J.D. Trout – The Science of the Good Society

September 11, 2009

J.D. Trout is a professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, and an adjunct professor at the Parmly Sensory Sciences Institute. He writes on the nature of scientific and intellectual progress, as well as on the contribution that social science can make to human well-being. He is the author of Measuring the Intentional World, and co-author of Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment. His most recent book is The Empathy Gap: Building Bridges to the Good Life and the Good Society.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, J. D. Trout argues for using science to engineer society in ways that help people overcome their natural cognitive biases. He notes that whether or not we know it, we are always participants in social experiments, which are often conducted by unqualified elected officials. He details a number of successful small experiments that have public policy implications, such as using social science to trick people into keeping hospitals more germ-free, public bathrooms cleaner, and prescriptions from being filled erroneously. He explores the tensions between the unfettered free market and governmental regulation in this regard, and argues that in many cases it is merely an empirical question as to whether the free market can solve a particular problem. He discusses the anti-vax movement, and the best strategies to adopt in order to overcome suspicions of public health measures such as widespread vaccination programs.

He argues that the evidence is overwhelming that the general public lacks the cognitive resources to consistently make good decisions about its well-being, and he defends this view from charges that it is “Big Brother.” He makes a distinction between the public making good decisions about what priorities to pursue, and making good decisions about the means to pursue them. He tells why he thinks the U.S. Government should create something like a House Committee on Social Science, and how such a Committee would offer an alternative to failed “Blue Ribbon” panels such as the Meese Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. He contends that the United States Government should have tax-payer funded “well being programs,” similar to programs in some European countries, as a public health measure, because happy people are healthier people. He he explains how the Obama Administration is allied with such proposals to use science to better engineer society, because Obama is an “Enlightenment President,” who believes in the power of science to transform society for the better. And he describes what science activists can do to advance such an agenda.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 11th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries. The radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. I’d like to remind our listeners that there’s this cruise coming up. CFI is putting on of the Western Caribbean featuring Paul Kurtz and Lawrence Krauss and other staff of the Center for Inquiry. I’ve been on these cruises there. A lot of fun, more than that. There’s a real kind of palpable sense of community of reason for the time that you’re at sea. This cruise is November 12th through 20th. And if you want more information about it, you can find that at point of inquiry dot org. My guest again this week is Professor J.D. Trought to continue our discussion about his book, The Empathy Gap. Professor Trought is professor of philosophy and adjunct professor in the Parmly Sensory Sciences Institute at Loyola University in Chicago. He’s had fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities. His previous books are measuring the Intentional World Epistemology in the Psychology of Human Judgment and the Theory of Knowledge. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Professor JD Trout. 

Thanks very much. 

Professor, we were talking before about cognitive biases, research in in the social sciences and the psychological sciences and ways that you think we should. My term engineer society to help people overcome their natural cognitive biases. 

That’s right. We can have grand arguments about how controlling that kind of view is of individual preferences or individual interests. But as I mentioned last time, it’s worth noting that we’re participants in social experiments all the time. And oftentimes those experiments are never explicitly designed. And so they’re very badly run. Legislators oftentimes treat policies that they’re proposing as potential experiments, but they’re not really designed by people who know how to design prospective policy experiments. 

You can begin small as an alternative and end you recount a number of examples in the book of these kind of small experiments, but that have public policy implications. So the book’s not just some self-help thing on critical thinking. You recount all this research about how to better engineer a society, you know, to get people to do what the scientists think they should do for their flourishing or their well-being. I love the example that you relate about how to get hospital professionals to wash their hands. Making it a policy in the hospital wasn’t enough. Putting up signs in the bathroom. Employees must wash hands wasn’t enough. You have to kind of psychologically trick them if you want a really high compliance rate. 

Right. And you can psychologically trick them in a number of ways or get them to yield to pressures, because after all, these are important issues. It’s true that we’re we’re pressuring people in the workplace, but we’re pressuring them to in ways that will prevent hospital borne infections. 

