Arnold Kling  

Opening Minds, Closing Minds

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The following thought occurred to me recently. Suppose we look at writing on issues where people tend to hold strong opinions that fit with their ideology. Such writing can

(a) attempt to open the minds of people on the opposite side as the author

(b) attempt to open minds of people on the same side as the author

(c) attempt to close minds of people on the same side as the author

So, think about it. Wouldn't you classify most op-eds and blog posts as (c)? Isn't that sort of pathetic? Here are some more thoughts:

1. The default is (c). If you are not consciously trying to do (a) or (b), then you will almost surely do (c).

2. Most of us, most of the time, do (c).

3. Doing (c) 100 % of the time can earn you fame and fortune. Yes, you get criticized for it by people on the other side, but the positive reinforcement you get probably more than makes up for it.

4. Try to think of folks who try to have a high proportion of (a) and (b). The first ones that I think of are David Brooks and Tyler Cowen. I wish I could think of more.

My biggest problem with David Brooks is the way he treats the class of people he famously dubbed Bobos. I think he cuts them too much slack, over-estimates their strengths, and under-estimates their flaws. My sense is that this class prejudice accounts for a fair number of the issues on which Brooks takes what I think is a wrong position.

Tyler is good at paying attention to the strongest arguments of those with whom he disagrees. Focusing on weaker arguments instead is a classic (c) move. I only get annoyed when he gets to be so cagey with his own point of view that people can take him for holding an opinion that in fact he definitely rejects.


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
TylerG writes:

You pretty much defined Paul Krugman's blog with (c).

sourcreamus writes:

For someone who seems to think of himself as partially autistic, Tyler is great at hiding his true beliefs and only showing what he wants people to see. I wonder if it is his chess background. I bet he would be a good poker player.

BZ writes:

Gosh, but aren't all three necessary for political persuasion? The "other side" may not read your blog, but they have family and friends that might agree with you. Solidify their arguments and their confidence in them, and you've got a foot soldier for your cause.

ed writes:

Well, Yglesias got an award named after him for this. Weird that you don't mention him. He is definitely on the "liberal" side in general, but about a third of his posts are almost libertarian.

TA writes:

Nice post. Yglesias is in the group.

steve writes:

"My biggest problem with David Brooks is the way he treats the class of people he famously dubbed Bobos. I think he cuts them too much slack, over-estimates their strengths, and under-estimates their flaws."

Good example of c.

Steve

Maximum Liberty writes:

Trial lawyers do a combination of (a) and (c). They assume that the jury is a combination of people who do and don't agree with them. They try to open the minds of those who don't agree and close the minds of those who do.

Commercial deal negotiators do a combination of (a) and (b). They try to open the mind of those on the other side when negotiating with them, then try to open the minds on their own side to give themselves negotiating room. But they signal to the other side that they are facing someone doing (c) back in the home office.

Cheekily: long-married couples do (a), (b), or both. At least one person in a divorced couple probably did (c) in his or her own mind.

More cheekily: Good science does (a) and (b). Bad science does (c).

Most cheekily: Great econ professors do (a) and (b). Good econ professors do (a). Most econ professors do (c) and (zzzzzzz).

Max

happyjuggler0 writes:

d) Attempt to educate the misinformed masses on a fallacy they have, but where there is widespread agreement amongst experts on the issue across the political spectrum.

Bryan Willman writes:

I suspect that some amount of (a) and (b) arises in the comments of blogs. (Lots of (c) as well of course.)

John T. Kennedy writes:

What if you just try to offer valid arguments for what you think is true - is that A, B or C? I've always thought of it as the responsibility of other individuals to open their own minds.

Joe Cushing writes:

I have no idea what this post is about. All people do is try to convince others that their ideas are right and opposing ideas are wrong.

Seth writes:

I think op-ed writers write (c) because that's what most people want.

They don't want their inconsistencies in logic exposed. They don't want to think.

They want an expedient and convenient argument so they can continue believing what they believe.

Jeff writes:

a) and b) are also harder to do than c). That shouldn't be overlooked. They're like a kind of salesmanship. Not everybody is a natural salesman, although I suppose it's a skill that can be developed and honed just like any other (and arguably should, if you're a Bobo-class pundit like Mr. Brooks), but when you can make just as much money doing c) without the effort, well...maybe it's not surprising that we don't have more Tyler Cowens and David Brookses amongst our professional chatterers.

Becky Hargrove writes:

I laughed when I read Joe Cushing's response, because this post was phrased a bit differently than I'd actually thought about the situation. The best way for me to explain: Scott Sumner once referred to Tyler as a fox (generalist) while he was a hedgehog (specialist). As someone who also falls into the fox category, I can tell you that words do not come near as easily as they do for hedgehogs, and because of that we often get attacked from both sides!

Tom West writes:

The trouble with A is that in order to get any hearing at all, you have to accept (or at least not argue with) certain axioms or accept a framing of the question which already puts you at a 'disadvantage'.

When people from the side you favor see you doing this, they can naturally make the assumption that you support that side fully (as only someone on the other side accepts the given axiom or framing).

It's interesting to see how often Yglesias and McArdle get attacked by 'their' side when they do this. (And of course, most of the side they're approaching will reject them anyway, so they can be hit from both sides at once - most amusing when it's happening in consecutive blog comments)

Jason writes:

I don't think it has been made clear here exactly what "opening minds" or "closing minds" actually means.

One possible meaning is that closing minds is engaging System 1 (in Daniel Kahneman's terminology) and opening minds is engaging System 2. System 1 makes snap judgments, uses rules of thumb (heuristics), thinks quickly and does not handle probabilities (or math in general) very well. It can be trained to make very accurate snap judgments where there is feedback -- when people are experts in a field, a trained System 1 is what makes them so good. System 2 is more deliberative, slower, vetoes suggestions of System 1 and is most of all lazy. It lets System 1 take shortcuts by not vetoing them, but it also helps work out what heuristics eventually get put in System 1 (e.g. learning calculus).

