Robert MacCoun

University of California - Berkeley
Goldman School of Public Policy and Boalt School of Law


Abstract: Fostering Public Trust in Social Science Expertise

The various markets for expertise -- government, corporations, and the mass media -- encourage and reward experts for being highly confident, and for being adversarial (Tenney, Spellman, & MacCoun, 2008; Sah, Moore, & MacCoun, 2013).  These expert traits are in tension with the norms and aspirations of scientific inquiry, and they are more conducive to good politics than good policy making.  The problem is exacerbated by two tendencies of the audience – biased assimilation (the tendency to find congenial information more credible) and attitude attribution (the tendency to infer the expert’s ideology from the direction of their findings; MacCoun & Paletz, 2009).  I will illustrate these concerns by scrutinizing my own expert role in debates on tort reform, drug legalization, and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  I will then compare various approaches to mitigating these problems, including replication, data archiving, cumulative meta-analysis, expert polling, expert tournaments, expert scorecards for accuracy and calibration, and reputation indices.  These approaches may build trust in social science, but (at least in the short run) they may also threaten it.  And these solutions work best when biases are heterogeneous, but social scientists tend to share disciplinary assumptions and political values.  

Biographical Sketch:

Robert MacCoun is Professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy and in Berkeley Law at the University of California at Berkeley.  He received his PhD in Psychology under Norb Kerr at Michigan State University in 1984.  After a postdoctoral fellowship in psychology and law at Northwestern, he was a behavioral scientist at RAND for 7 years before joining the Berkeley faculty.  He has taught at Princeton and Stanford as a visiting professor.  MacCoun's research examines psychological aspects of public and legal policy questions, including the effects of drug laws and drug policies on illegal drug use, jury decision making, tort litigation, and child support policy.  His work on military unit cohesion for the Clinton and Obama Administrations was influential in the decision to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."   MacCoun is the author of over 100 publications, including the book Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places (Cambridge), and articles in Science (in 1989 and 1997), Psychological Review (in 1996 and 2012), and many other journals.  He has coauthored with one Nobel Laureate (Tom Schelling) and co-taught with two others (Danny Kahneman and Saul Perlmutter).

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