We’re pressuring them. But there are public health reasons we’re doing it. It’s not just like state control wanting to be in charge of everyone’s lives. You’re it’s happening for the greater good. 

That’s right. And so not only does it help to remind people what their hands look like on screen savers on their computers, but you mean their German fisted hands. 

Yeah, that was that was one of one of the methods to get a high compliance rate to wash hands rather than just putting a sign up screen savers throughout the whole hospital. I can’t remember which one it was showed pictures of doctors hands with germs on them. 

Right. Well, it wasn’t just some doctor’s hands. It was your hands. Right. All right. Oh, yeah. 

And in you know, in addition, they would put washbasins in public spaces so that everybody knew that they could alleviate the nervousness of others by washing their hands. And one of those baths, you know that you know, people that settled the question in their own minds, patients or patient families, that this person was not in any obvious way carrying an infection right before they were gonna go check on their loved one. Right. 

Yeah. You’re actually suggesting that this serves as a kind of example for the kinds of things we should do all over the place to better engineer society. Same goes true for the engineering of bathrooms. For instance, you recount the example from Northern Europe about the design of the men’s bathroom at an airport to keep people from urinating on the floor while they put a little fly or kind of on the porcelain of the urinal basin. And it gives men something to aim at when they’re urinating. And so their bathrooms were like the cleanest of all the airport bathrooms around. 

Right. There’s a picture of it in the in the book taken at the skippable airport in Amsterdam. And, you know, there are all sorts of subtle techniques like that. And because a lot of what we do know is from experiments and experiments don’t always generalize to any old context. A lot of these effects may be context dependent. They may change and it may be ineffective in some cultures, but not others. And so they have to be tested out in each particular case. And that’s the virtue of a small program like that. So, you know, one of my favorite examples is the drug error, Casey’s prescription error case, where all the names of the prescriptions are very, very similar. 

So it just leads to more pharmacist error. 

That’s right. And they didn’t get similar get to be similar by accident. You know, focus groups told drug companies that they liked the drugs that began with C and X because they found it very Psion, C, Zoloft and Zo Macs and stuff like that. And so there was a rush to drug names that began with Z. Well, this is a disaster waiting to happen because people who know speech perception know that your speakers are most likely to occur in the initial combinations. And pharmacists have to say so many drug names and write them down and listen to them over the phone. They handle so many prescriptions that on the one hand, it’s sobering to know that about 600 people, by last estimate die from phonological errors related to prescriptions because the wrong drug is prescribed. But nobody’s even calculated the number of poisonings that there have been drug poisonings. As a as a result of that. 

Right. But the calculating that has gone on, it shows that the highest rate of those mistakes are at the beginning of the month when when government checks come in and people are getting their prescriptions. So you can draw a direct line from the similar sounding names and their errors. 

And this is, you know, is a very good example of why inside strategies don’t work. You can’t say to a pharmacist as a solution to the problem, try to be more careful, you know, try to concentrate. None of that stuff really works because they’re working with volume that doesn’t allow them to do that. And so what does work is using barcodes on the drugs, storing the drugs out of alphabetical order so that people don’t automatically complete the sequence with a more frequent drug name. And to control the naming environment so that these conflicts don’t arise in the first place. So there are psychological models that show you how open psychological spaces between then different names and the adopted name Counsel, which is a new council that vets potential names will oftentimes say no, sorry, you can’t use that name because this drug is in the same space and people are likely to confuse the two. And with the different indications, it could be disastrous. 

But you have two competing sets of interests. You have this like public health or if not public health. You have the kind of interests of the patient who doesn’t want to give the wrong medicine, be poisoned or killed. But you are also have the interests of the pharmaceutical corporation who does marketing research, which is a kind of scientific research that says who we will sell more product if it has this kind of name versus that kind of name. 

