Whose Framing?

Book review: Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea by George Lakoff

This book makes a few good points about what cognitive science tells us about differing concepts associated with the word freedom. But most of the book consists of attempts to explain his opponents’ world view that amount to defending his world view by stereotyping his opponents as simplistic.

Even when I agree that the people he’s criticizing are making mistakes due to framing errors, I find his analysis very implausible. E.g. he explains Bush’s rationalization of Iraqi deaths as "Those killed and maimed don’t count, since they are outside the war frame. Moreover, Bush has done nothing via direct causation to harm any Iraqis and so has not imposed on their freedom". Anyone who bothers to listen to Bush can see a much less stupid rationalization – Bush imagines we’re in a rerun of World War II, where the Forces of Evil have made it inevitable that some innocent people will die, and keeping U.S. hands clean will allow Evil to spread.

Lakoff’s insistence that his opponents are unable to understand indirect, systematic causation is ironic, since he shows no familiarity with most of the relevant science of complex effects of human action (e.g. economics, especially public choice economics).

He devotes only one sentence to what I regard as the biggest single difference between his worldview and his opponents’: his opponents believe in "Behavior as naturally governed by rewards and punishments."

His use of the phrase "idea theft" to describe uses of the word freedom that differ from his use of that word is objectionable both due to the problems with treating ideas as property and with his false implication that his concept of freedom resembles the traditional U.S. concept of freedom (here’s an example of how he rejects important parts of the founders’ worldview: "One of the biggest mistakes of the Enlightenment was to counter this claim with the assumption that morality comes from reason. In fact, morality is grounded in empathy").

If his claims of empathy are more than simply calling his opponents uncaring, then it may help explain his bias toward helping people who are most effective at communicating their emotions. For example, a minimum wage is part of his concept of freedom. People who have their wages increased by a minimum wage law tend to know who they are and often have labor unions to help spread their opinions. Whereas a person whom the minimum wage prevents from getting a job is less likely to see the cause or have a way to tell Lakoff about the resulting harm. (If you doubt the minimum wage causes unemployment, see http://www.nber.org/papers/w12663 for a recent survey of the evidence.)

This is symptomatic of the biggest problem with the book – he assumes political disagreements are the result of framing errors, not differences in understanding of how the world works, and wants to persuade people to frame issues his way rather than to use scientific methods when possible to better measure effects that people disagree about.

The book also contains a number of strange claims where it’s hard to tell whether Lakoff means what he says or is writing carelessly. E.g. "Whenever a case reaches a high court, it is because it does not clearly fit within the established categories of the law." – I doubt he would deny that Hamdi v. Rumsfeld fit clearly within established habeas corpus law.

This is a book which will tempt people to believe that anyone who agrees with Lakoff’s policy advice is ignorant. But people who want to combat Lakoff’s ideology should resist that temptation to stereotype opponents. There are well-educated people (e.g. some behavioral economists) who have more serious arguments for many of the policies Lakoff recommends.

[Cross-posted from Bayesian Investor Blog.]

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • http://profile.typekey.com/terralily/ Meredith

    he shows no familiarity with most of the relevant science of complex effects of human action (e.g. economics, especially public choice economics).

    If economics really were about studying the “complex effects of human action,” they’d be using far more complex mathematical models. Instead, economists rarely go beyond basic algebra and calculus: simple, direct mathematical models that are only helpful for studying society if you presume society operates exclusively by simple, direct causation.

    It seems that the conservatives self-selection into economic academia ultimately buttresses Lakoff’s point, albeit at a subtle, methodological level.

  • TGGP

    Economics is not a conservative profession. The average economist is a moderate democrat (as pointed out by Bryan Caplan). They are simply less left-leaning than other parts of academia. This is not due merely to heaps of libertarian economists being “socially liberal”, they really are few on the ground but noisy on the internet. See this by Daniel Klein that restricts its analysis to social scientists but does a cluster analysis of political opinions. They only seem prevalent because there as many of them as there are conservatives, but there are a lot fewer conservatives within academic economics than the general population.

  • TGGP

    Regarding Lakoff, this post from Mixing Memory about his feud with Pinker is quite good.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/terralily/ Meredith

    Call me crazy, but I’m a bit skeptical of evidence coming from Cato and a openly libertarian journal — especially when only 260-some odd economists bothered returning the survey. As far as I can tell, it’s just another shoddy study overhyped by the right-wing noise machine.

    The big problem with research on academics’ political leanings is that the people who care enough to research it are guided by a very specific agenda.

  • RWP

    Meredith,

    Do you see the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’? Why don’t you pick apart the study on its merits? Or can’t you?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/terralily/ Meredith

    Do you see the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’? Why don’t you pick apart the study on its merits? Or can’t you?

