Bad Laws and Certainty Among Politicians

I’ve had a number of recent discussions regarding Georgia’s proposed new hacking law, as well as the proposed SESTA and FOSTA law.  Most of the people I’ve spoken to wonder why the laws would be proposed, since they will almost certainly cause the opposite effective of their intended purposes.  While this is certainly hard to objectively test, I strongly suspect a few things are happening here.

First, humans like certainty.  When we go to a doctor for some ailment, we want a doctor that can definitively tell us what the problem is.  If we go to a doctor with our ailment, and she tells us that she’s not sure what is wrong, we likely won’t go back.  Numerous studies have show, however, that doctors often misdiagnose illnesses, and that is one of the reasons machine learning and artificial intelligence holds great promise in medicine.  Regardless, we reward the doctor who is certain, and ignore that one who is uncertain.

I believe the same is true of politicians.  Like doctors, we, at least in the USA, have little patience for politicians who do not have robust positions on various topics.  Further, and unlike doctors, politicians are almost never allowed to change their minds on an issue, based on new input.  Mind-changing by a politician is almost always seized on by a political adversary as a sign of weakness.  Recall John Kerry’s debacle of voting for something before he voted against it.

Next, as Nassim Taleb points out, people are susceptible to what he calls the “narrative fallacy”.  People can be given a tangible narrative that makes intuitive sense, and in their minds, that narrative effectively becomes fact.  This is troublesome in the hands of a politician who is unwilling to change her mind based on new evidence.

Finally, and related to the narrative fallacy, politicians seem to have much greater success in selling policy platforms to the masses that are based on narratives, particularly narratives that are based on “fairness”, than it is to sell a position that may be counter-intuitive, but based on data.  Add in lobbying from firms that benefit from the incorrect narrative, and I suspect we end up with laws intended to do one thing, but end up causing the opposite.

In the case of SESTA and FOSTA, intended to drive down instances of sex slavery, the law may end up hurting more people than it can help.  There is a clear and straight-forward narrative for banning sex trafficking on the Internet, and holding those who provide aid, such as web site operators, accountable for their role in the crime.  Opponents point to data that indicate the opposite will happen, because the crimes will move “underground”, since demand has not changed, and those that were making a living off of sex work will have to resort to potentially much more dangerous avenues for earning money, such as by working through often violent pimps.

To counteract this phenomenon, we need to change our values around.  We should value those who do update their views based on new data.  We should understand that some issues are complex and expressing uncertainty is not weakness.  We should value people that want to gather additional information before making significant decisions, such as passing some new law.  We should strongly consider putting our senses of “fairness” in check when supporting or opposing positions that, on the surface may seem more fair, but in the end, cost everyone considerably more.

All of that is difficult to do because we are emotional beings, reacting to things through the lenses of the many different heuristics we’ve developed over thousands of millennia.  What we think is a rational position may not be rational, and we should not only be willing to accept that we’re wrong, but seek evidence that we are wrong and make changes accordingly.

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