The Challenge of Fictionalized Public Policy Areas

After a long and dispiriting day inspecting prisons, I reluctantly filled an obligation to attend a dinner party. After learning how I had spent my day, several of the guests went on at length about what prisons were like, who was in them, and what should be done about it. Almost everything the guests confidently asserted was factually wrong and dubiously sourced: I hadn’t heard so much discussion of Oz since that girl from Kansas and her dog went over the rainbow.

That’s the opening paragraph of my post at about widely-believed myths of American incarceration. It was stimulated by a recent conversation with a state’s attorney. Both of us had spent a significant amount of time visiting correctional facilities, poring over correctional data and talking to prisoners, wardens and guards. Yet both of us were used to people who had done none of these things giving us their “expert take” on what prisons are like, who is in them and what policies regarding prison should be adopted.

Nobody is informed about all areas of public policy. And most people don’t have trouble admitting that they don’t know anything about, say, the US-Brazil diplomatic relationship, Libor rate management, or sugar subsidies. But for a subset of public policy issues, a large number of completely ignorant people are dead sure they have all the facts (Granted, some arrogant people always feel this way, but put the ego-maniacs aside and look at the bulk of humanity). Prison is one of those areas, and I strongly suspect it is because there is so much fictionalization of it. If I were bored, I am sure I could easily list a hundred movies set in prisons. The Big House is also a common backdrop for TV shows, novels and comic books.

Given the human propensity to be moved more by vivid individual prototypes but insensitive to their representativeness or quantity, a really powerful movie about one fictional prisoner’s experience is probably going to shape public views of prison more than do the weighty Bureau of Justice Statistics tables that I ruin my eyes by reading. Likewise, all the powerful fictionalizations about family farm life, police investigative procedures and military combat probably also shape perceptions in agricultural, criminal justice and defense policy more than their truth-value would warrant.

It’s an impossible study to run, but it would be interesting to know if facts and genuine expertise have greater weight in public policy areas which don’t lend themselves well to fictionalization (e.g., waste water processing, telephonic regulation, pension management) because there aren’t as many people around saying “I know what to do because there was this awesome movie on TV last night…”

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.