Bryan Caplan  

Intellectual Gladiators

Challenge to Cowen and Gilbert... If Medicare were a Country......

I'm no sports fan, but it's pretty clear that countries with more people win more Olympic medals. The obvious explanation is that people typically play for the country they were born into, and the ten best basketball players in China are likely to be far better than the ten best basketball players in Luxembourg.

Now suppose we take a cynical view of intellectual debate, and posit that it's basically like athletics. People typically argue for the view they were born into. Almost all Christian writers were raised Christian, and almost all Muslim writers were raised Muslim. So what happens if you have a big debate, where each viewpoint sends forth its ten smartest and most articulate thinkers to be its Intellectual Gladiators?

The expectation is that the advocates of the most popular viewpoints will prevail. The smartest ten Christians are going to be way smarter and way slicker than the ten smartest Zoroastrians, and will run circles around them in a debate.

Now here's the interesting thing. If virtually everyone just argues for whatever position he was born into, a truth-seeker should hold the gladiators for popular views to higher standards. If the smartest Zoroastrian holds his own against the smartest Christian, the rational inference to make is: "The Zoroastrian position is more likely to be true, because it tied despite the fact that it probably had a weaker defender."

Of course, there are a lot of factors that can mask or augment this effect. The adherents of one view could be smarter, or more intellectually aggressive, or be the gate-keepers of the Intellectual Coliseum. And in a debate all these things rationally count against the truth of the advantaged position!

This assumes, of course, that people always defend the views they were born into. If smart people are unusually likely to convert to the true position, then all else equal, smarter adherents should inspire confidence, rather than mistrust. (Libertarians and atheists, feel free to pat yourselves on the back.)

Who cares? Well, as an academic, it's hard not to notice that liberals dominate at the university. And the simple truth is that people at top schools are smarter than people at lower-ranked schools. The result is that in any intellectual debate, the best liberals are usually smarter than the best non-liberals.

If my analysis is right, however, this actually counts against the liberal view. Weren't most professors liberals long before they had any arguments for their position? And wouldn't it take overwhelming intellectual firepower to drive them to apostacy? Then it's no wonder that the smartest liberal academics are smarter than the smartest non-liberal adademics. They have the same kind of inherent competitive advantage that China has over Luxembourg.

The upshot is that if an academic debate seems tied, the non-liberal view is more likely to be right. And if the liberal view actually seem to be losing, it's a safe bet that it's wrong.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Barbar writes:

This argument is especially compelling coming from a liberal... oh wait.

Rafal Smigrodzki writes:

I would think that the phenomenon of leftism in American and other universities is a product of adverse selection, concentrating predominantly persons with personality traits predisposing to leftist views. The graduates who are attracted to employment safety and highly routinized stability at mediocre pay will shoot for tenure, while equally gifted, dominant, ambitious risk-takers will shoot for CEO or IPO. It is certainly true that the majority of professors at top schools are both smart and liberal - yet they are but a tiny minority of smart people. If truth is to be found in equally counting the words of the best of us, then the statements of leftist academics are likely to be drowned out by the beliefs of CEOs, CFOs, CSOs (Chief Scientific Officers), company founders, bankers, mutual fund managers, and all the others who create wealth, and for the most part radically differ from the profs in political outlook.

This is orthogonal to the comparisons between leftist academics, and conservative (i.e. non-libertarian non-leftist) academics - here, we compare two groups under the same adverse selection for personality but one of the groups also suffers from adverse intellectual selection in hiring. No surprise that a non-libertarian academic conservative usually can't out-argue a leftist.

Now, regarding atheist libertarians, we are a whole different breed altogether - consisting of mildly impractical, ornery individualists, smart and strong enough to gnaw at whatever intellectual limits our parents and parishes impose on us in childhood. AFAIK, most of us convert to atheism and libertarianism at various ages, due to an intellectual and moral advancement process that may stall if not goaded on by the above-mentioned ornery individualism. Thus our unique ability to escry the truth of the world is the product of both a formidable intellect and the strength needed to break the chains of falsehood.