Right. And that’s why the government steps in, because the government is there to try to protect people when business interests might be orthogonal to those concerns. 

This sounds like another example of your is sometimes it’s implicit, sometimes it’s explicit criticism of this belief or faith in the unfettered market to solve all of these sorts of problems. 

Yeah, I think in small cases, it’s it’s always an empirical question whether that market can solve a problem. And I don’t think it should ever be ruled out by any means. I think the you know, the default ought to be what does the science say? 

So you’re not some biased talk about biases. You’re not some biased Marxist college professor like you hear some people on the far right assume everyone in the academy is. You’re not. You don’t have this, like, communist agenda to undermine the American way. You’re looking at the science. 

Right. I just want to begin with what the best science of the time would suggest about a certain set of circumstances. So if a small push of government incentives for loans for a walk to work program will work, then by all means we should do it, you know, so that people can live near work and reduce their commuting. The evidence is pretty clear that people find commuting really repellent, and if they’re at all inclined to avoid it, it’s actually going to increase their subjective well-being. How happy they are. 

Yeah, and a number of other things, too. Less pollution. They’re healthier. They don’t really feel better because they’re not commuting, but they’re getting exercise. All of these all of these things come. Gather to make it a commendable public policy proposal. 

That’s right. And I think it’s an open question then whether the market can solve that problem. And in many cases, it can. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of the empathy gap. Building Bridges to the Good Life and the Good Society through our website. Point of inquiry dot org. Professor, you mentioned last episode about the kind of the situation of parents vaccinating their children and if it’s just luck of the draw and their child is in that very, very small sliver, that small number of children who have an adverse reaction, that the parent assumes all this guilt and and thinks if only I didn’t do that when they don’t realize it wasn’t really their fault. That raises the bigger question about the anti vaccine and people who use examples like that to argue in a more mainstream sort of way that you should be skeptical of the government’s intervention in your kind of medical care or your health by telling you you must get a vaccination. There are even people like Bill Marr, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, actively encouraging people not to get the H1N1 vaccination. The public health professionals in the U.S. seem to think that all we need to do is tell people the facts. The truth will win out. We just tell people the best science of the day says you need to get vaccinated. That doesn’t seem to be working very well. What’s what’s your kind of response to that? It’s not enough just to tell people get vaccinated. 

Right. There is a lot of talk about this right now. And, you know, it happens that, you know, sometimes it comes from people who are social conservatives and sometimes from principled libertarians and sometimes people from the far left who are just skeptical of medicine or something. That’s right. And there’s a lot of individual variability across the country. And so one question is, just as as a citizenry, how much do we want to respond to peripheral voices of this sort when they’ve replicated a complaint many times over? I mean, it’s understandable that people have a certain uneasiness about government intervention in general in the United States early on and in, you know, our our early and young country fought a war against government imposition. And then about 90 years later, half of the country fought against the government in the civil war. And so the United States citizens have always been a little queasy about the government compared to, say, European country. 

Right. In the U.S., if you have a problem, blame the government in in Europe, if you have a problem, look to the government for the solution. 

But I think one thing that separates legitimate suspicion from paranoia and full flora is having specific reasons to doubt the government in particular cases of specific reasons for supposing that the government is up to something specific, reasons for supposing that it’s trying to deceive you. Notice, in the cases that I’ve talked about, of creating context in which people can decide it’s in cases where people are clear what they want the outcome to be. They want to make the sorts of choices that will land in an easier retirement. They want to make the choices that will allow them to live longer. The question is, do they have the cognitive resources and the resolve to make those decisions on the spot when the evidence is overwhelming that humans don’t have those abilities? 

So if the evidence is overwhelming, that we don’t have what it takes to make those good decisions on our own. You’re suggesting the government make those decisions for us or at least set up situations that stacked the deck in our favor. How is that not unlike Big Brother or those central planners in Eastern Europe? You know, a group of scientists and some paternalistic sense. They decide what’s best for everyone because they don’t think the citizenry are smart enough or capable enough to make their own good decisions. 

