Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Easy False Superiority

Like many people, I was an atheist before I was a Libertarian. Or, if atheism and libertarianism are the defaults that everyone implicitly accepts until they confuse themselves with theology or philosophy, I was a self-identified atheist before I self-identified as a Libertarian.

I spent quite a lot of time on atheist websites, reading new arguments, and retellings of arguments with theists. And then, when I became a Libertarian, I did the same; Econlog and Cato and a lot of Austrian Economics.

In retrospect, many of the articles took the same pattern. First, they would refer to some religious argument, or socialist person, and thus get rationality points for not arguing against strawmen. Then, they would offer a counter-argument; something straight out of Economics 101, or the lists of logical fallacies. As the reader, I’d understand the sentences the other person said, and I’d understand our response, and feel so clever: here was a great truth that I knew, and these other people didn’t! My opinion of myself, and my opinion of my opinion, rose. Wait till I showed the world this new thing!

In retrospect, of course, I was being an idiot.

Because everyone experiences this.

It’s so clear now, but it wasn’t to an obnoxious teenager. Socialists have Why Libertarianism Makes you Stupid, and a thousand other pages. They have it whenever a politician renounces ‘unrestained capitalism’.

And think how silly those guys look, who say stupid things like ‘Libertarians don’t understand monopoly’ or ‘Libertarians don’t realise that markets aren’t magic’ or ‘Libertarians ignore behaviourist economics because it’s against their religion.’

You don’t want to be one of those guys, whose both so arrogantly superior, and wrong, do you?

So, I’m not really sure why it’s so tempting to do this.

There’s a study in psychology (Mueller and Dweck) where they investigated the effect of praising children for intelligence, compared to praising them for doing something intelligent, or working hard. It turns out that the first group of children end up self-identifying as intelligent, and then become massively risk averse, avoiding hard problems so as not to spoil their reputation by failing. Which is not a very good long term strategy.

Maybe a similar thing is going on here: you read people arguing, and apparently doing the right thing, and then some of the halo effect washes of onto you.

Maybe people, given a load of training data biased towards one side, assign such low probability to socialism or conservativism or whatever that they don’t think it’s worthwhile investigating? This would require people to evaluate positions and facts in a totally stupid manner, but we know people do that anyway.

Alternatively, there’s the idea of an Affective Death Spiral. People basically think affectively: they have good or bad associations with concepts, and these dictate much of their thought and actions. Actual verbal propositional thought, the kind we think of as thought, is less important.

The major problem is when having a positive opinion of one aspect of something improves for opinion of it’s other aspects, for no good reason. And then you start looking for evidence, and by selectively filtering you become even more sure, which makes all the associations even better... and after a massive positive feedback loop, you end up with beliefs tangentially at best related to the truth.

But I’m not really very sure about any of that.

Getting over it this easy false superiority is hard. Stopping reading pundits (e.g., most blogs! – but thinks like Marginal Revolution are probably ok) Also, costly; it means having to miss chances to take digs at the accursed enemy, and potentially missing chances to signal your loyalty to your team. But at the moment, so much argument simply goes straight past each other. It’s not surprising that no-one ever changes their mind.

But this should be ok! We might appear to lose some arguments if we don’t have access to the dark arts of propaganda any more, and limit ourselves to evidence of a higher standard. But if we actually engage with the values and opinions that the others actually hold, maybe more people will be taken by the throat and forced by the evidence to change their mind.

And if it turns out that, in the cold light of the truth, we were wrong about something, or everything? I don’t think I can put it better than Gendlin;

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn't make it go away.
And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn't there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

Eugene Gendlin


Suboptimal Planet said...

Or, if atheism and libertarianism are the defaults that everyone implicitly accepts until they confuse themselves with theology or philosophy

Very few people come to religion or statism through a concious choice as an adult, after exposure to theology or philosophy.

Most absorb religious / statist ideas from their parents at a very young age.

What I find fascinating, and somewhat unnerving, is the number of devoutly religious libertarians. They are of course the best kind of religionists, but it raises questions of the sort you've covered.

Xerographica said...

AKA Confirmation Bias. From Wikipedia..."A series of experiments in the 1960s suggested that people are biased towards confirming their existing beliefs."

Let's say that libertarians presented some solid empirical evidence that the free-market could produce comparable levels of many of the same public goods that the state is currently producing. Wouldn't liberals just point out the likelihood of confirmation bias?

On one hand, given a choice, many people would not choose to pay taxes. On the other hand, given a choice, many people would choose the option that gives them the most bang for their buck. When it comes to public goods it's understandable to take the first choice away from people...but it also makes sense to give them the second choice.

People choosing which public goods their taxes help fund would allow the invisible hand to decide whether a good was produced by the public sector...or by the private sector...or by both.

Maybe socialists are right? Maybe anarcho-capitalists are right? I don't know. But a pragmatarian approach would resolve the debate once and for all.

Bennette Sebastian said...