The Situationist

The Profits and Perils of Public Engagement

Posted by Adam Benforado on May 24, 2010

In my last post, I asked whether it was a threat to academia for academics to make a concerted effort to engage the public with their work.

Tamara Piety had a thoughtful response (see here).  She made a number of interesting points about the value of reaching out to non-academics and of risking being wrong.  As she explained, “I think the argument that speaking to the general public somehow undermines your scholarly credentials is often just used as a weapon to try to intimidate and silence those with novel ideas (or ones the critic disagrees with).”

Overall, I think Tamara and I are in agreement that the benefits of academics striving to translate their research for a popular audience are worth the (not insignificant) costs.  (I, or course, welcome comments from those who disagree!)

But what about mind scientists and legal scholars who go beyond penning blog posts, magazine articles, and books to actually lobbying for changes (to the legal system or elsewhere), testifying as experts in court cases, or working for corporations eager to increase profits.

Certainly, there is a long history of those interested in human psychology working with marketers and advertisers.  (Indeed, reading over an old issue of the Monitor on Psychology this weekend, I was reminded of the efforts of Edward L. Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, on behalf of Lucky Strike to convince women to smoke.)  On a different note, psychologists and law professors were instrumental, back in 1999, in producing an 8,000-word national guide for the U.S. Department of Justice on collecting and preserving eyewitness evidence.  And, just last week, the Washington Post had a story on how Emory’s Drew Westen has taken on a more formal role advising Democrat leaders in the Senate and House in anticipation of the fall elections.

Should we think about these activities differently than we think about writing for a popular audience?  What is it that makes us uncomfortable in certain cases—the possibility that money might alter judgments; that consumers, voters, or juries might be manipulated?  Isn’t it beneficial to have people with actual expertise exercising more real world decision-making authority?

* * *

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Heart, Brain, or Wallet…How Do You Vote?,” “Drew Westen on the Political Brain, Part I, and Part II,” “Your Brain on Politics,” “The Century of Dipositionism – Part I, Part II, and Part III,” “Mass Marketing,” and “Deep Capture – Part VII.”

2 Responses to “The Profits and Perils of Public Engagement”

  1. Tamara Piety said

    I do think money makes a difference, that there is reason to fear manipulation but that it is, in general, a good thing to have experts involved in policy-making. I think Drew Westen is just doing what Frank Luntz (“estate tax” to “death tax” man) has been doing for Republicans forever, that is advising them on propaganda techniques. And I think focusing on the word propaganda helps sort out the answers to the various scenarios you raise. As you probably know Bernays tried to make the word “propaganda” respectable with his book of the same name about public relations techniques. He failed in that regard, but succeeded in laying the foundation for what is now the one of the largest and most influential industries in the world – the public relations industry. Public relations is really just marketing by another name; it is the business of persuasion. So it would make sense that politicians would be interested in adopting the techniques gleaned from years of marketing research into what persuades people. Marketing research and behavioral science or mind science research overlap. Sometimes the research is undertaken with an explicit intent to exploit that knowledge to sell people stuff. Sometimes marketers just borrow research and apply it to marketing. And researchers can’t keep their research out of the hands of marketers simply by refraining from publishing in the popular market because those with something to sell and the incentive and means to acquire it will simply read the academic journals and run their own “trials” by using it in their marketing if it seems like it might work. Advertising agencies have never been required to prove something would work before trying it out. That all might seem fair enough, except when the research is used in a way that one might have reason to believe will persuade someone to do something (or buy something or vote for someone) that conflicts with what that person intends or wants. Then it is problematic. I do think money might alter judgments (and the law reflects that concern generally in conflict-of-interest and recusal rules). If that sounds like an unhelpful, tautological test that amount to do “do the right thing,” I fear it might be. It could be the dividing line for the sort of work for hire you are talking about. Do work you believe in. Do work you think actually informs rather than simply persuades. But how do you determine what is what someone would actually choose if you hadn’t intervened? And what if the person doesn’t know themselves, or is of two minds, or has time inconsistent preferences? Unless you have a crystal ball or can read people’s minds, the notion that you should refrain from doing work for hire unless it is advancing the greater good or is consistent with what you actually believe, etc., is difficult to actualize without engaging in what some people would call paternalism – that is, deciding what is best for other people or the world at large. I actually think that is unavoidable. The stance of so-called neutral detachment from the state of mind of the listener, or from the moral worth of a particular project, is, I think, what helps allow people to do what they otherwise would find morally objectionable – like help persuade people to continue smoking even when they know the smokers would prefer to quit. On the other hand, we have the well-known perils of trying to decide what is best for others – which is why I think Sunstein and Thaler tied themselves into something of a knot, attempting to avoid charges of paternalism, by using the term “libertarian paternalism.” It sounds good but really still involves paternalism. They cannot tell us why using behavioral research to put the fruit first (or wherever) in the cafeteria line would not involve a paternalistic judgment that better food choices might = better health and that is what people *really* want. And I think it is paternalistic; except that I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with that. The choices weren’t “free” in the first place because the choice architecture was designed by those who have been exploiting the research we’ve talked about to engineer choices. Re-engineering them is just trading the judgment of the marketer (“this is what is best for us – the marketer”) for the government (“this is what is best for us – the people”). I think that is, as President Lincoln remarked, part of the legitimate role of government – to do for the people what they cannot do for themselves. In this case what they cannot do is single-handedly defend against professional persuaders who use the sort of research we are discussing.
    That is a VERY different thing than admitting expert testimony into a lawsuit (which has other problems and limitations and we could perhaps do with more expert testimony that has some empirical foundation and less that looks like phrenology) and also different than expert testimony to Congress (where law makers might have short attention spanned and conflicting interests but at least they have a lot of folks to help them interpret the information). I think (in general) both of those things are good.
    At the end of the day though I don’t think there is a way to definitively sort out for these folks (or for anyone) when it is right and when it is wrong except with resort to one’s conscience and a good faith attempt at promoting the public welfare. And no matter what you do, sometimes you will make the wrong choice.I don’t think there is a way to act in the world without sometimes being wrong anymore than there is a way to make a real intellectual contribution (either in academic journals or in the public at large) without generating criticism. :-)

  2. Thanks for another thoughtful comment, Tamara! I’m putting together a follow up for the end of this week or beginning of next.

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