Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ways to Burst Your Filter Bubble - Bloomberg View

Tyler Cowen offers some ideas for how we can overcome 
confirmation bias, "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses" per Wikipedia.

Cowen introduces the subject as follows:

Often readers send requests, and last week I was asked for “Good Rules to Avoid the Filter Bubble.” My correspondent meant, how to avoid reading too many of the people he agreed with, maintaining a balanced perspective in a time of increasing polarization. Of course, a “balanced” perspective isn’t always a more correct one (sometimes one side really does have more truth on its side). But still it seems valuable to understand the views of others, and to keep in mind the limitations of one’s own.
The sad thing is, this isn’t as easy as it might sound.

He offers several suggestions. My personal favorite is the ideological Turing test in which "you could write out the views of a Trump or Clinton supporter, or of some other point of view contrary to your own, in a way that would be indistinguishable from the writings of supporters." I also rely on Arnold Kling's Three Languages of Politics because I think his model helps identify the main focus liberals, conservatives and libertarians use when expressing and defending their positions. (Quick summary. Liberals talk about the oppressed/oppressors. Conservatives refer to civilization vs. barbarism while libertarians see things in terms of rights versus coercion.)

For a more detailed analysis of confirmation bias and other factors that affect our ability to be objective check out 
Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Interesting Oscars Comment: Related to Kling’s Three Languages of Politics

I’ve written a number of times about Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics. Basically he says that each of the three main political groups in the U.S. prefer to use a language that centers on an axis. Liberals talk about the oppressors vs. the oppressed. Conservatives worry about the effects of barbarism on civilization. Libertarians coach their positions in terms of freedom versus coercion.

With this as background a comment was made during the acceptance speech for best movie at the Oscars by Marc Platt, a “La La Land” producer. His comment was lost in the drama that unfolded shortly after he made this comment due to the award being given to the wrong film. I don’t know if Platt is familiar with Kling’s book. (Probably not.) Or if he was trying to appeal to conservative in his phrasing. (Also probably not.) But I found his statement a potential use of Kling’s ideas to express an idea that could span the two groups, liberal and conservatives.

Here is what he said with the key text highlighted: “Here’s to the fools who made me dream: my uncle Gary Platt; my mentor, Sam Cohn; my parents; my children; my wife Julie, on whose shoulders I’ve stood for 40 years because she insisted I reach for the stars. And to the Hollywood community that I’m so proud to be a part of. And to the Hollywood and the hearts and minds of people everywhere, repression is the enemy of civilization. So keep dreaming, because the dreams we dream today will provide the love, the compassion and the humanity that will narrate the stories of our lives tomorrow.”

I know he uses repression rather than oppression but I think the terms are close enough. Oppression involves keeping a person or a group of persons down while repression deals with the ability to express oneself. In any case, I find it interesting how Platt starts off with the liberal’s preferred term of repression to tie it to a conservative’s preference for civilization. I’m sure Platt would argue that a “civilized” world needs to allow freedom of expression, not the traditions conservatives want to protect such as religion.

What about the libertarians? They probably would say that the best way to prevent repression and protect civilization is by protecting individual rights.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Maverick Philosopher: A Note on Ayn Rand's Misunderstanding of Kant

This post by Bill Vallicella ("Maverick Philosopher") sheds some light on why Rand hasn't been taken seriously by professional philosophers.

First a personal admission. Years ago I tried to read Kant to see if I agreed with Rand's conclusion that he was "the most evil man in mankind's history." I didn't get very far! I found his language too obtuse (and my patience way too thin) to get more than a few pages into his Critique of Pure Reason. So I can't attest to the accuracy of Vallicella's interpretation of Kant. Per his profile, Vallicella "taught philosophy at various universities in the USA and abroad before abandoning a tenured position to live the eremitic life of the independent philosopher in the Sonoran desert."  

I won't try to summarize Vallicella's analysis here; I recommend reading his post.  

His conclusion:
the question is not whether Kant's ethical doctrine is true or reasonably maintained; the question is simply whether Rand has fairly presented it. The answer to that is in the negative.
So I persist in my view that Rand is a hack, and that this is part of the explanation of why many professional philosophers accord her little respect.
That being said, I'll take Rand over a leftist any day.
While I disagree with Vallicella's harsh labeling Rand as a "hack" I believe he makes some key points about Rand's approach to Kant. My impression is that Rand didn't have the patience (or interest) to digest Kant (and other thinkers). She read enough to get a sense of the thinker's direction. She thought in broad strokes, identifying key principles, but perhaps did not have the temperament to dig into the details of how these principles played out when applied to tough test cases. (I recall an interview with John Hospers in which he pointed out an issue with applying one of her ideas to a real world case that he felt wasn't so clear cut. [I don't remember the issue he brought up.] If my memory is correct, I recall that Rand's response to the point Hospers made was, "You bastard.")

