February 27, 2013

Policy Puzzles

What is the relationship
between videogames and violence? Popular
a new psychology report, noted the obvious: it's inderminate. There are two
camps of researchers, neither of which can collect enough conclusive evidence
to provide strong confirmation for their hypotheses. It's also unsurprising.
Human behavior is complex and messy, and questions of measurement, causation,
and inference are difficult to sort out. In a bid for greater "policy
," researchers recklessly extrapolated beyond their data or
failed to note conflicts and limitations. The media only reported on
sensational research. And not all of the research was produced under a
sufficiently objective rubric.

But this problem is by no means unique to video games. This month's International Organization published two
studies on the benefits (or lack theorof) of nuclear superiority with
diametrically opposite conclusions. As Daniel Nexon argues,
this poses an analytical problem for the policymaker. Here we have two articles
that were judged to be of sufficient quality to be published in a top-flight
journal, with completely different conclusions. Nuclear coercion, like the
sources of violence, is a fundamentally messy and multicausal subject.

Even if we can come to a general agreement as to which confluence of factors is important, as
Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman did for the use
of airpower in Kosovo
, we still face a fundamental problem of how to make
policy tradeoffs. And this, of course, still presumes that we agree about the
proper weighting of the factors. Whether airpower, the threat of ground forces,
or any of the other defeat mechanisms Byman and Waxman specify should be
regarded as necessary or sufficient conditions is a question that is unlikely
to be resolved without a substantial degree of deep historical investigation. Kosovo happened close to fourteen years ago, and authors still argue about the causes of World War I. And
I'm not going to even bring up the Surge because it will likely be impossible
to have an intelligent conversation about it for a very long time. Likewise,
Joshua Foust has often written sharp pieces about the data problems that hold
back robust study of targeted killings in Pakistan.

So we're back to the beginning: videogames. Public policy is always mostly
normative choice, but indecisive science tends to highlight policy's subjective
foundations. So in regards to videogames and violence, the following questions
come to mind. What level of (un)certainty are policymakers willing to accept in
making decisions to infringe on the freedom and choice of others?
What level of potential harm do policymakers believe would justify such a
decision? Should the infringement be cautious or maximal? Finally, would the
government respond by heavily restricting the product known to contribute to
the behavior, act primarily on other environmental variables that interact to
produce the undesired behavior, or both? These are all choices that can be
informed by science but not dictated by it. And in this situation the degree to
which the choice can even be "informed" is fairly contentious.

As this blog more or less explicitly and implicitly suggests, the same
issues involved in the videogame dispute are also true of national security
policy and their interaction with political science. That's why national
security professionals tend to like Clausewitz so much. On War provides a general outline of the
general thing called War. As
with any work of gestalt
theory that does not try to directly predict certain outcomes but describes a
system as a whole, On War tends
to be last longer than science that advances through conjectures
and refutations

We should be looking to foreground what criteria we use when thinking about
the messy problem rather than necessarily believing that research can always tip the scales one way or another.
Of course you don't need a lifetime of political experience to know that not
much "foregrounding" goes on in domestic politics. Hence the overlap
between the audience willing to take this post seriously and those it would
most help is bound to be fairly low.