Some of us are even modest, too :)


Amos Newcombe writes:

Weren't most professors liberals long before they had any arguments for their position? And wouldn't it take overwhelming intellectual firepower to drive them to apostacy?

Two broad generalizations presented totally without support and not even plausible. You yourself present a counter-argument to your position, and then ignore it and simply restate your thesis as if your counterargument didn't exist.

If this is what passes for conservative analysis then no wonder the smart people tend to be liberal.

Brad Hutchings writes:

You're average American college team could probably run circles around the Chinese national basketball team. Yao Ming would be able to consult his Garmen GPS to find the foul line though.

Šimun writes:
The result is that in any intellectual debate, the best liberals are usually smarter than the best non-liberals.

You forget that truth in most debates can't be objectively measured, so who is smarter / who wins is actually in the eye of the beholder. Meaning, one man can't be the measure. Can many? I doubt that even statistics can help. A lousy debator with facts will lose to charismatic speaker in after-debate polls.

So I don't think can assert the above quote with any certainty.

Steve writes:

My bets are on the Zoroastrians, they're a highly accomplished people who tend to be of the professional class. For instance, the Parsis are known as "the Jews of India."

Bill writes:

What a simplistic argument. What about smart people who dislike academia or can't stand being surrounded by leftists? What about smart people who aren't good public speakers? What about smart shy people?

I expect more from a professor at GMU.

randy writes:

goddamn bryan. thanks for doing the speaking so that i don't have to. i agree with you 100%. or at least 99.99999%. great post man!

Nathan Smith writes:

I agree with Bill and Amos Newcombe that this argument, taken as a whole, is very convoluted and unpersuasive.

But it's redeemed by its very interesting point of departure. It is true that the prevalence of loyalty to inherited cosmological views is distressing. It undermines the view of man as a reasoning being. For this reason, the counter-argument that a view which is more widely believed is more likely to be true because more people have found reason to believe (it has a bigger confirmatory informational base) seems inadequate.

Surely explicit belief is in large part functional-- it marks you as the member of a community, such as Christians, or liberals, or economists. Internal belief may differ from professed belief. Perhaps I profess the Creed even though I don't believe the dead will be resurrected. Or I say that I like black people so my liberal friends won't call me racist, even though they make me uncomfortable. Or I draw a diagonal LM curve to pass my macro exam, even though I don't think anyone changes their money holdings in response to a change in interest rates.

Bryan's post is a disturbing reminder that there may be a lot more hypocrisy out there than it's pleasant to believe.

Barbar writes:

Yes, this is brilliant.

1) On one hand, people's political opinions have nothing to do with their intelligence or experience, just what they're born into. So the fact that most smart people are liberals is irrelevant, because they were just born into that political stance.

2) On the other hand, the overall debate seems tied. And since we all know that people's political opinions are highly correlated with the quality of the arguments they hear, and their intelligence in producing arguments on their own, this means that liberalism is probably wrong.

I don't see any contradiction at all! What a smart meta-argument.

Chris writes:

If this is what passes for conservative analysis . . .

As much as I'd like to claim Professor Caplan for the conservatives, anyone who thinks he is one is not paying much attention.

And how is it "not even plausible" that professors were liberal before they could argue for those positions? David Colander did a survey recently (can't find a free link right now and my university subscription has run out, sorry) and if I recall correctly most people who went to graduate school in economics remained largely unchanged in beliefs, with a slight shift towards a free-market outlook. So, in economics at least, it seems that it's not only "plausible" that people's beliefs are formed before their education, its empirically verified!

thebastidge writes:

The problem with this hypothesis is that it assumes there is no upper limit on intelligence- the bigger the population, the smarter the top end.

It also falls into the trap of assuming that the differences *between* groups is larger than the differences of the individuals *within* groups. Much like when someone claims that one racial group (i.e. Asians) has a higher average IQ than another (like Whites) and therefore any Asian you meet is smarter than the average White person.

In reality, it is likely that the smartest 10 people in a group of 10 thousand, are not significantly smarter than the smartest ten in a group of 10 million.