Rand laid the broad groundwork for her philosophy but didn't write a definitive treatise to define and defend her philosophy in the kind of patient detail that is expected among philosophers.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Recommendations to Change Minds (on both sides)

Arnold Kling links to a post by Cass Sunstein titled Five Books to Change Liberals' Minds. Sunstein, a legal scholar and professor at Harvard Law School is also known for his book (co-authored with Richard Thaler), Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Nudge discusses how public and private organizations can help people make better choices in their daily lives. The authors argue that “People often make poor choices – and look back at them with bafflement! We do this because as human beings, we all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself.”

While I agree with Sunstein that achieving objectivity is much, much harder than most people realize, I have philosophical issues with the government trying to steer me into making choices that officials deem are better for me. I'd rather that private institutions apply these ideas for a number of reasons that I won't go into here.

Having said that, I like Sunstein's intro to his post.

It can be easy and tempting, especially during a presidential campaign, to listen only to opinions that mirror and fortify one's own. That’s not ideal, because it eliminates learning and makes it impossible for people to understand what they dismiss as “the other side.”

I see examples of this insular thinking all to often. We all gravitate to news sources that reflect our conclusions. Liberals prefer PBS or MSNBC while conservatives glom onto Fox or the Drudge Report. Personally, I occasionally visit “enemy territory” not just to see if there is a valid alternate view or explanation but also to understand how the opposing side thinks so that maybe I can communicate my ideas better or (horrors) maybe modify my position!

The books he recommends are:

Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed,” by James Scott

A Matter of Interpretation,” by Antonin Scalia

Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health-Care Reform,” by Casey Mulligan

The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt

Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes,” by Robert Ellickson

Of these five I've read one and a half. Read all of The Righteous Mind and started Side Effects and Complications but haven't finished it yet. Other books have barged into my queue! Haidt's book instantly lodged itself onto my short list of favorites. Highly recommended!

Kling in turn offers a list of books.

On education: Goldin and Katz, “The Race Between Education and Technology” and Elizabeth Green, “Building a Better Teacher.”

Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”. [I've read most of it and agree with Kling's recommendation. It has a lot of information on the subconscious influences on our objectivity and decision making.]

Joseph Henrich’s “The Secret of Our Success” - “a good reminder that there are other social norms in the background that are important. Another book on the importance of culture is Peter Turchin’s 'War, Peace, and War.'”

On economics: L. Randall Wray’s “Why Minsky Matters” and George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, “Animal Spirits”. Scott Sumner’s history of the Great Depression, “The Midas Paradox” [Another one on the towering pile of books to be read.]

On family life: “Our Kids,” Robert Putnam who “coined the phrase 'bifurcated family patterns.' Isabel Sawhill’s “Generation Unbound”

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Kling’s Three Axes: How Do Conservatives Explain Communists?

A reader on Arnold Kling’s blog asks this interesting question about his three axes model of political language as it applies to communism versus conservatism.

“how does conservative opposition to Communism (in the second half of the 20th century) fit on the civilization-barbarianism axis? I’m not sure that the Soviet Union or communist China are really thought of as “barbarians”. It seems weird that the main competitor in a space race can be a “barbarian”.”

I’ve been thinking whether there are key concepts that lie at the root of the axes Arnold has identified. I’ve been considering whether the desire for order explains the civilization/barbarism axis, autonomy for the libertarian freedom/coercion axis and equality for the liberal oppressor/oppressed axis. When the question came up about how Communism falls into this I thought at first that this might refute my attempt to identify the underlying premises. I say this because a totalitarian regime seeks order too although it is not based on the religion or tradition foundation that conservatives favor. However, I’d say the ultimate purpose of the order communism imposes is to achieve equality. “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs” is the statement that captures the intent behind communism. Anyway, food for thought.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Righteous Mind and Narratives

I've written before about the work of Jonathan Haidt who has influenced my thinking on morality and politics. This essay by The Independent Whig does a nice job summarizing Haidt's work while also touching on the role of stories. In fact here is a quote from early in the article.

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor, and every ideology has its own story in the form of “grand narrative” that describes the social world from the perspective of that ideology.

He then outlines the Grand Liberal and Grand Conservative narratives.

Anyway, I recommend reading this essay.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Another Example of Narratives: Unwinnable Arguments and Normative Sociology by Arnold Kling

This post by Arnold Kling on the different explanations of crime.

Progressives: racism in the criminal justice system
Conservatives: high propensity of young African-American males to commit crimes
Libertarians; the war on drugs
Progressives prefer the oppressor-oppressed axis, which makes racism the desired cause. Conservatives are most comfortable with the civilization-barbarism axis, which makes criminal behavior the preferred cause. Libertarians prefer the freedom-coercion axis, which makes the war on drugs the preferred cause.

He then makes this point: "Each of these causal forces has an element of truth, or at least plausibility. The chances are slim of coming up with an empirical analysis that decisively rules in favor of one cause and rules out all other causes." I come to a similar conclusion in an earlier post: that each language has some element of truth. This is one reason why it's hard to win an argument (if that ever actually happens).