between the message, the voting record, and the candidate opinion, and a deliberately cultivated one. The partisanship is held together by ‘partisan money’, and custom order research produced by think tanks to justify and corroborate any policy initiative that they are asked to.

Media and Partisanship

Horse Race format of covering policy

The other aspect of media’s impact on partisanship has been driven by how it covers political issues – be it immigration or Iraq. The much-decried horse-race coverage, which was once a preserve of election coverage, has now entered the policy domain. A large number of articles in newspapers give an insider view of politicking and impact of a policy decision on the party rather than on say the nation. Now while covering a news story journalists go from politician to politician seeking quotes which they then use to provide worthless hack analysis in words of politicians. Nowhere do journalists stop and question the policy stances independently aside from what the ‘other side’ chose to point out. By doing this, they do two things – they first of all fail to provide substantive useful information to their readers, and secondly by weaving in partisan cues give readers automatic pointers to devalue certain information.

Partisan Identities: Using anger and satire

The rise of humorous “fake” news shows satirizing politics – most prominently “The Daily Show” by John Stewart – over the past decade has been widely seen as an unmitigated positive by a lot of self-identified ‘liberals’. What ‘liberals’, cozy in the success of a liberal comedy show, fail to realize is the pernicious aspect of satire – it delegitimizes opposing viewpoints without proper analysis. It is only time before right-wing ‘news’ channels come up with their liberal baiting satire shows.

The other prominent way to delegitimize opposing opinion is through self-righteous anger. This is, of course, most prominently done by right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

While Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” is a stylized partisan lynching of the ‘liberal nigger’, Stewart’s satire is the vicious intelligent kind that ridicules the ‘idiots’. The shows use every rhetorical (and editing) trick to not only defeat the opposing party but do so in the most vicious incendiary manner that entertains the partisan viewers.

Both anger and satire are explicit identity building and reaffirmation rituals. What we see when straw man ‘guests’ get grilled on these shows is identify reaffirmation for the viewers – these people in the opposition are actually immoral, corrupt idiots.

Perhaps something of much more concern is the rise of entire partisan news channels. While there wasn’t much ‘news’ on the ‘news channels’ to begin with, and the ‘news’ coverage continues to cede territory to celebrity coverage, whatever shriveled carcass was left is now being preyed upon by explicit partisan coverage. There are no longer undisputed facts—there are now Republican facts and Democratic facts. And of course, both bear little resemblance to actual facts.

Democratic Pandering

9 Jun

“Mr. Bush said Putin’s recent harsh comments toward the West suggests he may be trying to build support for his party in advance of next year’s elections, and the president saw that as positive. He said, quote, “When public opinion influences leadership, it is an indication that there is involvement of the people.” (Fox Transcript)

The argument that Mr. Bush is making here is that when leaders deliberately pander fear and do warmongering, it is a signal that the country is democratic. Alternatively, deliberate unethical manipulation of public opinion to garner votes is a positive.

Democracy: Whither Epistemic Validity?

15 Mar

It doesn’t take long for a person to realize that the current democratic model is deeply flawed. The continued failure of about thirty percent of Americans to realize that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction speaks volumes of the limitations of the current information stream and the democratic system based on it. As our democratic stands now, it works, or more accurately doesn’t work, in the following way – it needs three years of continuous coverage that the war is going catastrophically for about 70% of the citizens to finally realize that it is indeed going badly. In other words, the current democratic model not only has a substantial time lag in information dispersal (and hopefully action) but also a model that doesn’t respond to gradual increases in problems like gradual increase in poverty. In other words, it is a ‘frog in the hot water’ (oblivious of the gradual rise in temperature) model. And while we respond to pointless scandals and excel at slaying imaginary ghosts, we can build little momentum towards solving some of the most exigent problems in an optimal way. I argue that the current state of democracy has a lot to do with its modern origins that were based on that period’s exigencies and the then prevailing wisdom (Adam Smith).

The modern origins of democracy that typically begin with the democratic US point to a system formed in response to elite and colonial excesses. The chief worry at the time was to prevent the exercise of power by a small minority with no vested stake in the welfare of the masses. Hence, appropriately, the system of democracy that was formed as a result of it was tailored towards distributing power to common citizens and hence, in turn, maximizing the legitimacy of the decisions made. Critically, since the British excelled at monopoly, ‘founding fathers’ (themselves rich) strove to institute Capitalist attitudes towards trade, private ownership, and business.

Modern democracy was never geared towards coming up with the ‘best’ decision or maximizing some other utility function. To analyze democracy’s claims to making ‘best’ decisions, one has to make a number of leaps including that every citizen is aware of his self-interests and larger public’s interests; each citizen forcefully hawks his or her ideas in the marketplace of ideas, and that the best information and best arguments will win in this marketplace and form the basis for legislation. In other words, claims to the normative superiority of democracy it seems to come from a reasonably well-functioning market of ideas – a market that is not driven by the most saleable or seductive ideas but by the ‘best’ ideas (which it hopes would sell the most). This, in turn, seems like a particularly botched hypothesis in a market with pervasive ignorance, as Converse et al. have shown.

The concept of an idea marketplace deserves further attention for that is from where all possible benefits of democracy are actually supposed to accrue. The fact is that while a lot of theoretical energy in the field of democratic theory has been tailored towards justifying the moral superiority of democracy over other systems, an ailment that I believe can be traced to Cold War days, there has been little focus on critiquing the fundamentals of democracy. If look at the time period just before Cold War, there was a lot of intellectual energy invested in analyzing whether having a Capitalist economic system puts at risk the functioning of the marketplace of ideas. There is little doubt in my mind that if profiteering is the guiding principle of information distribution, let alone the entire society, it seems unlikely that good information, a requisite for the marketplace of ideas and citizenship, will flow unpolluted. The idea that the market can let alone decide and assess an accurate value on each piece of information and give to the citizen at the appropriate time in an appropriate manner is ludicrous at best. It comes as no surprise to me that economic market has increasingly usurped the democratic marketplace of ideas. A prime exemplar of the usurpation is the proclamation that head of Ford once made when he said, “What’s good for Ford is good for America.”

There are two points that one can glean from the above discussion – one is that there is little doubt that the current democratic system is fatally flawed and its flaws primarily stem from a stilted realization of the marketplace of ideas. If we indeed want to continue with some form of governance that takes into account public opinion, we must strive to make the public more informed about issues. To the extent that people can be made more informed by instituting reforms in media, we must do so. Alternatively, we can try to come up with better decision making models that provide better incentives to citizens to be informed and for lawmakers to aggregate the choices with less pressure from lobbyists. Deliberative polling model, which takes a random representative sample of the populace and lets them deliberate about issues, does just that. But it fails to fix the wider malaise that afflicts the wider body politic. It is likely that a combination of the above two methods presents us with the best chance of succeeding as a democracy.