Red Flag Review – Social Norms and Global Environmental Challenges: The Complex Interaction of Behaviors, Values, and Policy. Kinzig et al

When learned people publish a serious proposal to gain special access to public policy makers to promote their specific perspective, they have a responsibility to establish proper rationale and safeguards in their proposal. This is especially true in today’s digital world where anyone with a computer linked to the Internet – not just the intended specialist experts – can read at least part of the paper free of charge. Authors Kinzig, Ehrlich, Alston, Arrow, Barrow, Buchman, Daily, B. Levin, S. Levin, Oppenheimer, Ostrom, and Saari present a case for narrowing the gap between science, scientific discoveries and insights, and the development and delivery of public policies (policies created and implemented by government). They offer no mechanism for their accountability as scientific advisers in the proposed special committee to advise non-scientist policy makers. They make a bland statement that their proposed improvements in modification of social norms and the messages they wish to promote can be carried out in a transparent, fair, and representative democracy, while at the same time acknowledging that some of the recommendations will carry a burden that even a majority of society would not want.

Scientists in general (including me as a scientist) make the assumption that knowledge gained from research is important to everyone. Not everyone agrees with that position. In many cases the world of science gradually creeps into everyday life with no one even really paying much attention other than noticing there is a better washing machine or TV set to be purchased, that medical ills are more easily solved or that the radio announcer highlights some new particle has been discovered that you never knew they were looking for.

But every once in a long while scientists make a discovery that sheds new and unwelcome light on a set of beliefs. In the case with this paper, scientists have discovered to their horror that people are now so numerous that our effluents are compromising the entire global ecosystem to the extent that it threatens humanity if left unattended. Even more distressing is that the rates of change are both exponential and a complex of interactions making the early trends difficult for the ordinary observer to recognize. Now that this danger is recognized, many, but not all scientists feel a responsibility to warn the world of the impending danger. When their warnings are ignored (for example: large scale pollutants, overuse of resources, anthropogenic global warming) some individual scientists take it on themselves to become advocates outside of the normal confines of scientific inquiry. For a scientist, this can be difficult. Normal rules of logic and rational debate are no longer applicable. Ideologies are defended vigorously and often with as much intelligence as any scientist can muster, however illogical and free of real evidence the proponent might be. In a debate when the scientist feels constrained to remain within logic and evidence, it is not easy to unseat or convince someone who is not bound by the same set of rules. In addition, within science there is a general belief (sometimes betrayed) that the research will be conducted in an honest and objective fashion. In the rest of society, advocates often take a position and make no effort to look for truth or fact, only to win the position, case, or argument.

Nonetheless, a scientist who has done the research or who has reviewed the work and come to the conclusion that there is indeed a danger that is difficult to see coming, but that is very real, feels a sense of urgency to make sure the message and the implications of the message are heard, understood, and acted on. As a biologist watching the ecological results of the interconnected dangers, I share that feeling of urgency and a desire to help our children and grandchildren cope with or solve the problems I know are there, but difficult to see as big, even lethal problems. At the same time, I have enough life experience in many cultures to recognize that science is very limited in its ability to convince people who do not want to be convinced. Scientists who stay inside the confines of science suffer the same limitations.

So scientists who want to advocate solutions but who are uncomfortable with the chaotic and unstructured world of politics and public opinion search for ways to communicate the results of science. A growing interest among young scientists is to reach out through social media or niche television or by writing popular articles in magazines, or giving lectures at schools and non-technical venues.

The technique suggested in this paper is novel. The paper advocates a structured, science-based committee that would interact directly with government policy makers to present the scientific position on global environmental issues and make recommendations for policy changes that would alter the behavior and social norms of society to better deliver the public good in the face of the environmental challenges. They propose to do this using special techniques of behavior modification to be elucidated by a new area of science to be funded by government. The new area of science would be developed around the intersection of environmental sciences, human behavioral sciences, and public policy mechanisms.

EDIT This paper is now available in full: from Bioscience. The red flag issue is that the authors must have known this proposal is fraught with both ethical and ideological challenges. They must have known that the paper could be seen by more than the Bioscience normal readership. And they must have known that making bald assumptions that “scientists know best” and that the only accountability rests with the government and perpetrators of the problems was just not going to fly unchallenged. And yet there is no real attempt to explain or suggest where the scientific veracity and accountability will be placed.