You know, it’s important to get clear on what you mean by not smart enough to make their own decisions. I think the American public is not only very smart, but definitely smart enough to make these decisions about how they want to retire, where they want to be in 20 years, what kind of medical care they want to choose so that they’ll be as healthy as is reasonably possible. They can make those decisions on their own, of course. The question is, how did they select the means to it? And so one role that the government might have is to provide means to the ends that we all agree about that are all relatively good means that won’t leave anybody uncovered by health care, won’t leave anybody to die in the streets to go hungry or any child to be without. Hope or education or a good start from good health care. So it’s not so much a question of whether the public is smart enough to, quote, unquote, make choices for themselves. It’s the choices that everybody agree about. That government can help in making and creating good means, good ways of getting there. 

So the government’s not deciding what the goals should be. The government’s you’re proposing should use the best science of the day to figure out the best ways to get there. Let the people decide what they want for their flourishing or their well-being. Right. Right. And let the government use the best science to figure out how to get there. 

Right. And I close the book with an explicit discussion of how the government could find out about what matters to people. You create citizen panels that provide a stratified sample of the American public and begin asking them questions with experts on the scene to inform them about what certain kinds of policies would include. And, you know, ask them whether they care more about one priority rather than another and what form they would like this health care to take. And so on. 

All of that sounds in a much better way more participatory than the stories you hear in Eastern Europe. But the central planners who get together with no input from the population and decide things like, oh, the buildings should look like this and the like, the apartment buildings should be designed like this for maximum flourishing, but instead they end up being like bleak and depressing and stuff. 

You’re saying to avoid that pitfall of central planning involve the citizenry? 

That’s right. I mean, there are ordinary organs of participation in our democracy. But there could be additional ones where, you know, the citizen panels would be able to express their desires as individuals on that panel without the filter of, say, political lobbyists influencing politicians. 

I was struck that one of the things you’ve pushed for in your book is something like a House committee on social science. Do you think that is setting up a government governmental body that uses the best science that you go into in your book? Is that actually in the realm of possibility? 

I’m not sure whether it is or not. You know, we already have a House Committee on Science and Technology that covers biology and the physical sciences Jim Underdown, but doesn’t really ask questions about human flourishing or all these happiness studies or in northern Europe right now. 

They’re actually governmental bodies devoted to studying how happy everyone is, how to increase happiness. That’s not going on in the States. 

Oh, that’s right. And, you know, one one virtue of a House committee on social science is that it presents a real alternative to some of the embarrassments of the past that were blue ribbon panels that the government ran. The Meese commission always comes first to mind to study the effects of pornography, and the individuals were appointed to the committee and hand-picked and they didn’t follow any reasonable design in order to uncover interesting facts about the consequences for society of pornography. And, you know, it was a missed opportunity. It wasn’t funded very well. It wasn’t designed well. And the conclusions were already known before it began. A House committee on Social Science would appoint experts on the design of policy. And, you know, you could vet those individuals. You could select them in the same ways that you think some of the same mechanisms that, you know, journals and and the NSF and the NIH used to choose their referees for proposals so that, you know, even if somebody has an explicit and public political agenda, the question is always whether they can make these scientific judgments in a way that’s independent of whatever their personal commitments are. And sometimes you do find those individuals and sometimes you do have individuals who just aren’t politically interested or politically engaged, and they can make suggestions about what the data actually show. 

So if you’re if if you’re not certain that there could be something like the House Committee on Social Science, although you you you suggest it’s a really good idea. 

You’re excited about it. You’re not certain it could ever happen in this real world. Do you think it’s possible that, alternatively, that something like happiness or well-being could be increasingly seen as a public health issue and not just as something, you know, for the self-help aisle? You know, at the bookstore. In other words, could the U.S. actually have funded wellbeing programs? 

