Bryan Caplan  

Six Months of Intellectual Anthropology

Political Science... Solar power--when should it sc...

Tyler makes a spot-on plea to meet people before you write about them:

I'd like to propose a new research convention. Anytime a writer or blogger talks about what The Right or The Left (or some subset thereof) really wants or means, I'd like them to list their personal anthropological experience with the subjects under consideration.


It is sad that anthropological research has such a low status among so many smart people. It is fashionable to open up data sets for replication. So let's do the same for research into ideology or even just proclamations about the ideology of others, especially those you disagree with. Tell us how much field work you did, who you did it with, how much they trusted you, and what you wish you could have done but didn't.

Since the publication of my book, I've been meeting a much wider range of people. I've talked to an elite Republican book club, a room full of vaguely Marxist academics at the New School, retirees, Cato, Heritage, a conference of largely leftist philosophers, the State Department (!), the Yale law school, DC economists, and UVA social scientists. I've also spoken on a wide range of radio shows and podcasts, left and right.

What have I learned? Primarily, I'm more convinced than ever that virtually everyone is sincere. The legions of people who imagine that their opponents secretly agree with them are utterly deluded. Even when you've got undeniable facts on your side, your opponents probably think that those facts don't matter; you're missing the deeper picture.

The lesson I draw: Sincerity is greatly overrated. It's an easy and widely distributed virtue. So what is in short supply? Common-sense. Literalism. Staying calm. Listening. Sticking to the point. Accepting and working through hypotheticals.

If you've got these, I'd like to meet your tribe.

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
jb writes:

Totally agree. Everyone has a host of conscious and unconscious defenses that make them nearly immune to counterargument on certain subjects.

I've tried to compensate for my own defenses by working at being a better listener, and not interrupting before my "opponent" finishes their thought. I also always assume that they are totally sincere, and truly believe that they are on the side of good.

That doesn't help me win the argument, of course, but I do get a better sense of the other side's position, and improve my own view of the world.

DCPI writes:


drobviousso writes:

I'll agree to that too. I came to this realization when I changed my religious association.

Everyone I was associated with to start was undeniably altruistic and noble-minded. Everyone I began associating with was also altruistic and noble-minded. Put them in the same room, and you'd have them spitting venom at each other until violence starts up.

Sure, there'll always be some bad apples but I don't really question anyone's base intentions any more. It's easier to talk to people who are wrong than it is to talk to people who are evil, anyway.

Chris writes:

Some time ago, Derek Lowe (I think it was Derek Lowe. He's a great pharma blogger at laid out a useful test when debating someone. Ask your opponent what statements, if true, would convince him to change his position. If no such statements exist, then the debate is over.

Similarly, I frequently ask myself the same question: what type of data and/or reasoning would convince me that my position is wrong. If I can't think of any, then I need to take a deep breath and evaluate how I reached my opinion in the first place.

Stan writes:


One could argue that Hitler had good intentions, only his utilitarian calculus was deeply flawed. One could argue the same for Lenin.

Discussion is only beneficial when both sides agree that both sides have good intentions. Defining these intentions is important, as well understanding the opponents view. Good post!

Unit writes:

Sincerity and "acting in good-faith" are indeed overrated, but also over-done is the tendency to wanting to humiliate the opponent, "gotcha!", "shame on you for believing this or that!", etc...The fact is that most of us are wrong at various points in time, and recognizing this would be a good start. The goal of a debate should be to end up in agreement (synthesis), too often, it seems, the goal is to disagree no matter what.

Richard Pointer writes:

"All Sincerity is Bullshit." Frankfurt, H.G.

Do you really need empirical proof? Deductive logic should have told you that.

Sisyphus writes:

People with common sense, literalism, who stay calm, listen, stick to the point, and are good with hypotheticals? It sounds like you are describing lawyers (at least, good lawyers). That should make you question your lesson learned, in this attorney's opinion.

Steve Sailer writes:

What I notice missing is that people don't make connections between their own daily lives and the seemingly "higher" realm of political debate. They use lots of empirical observations to decide sensibly where to buy a home or where to send their kids to school, but then get very mad at anybody who suggests that they could use the same data for thinking about supposedly "higher" questions.

It's a lot like physics before the integration of the 17th Century -- there was a higher realm where the planets followed perfectly circular orbits embedded in crystalline spheres and our own lower world of mud and dross. Newton showed however that there was just one set of laws that applied celestially and terrestrially.

Really, much of political argument today is status display -- people like to show that they are lofty enough to be familiar with the crystalline spheres of political and social theory, and don't care if they don't actually exist.

TGGP writes:

Chris, Steve Dutch might have beaten Derek Lowe to the punch, but I can't be sure. At the top of many of his pages it says:

"I will respond to questions and comments as time permits, but if you want to take issue with any position expressed here, you first have to answer this question:

What evidence would it take to prove your beliefs wrong?

I simply will not reply to challenges that do not address this question. Refutability is one of the classic determinants of whether a theory can be called scientific. Moreover, I have found it to be a great general-purpose cut-through-the-crap question to determine whether somebody is interested in serious intellectual inquiry or just playing mind games. Note, by the way, that I am assuming the burden of proof here - all you have to do is commit to a criterion for testing. It's easy to criticize science for being "closed-minded". Are you open-minded enough to consider whether your ideas might be wrong?"

