Sunday, May 03, 2015

On Social Issues Is There Ever A "Right Answer"....

....or is there only "different points of view?"

In his column last Friday Paul Krugman writes:

The 2016 campaign should be almost entirely about issues. The parties are far apart on everything from the environment to fiscal policy to health care, and history tells us that what politicians say during a campaign is a good guide to how they will govern.

It seems to me that this paragraph is uncontroversial.  The parties are far apart.  Would anyone question that?  One might imagine on going down the list of issues, noting the current positions, and then asking, can the parties reconcile on this one?  What would it take to achieve such reconciliation?  If there were a right answer on a particular issue and if one of the two held positions were the right answer, one might expect that over time there'd be convergence to it, as evidence accumulated to support that position.  But there are reasons to believe this won't happen and as Krugman writes people seem free to deny the evidence or to deny their articulation of what they previously believed.  Further, because the focus here is social issues, there really can't be controlled experiments to test hypotheses and disprove the false ones.

But there are other reasons why there might not be convergence.  The most obvious of these is that neither position is the answer, perhaps because each position is articulated in a straightforward way but the right answer is complicated.  Or it might be that the right answer is not that complex but it is other than the two positions as articulated.  In this case the evidence will never point to either of the positions convincingly.

I tend to think there is still a different reason that explains the lack of convergence most of the time.  It is that we don't know what it is we want because we can't imagine it in the absence of seeing it.  So we are not rational in the way the previous reasons imply.  And this lack of rationality keeps us from learning about a right answer, because in the absence of rationality there isn't one, as a right answer depends fundamentally on what it is that we want.

An alternative that recognizes this dilemma would be to view our beliefs as evolving based on what we learn from experience and that everything we hold true at present is contingent on current beliefs.  Alas, most people seem to find this approach quite unsettling.  They want things to be more certain.

I wrote about this issue some years ago as I tried to write a book on the  precepts that should underlie undergraduate education, which I called Guessing Games, because developing good intuition is at the heart of critical thinking.  I ultimately gave up on the book writing because I became aware that I was lecturing in many of the essays and readers don't like to be lectured at.  I then didn't know how to reconcile the points I wanted to make without lecturing.  I still don't know how to do that.  Indeed, this post might very well seem like lecturing, though I'm less concerned about doing it in individual blog posts.

The passage below is from the chapter Just The Facts and Guessing.  It sets up my concluding section.