To add to the alarm bells, Bioscience is a journal that is hidden behind a paywall. The general public can only see the first page which includes the title, abstract, and opening statements. The rest is hidden.

The average citizen who is not themselves a scientist or policy expert will feel that that the cost of downloading the paper (more than $1.25 per page for 12 substantive pages) is an exorbitant amount of money in comparison say to an entire e-book. Most people will therefore read only the easily obtained and free words. Had the early part of the paper been written with the perspective in mind of all the above real-world perspectives and uncertainties covered, there would be no red flag. That did not happen.

Instead, much of the abstract is understandable only if there is context, and most of that context is not within the sphere of most citizen’s experience. Taken together with part of the title:

“Social Norms and Environmental Challenges” and words like “Government policies are needed when people’s behavior fail to deliver the public good”

the average citizen might begin to feel a little uneasy about just what the scientists have in mind and why. Who gets to decide what is the public good if it is not the public? Why do scientists feel they have a unique grasp of what the public good might be, especially in areas of behavioral norms of society? How will science be used as a tool in modifying those societal norms in the long-term? That sounds very scary. I would not be the least bit surprised if part of the reaction to this paper in the non-science world including politicians is to express visions of “big brother” coming after us. Already I have seen the New World Order conspiracy theorists express alarm that an “Agenda21” paper has passed through the peer review process. One comment (@JW_Spry on twitter) was: “We are now in the twilight zone.”

My guess is that a significant proportion of those who take the time as ordinary citizens to read the free text will take away the notion that this is about environmental and policy scientists using scare tactics (catastrophic environmental issues) to gain greater access to financial resources and to have much closer influence on the policy decisions of government through manipulating the norms of human society without having to go through the normal peer review process. Furthermore they will probably assume that the scientists will have notions significantly different from their own about what is good for people and what is not good for people. After all don’t we scientists live in ivory towers? On the face of it, they might also wonder why their elected politicians should be paying more attention to a bunch of egghead scientists with their own pecuniary and ideological interests, than the people who elected the politicians.

The last visible paragraph for the “free reader” is not reassuring and includes the following wording:

“Policy instruments such as penalties, regulations, and incentives may therefore be required to achieve significant behavioral modification …” and “Policies apply to everyone in a particular jurisdiction and, as a result, ensure that the burdens of proenvironment behavior are widely shared, which increases the probability of measurable positive outcomes.”

Without access to the rest of the paper and without access to the mindset of the authors, the implication is that some pretty heavy-handed actions could come thundering down on everyone, created and directed by scientists who in essence would be insulated from accountability by having achieved a special position close to government policy makers. In addition, the wording makes it clear that there is a penalty (“burden”), not a benefit attached to proenvironmental behavioral norms. I think the authors should have made it clear that this is not a necessary outcome of responsible stewardship of our planet.

The authors’ sense of urgency is expressed in their opening statement:

“The world’s people are confronted with a new class of environmental problems, unprecedented in their complexity and their spatial and temporal reach. These problems involve interconnected ecological and social systems operating on multiple scales and include climate disruption, ozone depletion, persistent organic pollutants, population and species declines and extinctions, emerging diseases, and antibiotic resistance.”

While this is a good definition for someone who understands the implications of both the environmental problems, their interconnectedness, complexity, and enormity. And while it might also be fine for someone who understands exponential rates intuitively, and thus has some kind of handle on why there is any urgency when almost no visible major impacts are currently available to point to, it is of almost no use to generate any sense of urgency in an ordinary citizen. There is no description of why the interconnectedness is important. There is no explicit statement of why it matters that these things happen at different scales, or that there is something called spatial and temporal reach.

How about this translation?

“Humanity has never before faced environmental problems of their own making that are almost invisible but that are accelerating both locally and globally at such a rate that we may not have time to fix them unless we can quickly convince people there is a huge problem that could spell the end of civilization as we know it.”

The abstract unfortunately could be misinterpreted to be a message to government decision-makers (in the context I am presenting here) as follows:

“We, the experts in environmental sciences and policy, know what is best for the world and we, with a little extra money and special access, can show you how to control the population so they change their beliefs and behavior to match our ideas which have been derived from careful research into both the environment and how people’s minds work.”

