Bryan Caplan  

Against Recent Events

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There are many tell-tale signs of a demagogue.  Perhaps the clearest, though, is when someone states the words, "Recent events show X."  Which recent events?  Virtually any recent events!  Yes, every century has a few mighty outliers that sway the fortunes of billions, like Hitler's sneak attack on the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  But the overwhelming majority of recent events are sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Serious thinkers don't base their worldview on what happened yesterday, or last week, or last year.  Instead, they endlessly ponder the totality of human history, a body of evidence that makes all recent events combined look small and hollow.

Most people who minimize recent events do so because they don't like what recent events seem to show.  These folks are doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  The right reason to minimize recent events is that recent events aren't probative enough to show anything, welcome or unwelcome.  Eschew Social Desirability Bias and you will know this to be true.

The demagogic connection is straightforward.  The intellectually lazy masses have no patience for thoughtful arguments or big picture surveys of the evidence.  So how are you supposed to persuade them of anything?  Simple.  Cast all epistemic scruples aside.  Wait around for recent events to go your way.  Then loudly claim that these events "show" the very thing you've long yearned to make the masses believe. 

Such demagoguery is hardly fool-proof.  It couldn't be, because your intellectual rivals are using it too!  But it works well.  That's why almost every politician and pundit uses it.  Deplorable, but hardly surprising: If the totality of human history proves anything, it's that demagogues rule countries and dominate discourse. 

I know some smart people who react to these insights with a cynical, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."  On consequentialist grounds, they could be right.  My considered judgment, though, is that winning is far from everything.  If I can't be persuasive without pretending that recent events are decent evidence for anything, I choose to be unpersuasive.

P.S. You know what our latest "recent events" are.  But I'm writing for the ages.  Whatever happens in future years, I promise not to claim vindication by recent events.

P.P.S. Yes, a bet's resolution is also a "recent event," so the way a specific bet turns out doesn't show much either.  But people's ubiquitous reluctance to bet shows something very big: Deep down, most demagogues don't even find themselves convincing - and neither do the masses who lionize them.




COMMENTS (7 to date)
John Strong writes:

Once told a guy in a bookstore that I didn't read the NY Times because anything published daily was not worth reading. I was shocked at how furious he got. Some people really take their Newsak seriously.

Esquire writes:

It's not just pundits who are reluctant to bet - there is a shocking reluctance on the part of almost every professional (lawyers, doctors, plumbers) to ever put a probability on any claim.

Massimo writes:

A bet requires objective outcome criteria. When an issue doesn't have something close to that, people are reluctant to bet. It is not that people don't find themselves convincing, it is that they don't find the betting mechanism appropriate or useful to specific issues.

With the mass immigration issue, many people are convinced that something bad is going to happen, but not the exact form that events will play out in. Even with the advantage of hindsight, the experts and pundits can't agree on whether past immigration into Europe was good or bad, even including Bryan Caplan's close circle of GMU professors and bloggers. If you can't agree on a criteria of success for the past, how could you possibly do so for the future?

Jeff writes:

I think you're just describing confirmation bias. Overstating the importance of recent events which seem to lend credence to your ideas or opinions. It's an easy trap to fall into and I don't think doing so necessarily means you're intellectually lazy or a demagogue. The thing about bias like this is you don't realize when you're doing it.

Also, I think it's helpful to have recent events to point to when making an argument. If you rely too much on historical events, you open yourself up to the "yeah, but that was then, this is now" hand-waving that your opponents, also probably engaged in confirmation bias, are likely to respond with.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Isn't there a bit more for professor Caplan to add?

How are "recent" events connected (shaped, "determined?" limited, etc.) by what has preceded?

Will these "recent" in turn have similar effects going forward, if not why not, if so how and what.

Perhaps most of what we observe as "recent" are the ongoing reactions and interactions of "interests," objectives, and selections of (or efforts at)means.

Our scope of "vision" of the recent is substantially limited (so much going on of which we have little information, let alone knowledge); of the preceding somewhat broader but usually biased; the future entirely assumptive.

david condon writes:

@John Strong
FYI This blog gets updated daily.

Ano nymous writes:

If you are not aware of the present, you will not know how/when to apply all that perspective.

But knowledge of the present should be perceived as context, not perspective.

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