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There are many who are not well versed in the scientific method, who nonetheless invoke the mantra that is the title of this chapter – just the facts. They too are aiming for objectivity though sometimes I fear they have an additional agenda, to close off further argument. Anecdotes are evidence. They may not be the best sort of evidence, especially when more systematic evidence is available, in which case relying on anecdotes exclusively is silly. But throwing them out is bias. When the systematic evidence points one way and the anecdote another, there is learning in carefully reconciling the two. Likewise, the expressed opinion of a friend, colleague, or opponent is evidence too. The vast majority of people are rational and thoughtful. When they express an opinion that appears contrary, they are apt to have access to information that you don’t have or to have related experiences that are unknown to you. Ignoring the opinion then is inconsistent with weighing all the evidence. Of course, we are awash in polemical argument in the political arena, where often the goal is to seek political advantage rather than to illuminate the truth. So there is a tendency to discount if not entirely ignore opinions of the other side. To the extent that politics is like sports and we voters are like fans, perhaps that’s ok. Outside of sports and politics, however, it’s a problem.
The best articulation of the principle I’ve seen is by Steven Sample in his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. The first chapter is on Thinking Gray, which means several things all at once. First, don’t make a decision before you have to and don’t tip your hand as to how the decision will eventually come out to encourage others to provide you with evidence that you will weigh fairly. Second, actively encourage argument and debate about the decision so different points of view can be well articulated. Third, while the first two are really external behaviors this one is truly internal to yourself. It’s not that you have a quickly formed opinion that you are not sharing because of the first two reasons. It’s that you maintain neutrality on the issues until when judgment is needed. You do this so you can make the best and therefore unbiased judgment when it’s time for that. As Sample says, this is contrary to the way most of us behave because we’ve been taught to make snap judgments.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed something similar to thinking gray when he observed that the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time while still retaining the ability to function.
Thinking gray is contrary to what I was taught in formal economic theory/statistics, Bayesian Decision Theory. This theory admits an element of subjectivity captured in the decision maker’s beliefs represented by the prior distribution over the unknown parameter. The theory then explains how beliefs get updated based on experience, generating a posterior distribution. That part is pure statistics. The economics comes in when experience is driven by choice, call it a consumption choice, and when different consumption choices have varying degrees of informativeness. For example, in consuming a drug, a low dose will have little effect simply because it is low, while a higher dose may have substantial effect if the drug actually works. So taking a high dose is more informative than taking a low dose. The economic theory prediction is that early on part of the drive of choice is experimental consumption, to encourage learning. Ultimately the choice settles down to what is optimal given beliefs. (In some cases beliefs reach the truth with certainty, but there can be instances where beliefs are stable with residual uncertainty.) This approach can rationalize the binge drinking of teenagers.
Really, the two approaches are distinct. Sample is contemplating a large decision that once made remains fixed for quite a while. The theory of experimental consumption focuses on repeated decisions of a smaller nature. The information gathering that Sample has in mind is also different from the statistical approach in Bayesian Theory. One metaphor that might help in understanding the Sample view is to imagine having to understand a three dimensional object from getting to view a finite number of two dimensional snapshots of the object, each taken from a different perspective. Another snapshot from essentially the same perspective doesn’t really help. One from a new perspective helps a lot. Sample doesn’t argue that we get to choose the perspectives from which we get to take the snapshots. He just argues that we have a better understanding with more perspectives.
Much as I like Sample, however, he is an engineer by training and he leaves you with the impression that after all the information is in the situation and high intelligence he brings applied to the situation more or less dictates the solution he comes up with. Mostly, I don’t think it works that way. Prior disposition and point of view matter for these decisions. Consider this episode from the West Wing called The Supremes, with Glenn Close as Judge Evelyn Baker Lang (very left of center) and William Fichtner as Judge Christopher Mulready (just as far right of center). Mulready exemplifies the F. Scott Fitzgerald conception of a first-rate mind; he is able to articulate the Liberal view better than the staffers at the White House while he comes at his opinions from an opposing vantage. We care about the politics of our Supreme Court Justices because in the way they decide on cases their politics matters. In the context of judicial opinion, that is an unremarkable assertion. In broader contexts prior disposition plays the role politics plays in the judicial case, hence there is an inherent subjectivity to the decisions. Sample conveys the idea of an optimal (and unique) solution to his decisions as the afterward of thinking gray. Optimal is the engineer’s credo. Though as an economist I was trained to think that way as well, my experience as an administrator suggests there are multiple possible approaches, none a priori optimal, with preference over a particular alternative determined by prior disposition. So I’m inherently subjective in my approach and my interest is in understanding the interplay of that subjectivity with the facts.
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In the Op-Ed page from Friday there was an essay by N.D.B. Connolly entitled Black Culture Is Not the Problem, which argues that the problems we've seen in West Baltimore stem from the extant power structure and the predatory business practices which create a breeding ground for disaffection and ultimately destructive violence.  In the same paper there was a column by David Brooks, The Nature of Poverty, which I read as a blame the victim piece, even if the title conveys the idea that the victims can't help themselves.  This is the way opinion pieces are written - to argue for one position on the matter.  The Times doesn't always present two pieces in the same day with competing views, but clearly they believe that competing views need to be presented, which is why they have Conservative and Liberal Columnists and why they will have guest columns from people whom the Editorial Board clearly disagrees with.

Indeed go back to the 1970s and consider 60 Minutes, a highly respected and well viewed program at the time.   Their Point/Counterpoint segment celebrated this form of debate.  We don't seem to have innovated on how news shows present argument since then.

What we don't have, in other words, are examples for newspaper readers and TV viewers of a first rate mind in practice thinking gray on the matter.  One wonders why not.  Would the audience be turned off by that because the complexity would dumbfound them?  Or is it that such first rate minds are too scarce?  Or might it be that media outlets don't view it their job to teach the audience on how to analyze and synthesize news and opinion.  Leave the analysis and synthesis for the audience to perform; the media's job is simply to present the raw ingredients so the audience can get at it.

I do want to single out Thomas Edsall here, the exception that proves the rule.  Not only does he seek out even handed treatment on whatever topic he discusses, but he always consults a variety of experts yet weaves his own compelling narrative that does help to educate the reader about how to think through the issues.  I wish Edsall were the norm.  But he is not.  The norm is that if you care about an issue you take one side of it or another, but not both.  If you don't take sides it means you don't care.

I'm afraid the same is true at universities across the country, with the Salaita Case an exemplar from my campus. I wish our rhetoric could embrace a thinking gray approach.  For the most part, however, my experience is that it doesn't.

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