The authors obviously assume that the informed and science-based readers will have long-past accepted that these dangers individually and collectively are real and present. They also assume that expert readers will understand and agree with the integrity of the authors. But for the general public, there is no general agreement on essentially any of these issues individually. I wager there is almost no understanding of the idea that these vast and interconnected issues that operate in exponential fashion are in any way something that requires immediate and urgent attention or risk losing human civilization. Furthermore, very few are comfortable suffering huge “burdens” in our economy and life style on the off chance that some generations down the road will need our puny science-based actions of today.

I have been following advocates on both sides of many of these issues. I welcomed the ideas implied in this paper when I heard about it. But, when I read the free-access text and listened to or read some of the reactions to the free-access text, I was made quite uneasy by how easily it could be misinterpreted both by ordinary citizens and by politicians who are the least bit skeptical of science-based results. Now what does the entire paper actually say and how is it distinguished from what could be interpreted by reading the free-access text from what is actually intended by reading the full text of the paper?

I presume that the reason environmental problems were chosen is not just because some of the authors are environmental scientists, but because there is good reason why other real and present dangers that could also wipe out civilization were omitted. Unfettered human population increase, nuclear warfare, global economic failure, and aspirations of global domination by groups (corporate or fundamentalist religions) ready to take advantage of opportunities presented by crises all have the potential to wipe out civilization as we know it. In fact, these omitted dangers are very much front and center, but definitely not under control. Nuclear warfare and global economic failure are constant topics and involve many nations individually and the United Nations as a coordinating body. Global economic failure is a hot topic amongst essentially all nations today. And the so-called “war on terror” is but one aspect of the attempt to combat fundamentalist groups intent on global domination.

Human population growth will become transformative for civilization as agricultural potential reaches its maximum. If the rate of growth of energy continues without shifting away from fossil fuels (climate change left aside for a moment), energy will become a limiting factor as oil-based energy supplies increase in cost.

Why would the authors have focussed on environmental problems? After all, Ehrlich, as one of the authors, has long demonstrated that human population increase carries with it all of the environmental issues that they outlined. I am going to assume that the difference is that most dangers are pretty obvious. Whereas the dangers of the environment are not obvious and often belittled as putting animals before people. My assumption is that the authors take the position that the relative invisibility, the creeping beginnings of exponential rates of loss, and the vast, but little appreciated interconnectedness on a global scale, means that most people, including our best politicians will be taken by surprise when overwhelming requirements to combat the results of past policies that did not recognize the dangers, loom suddenly in their faces and they are most likely helpless to do anything effective.

I am also assuming that they feel they are in the best possible opposition to advise the government on two fronts: 1) the definition of the nature of the environmental problems with recommendations on how to mitigate and or adapt to those problems, and 2) how to motivate the citizenry to be on side with the scientific environmental recommendations. Finally I must assume that their intentions are honorable and that the research in both the environmental sphere and the human behavioral sphere will be undertaken honestly and with the highest degree of integrity.

The fundamental argument is that education and persuasion of a small number of people, even influential people, will not be sufficient. Instead the majority will need to be swayed. They discuss the point if in today’s world the emulation of a few influential people will work to create a tipping point, or if a more general campaign would be needed. They specifically argue that: “Substantial numbers of people will have to alter their existing behaviors to address this new class of global environmental problems.”

They isolate four policy instruments to investigate as potential areas all of which are routinely used by a mixture of government, corporations, charitable organizations, neighborhood groups, organized religions, and public and private schools. The first is to directly influence personal norms and influencing belief about what others are doing through advertising, information dissemination and appeals. Second, making desired behaviors more convenient and visible with the intention of creating targets for behavioral norms and increasing social disapproval for failing to undertake these easy behavioral changes. Third, imposing taxes, fines, as well as allowances and subsidies to signal the importance society places on these behaviors. Fourth imposing regulations in the form of laws and standards so that repeated behavior and experience embeds the behavior in the values of society. The authors also are quick to raise a warning that these policy instruments can backfire and produce undesired results such as revealing that others are not doing their part (so why should I?). Where financial interventions are used the policy can create a financial rather than a moral incentive so that people judge value using a cost benefit assessment rather than a moral or social values norm. In one instance there is a potential to reveal that many other people are exhibiting bad behavior so your effort is not worthwhile.

