A few notes on (meta)rationality

So, let’s say you think policy X is optimal and policy Y is not. Or perhaps religion X is true and religion Y is not. Or you know something about subject X and you think you’re right, even though other people disagree. Now, if you’re like most people, you haven’t taken a closer look at the data.

Not necessarily, mind you, the policy data or the data supporting or questioning the religious ideas. Most people use some form of this type of data in their arguments, perhaps not as much because they find the data convincing but rather because they think they need to justify their beliefs somehow, and if you say that ‘policy X will result in more poor people’, or some kind of stuff like that, odds are that added information makes your position look more convincing to the opponent than if you chose not to say it. But the ‘unemployment will go up 2,4 % if policy Y is implemented’ is not the kind of data I was thinking about here. I was thinking about the data on who thinks what. Background variables. Do people who think X have stuff in common which might explain why they think the way they do? It’s an important part of understanding the subject – if your age or gender affects your opinion on the subject matter, disregarding those factors when explaining why you think the way you do leads to a potentially huge omitted variables bias. In short, it can cause you to deceive yourself about which factors have been important in the formation and development of your views. You think that you think X because of A and B (‘unemployment will go up 2,4 %’); but really it’s more a mixture of A, B, C and D.

People make arguments constructed like this: I think/like/prefer X because Y, where Y is some variable that pertains somewhat to the validity of the arguments under evaluation. Like, say, unemployment. Maybe I think the other guy’s argument is faulty or incomplete. Perhaps A (‘taxes’) is more important to me than B (‘environmental safety measure Q’). On net, the amount of supporting arguments in favor of X is higher than the amount of arguments in favor of Y. Things like that.

Here are some other things you might say in an argument – I don’t think most people bring up stuff like this very often, and when they do it’s mostly the characteristics of the opponent in the argument that gets the attention. To bring up this kind of stuff in an argument can go from being considered irrelevant to the matter in question to being considered an unjustifiable attempt to smear the opponent. The funny thing is that variables and related inferences like the ones below sometimes have extremely high explanatory power when you want to estimate what individual A thinks about subject X. We know this stuff matters a lot, but people really like to pretend it doesn’t and it’s often considered cynical or perhaps downright rude to bring it up in conversation. Here are some of them. Of course no one of these will have 100 percent explanatory power either, so I urge you not to reject arguments like these out of hand because they only explain part of the variation in the data – think of them as variables you might decide to estimate in an econometric model while trying to explain, say, the distribution of the opinion variable Z:

‘I think X because my mother and father had an academic education.’ ‘My parents (priest/teacher/big brother) told me X and I’ve been taught by them not to question their authority.’ ‘Because I was born in country C instead of country D.’ (related – articles like this one is part of why I keep coming back to tvtropes even though I tell myself not to) ‘Because I was born in the year XXX instead of the year XXY.’ ‘Because I have a girlfriend and a child.’ ‘Because I’m XX years old instead of XY years old’ – or a more specific example: ‘Because I’m 55 and policy X will benefit me personally.’ ‘Most of my friends think X is better/true.’ ‘If I support policy X I will obtain a higher status among my peers, even though at a cursory glance it might look like policy X will hurt me personally.’ ‘Supporting (/cause) X makes me feel special and I like to feel special.’ ‘Because I’m (fe)male.’ ‘Because I like my job and have an optimistic frame of mind.’ ‘I spent a lot of time thinking about these things because I derive status from winning arguments because I think it makes me look smart. If the other guy is perceived to be right and win the argument I won’t look smart.’ ‘I haven’t really thought about this at all and I don’t know what to think, but I’m supposed to participate in arguments like these and provide an opinion so I’ll just say X because it’s the first thing that popped into my mind when they asked me. Also, most people I care about seem to support X.’ ‘I have to support Y because A supported X and I don’t like/trust A’s.’ ‘People with a high education and income tend to believe/support X so if I support/believe X my status will increase.’ ‘I heard argument X before I heard argument Y.’ ‘A supports Y. If I support X then A will become offended and an unpleasant situation might arise. I will therefore support Y.’

Part of why people don’t look at data like this is that it’s often impossible to come by in specific cases and it’s usually very difficult to quantify effects like these. There’s a lot of impact heterogeneity as well when it comes to the impact of specific variables on individuals and you easily risk committing the ecological fallacy without thinking about it if you try to include variables like these in your model of the opinion forming mechanism of your opponent in a debate. Maybe the inclusion of such variables do not really make matters more clear, perhaps the opposite, perhaps some of the included variables are irrelevant. Do I think X because the cute girl in the lab thinks X, because my parents disagrees, because my friends who introduced me to the subject all think X or because of the latest employment figures? Who knows? But we like to pretend that we do know, and that our motives are pure – only the employment figures matter. If somebody cedes the point that that stuff also matters, then even though there’s an effect it still isn’t something important that should merit our attention; quite the opposite, we ought to focus on the employment figures. An interesting thing is also that in some cases it’s very easy to come by the numbers, and even when it is this stuff tends to be ignored. For example, 90 % of all Egyptians are identified as Muslim, so if you grow up in Egypt, there’s a very high likelihood that you’ll be born and raised by people who think the Muslim religion is the ‘true one’ – whereas if you’re on the other hand born in the US there’s something like a less than 1 % chance that you’ll be born and raised by Muslim parents, and there’s a much, much higher chance that you’ll be born and raised by people who consider themselves christians. There’s a very high correlation between the religious views of children and that of their parents.

I tend to think that people who spend time thinking about this kind of stuff are usually not much harder to deceive than people who do not. We’re all rational when it suits us, but when that’s the case is most often not something we spend much time thinking consciously about. Most people pretend to be rational when you question their rationality by bringing up ‘the other stuff’; some are just better pretenders than others.

August 29, 2011 - Posted by | disagreement, philosophy, politics, rambling nonsense

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