Bill Gardner writes:

You will be interested to read G.A. Cohen's, "If you are an egalitarian, how come you're so rich?". I believe this argument is discussed in chapter 1.

Sean writes:

"I'm no sports fan, but it's pretty clear that countries with more people win more Olympic medals."

That would explain India's powerhouse status, I guess. I was under the impression that it had more to do with money spent on training from the Little League level upwards and other athlete incentives (if ice skaters couldn't turn professional afterward there would be less). China wasn't very good at the Games either, until it began pouring $ into sports programs in the past few decades. Now it will compete against the U.S. for the top spot in 2008. I think one important thing to remember is the training vs. talent (Are Superstars Born or Made?) argument recently discussed by Steve Levitt, who essentially concluded that superstars are made.

Steve Sailer writes:

The Olympic 100 meter dash, the race to determine the World's Fastest Man, provides a good test of Bryan's theory that Numbers Count -- the bigger the population, the more superstars. This is perhaps the simplest athletic event, and the most widely competed. Practically every child has tried his hand at running fast, and finds out whether they have much talent for it or not.

The results correlate pretty well with the notion that the more men of West African descent in your country, the more medals you'll win. (Only once has a person not of West African descent broken 10 seconds in the 100m, versus over 500 times by men of West African descent.). The U.S. does the best, and Britain, Canada, Jamaica and the smaller islands, also do well. West African countries, such as Nigeria, do better than the rest of the world, but not as good as the wealthier West African diaspora. Brazil does okay, but, with its large heritage from South and East Africa, where the talent is skewed more toward the middle and long distances, not as well as the pure West African diaspora countries.

Countries without many West Africans have begun recruiting them -- for example, a Nigerian running for Portugal got the silver medal in 2004. 44 year old Jamaican legend Merlene Ottey made the women's semifinals in 2004 running for Slovenia, of all places. So, this relationship will likely break down in the future as more countries acquire a few black superstars to do their sprinting for them.

rajeev writes:

I think thebastige makes a good point. Also, Bryan, apply that same logic to Biology. The evolutionary science guys (I am on their side) are the gladiators. The ID guys are the Christians (probably literally), and they believe they are holding their own. I think this is what you are referring to when you say "if smart people are unusually likely to convert..." How do you judge?
The problem with your approach is that there just are cases where the majority is right.

dearieme writes:

That's "liberals" in the American sense of people who believe in the Theory of Evolution except when it's applied to humans?

MattXIV writes:


The problem with that assessment is that the creationists (there is no serious distinction between ID and creationism, since ID can't work without a supernatural creator at some point) routinely get their asses handed to them in any serious discussion (see the Dover trial and and serious scientific discussion of ID or creation science). Also, polls indicating whether the public holds naturalistic or creationist views about the origin of life and specific species tend to slat towards creationism in the USA. ID and creation science have only managed to persist as long as they do because they have a large enough poll of believers to draw intelligent sophists from.

Matt writes:

What good is being super-intelligent if you wind up a liberal?

Roger M writes:

"creationists ... routinely get their asses handed to them in any serious discussion (see the Dover trial and and serious scientific discussion of ID or creation science).

The Dover trial was not a scientific discussion, but an inquisition by the Church of Scientism to kill any opposition to its theology. I've seen many debates between creationists and evolutionists over the past 30 years, and have yet to see an evolutionist win. The reason is that creationists force evolutionists to stick to the evidence, of which they have very little.

On the other subject, isn't "intellectual liberal" an oxymoron? To paraphrase Orwell, some ideas are so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them.

RogerM writes:

The national academies of science of the 8 most developed nations declared recently that global warming is a fact and humans have caused it through carbon dioxide emissions. Supposedly, these are the most "intelligent" people in science in the world. It seems that Bryan, Arnold and most of the posters on this site disagree with the top scientists in the world. Does that make anyone feel stupid?

I think you'll see growing parallels between the creation/evolution debate and the global warming one. The national academies of sciences have come down on the side of evolution and global warming, both of which lack serious empirical evidence, but they will persecute and slander anyone who disagrees with them, just like the Church in the Spanish Inquisition.

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