Bryan Caplan  

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Tyler often insists that, appearances notwithstanding, he's constantly popularizing free-market ideas.  People just have to read him carefully and in the proper frame of mind.

I habitually insist that this isn't good enough.  Either you popularize your point bluntly and clearly, or you fail to popularize. 

After rehashing this argument this morning, I ran back to his office and declaimed the following paragraph from educational psychologist Douglas Detterman, quoted in Robert Haskell's Transfer of Learning.  When Detterman began teaching...
I thought it was important to make things as hard as possible for students so they would discover the principles for themselves.  I thought the discovery of principles was a fundamental skill that students needed to learn and transfer to new situations.  Now I view education, even graduate education, as the learning of information.  I try to make it as easy for students as possible.  Where before I was ambiguous about what a good paper was, I now provide examples of the best papers from past classes.  Before, I expected students to infer the general conclusion from specific examples.  Now I provide the general conclusion and support it with specific examples.  In general, I subscribe to the principle that you should teach people exactly what you want them to learn in a situation as close as possible to the one in which the learning will be applied.  I don't count on transfer and I don't try to promote it except by explicitly pointing out where taught skills may be applied.
Emphasis added for self-referential reasons.


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COMMENTS (22 to date)
JLonsdale writes:

This may be true for educators with captive students, but reading Tyler's blog is quite optional. If he was heavy handed in his teachings he would scare many potential readers away. Instead of preaching to the choir, he is instilling a slightly more vague sense of liberty in many more actual readers.

Jared writes:
Matt writes:

There is a name for people who choose to simplify and exaggerate in order to promote the popularity of their underlying position -- ideologues.

If you actually believe your position is roughly correct and that loss of subtlety is worth the price, this route may be worth it. I don't think it's that good of an idea however, to at the same time discourage those who are trying to take a stand for nuance.

PrometheeFeu writes:

First of all, thank you for the image of you running to Tyler Cowen and without any introduction declaiming book in hand the above paragraph to a stunned Tyler.

The approach you describe above works great for teaching students who come eager to learn from the more knowledgeable professor. But that is not the situation. Those who are looking for a political and economic philosophy have many different options and they might not choose classical liberalism and free markets. Chances are, a brutal introduction would make them flee. Instead, it is better that there be many types of communicators in favor of free markets: The likes of Tyler Cowen or the Volokh Conspiracy can appeal to the moderate conservative who believes in economic freedom and the moderate liberal who believes in civil liberties. Then, when they are warmed up to the most consensual ideas of classical liberalism, they can be sent to EconLog, EconTalk or Cafe Hayek where they read the deeper insights and more radical ideas that classical liberalism brings us.

Dan Hill writes:

This may be a good plan to move the masses from completely dangerous ignorance and stupidity to a level of slightly less dangerous ignorance and stupidity (if I can get someone to accept that free trade is good by sheer repetition of the mantra then that's definitely better than them not accepting it even if they never get the concept of comparative advantage), but it's not the way to educate the people who are going to build the new knowledge on which society advances...put another way, this is not how you learn to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Norman Pfyster writes:

Given Tyler's frequent allusions to Leo Strauss, it's hard to know when to take his writings at face value. Perhaps he is clearer when talking with him in the GMU lunchroom because he would be less likely to deliberately create ambiguity.

Lee Kelly writes:

Wait! What? Are you trying to say that Tyler Cowen is not a progressive? Poppycock.

Philemon Loy writes:

I won't speak to Tyler as a popularizer of free-market ideas. But I wonder if there is bit of a false pedagogical dilemma in the Haskell. Sure, some things need to be put across as clearly and in as idiot/dummy friendly a manner as possible. But at some point, unless your desired learning outcome is just that the student or audience parrot your words, or that all you are trying to get across are facts, facts, and more facts, you do need them to understand and be able apply what they have learned in novel contexts. Think Bastiat--he doesn't just transfer information, e.g, the conclusion of "broken windows". If one follows and grasp the reasoning (or in this case, the absurdity in the stone thrower's reasoning), one "discovers the principles for themselves".

D writes:

Unlike Bryan Caplan, Tyler never seems to have real moments of courage.

