June 11, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

How to Nudge an Elitist

Smug elitists think they have a corner on truth and should tell the rest of us how to behave. They’ve given us the tools to push back.

News Editorial by David Coppedge

The new ‘science’ of nudging has an elitist stink about it. Nudgers think they know what is best for us, and they are going to manipulate us to behave based on alleged ‘scientific’ evidence of what makes people change. Admittedly, a gentle nudge is far better than torture, but who gives nudgers the right to go around the normal channels of reason and persuasion and treat their fellow human beings like Pavlov’s dogs? Who gives them the right to operate other people like marionettes? Are they not people themselves? How would they react to being nudged? Sniff the elitism of Science Daily’s article, “Behavioral ‘nudges’ offer a cost-effective policy tool.”

Governments around the world have increasingly turned to behavioral science to help address various policy problems — new research shows that some of the best-known strategies derived from behavioral science, commonly referred to as ‘nudges,’ may be extremely cost effective. The new study, which examined the cost-effectiveness of nudges and typical intervention strategies like financial incentives side-by-side, found that nudges often yield particularly high returns at a low cost when it comes to boosting retirement savings, college enrollment, energy conservation, and vaccination rates.

I note several things here. First of all, they’re talking about government. They’re talking about policy, which is typically enforced by the strong arm of government bureaucrats. And they are concerned only with results that save them money. They think nudging as a strategy is justified by “behavioral science”. And worst of all, they determine what the desired results are. For a democratic society, this is scary.

In all fairness, I can think of a number of situations where nudging would be admirable. Parents, for instance, might learn from pastors and doctors about the best ways to handle an autistic child with gentle words instead of frustrated outbursts. Therapists could help smokers or addicts who want to kick the habit with gentle reminders by phone or visits. Some patients afflicted with mental illness need nudging reminders to take their medicine. Caregivers of the elderly suffering from dementia often learn the value of distraction when a patient engages in risky behavior, such as walking out the door and down the street, where they could hurt themselves. Pastors often encourage accountability programs by linking counselors to parishioners who find themselves unable to control their sexual urges, are addicted to pornography, or get into episodes of anger or depression. Individuals might even nudge themselves out of bad habits with techniques like sublimation or meditation.

That’s not what the ‘behavioral science’ of nudging is about. It’s about government coercion. It’s about policy. And it reeks of elitism.

To see why, replace the policy cases listed above (boosting retirement savings, college enrollment, energy conservation, vaccination rates), which most citizens would find fairly innocuous, with some disturbing ones: nudging people out of certain worldviews the government finds offensive. Nudging people out of their beliefs about traditional marriage. Nudging citizens to hand over their guns. Nudging people to stop questioning evolution. Nudging people to turn in neighbors who don’t believe in man-caused global warming. In the hands of uncontrolled power, nudging could be a subversive resurrection of psychopolitics.

the ‘behavioral science’ of nudging is about government coercion. It’s about policy. And it reeks of elitism.

Do the authors of this article recognize the danger? “The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.” There’s a big red flag. These are the same people who publish ‘findings’ that cannot be replicated (9/05/15). These are the same pseudoscientists who cannot justify their relationship with the noble word science (5/18/12, 5/22/14) and sometimes abuse their patients (3/20/14). Even psychiatrists, who have medical degrees, face serious questions about their scientific legitimacy (5/10/13).

Nowhere in this article do the nudge advocates even think about the dangers of government manipulation. Nowhere do they worry about the legitimacy of the claims of “behavioral science.” Their focus is entirely on cost savings of nudging as a strategy for compliance. It sounds so nice. Who wouldn’t want a gentle nudge instead of a fine?

The researchers acknowledge that their analyses do not offer an exhaustive review of the comparative effectiveness of nudges and traditional policy tools. And there are many cases in which traditional tools — such as prohibitions and mandates — are essential for achieving specific policy objectives, and nudges might not be of value.

But the new findings clearly show that nudge-type strategies based in behavioral science do offer a useful, low-cost approach to promoting behaviors tied to a variety of important outcomes.

Whoa! When you see that word useful, you need to ask, “useful to whom?” Smell the elitism there? The policy makers know the outcomes they want. And the psychologists can give them a false air of scientific legitimacy to achieve their policy objectives with the least amount of money (taxpayer money, that is). If nudging doesn’t work, they can always fall back on torture: “prohibitions and mandates.”

The road to hell, we know, is paved with good intentions. Most examples of nudging are non-controversial. Like the wise parent or counselor, we want to help those under our care do the right thing, with tough love and gentleness. But don’t ever assume that of a politician or a scientist! Ronald Reagan famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’.”

So I have a suggestion. Since they have revealed their toolkit, let’s use it. Let’s nudge them back. After all, nudging is behavioral science, is it not? Science belongs to everyone. As free-thinking, rational citizens under a social contract for the common good, we have every right to return the favor. Try this one: tweet your representatives, and nudge them to fire the psychologists. Nudge the pseudoscientific nudgers to get a real job, like truck driving. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Then nudge your representatives to return to Constitutional strategies, like reasoned debate, instead of manipulative tricks of pop psychology.

Nudging Elitists Out of Their Yoda Complex

We can also help cure elitists out of their Yoda complex (a mental disorder that makes them feel superior and immune to the consequences of their own self-refuting worldviews). The method is simple; ask some nudging questions. Here are some examples of how to do it.

1. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a well-spoken and popular astronomer, is prone to overstatement about evolutionary ‘science.’ A popular talking head for the mainstream media, he expresses some of his philosophy in an interview on BBC News, stating that “objective truth is the ‘only hope’ for democracy.” It sounds like a statement that Tony Perkins, Eric Metaxas or Frank Turek would make, except that Tyson equates objective truth to climate change, evolution and being anti-Trump. In a string of attractively-stated half-truths, bandwagon and association arguments, Tyson equates scientism with – if not the only way to find truth – the best way to find objective truth (see Best-in-Field Fallacy). And like his friend Bill Nye, Tyson assumes that democracy will collapse unless citizens become atheistic evolutionary leftists like himself. His barometer of crisis is the number of people who believe God created the universe in six days, which he equates to flat-earthers (wrong; see “Flat Earthers Are Evolutionists”, 6/01/17). To help cure Dr Tyson of severe Yoda delusions, let’s nudge him off his pedestal back onto the ground where his fellow evolved creatures stand, with a few gentle questions.

  • Dr. Tyson, we’re glad to hear that you believe in objective truth. Assuming you are a materialist, is it objectively true that your mind is an illusion?
  • Does objectivity evolve like everything else in the universe? If so, how do you know that what is objectively true today will not be false tomorrow? If not, how did objectivity obtain its privileged status in a material universe as something timeless and universal?
  • If natural selection made religion, why are you opposed to it? Wasn’t it selected for fitness somehow? Are you opposed to survival of the fittest? If you were the only person on the planet left who did not believe in God, would you remain an atheist?
  • How did an evolved ape brain, through an unguided process, apprehend reason and morality, in a non-question-begging way? Are you familiar with Darwin’s “horrid doubt” that the convictions of his mind were in any way trustworthy? How would you answer his doubt? (Note: consensus does not qualify as an answer, since in the history of science, many times the consensus was wrong and the lone maverick was right.)
  • Are the particles that emerged from the big bang necessary and sufficient to account for the emergence of consciousness and subjective experience, or would you, as Dr Thomas Nagel has attempted, seek to identify some unknown fundamental reality that necessarily gives rise to conscious beings that can comprehend the meaning of truth? Have you found it yet? What do you call it? Can you show it to us?

2. The Editors of Nature write, “Keep Shouting to Save Science” – which, being interpreted means, Keep shouting to save scientism, or Keep shouting to save our government funding. In the article, they once again express their political opposition to Donald Trump and to Brexit. Let’s ask them some nudging questions.

  • Good day, Editors. Nice sentiments there. Say, could we ask you a question? Is science the same thing as the scientific establishment?
  • Since Trump and Brexit won, are you cooperators or cheaters now, speaking in evolutionary terms?
  • If evolution produced a majority of cooperators, why are you seeking to undermine them? Please answer in terms of population genetics, not in terms of right and wrong.
  • If a religious or conservative majority produced more offspring, would you honor them as the fittest?

3. John Baird is worried about overpopulation, and advocates ‘nudging’ people to have less children, and if that fails, imposing a modified one-child policy like China’s to avert catastrophe. In his piece on The Conversation, he bases his reasoning on Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene” concept and on kin selection – two interpretations of evolution that are not without critics (see 4/09/17). For a taste of his argument, consider his ending sentences:

To help win hearts and minds for such a change, we may be able to draw on a technique called “nudge” – as described in the 2008 book of the same name by American academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Nudging essentially persuades people to adopt behaviours that are better for either them or society as a whole. It has been shown to work on many people without them being conscious of it.

But first, it needs to become more widely recognised that we are at war with our own biological constraints. In the decades to come, it is just possible that we will be able to create a new civilisation somewhere else in the solar system or even beyond. But staring back at those settlers in the mirror will still be the same fundamentally flawed humans. Instead of running away, wouldn’t it be better to stand and fight?

Let’s nudge him back down to the ground of reason.

  • Dr. Baird, is it possible to fight against your biological constraints? If evolution made humans this way, why fight it?
  • How does evolution produce fundamentally flawed humans? As an evolved creature yourself, on what grounds do you judge something a flaw?
  • Did natural selection produce your passion to fight your selfish genes? How did that happen? If selfish genes are in control, isn’t that a house divided against itself?
  • If the world overpopulated and humans went extinct, why would that be bad, speaking only in Darwinian terms?
  • If you want to nudge me, is it all right for me to nudge you back, if I sincerely believe your evolutionism is bad for you and for society as a whole? Why or why not?
  • If I get a majority to nudge evolutionism out of existence, and society gets better, would you call that survival of the fittest?

Nudging the nudgers can be fun. Notice that in these examples, we engage their reason and morality. Their methods use manipulation and psychological tricks, doing whatever is required to achieve the desired outcome. Recall our Baloney Detector’s definition of propaganda: “Any attempt to influence people’s actions or attitudes without making them think.” Our method of employing well-thought-out questions nudges people the old-fashioned way: treating one another with respect as rational beings above the animals, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. Our method requires thinking. For those afflicted with the Yoda Fallacy, however, tough love requires leveling the playing field first. We can do that by holding up a mirror to show the elitist that he is standing on nothing.

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  • Baritone says:

    I hope that I can come to the point of understanding and dissecting humanistic arguments as well as this.
    Thanks for your encouraging insights.
    Keep up the good work. May God continue to bless you, abundantly!

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