Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Refutation and Anger

         While I was a visiting scholar at Yale Law in 1992, I audited Robert Ellickson’s Property class. It was one of the best  classes I have ever seen--- a great mix of calling on students, cases, economic theory, real-world non-law examples, and lecture, particularly encouraging to me because Professor Ellickson is no better than average in charisma. The strengths of his class were things untalented people could hope to emulate.

      One thing I recall him saying, in preparation to talking about housing markets, was that people don’t get most angry when you disagree with them about theories or values. Rather, the bitterest feelings arise when you disagree on facts.  I was just thinking about why this might be so, and have come up with a rational-choice reason, though it covers more than just facts.  Rather, let us think why people get angriest when it’s most clearly shown that they are wrong.

   Put that way, the explanation is simple: it’s because the clearest refutation, though it best achieves the truth, also makes the holder of the refuted opinion look stupidest. Even more frustrating, he can’t fight back because it will make him look even worse.  We don’t mind people who argue feebly; we are the most charitable to them, and instead of saying they are evil for holding such unfounded opinions we are gracious. A person who argues well, though, and shows that he holds the correct opinion, is an enemy, an inflicter of pain.  Thus, Ko-Ko’s song in The Mikado goes

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I've got a little list — I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!

 All children who are up in dates, and floor you with 'em flat — 

  Thus, Ellickson’s Vicious Fact. Suppose I argue at length that we must act soon to control global warming because world temperatures have been rising continually over the past ten years, and an uninterrupted trend like that shows that by 2050 temperatures will be seriously high.  You then pull out your Iphone and display a webpage graph showing that the average temperature stopped rising around 2002 and the trend has been flat since then. Caught off balance, I argue that the website is funded by oil companies. You point out that it’s a NASA government webpage, and NASA is strongly in the warming-is-dangerous camp. Will I be grateful that you have corrected me?

    Theories and values, on the other hand, are harder to disprove, and hence arguments about them are less informative about the ability of the people arguing.  If you and I are arguing about whether it’s carbon dioxide or sunspots that caused temperatures to rise from 1980 to 2000, neither of us can land a knockout blow, and so we part on friendly terms. If you and I are arguing about whether we owe a duty to future generations to spend money now controlling carbon dioxide, under the assumption that temperatures will rise 10 degrees otherwise, we can each leave the argument with the comfortable feeling that we are morally superior.  It is The Fact that has the most potential to embarrass.

   This, in turn, implies that often it will be the least informed people who are the most passionate in argument, especially the uninformed person who holds a majority opinion. He generally will not have thought through his position. That is an example of rational ignorance; if everyone says that X is true, then why spend effort understanding why?  As Nietzsche somewhere said, “Reasons? You ask for reasons? I have enough trouble remembering my beliefs, much less my reasons for them!”  Moreover, the uninformed person will often be bluffing, asserting something strongly because he wants to signal informedness and strong morality, and choosing as that “something” a consensus view because (a) he thinks it is likely to be true, even though he doesn’t know the reasons, and (b) he thinks he is safer from being asked for reasons, since everybody else believes it too. In that case,  “the child who is up on dates and floors you with ‘em flat” has called your bluff and called into question your integrity as well as your intelligence.

   So beware of making good arguments---  your audience may not be grateful.

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