Some examples are illuminating such as the imposition of recycling against the objections for increased costs. But now recycling in many areas is second nature – a part of what is normal behavior. For most of us, car seat belts have a similar history, beginning with objections from many, but now almost universally accepted as a good thing. By contrast imposing severe penalties in alcohol prohibition eras led to short-term reduction but made no difference to social norms or long-term behavior; people still drink more-or-less as they did before prohibition or are influenced by other factors. In another example of a backfire, the imposition of a fine for parents being late in picking up their children from school resulted in more, not fewer late parents. The rationale was that the parents now saw, not “poor behavior” but instead a contract in which by paying the fine they were paying the school to take care of the children if they were late. This same behavior can be seen in many corporate behavior patterns wherein the company sees the fine as a cheap way to indulge in environmentally poor behavior and judges the value society places on the cost of the fine compared to the benefit to the bottom line.

The authors contend that for environmental issues, there are two norms involved: first is to conform and to cooperate, and the second is the individual already values proenvironmental values. They argue that because the social norms of conformity and cooperation are powerful, they can have the desired effect even if the people being affected do not particularly care one way or another about environmental values – they just do not want to be different. They cite research that demonstrates a combination of communication and punishment was most effective in solving social dilemmas. Furthermore they suggest that cooperative behavior emerges most in situations where the communities are small (or in networks) and homogenous in their value structure. Here the combination of communication and punishment to enforce norms works very well, especially if it is difficult to get away with being different. The effective management of common resources (where no one in particular owns them: air, water, climate, wild fish), requires sound monitoring, sensitivity to local conditions, graduated sanctions, and conflict resolution mechanisms. In describing all of these ideas, the authors are careful to understand that many people may object to governments taking an expanded role in changing social norms, but they state that their recommendations can be carried out in a way that abides by the principles of representative democracy, including transparency, fairness, and accountability.

Much of the paper refers to the general lack of good research to highlight or use in creating effective policies that work. Five areas are isolated for particular attention that would be addressed by scientific investigation of how to best deal with the:
1) More realistic policy interventions in collective-action models
2) The role of error (deception) in displaying and detecting behaviors
3) More realistic network structures
4) The role of absolute versus relative payoffs
5) The role of slowly changing versus rapidly changing norms and behaviors.

The authors specifically address the notion that many people resist the idea of taxes to penalize the use of fossil fuels and instead prefer stricter standards for fuel efficiency and building-efficiency standards. They essentially suggest that there is currently no clear knowledge of what will actually work in the long term. On the other hand the authors argue that because taxes are seen as part of normal government actions, they can over the long-term, work to change people’s behavior.

They have three recommendations for improving the knowledge base and understanding of the norms of society:
1) greater inclusion of social and behavioral scientists in periodic environmental policy assessments
2) establishment of teams of scholars and policy makers that can assess on a policy-relevant timescales the short- and long-term effectiveness of policy interventions
3) alteration of academic norms to allow more progress on these issues.

All of these recommendations have far-reaching implications for the academic world and for the interaction of politicians and academic scholars. Despite the enormity of all of the issues from the environmental dangers to the political interest in science to massive changes in the role of academics to assist the world to be safe, the authors remain optimistic that it can be achieved with adjustments to behavioral and societal norms rather than repressive approaches.

Noble aspirations all, and I agree that some form of improved knowledge and understanding is needed, and needed fast. I look to the authors to prepare a second paper detailing a bit more of the precautions, checks and balances, accountability measures, and system of review inside such a mixed group as teams of scholars and policy-makers. I also recommend strongly that more care is taken in presenting the first page of a paper that is behind a paywall so that inadvertent misunderstandings and overarching assumptions are less likely for the reader who chooses not to pay the fee to read the entire paper. Finally, of course there is a measure of profiteering on the part of the JSTOR and ITHAKA folks who are asking far more for a digital transaction than is reasonable for the ordinary reader. The alternative to publishing in a journal that is either not behind a paywall or that is reasonable in its demands for compensation for a digital transaction so that the reluctance to read the entire paper will be small.

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