Bryan Caplan  

The Discipline of Dismissal

Minimum Wage Not Well Targeted... Why are Keynesians so far-sigh...

Tyler has some dismissive observations about the practice of dismissal:

One of the most common fallacies in the economics blogosphere -- and elsewhere -- is what I call "devalue and dismiss."  That is, a writer will come up with some critique of another argument, let us call that argument X, and then dismiss that argument altogether.  Afterwards, the thought processes of the dismisser run unencumbered by any consideration of X, which after all is what dismissal means.  Sometimes "X" will be a person or a source rather than an argument, of course.

The "devalue" part of this chain may well be justified.  But it should lead to "devalue and downgrade," rather than "devalue and dismiss."

I'm tempted to object, "Thank goodness for dismissal, because most ideas and thinkers are a waste of time."  But on reflection, Tyler's overly optimistic.  Dismissing ideas often requires rare intellectual discipline.  Psychologists have documented our assent bias: Human beings tend to believe whatever we hear unless we make an affirmative effort to question it.  As a result, our heads naturally accumulate intellectual junk.  The obvious remedy is to try harder to "take out the trash" - or refuse to accept marginal ideas in the first place.

The deeper problem: People are bad at Transfer of Learning, so dismissing an idea in general terms does not prevent it from swaying your judgment in individual cases.  Few adults deny the power of supply and demand in general terms.  But when they think about labor markets, many remain crude Marxists: "Working conditions are terrible!  Let's pass a law!"  The problem continues throughout the knowledge pyramid: A person can recognize that supply and demand govern the labor market, but remain a crude Marxist when he talks about labor in the 19th-century or Third World.

The upshot is that full-fledged dismissal requires puritanical intellectual discipline.  This discipline is not always a virtue.  If your principles are poisonous, inconsistency dilutes the damage.  But right or wrong, whole-hearted ("whole-minded"?) dismissal is, contra Tyler, in short supply.


COMMENTS (14 to date)
Jon Murphy writes:
Human beings tend to believe whatever we hear unless we make an affirmative effort to question it.

I have to say, I was a lot like that. In college, I majored in economics and minored in philosophy. I think this combination really taught me to start questioning more. Before I took an econ class, I would have no problem buying the claim that minimum wage helps the poor or that war can stimulate an economy. But, I like to think, the thinking method economics taught me, plus the logical foundation supplied by philosophy, helps me to think more critically about what I hear.

Or I am completely wrong. Biased source here.

NZ writes:

@Jon Murphy:

Extrude that a step: you may have learned a lot of things in your econ class that you blithely accepted but which are not very true in the real world, typically because they fail to account for externalities.

Steve Sailer mentions this from time to time as having happened to him.

Jon Murphy writes:


You may be right, but if one is fully aware of externalities, and/or the fact they are excluded, then the reasoning still stands.

For example, in your standard supply/demand model, all else held equal, higher minimum wage results in lower employment of those workers.

In the real world, "all else" is never "held equal." But the reasoning still stands. Minimum wage is a poor legislation to help the low-skilled because it harms their employment opportunities. The underlying realities don't change just because of some things happening at a higher level, so to speak.

RPLong writes:

NZ - Can you make an argument for why Steve Sailer isn't just "devaluing and dismissing?" I agree that no economic model can ever capture every conceivable downstream externality, but in what way does that nullify what we learn in econ class?

NZ writes:

@Jon Murphy:

Minimum wage essentially cuts the bottom rungs off the ladder. This hurts the employment opportunities of the low-skilled, especially if labor laws are strictly enforced and there are no loopholes. However, minimum wage laws can also help pool workers, like for example if there is a lot of illegal immigration, thereby acting as a protective barrier for citizens against competition from cheap imported labor. This was the essence of Ron Unz's support for the minimum wage which he voiced during the IQ2 debate with Bryan Caplan.


No, I can't (though, if you're curious, he does). In fact, it might be fun to continue extruding the dismissal to some reducto ad absurdum. Eventually we wind up as brains in vats, but we have to dismiss that too. So then we're full cycle back to not really being able to dismiss anything, since you never know what's true and what isn't, and both Pascal's Wager and evolutionary psych say it's better to have a false positive than to risk a false negative.

MingoV writes:

Economics isn't the only field that needs full dismissal of bad ideas. Other sciences desperately need it. For example, astrophysicists attempt to model the universe. They, and astronomers, collect data to verify or disprove the model. When the data does not fit the model, the astrophysicists don' start again, they invent undetectable 'dark matter' or, even worse, 'dark energy' to make their models work. After years of supposedly peer-reviewed publications, half the astrophysicists believe this nonsense, and the entire field is poisoned by it.

Tom West writes:

MingoV, after quantum physics, which has pretty much experimentally proven that our common-sense notions of reality are bunk, I don't see how 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' are all that hard to believe.

Especially given the quite solid evidence found in the Bullet Cluster.

Mark Bahner writes:

Hi Bryan,

Tyler wrote:

Sometimes “X” will be a person or a source rather than an argument, of course.