Wayne writes:

I also find Prof. Cowen analysis too roundabout. In contrast, Prof. Caplan seems direct and complete. (My only source is only their blogs and speaking events. I don't know how their professional work compares.)

It is true that some thinkers attempt to be direct and, instead, come off as exaggerating ideologues. This is because either their arguments aren't complete or they are bad making their case.

As Prof. Caplan has said, the best philosophy starts with blunt and obvious ideas that are easily agreed upon and then proceeds to apply them to those areas where disagreement still exists.

Curt Doolittle writes:

Bryan,

I understand what you're saying but it does not correspond to the way that the unconverted learn to adopt ideas which they initially disagree with. Converting opponents is different from educating adherents. And arguments are not won in debate but by the later change in behavior of the participants.

The trick in converting people who are disengaged from direct debate, is to mix their propositions with your propositions - to tell them that they're right but missing something.

This subtle approach relies upon the suggestibility of human beings -- because under suggestion they are less critical new content and therefore 'puzzle' or consider the new content precisely because it is NOT clear. It is the act of 'consideration' that allows one set of established mental networks to integrate with different or newer sets of networks.

It is an essential technique of propaganda. In fact, artful use of the technique can allow people to develop agreement with what was previously counter-intuitive.

The Chinese philosophers (whose language is naturally poetic and not as technical as the indo-european languages) rely upon self-contradictory riddles to force individuals to puzzle out answers for exactly this reason. Socratic dialogs suggest unresolvable puzzles such as 'justice' the real purpose of which is to instill skepticism, as a defense against hubris. The western political model relies upon mythical narratives, most of which, greek and germanic, are cautions against hubris.

The movement to 'Clarity' in writing in the 20th century, is largely the product of five influences: a) the need to train military servicemen during the first two world wars, b) the addition of the proletariat to consumer middle class, and the need to advertise to them, and c) the need to simplify educational content under multiculturalism and racial integration, and d) the need to train labor to use technology e) the need to dumb down 'classical' material that requires a 110 IQ to comprehend, so that it can be absorbed by the additional 40% of the population that attends college of one kind or another.

However, there are quite obvious side effects in a populace of systemically 'Simplifying' arguments. Not the least of which is that people become more easily entrenched in their existing paradigms because only 'suggestions' of the nature we're discussing can allow them to bridge from their existing model to a new one, unless they are explicitly TRYING to make that bridge themselves.

The most damning criticism of 'Simplicity' comes from this analysis: Both Western Fraternal Individualism of the warrior landowner class, and Chinese Confucian Individualism of the bureaucratic class, both rely on these 'puzzles'. The Authoritarian Scriptural Magian social models rely on 'clarity'. Or more simply stated: simplicity is a tool of authoritarianism. Simple statements are not puzzles. they do not leave open to consideration the alternatives.

Most often, in political or ethical discourse, we are asking people to change the metaphysical value judgments. Judgements that are IMPLICIT but non-cognitive in their network of assumptions. When speaking to a disengaged reader, this suggestion is more easily accomplished using subtlety, riddles, puzzles than with a hammer of 'simplicity'. And the reason is that humans don't like being wrong (because it means you're right - and their cognitive biases kick in.)

Some people use puzzling headlines. In debates, I often use baiting confrontation, or intentionally ambiguous statements that can be interpreted as error, or a series of insufficiently explained examples to 'hook' attention. Everyone uses the devices that suit him best, when spreading the 'word'.

Bryan Caplan's cognitive biases are not hard to discern. Nor are mine. We carry our backgrounds with us. Christians do not understand that they are carrying with them the 'problem' of how, as a minority, to use their advantage in technology, to hold land, against enemies with superior numbers. But that is the underlying premise of all western thought. (It is not the premise of Jewish thought, and it is not the premise of Chinese thought.)

Tyler's method works just fine for those he's trying to reach.

G Lammert writes:

Free market ideas in a global macroeconomy where one central bank creates in one year ex nihilo more than the total five years profits of the second leading GDP economy in the world ....

The free markets are a bit out of kilter.....

The financial asset class with the greatest market value and greatest global participation is the US debt instrument.

Observe the weekly composite equity and debt charts.
Equities are in the midst of a nonlinear collapse. US debt instruments
are the recipients of that nonlinear collapse and are in nonlinear growth
going to 150 year low interest rates.

