cognitive compromise… huh?

In the 1950s, social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted some experiments into the ‘relativizing effect of conversation’.

A small group of individuals was put in a room. All except one of them — the ‘victim’  — in each experimental group were told beforehand about the nature of the experiment. When the group gathered, the ‘victim’ was first shown an object — say a stick — and asked to estimate its length. Let’s say this stick is 24 inches  (two feet), and the ‘victim’ estimates close to the correct length.

Each of the other individuals (in the know) in the group were then asked the same question and as previously instructed, would come up with a ridiculous estimate — like 48 inches or four feet.

The experimenter then returns to the ‘victim’ and says something like: “It seems that you have a very different opinion from everyone else here. Why don’t you have another look at the stick and see if you might want to change your mind about your first estimate.”

Almost every ‘victim’ did revise, typically saying something like: “Well, maybe I did underestimate, maybe it isn’t 24 inches. Maybe it’s closer to 35-40 inches?” In other words, the ‘victim’ was pulled towards the ‘group norm’ or majority.

Curiously, if there were two ‘victims’ instead of one: the two would then huddle together and defend their (of course, perfectly reasonable) original estimate. If ‘victims’ and ‘non-victims’ were evenly divided, a vigorous bargaining process  typically ensued, leading to a cognitive compromise — that is a new “group norm.”

In Asch’s experiment, the dispute was about a matter that could easily be resolved by using a tape measure — although the experimenter denied this — and yet the cognitive power of conversation still led to compromise. In other words, conversation had a relativizing effect even on the perception of a physical object, the length of which could, in principle, be decided by using a measuring device.

When it comes to an individual’s views about certain realities that can’t be subjected to scrutiny by way of sense perception — such as religious or political views — there are no commonly agreed upon measuring devices. It follows that the power of conversation will be that much greater in those cases. What’s plausible, and what’s not plausible, will be largely determined by the nature of the conversation about it (i.e. shifting the “group norm”).

Sociology of knowledge suggests this phenomenon is a “plausibility structure.” This is the social context within which any particular definition of reality is suggested to be ‘plausible’ or ‘realistic’.

If you’re not familiar with the current fraud charges against U.S. banking and financial institution Goldman Sachs — which flows from flawed financial derivatives such as the sub-prime mortgage fiasco — check into it and you can see the power of ‘group norms’ and flawed ‘plausibility structures’ at work. Even former U.S. President Bill Clinton was quoted in media today apologizing for deregulating financial markets that largely led to the disaster of the last few years. (Curiously, one of Clinton’s main financial advisers at the time was a former Goldman Sachs executive.)

Thus… one might suggest that when Fisheries and Oceans convened (in 2003 and 2004) a group of “fisheries experts” to begin designing a computer simulation model to attempt to better look after sockeye salmon in the Fraser River — that ‘group norms’; ‘plausibility structure’ determined by conversation, and plain common sense might all be impacted.

The Fraser River Spawning Sockeye Initiative (FRSSI) has evolved from frequent gatherings of fisheries scientists (within and outside of Fisheries and Oceans) over the last eight years (see earlier posts Free Money – Part I and Free Money – Part II). It’s a computer simulation model that’s supposed to give the Canadian public confidence that Fisheries and Oceans is best managing wild sockeye according to:

  1. Conservation  (i.e. not causing sockeye runs and stocks to go extinct and ensuring salmon support ecosystems)
  2. First Nation food, social, and ceremonial purposes (enshrined in Canadian Constitution and Supreme Court decisions)
  3. Well-managed commercial and sport fisheries

Unfortunately, maybe too many fisheries focussed scientists (and DFO bureaucrats) are now trying to suggest that maybe regular folks should simply shift to their 48-inch stick view — even though it’s quite clear the 48-inch estimates are significantly flawed.

Unfortunately, we can’t even have a discussion about it, because apparently the calculations that went into reaching the 48-inch stick estimate are so complex that us mere 24-inch stick seers will never understand. And thus, there is no ‘nature of conversation that might shift plausibility.’

“Just accept that we are right… we do not need any cognitive compromise.”

Sadly, the only measuring device we have to determine whether an 8-year, significantly flawed, computer simulation model for determining fishing options (even though there has been no Fraser sockeye fishery for 3 years) is the actual long-term health of the Fraser sockeye runs themselves over the coming sockeye generations.

Simple as that.

Therefore, for something as crucial as avoiding Fraser sockeye stock extinctions, do we want to be measuring by guesstimate built upon guesstimate, built upon silicon microprocessors to determine when “we’re going fishing”?

Or, do we want to base our measurements upon the health of rebuilding Fraser sockeye runs to somewhere between the 165 million sockeye of the peak cycle years of the 1800s — and the 15 million or so average of the late 1900s?

(Last year saw about 1 million return)

Rather than determining ‘fishing options’ should we maybe focus more on rebuilding and precaution?

Rather than 8 years and countless millions of dollars on staff/consultant time and computer hardware; maybe put countless million of dollars into habitat restoration and conservation?

Rather than spending more money trying to convince everyone a computer simulation model is the answer and to accept this as the group norm — why not demonstrate some actual measures of what a rebuilt Fraser sockeye run might look like, should look like, once looked like, could look like…?

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