Discourse Failure and Why Both Sides Do It
In the comment section in Shawn Gude’s post, one of the things that came up was why economists weren’t trusted even though they are experts in their field. The thing is, it’s not just economists. Its climate scientists as well as evolutionary theorists and for that matter, physicists.*
I will just quote my response (which for some reason, received no traffic):
This is largely a product of discourse failure. Work by Fernando Teson and Guido Pincione suggest that this is a predictable result of public choice theory. In general, a belief/argument/theory is more likely to be accepted the larger the individual net expected payoff. When it comes to stuff relating to politics, since a person’s vote is negligible, the expected payoff from voting correctly is close to zero. On the other hand, the expected cost of trying to comprehend and accept a counter-intuitive proposition is by comparison, much larger. This is because we will have to work against our tendency to prefer familiar and personal causes with designated villains to impersonal systemic explanations. In general we prefer things which are vivid to us and we are capable of imagining. We have difficulty imagining how things work out in large timescales. We find it really difficult to comprehend complex and non-linear phenomena. We have especial difficulty dealing with things that are unfamiliar to us on a personal basis. All this difficulty means that it requires extra effort i.e. mental resources to comprehend and accept which involve such elements. That’s why the general public will always have trouble with the theory of evolution, with climate science and economics.
Also contributing to the problem is the psychological cost of giving up beliefs which are tied to one’s own moral, social and political identity. It is an unfortunate fact that people prefer to associate with people who tend to think and believe like themselves. What results is the use of belief or disbeliefs in certain propositions as markers of identity. Identity has a mooring effect in navigation of a complex social world. By having an identity, one is able to know one’s place in the world. Identity thus gives the social choices that face us meaning and significance. For example, the question of whether a particular coffee is fair-trade or not is only meaningful if it matters to us whether we consume fairtrade coffee. But this latter depends on our identity political identity. If people we feel an affinity to think that fair trade matters, then we are more likely to think so. This is related to the way opprobrium is levelled against those who think otherwise. When people whose opinions you value condemn your values you are likely to feel that your own value system is defective. This is part of the process by which the surroundings tend to influence our beliefs.
All this means is that there are significant factors that contribute to whether or not we will accept a proposition which have nothing to do with whether or not said proposition is true. The only way in which people will be able to get to the truth is if they do so despite these factors. i.e. they must allocate significant time and energy to the topic: time and energy which they do not have.
Very predictably, people will also come up with questionable and inconsistent epistemologies which allow them to justify to themselves and other like minded people their se of beliefs. That is why people who think we should defer to experts generally often say that a particular field is different. So, more left wing types are likely to defer to experts on climate change, but think that economics is different. Similarly right wing types may be more likely to defer to economists, but think that climate scientists are different and not genuine experts. People will especially feel favourable towards contrarians in these fields who espouse beliefs that accord with their prior beliefs and want to accord them more weight than is actually warranted.
This is not to mention that the media can play a negative role in this as well. Because controversies sell, the media has an interest in manufacturing controversies where none exist. This is akin to the way there is a “controversy” about evolution. While scientists have disagreement about a number of details, there is still significant and strong consensus on the broad picture. Yet fringe theorists are often placed on the same footing as mainstream ones.
The end result is that the more public deliberation we have, the more that vivid and intuitive theories will win out over counter-intuitive ones.
Let me repeat myself for emphasis: Public deliberation is less likely than academic deliberation (especially in the sciences and probably to a large degree in the social sciences as well) to reach the truth about a matter. More than that, in situations where the true theory is counter-intuitive for the discussed reasons, public deliberation is more likely than not to lead to the wrong conclusion.
What does this mean? It means that very predictably, discourse failure is endemic to both sides, democrat and republican, conservative and progressive, statist and libertarian. While there need not be exactly the same amount, variations take place only to a degree that can be explained by chance. Neither am I saying that both sides are equally bad (although they may be). Since the discourse failure is likely to be exhibited by each party on a different set of issues, it may be the case that if we had to choose, it is better to be wrong on some issues rather than others. However, this is not to the credit of those in that party. It is entirely an issue of luck that they are more vulnerable to discourse failure in one less important area rather than another more important one. The moral fault, if any, lies in failing to take due care to pursue the truth dispassionately. The difference in moral consequences is a matter of moral luck. Anyone who wants to show that one side is systematically worse than the other in terms of te incidence of discourse failure is going to have to provide an explanation of how this could be. It is not sufficient to show that one side exhibits discourse failure on more issues than another if the difference is attributable to chance. If we want better policy, we should either limit public deliberation**, limit the effect public deliberation has on policy*** or find a way to internalise the benefits of coming to the right decision.
So, do I get to be the next David Brooks?
*I’ve had to argue with otherwise very intelligent non-physicists about how the violation of bell’s inequality actually is able to prove a negative: That there are no local hidden variables
**This is definitely not the preferred solution
***We can decide such questions at the margins. We can decide to depoliticise some specific class of issues by delegating it to some technocratic body.