Well, I mean, when you find that happy people are healthier than it does seem. To be a public health issue. But I’m not that pessimistic about the idea of a committee on social science actually being developed. It’s just a question of whether such a committee would be best located, say, under a committee on science and Technology or a separate House committee. But certainly, you know, economists who would fall under the Egis of a House committee on social science are already very active in the administration. And so are psychologists who are involved at the FDA, for example, and in homeland security and so on. There are a number of psychologists involved across these federal agencies. And, you know, the president has very good people to talk to. 

It’s interesting that you mentioned the president, our new president, Barack Obama. He seems really in line with this whole agenda, even if he’s not speaking exactly the same language. What he’s talking about seems really in simpatico with the kinds of proposals in your book. Would you say that your agenda is more of a Democratic Party agenda than, say, a Republican Party agenda? 

Well, I think President Obama is the kind of enlightenment president he has hope for the power of science to transform people’s future likened the Enlightenment. 

He has faith in human reason to solve problems. All that stuff. 

That’s right. I think he has the trust in the American public to be able to make the judgments about what’s going to best serve their well-being. And if you have those two features, this belief in the power of science and the trust in the American people to identify and pursue their own ends, then you have a very good prescription for the creation of well-being policies. 

J.D., what should we do to hasten this along? Someone’s listening to this and says, wow, here’s a kind of scientific program that advances my my social kind of values. How can I, as an ordinary citizen, push it forward? Is this something I should be lobbying for or give me a how to? 

Well, I think, you know, the Internet is a powerful source of information and the landscape is changing very quickly about how to express your political desires. So newspapers are changing so that they post stories and changes to those stories by the minute. And also some newspapers that are online or magazines that are online are composed almost entirely of very skilled and smart bloggers. And so, you know, one thing that people oftentimes do is open a discussion about topics that are actually in the news, but informed by this kind of scientific background or scientific research. So that’s that’s one avenue. And the other ones are the more traditional routes where you actually try to communicate to representatives. But I think a lot of the changes will come from waves that politicians diagnose out there in the public rather than, you know, phone calls that they get from them. 

You sound really optimistic that it’s actually within the realm of possibility that we will increasingly see policy based on the best science. 

Yeah, I think I think that’s all the signs point in that direction, in part because some such effects are already in place. So there there wasn’t always been adopted names, counsel in the in the FDA and or related the FDA there. There weren’t these sorts of proposals to construct houses that would frustrate crime and yet construct them in ways that were esthetically pleasing. You know, social sciences used all the time now in arguments about how to deter crime, how to deter suicide and so on. So as it becomes more accepted feature of the public discussion, I think the good effects of implementing policies based on science can only win over the public. 

Last question as we’re finishing up, there’s there’s kind of the point of view among many scientists that science should stay out of moral values. Questions. Right. There are moral implications to a lot of scientific research. But don’t leave that to the scientists. Leave that to the moralists. So scientists invent an atomic bomb. But it’s not up to scientists to tell you whether or not they should. You’re using science, though, to really go in a different direction. You’re saying science can inform our deliberations and our conversations about what? 

Is the best society to have or, you know, the the good society, how to make it the the fairest for all involved. 

That’s right. But it won’t be the scientists themselves who are telling us how to live. 

And so the question is, you don’t see. You don’t see there being an inherent conflict. Do you, in science in these. I think really actually moral choices. 

No, I mean, I think what most people want is to have the best possible information available on which to make their decisions, with which to make their decisions. And so I think, you know, as long as they can get that information from a respected and working science, the American public can make those choices. It won’t be the scientists who are telling us how we should live. They won’t be making any moral evaluations. They’ll be making recommendations about how we ought to raise and if we want certain kinds of ends and we choose whether or not we want those sorts of them. 

Thank you very much for joining me again on Points of inquiry, Professor J.D. Trout. Thanks very much for having me. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri, Point of inquiries. Music is composed for by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.