Bryan Caplan  

In Defense of Rationalist Clubs

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Inspired by Pascal Boyer's latest piece in Nature, Robin Hanson reminds us that he's a preacher's son:

We feel a deep pleasure from realizing that we believe something in common with our friends, and different from most people.  We feel an even deeper pleasure letting everyone know of this fact.  This feeling is EVIL.  Learn to see it in yourself, and then learn to be horrified by how thoroughly it can poison your mind.  Yes evidence may at times force you to disagree with a majority, and your friends may have correlated exposure to that evidence, but take no pleasure when you and your associates disagree with others; that is the road to rationality ruin.
This makes me wonder: Shouldn't Robin stop holding Overcoming Bias meet-ups at cities around the world?  I bet that one of the attendees' primary activities is taking pleasure in their shared quest to overcome bias - as well disdaining the reprobates who embrace bias.  So by his own account, Robin is fostering evil.

Fortunately, he's wrong.  Social pressure often encourages bias; but it can just as easily be used to fight bias.  Part of the GMU lunch ethos, for example, is the "bet or change your mind" norm.  If you violate the norm, the group thinks less of you.  The result: Better thinking.

If Robin's point was merely that some "rationalist" clubs don't practice what they preach, I'd be the first to agree.  I was at the Jefferson School in 1989 to witness the final stages of the Ayn Rand's Institute's purge of David Kelley.  Scary!  But Robin seems to be making the stronger claim that rationalists shouldn't join together in mutual appreciation of one another.  That's a drastic overreaction to the mere possibility that a rationalist club will become everything its members claim to oppose.

Even worse, Robin's argument condemns the GMU lunch itself.  Heresy!


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Adam writes:

You're both wrong. You cannot fight bias because your need it to make any decision or take any action.

There is more information that could potentially be taken into account when making a decision than a human being is capable of actually absorbing indiscriminantly.

In order to achieve a basic level of functional decisionmaking, you have to filter out the vast majority of the information you could perceive. The scarcity of one's time and abilities are a fundamental fact of life, just as all scarcity is.

The battle that you and Hanson are attempting to fight is just as removed from reality as the socialist who believes that they can emancipate us from scarcity by some moralistic mechanism.

In the socialist's case, scarcity cannot be done away with and all that ends up happening is a struggle to implement their particular preferred policies.

In your and Hanson's case, bias is not done away with but you may promote the adoption of certain filters at the expense of others--and not only by other people, but, as Hanson seems intent on doing, within oneself. The filters that naturally prop up when you believe something about free markets or whatnot might discourage you from even deigning to look at a study that proports to prove some popular misconception on the subject--but one's believe both in making a case for one's own argument by critisizing the substance of someone else's, as well as one's believe in an ethic of scientific discourse--these are many different kinds of filters that don't necessarily mesh uniformly.

In a way, you've got it backwards. You want to promote bias, not fight it--it's just a particular class of bias that you prefer (as do I).

ThomasL writes:

Mr Caplan,

Maybe it is my own religious underpinning, but I am not certain how from what is in that quote one could come to the conclusion that you did. He is not even beginning to say that likeminded people should not congregate or share good times and conversation.

He is warning that one should not get an over vaulted opinion of oneself on the basis of being outside the majority thought. In longer terms, if one believes himself superior to the majority of people simply because one disagrees with them, at some point one will no longer make decisions rationally, and will instead simply look at what the majority is doing and then do the opposite, without any regard as to whether the majority was in fact right or wrong. In one line I think the thrust of that quote could be summed up: don't be contrary for the sake of being contrary and don't think more highly of yourself than you ought.

The reason he brings in a secondary group is solely related to the natural impulse to want appreciation. It doesn't alter the fundamentals of the problem, but adds a temptation to gain that appreciation by pleasing that compact and generally more sympathetic group while again abandoning consideration as to whether that group is in the right.

Zac writes:

My interpretation of what Robin said was this: the evil part is taking pleasure in the fact that you are right while others are wrong, not just enjoying the company of your friends who agree with you. I agree with him: going against conventional thinking, you will often be right especially if you have some nonstandard information/training, but the fact that only you and your friends believe something is nothing to really be happy about.

Most of my friends are hardcore libertarian atheists and thus a number of standard deviations away from the mainstream, so I am familiar with this feeling. You have to realize the intoxicating power of being full of a comfortable feeling of superiority to the masses of one's fellow men (HT HL Mencken). What Robin rightly recognizes is by taking great joy in being right where others are wrong we are tying this emotion of self satisfaction to being a naysayer, which is a common characteristic of your typical wingbat group, e.g. Christians.

Isak writes:

"You cannot fight bias because your need it to make any decision or take any action."

Nonsense. Maybe we cannot eliminate all bias, but that does not mean there isn't some bias we can identify and eliminate.

"In longer terms, if one believes himself superior to the majority of people simply because one disagrees with them, at some point one will no longer make decisions rationally, and will instead simply look at what the majority is doing and then do the opposite, without any regard as to whether the majority was in fact right or wrong."

No, Hanson's claim was much stronger than that. He said its evil to get pleasure from disagreeing with people. But if one merely gets pleasure from disagreeing with people, that doesn't mean one cannot still be rational. It simply means you would use more mental resources on finding areas where you disagree with the public. Your new views could be more correct or less correct than the public's. Getting pleasure from disagreeing wouldn't obviously bias it either way.

The only way Hanson's claim would be plausible is if we assume that the public is correct on most beliefs, and you are just randomly picking a belief (or something similar). But of course, there are plenty of beliefs on which it is wrong, so you could find plenty of those to disagree with instead.

Adam writes:

Maybe we cannot eliminate all bias, but that does not mean there isn't some bias we can identify and eliminate.

Instead of "eliminate" I would have said "substitute with something else".

Jason Malloy writes:

We feel a deep pleasure from realizing that we believe something in common with our friends, and different from most people... This feeling is EVIL. Learn to see it in yourself, and then learn to be horrified by how thoroughly it can poison your mind.

I think this is hysterical and unreasonable. Taking pleasure in shared identity and belief is a basic ingredient of interpersonal trust and social bonding, which leads to countless positive outcomes.

Robin's normative framework is unusual; both objectivity and social relationships are important. Sometimes they are in conflict, and sometimes it is better for the individual and/or society when social relationships take precedence. Meanwhile it's no coincidence that some of the most important thinkers have also been very lonely people. It's easier to be a heretic when there are no important relationships your "dangerous" thoughts can threaten.

Anyway, I certainly don't recommend beliefs that are wrong, but that people learn to intelligently manage their objectivity vis a vis their social relationships. I think many people manage to do this, and most of the time it requires only a trivial amount of tact.

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