Bryan Caplan  

Irrational and Negligent

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What's wrong with your intellectual opponents?  One of the most popular answers is that they're "stupid and evil."  Most of the thinkers I respect go out of their way to disavow this facile answer.  Indeed, most of the thinkers I respect go out of their way to praise their opponents' intelligence and virtue.  They don't merely opine, "We can disagree without being disagreeable."  They put those who disagree with them on a pedestal.

My respect notwithstanding, this seems odd.  If your opponents are so great, why are they still your opponents?  If you're right, why haven't your arguments caused them to change their minds?  If they're right, why haven't their arguments caused you to change yours?  On reflection, Robin Hanson is right to insist that "disagreement is disrespect."  After all, if you really held another thinker in the highest esteem, you would trust their judgment over your own.

What then do I think is wrong with my intellectual opponents?  With rare exceptions, I deny that they're stupid.  Indeed, I think that many of my intellectual opponents are clearly smarter than me.  Paul Krugman and George Borjas swiftly come to mind.  Nor do I think they're evil.  A few trolls aside, my opponents are doing what they believe to be right.  So where do they do wrong? 

First, while they're not stupid, they're usually irrational.  They let their emotions sway their judgments.  They indulge in hyperbole.  They take the values of their society for granted.  They don't bet

Second, while they're not evil, they are negligent.  It doesn't take a genius to figure out that thinkers should stay calm, measure their words, question their society's values, and put their money where their mouths are.  But my intellectual opponents still routinely fail to abide by these norms.  The beliefs for which they're known are largely wrong because poor intellectual self-discipline normally lead to error.

Now you could ask, "Doesn't the same critique apply to your intellectual allies, too?"  The answer, sadly, is yes.  Most of my allies are irrational and negligent, too.  If they're right about controversial issues, they're usually right for the wrong reasons.*  How can they be right when their intellectual methods are so poor?  Simple: They got lucky.  That's why they're so rare.

The toughest challenge, though, is: "Doesn't the same critique apply to Bryan himself?"  My response: I ruminate on my own irrationality every day.  When I write, I weigh each sentence for accuracy.  I live the Betting Norm.  Taken together, this seems sufficient to clear me from the charge of negligence.  Full rationality, in contrast, is such a high bar I don't think I perfectly meet it.  The best I can say for myself is that when I fall short of full rationality, it's rarely for lack of trying. 

Still, there's always room for improvement.

* I do think that my closest intellectual allies - people who broadly share my arguments as well as my conclusions - are markedly better.  But that's a tiny crowd.




COMMENTS (9 to date)
IVV writes:

"It doesn't take a genius to figure out that thinkers should stay calm, measure their words, question their society's values, and put their money where their mouths are."

Does that really follow? Is there perhaps a bias in adding the word "should" to this sentence? How would you respond to a thinker that espouses different values?

john hare writes:

It is also possible that different life experience leads to different conclusions from apparently the same evidence. That is for thinkers though. Many followers, especially the ones that think they are leaders, tend to fall into the vices you mention.

Liam McDonald writes:

I think John Hare has a point but I think "lack" of life experience might be more accurate. We may have experienced the same thing but to different degrees.

I see this a lot in younger people and I think we have all been there. Who didn't think they were smarter than their parents at 18? But that is right on the mark with Bryan's "irrational" comment. Emotions rule. Or overrule as the case maybe.

But I ask you this Bryan, while I love your Bettor's Oath, can you really divest yourself of emotion in your responses and opinions when it is ingrained in what fundamentally defines you? Since the opposite of that would be no emotion regardless of outcome. Do you never experience disappointment or joy?

James writes:

Bryan,

I'm not fully aware of your betting record but I recall most of your bets follow a pattern where your opponent bets that some number will vary from its historical base rate while you bet on the base rate.

Have you ever made a bet where you stood to lose money if you were mistaken in any of your more extreme positions e.g. pacifism, education, open borders, anarchism, atheism, etc? If not, then I don't see how your willingness to bet on your beliefs is especially relevant to the beliefs that you have never bet on.

Monica writes:

Why can't it be that your opponents just have different values? Most policy differences involve trade-offs. You may value liberty over security, for example, and I might value security over liberty when we fully agree with each other that these are the stakes of the policy issue at hand. You might correctly point out that valuing small gains in security over big gains in liberty have serious moral costs, or vice versa, and you might be right. But if people ever use the word evil to refer to mere value differences, they typically reserve it for value differences vastly more extreme than that.

Fred Anderson writes:

Being merely an opinionated amateur. this viewpoint may be easily undercut by anyone who gives it some thought, but . . .

I suspect Robin Hanson's insistence that "disagreement is disrespect" is based on a bad assumption: Namely, that the matter at issue is sufficiently delimited that both you and your opponent can "get your heads around it" / can (more or less) fully comprehend it.

But what if it isn't? What if the issue is deucedly complex? And most of what we know -- when we're honest with ourselves -- is what we don't know. (Or worse: In Robert McNamara's phrasing, that there are also unknown unknowns.) What if the string-theory physicists are right and reality has some 29 dimensions, and our puny little human brains can grasp 4 of them if we stretch ourselves?

Lacking a large forebrain, my housecat is probably at a disadvantage in trying to figure out what I'm up to: She may be working mostly in three dimensions (and with a slower processor) while I'm working (sort of) in four. Do you suppose that a 30-D God (if there be a God) gets a bemused chuckle out of watching us benighted "housecats" get into heated arguments about what he's up to?

Perhaps my opponent is as intelligent and virtuous as I am: And perhaps we're both God's housecats; totally outgunned by the problems we've thrown ourselves against.

Mark Z writes:

I disagree with Hanson's claim that disagreement it disrespect, at least in any meaningful way. Given how vast and complicated the world is and how little time any of us have to devote to understanding it, it's reasonably to start from the assumption that most people (or all of them) are wrong about most things. This alone would suggest that intelligence or general quality of judgement would at best weakly correlate with having the right view on a given subject (which I think is the case).

Just think, mathematicians and physicists are the smartest people in the world. And yet, I've met mathematicians and physicists much smarter than me in general whose beliefs on certain issues were dumb; much dumber than mine. That's not because their judgment is inferior to mine; it's because, in my opinion, they haven't thought about or researched such matters as much as I have or they have more ingrained biases on those issues (while my more ingrained biases may be on other issues). Most people are only able to be experts or aficionados of a few things. On everything else, they're inevitably ignorant and/or biased.

It isn't really 'disrespectful' of Mickey Mantle's batting skill to bet against him getting a hit on the next at-bat; even the best of players is almost certainly batting below 500.

Gareth writes:

Serious question: is there any evidence that ruminating on human irrationality makes a person less irrational? Seems like an empirical claim and seems like it is in tension with what we know about the most informed people suffering the most from certain biases.

Gareth writes:

Serious question: is there any evidence that ruminating on human irrationality makes a person less irrational? Seems like an empirical claim and seems like it is in tension with what we know about the most informed people suffering the most from certain biases.

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