    Are you capable of making a legitimate argument instead of stringing together strawmen and ad homs?

    In my experience, those who cite Cato and Critical Review aren’t interested in legitimate debate — they’re interested in personal attacks dressed up in the intelligentsia’s clothes. (Which your comment beautifully illustrates, BTW.)

    Frankly, I don’t see any point in feeding trolls.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Meredith, I posted last November on studies showing academia tends liberal.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/terralily/ Meredith

    Meredith, I posted last November on studies showing academia tends liberal.

    Re-read my comments. First of all, I’m not talking about academia generally. Secondly, I’m not doubting that these studies come to this conclusion. What I am saying is that it’s important to put this in context. The context is leading toward a very peculiar kind of bias, and the studies you cite don’t transcend this bias — they merely reflect it.

    What I find interesting is that the studies conservatives are particularly fond of (e.g., Horowitz, Klein) focus exclusively on programs located within Universities’ “Humanities and Social Sciences” divisions — but a lot of economists get tenure in business schools. The competition between the two is getting pretty intense, but I’d imagine that B-schools’ dramatically higher starting pay attracts the more conservative economists right out of school.

    I just wonder whether a) this isn’t just my school and really is as widespread as the Chronicle makes it appear, and if so b) whether this could be the root of the center-left bias reported among economists in Klein.

  • TGGP

    The survey the Klein study used was not sent to liberal arts colleges rather than business colleges but to professional associations. It even included people outside of academia, who tend to be less left-leaning.

    Meredith, this is not a political blog where dismissing a study based on who its authors are associated with or your personal observation is par for the course. Read it, note its failings, and then feel free to conjecture that the reason for those failures is bias on the part of the authors.

    I place less weight on this study (I don’t think conservatives/christians are being locked out, I think self-selection is the biggest factor) than the other one, but it has wider scope and notes that among business professors the liberal conservative split is 49-39. I would have thought education and nursing would have been more left leaning due to their stereotypical “caring” nature, but things aren’t always as you assume.

  • michael vassar

    It seems to me that the caliber of comments on this blog is declining. More moderation please, while it’s still worth reading comments.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/terralily/ Meredith

    The survey the Klein study used was not sent to liberal arts colleges rather than business colleges but to professional associations. It even included people outside of academia, who tend to be less left-leaning.

    Ostensibly yes, but realistically, no. I’ve noticed that LAS econ profs join the AEA, but b-school econ profs usually join NABE and/or NBEA. In addition to the serious problems with sample size and self-selection he acknowledges, I think Klein seriously misunderstood the strength and nature of self-selection for the professional organizations he chose. It seems that he’s perpetuating Horowitz’s error, just in a more subtle manner at the professional organization level.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Meredith, this was not a post on how liberal academia is, so five comments on that topic here is a bit much. No more please.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/terralily/ Meredith

    I place less weight on this study (I don’t think conservatives/christians are being locked out, I think self-selection is the biggest factor) than the other one,

    But you don’t have a problem with the two separate forms of self-selection in Klein’s study (i.e., self-selection in returning the survey and the self-selection inherent in which individuals choose which professional organizations)?

    My problem with the Rothman study is that the 1987 study surveyed a completely different set of professors than the 1999 study. When you start excluding half of the previous sample — and when that half of the sample was decidedly more conservative — you’re still going to get extremely biased results.

    I would have thought education and nursing would have been more left leaning due to their stereotypical “caring” nature, but things aren’t always as you assume.

    That’s pretty much what I suspected. It’s not a question of the “caring” nature of the field so much as it is a question of the female-dominated nature of the field. Liberal women tend to think of settling down in their mid-to-late thirties, while more conservative women think of settling down in their mid-to-late twenties. I suspect it’s why more liberal women tend to become doctors and professors, while more conservative women become nurses and teachers.

    Meredith, this is not a political blog where dismissing a study based on who its authors are associated with or your personal observation is par for the course. Read it, note its failings, and then feel free to conjecture that the reason for those failures is bias on the part of the authors.

    I did. Wonder why I made detailed comments in response to your comments, but not TGGP and RWP? It’s because I’m an old pro when it comes to academic blogs, and I’m quite familiar with the telltale signs of a troll. I thought I was doing you a favor when it came to cutting their little trollish legs out from under them, but if you don’t want me here, fine. Point taken.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/bayesian/ Peter McCluskey

    Meredith,
    Can you provide examples of models which do better than economists’ models at analyzing the indirect effects of, say, changes in income tax rates or the minimum wage?
    What is better about the models you prefer? In what way do they “go beyond basic algebra and calculus”?