Here Be Dragons

Nudge, Nudge, Wank, Wank: The Dumb Science of Cameron's Porn War

By Martin Robbins


David Cameron, invading your bedroom and taking selfies with your wife. (Images via/via)

Martin Robbins is a writer and talker who blogs about weird and wonderful things for the Guardian and New Statesman. Here Be Dragons is a column that explores denial, conflict and mystery at the wild fringes of science and human understanding. Find him on Twitter @mjrobbins, or email tips and feedback to martin@mjrobbins.net.

Cameron’s Wall, the porn filter the Tories wish to inflict upon a bemused Britain, is the latest example of "nudge theory" to emerge from the top minds at Conservative HQ. A rebranding of libertarian paternalism, Cameron and Osborne have been fans of nudge theory for several years as a solution to a problem commonly faced by governments – namely, how to change behaviour without imposing regulation. Since 2010, a tiny group known as the "Behavioural Insights Team" have been camped in Number 10, trying to help the Tories put theory into practice.

The idea behind nudge theory is simple, if a little vague. Instead of using regulation to remove choices, you can provide incentives and suggestions to help them make the "right" choice. Raising the minimum price of alcohol might be one example. Another could be the opt-out systems for organ donation: rather than forcing people to join the donor register, or relying on them to voluntarily opt-in, the state assumes that people are on the register until they actively choose not to be. People still have the same choice, but the default option is different, and that – in theory – biases people toward making the correct decision.

Of course, that all rests on a series of assumptions: that the state knows what the "correct" choice is, and that it has the right to ask us to make that decision. Evidence-based policy can tell us whether a particular strategy will bring us closer to a given goal, but it can’t tell us what that goal should be. At some point, when governments begin to manipulate us into making choices they approve of, nudge policies begin to look a lot like coercion.

Another big assumption is that the strategies used even work in the first place. Clearly many of them do, even if the examples given are often trivial – you can’t google "nudge theory" without coming across the flies painted onto the urinals at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to help men piss more accurately. In some cases, though, attempts to pin down the benefits of "nudge" have come up short. 

Just now I gave the example of an opt-out system for organ donation, in which people are assumed to be on the register unless they choose not to be. The Organ Donation Taskforce reviewed this option a few years ago, commissioning a study at the University of York and gathering evidence from around the globe. Their conclusion: "The taskforce is not confident that the introduction of opt-out legislation would increase organ donor numbers, and there is evidence that donor numbers may go down."

While it was true that some countries moving to an opt-out system saw a rise in donations, those countries introduced a load of other policies at the same time, making it difficult to see what exactly had the biggest effect. In Spain, a country with a very high donation rate, the head of the National Transplant Organisation explicitly told the taskforce that presumed consent wasn’t behind their success – other changes had made a bigger impact. The British Medical Association (BMA) are more bullish about organ donations, but even they accept the evidence is limited.

In the case of organ donation, an opt-out solution still makes a lot of sense. Sure, the evidence may be a little unclear, but it could well work and it isn’t going to do a lot of harm – you can’t hurt a dead person. Given the clear benefits of increasing the pool of organ donors and the minimal risks involved, it’s hard to argue against the BMA’s position.

But when you transplant that argument into the porn debate, the assumptions underlying it start to fall apart. Anyone can opt out of organ donation, but only account holders can decide to remove a porn filter. As I’ve argued before, there are serious risks in eroding civil liberties, particularly when the most vulnerable groups in society will tend to coincide with the people who have the least choice. Then there are the practical concerns of imposing such a filter – like how do you ensure that sites relating to sex, but that aren't porn sites per se, don't end up getting blocked, too? It’s one thing to require people to opt out of organ donation, quite another to demand that a teenager ask their guardian to remove blocks preventing them from accessing advice on sexual abuse.

And what exactly is the benefit, other than pacifying the Daily Mail? It’s not at all clear what Cameron is trying to tackle with the filter, beyond addressing the latest moral panic about teenagers and porn. Porn may well be damaging our offspring, but unless we ask basic questions about the extent of that damage and how exactly it’s caused, we have no idea whether the solution proposed will be effective.

Is it porn that damages kids, or is it the depiction of women in porn – a depiction that shares a lot in common with wider media, including, ironically, the papers most vocal in supporting a porn ban? Is the answer to block access to porn, or is it to support publishers that produce better porn, or to better educate the users of porn in the first place? Campaigners have shown a total lack of interest in these kinds of questions, but without them there’s no way of judging whether nudge theory works, or whether Cameron is using the right kind of "nudge".

You can have the most sophisticated, scientific, evidence-based solution known to man, but it doesn’t mean a lot if you haven’t figured out what problem you’re trying to solve. In the absence of that focus, the government is making a moral judgment, applying libertarian paternalism to the sexuality of the British people to satisfy a vocal contingent of mainstream prudes. There are plenty of valid uses of nudge theory, but when David Cameron stumbles half-cocked into your bedroom, it’s time to get worried.

Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins

Previously - David Cameron's War On Internet Porn Lacks a Smoking Gun

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