Randy writes:

Honestly, Bryan, when someone is trying to run my life, I don't find their sincerity to be particularly relevant. When I say I'm not interested in what they're selling it means I'm not interested - and I don't think I should have to tell them more than once.

dearieme writes:

I judge sincerity by whether people's actions are consistent with their pronouncements. (I suspect that I'm thereby agreeing with Mr Sailer.) Over the years, I've noticed two particularly obvious types of insincerity in Britain, among my acquaintances. The lefties are insincere about education - they preach the virtues of "comprehensive" education and eschew it for their own. The righties are insincere about race: they preach the wisdom of restricting immigration and then insist on being courteous to individual immigrants.

Daniel Klein writes:

A paper by me on government officials sincerely believing in the goodness of the bad policies they administer and promulgate:

Randy writes:

Good work, Daniel.

"Malady does not imply malevolence, just as benefit does not imply benevolence."

Great line.

Randy writes:

P.S. One question I had while reading it is, who are the outsiders? I'm sure that within government buracracies that the official behavior is the norm and seldom challenged, but out here in the real world the norm is quite different. Most of us by far are concerned first, foremost, and always with ourselves and our families. We pay taxes not because we give a daily damn about the common good but because there's no way to get out of paying. So while those in positions of power do in fact have power, they are also barricaded. I suspect that the balance is actually quite centered.

Troy Camplin writes:

I've always understood that my opponents were sincere, which is why I don't attack people's sincerity on my blog -- but one can be sincerely wrong. I try to avoid mane-calling, while at the same time using terms properly. If a person's ideology actually matches that of fascism, I say they are a fascist. The same is true of Marxists, etc. More often, I try to stick with talking about the specifics of their ideas. People's ideologies are fuzzy, rarely pure. The important thing to remember is that every person you're dealing with is a fellow human being. I have also learned that if you stick with reasoned argument, no matter how much they try not to, people will eventually start engaging in reasoned argument with you. I'm not sure how well that works on blogs, but I'm trying it. (Though it is difficult to avoid the occasional snappy comment.)

Floccina writes:

IMHO most people are sincere but easily biased.

Morgan writes:

Mane-calling can hurt someone's Pride. It's the Law of the Jungle.

Troy Camplin writes:

Got to love those kinds of typos, huh?

James A. Donald writes:

No one was more sincere, more saintly, or more truly believed he was on the side of good than Pol Pot.

Lots of people sincerely believe that if they had total power over everyone and everything, and could have anyone who disagreed with them tortured to death, this would make things lovely for everyone, and the only reason anyone could oppose this is because they are opposed to making things lovely for everyone.

Troy Camplin writes:

I also have little doubt of Chavez's sincerity -- just as I equally have no doubt of what he is going to turn into once he gets absolute power.

Burke Files writes:

Two matters Right v Left and Sincerity

I no longer see a Right v Left nor much distinction between Dems and Reps - only those who wish to concentrate power in the government - that would be both the Dems and Reps - and ......

Sincerity is our perception of a persosn demeanor. That perception or mis-perception has allowed me to do very well as a fraud investigator.


Jaap Weel writes:

Randy says: "Honestly, Bryan, when someone is trying to run my life, I don't find their sincerity to be particularly relevant."

But it is relevant.

Or more generally, having an accurate theory of why your opponents oppose you is always relevant if you really care about the thing that your opponents oppose.

Do they reason with impeccable logic from different premises? Or is their logic flawed? If their premises are different, can the difference be reconciled, or is it too fundamental? If their premises are factually wrong, or their logic flawed, do they realize this or not? If they realize it but refuse to change (at least in public), what exactly makes them willing to to lie?

All of these things are interesting to know even if you are absolutely sure that you are right and they are wrong, for at the very least the answer can help you get your way.

And this just happens to be closely related to why Bryan's book is so important. If people choose bad policies then it matters tremendously whether they do so because they do understand the consequences and like them but are too narrowly self-interested, or because they tried to understand the consequences but failed, or because they couldn't be bothered to try to understand the consequences, or any of a number of other explanations. It matters intellectually, because democratic politics is a pretty damn interesting social phenomenon to study, but also politically, because each explanation has implications for which strategies to improve the situations would or would not work.

By the way, it is also important to understand why people have the right view of things. If people believe the right thing for the wrong reasons, they quite possibly cannot be counted upon to believe the right thing again when the question becomes somewhat different.

Randy writes:

Jaap Weel,

"...having an accurate theory of why your opponents oppose you is always relevant if you really care about the thing that your opponents oppose."

I hear you, but I'm too lazy for confrontation. Subversion is easier and actually quite effective.

That said, I don't think that the people who try to run my life necessarily have well thought out reasons. They do it because they can and because its in their best interest to do so. Further, having already decided on my own best interest, their thought process is of no interest to me. If they were giving advice I might be interested but, as they have already proceeded to the use of force, I'm not.

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