Use of mathematics or graphs would be a good indicator of System 2. (You have to engage it when you deal with numbers.) Use of unanswered rhetorical questions, putting things up unexplained (if ever you want someone to make a snap judgment and not think, these two are the ways to do it) and glittering generalities (any truths universally accepted you didn't look up to verify) would be an indicator of System 1. Appeals to centrism or centrism itself are also likely indicators of System 1 (it is a glittering generality, like the word "bipartisan"). Post hoc rationalization is System 2 in the service of System 1 so is a way of closing minds; this would include people who have one belief that justifies everything or that keep their point of view despite changing arguments for it. (Does not include people like Scott Sumner -- he doesn't use NGDP target to justify everything he just wants the Fed to use NGDP targeting. It does however apply to tax cuts as solutions to every problem.)

One of the best system 2 blogs is fivethirtyeight which basically makes its mission to overcome system 1 in horserace politics by use of math. And contra some people above, Krugman makes direct appeals to math and data. One of the examples of the laziness of System 2 Kahneman gives is to ask you to multiply 17*23. Most people won't do it. You have to sit down and engage. (10 + 7)*(20 + 3), FOIL, 200 + 140 + 30 + 21 = 391. In this light, I think Cowen's lack of math on his blog even though he's very good at it** is a sign he wants to engage System 1.

n.b. I did the math problem in order to ensure I was engaging System 2 :)
** He recieved his PhD from Harvard under Thomas Schelling, Nobel prize winning game theorist.

James A. Donald writes:

In the normal case, the reason there is stubborn disagreement is that people on one side of the disagreement are evil and insane. Hence the proposed approach consists of pretending to be evil and insane, conceding the virtue of evil, and so on and so forth

1. Consider the climategate files:

Let us suppose you twit a warmist with climategate emails, in particular "trick ... to hide the decline"

The warmist will explain that "trick" and "hide" don't mean what they sound like they mean. But he will not explain what they really mean. Instead he will explain what "decline" really means, implicitly admitting that they know full well that "trick" and "hide" do mean what they sound like they mean.

2. Consider the Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case

Everyone who asserts that Zimmerman attacked Trayvon Martin and denies that Trayvon Martin chimped out on Zimmerman, presents as evidence for that proposition, not evidence and arguments that Zimmerman attacked Trayvon Martin, but instead evidence and arguments that it was perfectly reasonable for Trayvon Martin to chimp out on Zimmerman. Everyone, every single person, who denies that Traytvon Martin chimped out on Zimmerman, also asserts that it was a great and threatening wrong for Zimmerman to follow Martin at a distance, a grave and great threat necessitating self defense, whereas it was no wrong at all for Professor Gates to follow right behind Sgt. James Crowley screaming threats and abuse at him.

Further, we now have the physical evidence, which is that Trayvon Martin’s autopsy shows no one laid a finger on him, that there is not a mark upon him except for the bullet hole, whereas Zimmerman looked like he lost an argument with a lawn mower – which physical evidence did not alter anyone’s position in the slightest, revealing that everyone already knew perfectly well what the autopsy was going to show. No one who argued that Zimmerman was in the wrong presented arguments and evidence that would be refuted by the fact that he made no effort to fight back against the larger and stronger Martin Trayvon by non lethal means.

This shows that they already knew what they are forbidden to know - that they already knew that the fact that Martin Trayvon is black and was wearing a hoodie is compelling evidence that he chimped out on Zimmerman.

James A. Donald writes:

If we are debating whether God is one or God is three, then it is perfectly possible that both sides have good intentions, are truthful, or at least believe themselves to be truthful and intend to be truthful, and are as sane as the next guy.

If we are debating whether the climategate files reveal that the warmists are cooking the data to suit their predetermined conclusions, then one side must be truthful, sane, etc, and the other side cannot be, for anyone can simply read those files and the papers to which they refer.

Faré writes:

Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. — G.K. Chesterton

Ronald Stewart writes:

"My biggest problem with David Brooks is..."

Not sure why this is relevant to this article, except to give a great example of c.

Jonathan goodman writes:

Many blog posts take the form: "this is right. That is wrong.". You know there is another blogger exchanging that for this. How does a non expert decide? I rely on clues

1. Does the blogger cite specific data? Krugman yes. Brooks no.

2. Does the blogger coddle nuts (Reagan balanced the budget, global warming denial, AIDS is a capitalist plot)? Corner yes. Dailykos yes. Krugman no.

3. Ad hominem, such as: "that can't be true. The source is (Krugman, Wikipedia, Cato institute)".

4. Trusting famously biased secondary sources.

James A. Donald writes:

Jonathan goodman writes:
> 1. Does the blogger cite specific data? Krugman yes. Brooks no

But most of the specific data cited by Krugman turns out not to be true (Supposedly nation X tried austerity with bad results), much like most of the specific data cited by the warmists. (Supposedly the polar bears are dying of heatstroke and drowning for lack of ice, the Antarctic ice may be increasing in area but it is supposedly getting thinner)

Your argument assumes that both sides to the debate are truthful and sincere. In the case of persistent and stubborn disagreement, it is seldom, the case that both sides are truthful and sincere, except when they are debating issues not amenable to observation, such as the nature of the trinity.

Felix Moore writes:

Tom West suggested that "The trouble with A is that in order to get any hearing at all, you have to accept (or at least not argue with) certain axioms or accept a framing of the question which already puts you at a 'disadvantage'.

Actually, it's even worse - you have to use an alien rhetoric and mind-set.

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