You definitely need to put yourself firmly against dismissal of "a person or a source." Both of those are "ad hominem," and therefore clearly errors in logic.


LD Bottorff writes:

Professor Caplan,
I may be missing some nuanced point here, but it seems to me that there are plenty of people who dismiss your arguments regarding free flow of labor (which you call 'open borders'). It seems to me that a lot of folks are dismissive of your arguments.
Now, I don't think you have been so dismissive. You consider their arguments and say something like, "Even if Concern X is valid, is our current policy the most humane way to address this concern?" It seems as if you aren't just trying to convince yourself of the benefits of immigration; you're trying to convert people!
I think that people who are only trying to convince themselves of the correctness of their positions are much more likely to engage in dismissive arguments.

Shane L writes:

"Human beings tend to believe whatever we hear unless we make an affirmative effort to question it."

I'm laughing to see the first comment by Jon Murphy saying that he was a lot like this, for so was I! Especially if it was in print - ding! - I would automatically assume it was true. So I'm interested to see that it's a common human trait.

I'm also reminded of the character in This Is Spinal Tap who admitted that he believed "virtually everything" he read!

NZ writes:

@MingoV & Tom West:

I'm reminded of Robert Pirsig's frustration with the infinity of scientific hypotheses to explain any given phenomenon:

There might be some other true explanation for leftover matter/energy in the universe besides dark matter/energy.

Quantum physics experiments might be the only aberrations in a reality that otherwise closely matches human common sense.


Ben writes:

I think Bryan and Tyler are making distinct and compatible claims. Tyler says that people are too quick to dismiss ideas, whereas Bryan says that when we people dismiss ideas, they don't always follow their dismissal to its logical consequences. My sense is that Tyler's view applies more to new ideas, whereas Bryan's applies more to existing / long-held views.

Mark Miller writes:

@Tom West:

Re. dark matter and dark energy

The assertions that dark matter and dark energy exist have only bothered me because scientists (I assume for the purposes of brevity) have talked about them as if they know something about their existence, like what they actually are, on the one hand, and then act mystified about it on the other. It's only been recently that I've heard cosmologists admit that both terms are placeholders for something they know very little about. They can measure these effects, but there's nothing tangible they can detect about them yet.

So, what bothers me about the name "dark matter" is the "matter" part. I have no problem with the idea that gravity is causing the lensing effect. It seems cosmologists have measured it, and it's consistent with gravity creating it. I also have no reason to think that "modified gravity," as described in the article you cite, has anything to do with it, though I think there's a need to consider "modified gravity" in another sense: Maybe the gravity is not being generated by tangible matter.

Given that examples which have been brought out typically have this phenomenon clustered around clusters of visible matter that can be seen, one is tempted to surmise that the phenomenon that can't be seen is some other kind of matter, since the only phenomenon we know of that generates gravity is matter. That's the issue, though, and to me, it should cause one to be suspicious of our own notions about this. How do they know it's matter that's generating the "unseen" field? The answer, given what I've seen them demonstrate, is they don't. Being able to measure the mass of this "stuff" would be a very strong indication of it being matter, but to date I have not seem cosmologists talk about this.

Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said he'd rename this "stuff" "dark gravity," and I agree with him. That's a better name, given what's known about it.

The same goes for the name "dark energy." I agree cosmologists know even less about it than "dark matter." It may have nothing to do with matter or energy. Perhaps it's some unknown expansion of space-time, caused by something we know nothing about, though I did hear of one experiment recently which might shed light on what's causing the expansion. Only problem is I don't have it at the ready. My vague memory is it had something to do with how particles behave near Absolute Zero.

Christopher Chang writes:

"Now, I don't think you have been so dismissive. You consider their arguments and say something like, 'Even if Concern X is valid, is our current policy the most humane way to address this concern?' It seems as if you aren't just trying to convince yourself of the benefits of immigration; you're trying to convert people!"

If only.

In his 8+ years blogging about immigration, I have never seen him engage most of the strongest arguments against his position. Instead, he takes some components of those arguments, constructs strawmen out of them, and engages those. And then he keeps engaging the strawmen instead of the real arguments being offered by his commenters.

Look at this post and the associated thread, for instance. It's been close to four years since agnostic's 2010 Apr 28 5:04pm comment, and that just reiterates points which had been made again and again. Tell me when, in the past four or eight years, Caplan has EVER addressed most of its content. And note Jason Malloy's 8:15pm comment calling out Caplan's track record of apparent bad faith, and D's 10:42pm comment agreeing with Malloy's observation. I can point to older threads which justify the frustration Malloy and others already had with Caplan at that time.

(Of course, this still earns Caplan a grade of "better than average" since most other politically motivated advocates of increased low-skill immigration don't even acknowledge uncomfortable facts in strawman form. And steel-manning is very, very rare.)

Anyway, it's easy to look like you "aren't dismissive" to casual observers who already agree with you if you simply stick to your frame and don't mention the real counterarguments at all, and a few status points can be picked up this way. But the Unz debate provides evidence that it's ultimately an ineffective and perhaps even counterproductive strategy when it comes to persuading most people.

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