The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal Media. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.
Matt's primary interest is in the biotech industry and ag policy.
In the Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, Bryan Kaplan discusses issues related to the median voter theorem and systematic biases by voters.
One interesting concept he discusses is the miracle of aggregation. According to the miracle of aggregation democracies can make decisions as if all were well informed. If we assume that less informed voters make random mistakes, errors will cancel and the votes that matter will be the informed ones. The well informed median voter determines the outcome.
This all breaks down if the most informed voters make systematic mistakes. In that case the median preference becomes biased away from the optimal policy. But why would well informed voters make systematic mistakes?
Sometimes our values and views are part of who we are. Believing certain things gives people higher levels of utility. They let preferences drive beliefs over evidence. To entertain information or evidence to the contrary would upset preferences and lower utility. To quote Caplan:
"letting emotions or ideology corrupt thinking is an easy way to satisfy such preferences"
He also quotes Lebon:
"the masses have never thirsted after the truth, they turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste...whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim"
This idea of preferences driving beliefs explains a lot. For instance, the election of demagogues. There are clear benefits to be reaped in customizing political platforms and media content that feeds into the preferences of these different segments of the population. The media capitalizes on that at the expense of actually informing the electorate. So do politicians and pundits.
This also may explain the explosion of growth in organic, natural, hormone free and other niche food markets. Or the popular support for GMO labeling initiatives despite the science behind both safety and environmental benefits of biotechnology.
All of these are cases where acceptance of scientific evidence should potentially change opinions and behavior as it relates to food and agriculture. However to change those opinions and choices would be to drastically upset the preferences of a number of consumers. This makes it hard for those in agriculture and science communication trying to help the public navigate the complex world of modern agriculture. It also makes it hard for companies, wanting to do the right thing, to make a stand for science (i.e. by not going down the non-GMO/hormone/gluten free negative labeling route).
For instance, what if a t-shirt manufacturer wanted to promote the use of Bt cotton in their products on the basis of a reduction in use of toxic pesticides and improved insect biodiversity? Or what if a food company wanted to promote their dairy products for having a lower carbon footprint due to rBST? Taking this position would likely upset the illusions and preferences held dearly by many consumers. Noone wants to become 'their victim' to borrow from Lebon. Just ask Monsanto or BPI, the company behind finely textured beef. (however ABC eventually paid a price for feeding the masses the pink slime 'illusion'). In response, we don't see these kinds of promotions, and to the contrary we actually see companies removing these technologies from their product lines (and advertising the fact!).
Due to systematic bias in relation to food and technology, the median of voters' preference distribution will be biased toward more restrictive regulations than is scientifically appropriate. This will influence the types of products we see on the shelves and the potential for healthier and more environmentally sustainable solutions to challenging worldwide problems.
The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, Bryan Kaplan
The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Gustave Le Bon.
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