For fifty years western debt expansion has been offset by
asset and wage inflation allowing further debt expansion. While there
are natural saturation limits to this process, the world macroeconomy
with the new Asian labor force participation has reached a
supersaturation point of debt and wage dysequilibrium.

50 years of entitlement promises – most disproportionally benefiting the financial and corporate industries who now go into the asset collapse laden with cash – have reelected Pavlovian politicians.

There is now a defacto consensus among US
(and eurobond) debt holders that austerity is needed to maintain the
quality of US debt. Qualitatively further debt expansion which drives
the real global economy is dead.

The deceleration in global GDP will be nonlinear. France’s quarterly GDP is one of the canaries in the coal mine.

Equities are undergoing exquisitely predictable Lammert quantitative
fractal collapse.

The daily fractal pattern for the first segment of the equity
collapse is 3/8/4 of 6-8/5 days.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

"you should teach people exactly what you want them to learn in a situation as close as possible to the one in which the learning will be applied."

The military calls this "train how you fight".

The other kind of learning, how to discover fundamentals, is too hard to teach. Discovering fundamentals is for geniuses. If it could be taught, all fundamentals would have been discovered.

steve writes:

I have a degree in engineering. I had a professor who used to say that the best way to learn something was to try and teach it to someone else. His argument was that if you can't explain it clearly to someone else, then you don't really understand it well yourself. I learned a lot from him.

Now, I pick on the young engineers at work by trying to explain what I am working on to them. Some of them think I am a good mentor. In reality, I am just trying to figure out the problems I am dealing with for myself.

Daublin writes:

Many posters assume that if a teacher makes things easy for the student, they must just be teaching the student to repeat back what the teacher said.

Not true. You can also be direct when teaching skills and ways of thinking. You figure out what you want to teach, you try a method of teaching it, you measure how well you succeeded, and you try to improve on it.

The only thing you give up by following Bryan's advice is the ability to lie to yourself about what you are up to. It's all too easy to be a bad teacher or a bad communicator and then excuse it by saying you are teaching the listener to think. You're probably just making their lives miserable.

Liberal Roman writes:

It depends on what you want to do. If you want to preach to the choir, then go ahead and make your points forcefully.

If you are looking to convince the sceptics of free market capitalism then you have to let them come to the conclusion themselves without feeling like they are being coerced into thinking one way or another.

ajb writes:

As a supporter of free market capitalism but a skeptic about libertarianism, I can say that Caplan's frequent (and in my view oversimplistic) directness is a motivating force in moving me FURTHER away from the positions promoted by him and Henderson.

obang writes:

Thank you Professor Caplan.

Clarity is the proof of the pudding. Unnecessary semantic gymnastics will do little to advance our universal well being and security. Either you say it clearly and bluntly, and get ready to face the music from the other side. Or waste our time by engaging in painful hair splitting detached from the reality on the ground.

After reading David Hume, thank God, I have become my own philosopher.

Laserlight writes:

@ ajb:
If you're moving away from the positions because you disagree with them, then Caplan has helped you.

If you're moving away from them because you don't like the way Caplan explains them, then you ought to move away from Caplan rather than the positions.

ajb writes:

But that's the point. I increasingly feel that one cannot fully separate positions from who advocates them. Social science is not physics. It's also about values and group identity and loyalty. Some aspects are clearcut. But others -- such as defense or immigration -- touch on issues so central to values that Caplan's hard stance makes me realize that other positions put me in league with people who would advocate against my interests. And they make me ask if the positions one supports should always be viewed strategically, which I appreciate from Tyler.

Eric H writes:

Haskell's new method: is this better for his students, or for himself?

Brian writes:

I agree with Haskell's "as close as possible". position when it comes to non-strategic concepts. The problem is most professors have very little relevant work experience that allows them to teach "as close as possible". Or they refuse to be mentored by executive and professional with tons of experience.

So the "as close as possible" tend to be centered around the university system, which is unique and externally different compared to corporate America. If one works in a heavily endowed NGO or the government university examples problem are close enough to educate. Granted I am only referring to Business Professors because that is my experience, I don’t know about hard sciences or technical fields.

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