On his blog, Eli Dourado writes something that’s very relevant to the global warming debate, and indeed most other debates.
He’s talking about Paul Krugman, but I think with small modifications we could substitute the name of almost any intelligent pundit. I don’t care about Krugman here, I care about the general issue:
Nobel laureate, Princeton economics professor, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is a brilliant man. I am not so brilliant. So when Krugman makes strident claims about macroeconomics, a complex subject on which he has significantly more expertise than I do, should I just accept them? How should we evaluate the claims of people much smarter than ourselves?
A starting point for thinking about this question is the work of another Nobelist, Robert Aumann. In 1976, Aumann showed that under certain strong assumptions, disagreement on questions of fact is irrational. Suppose that Krugman and I have read all the same papers about macroeconomics, and we have access to all the same macroeconomic data. Suppose further that we agree that Krugman is smarter than I am. All it should take, according to Aumann, for our beliefs to converge is for us to exchange our views. If we have common “priors” and we are mutually aware of each others’ views, then if we do not agree ex post, at least one of us is being irrational.
It seems natural to conclude, given these facts, that if Krugman and I disagree, the fault lies with me. After all, he is much smarter than I am, so shouldn’t I converge much more to his view than he does to mine?
Not necessarily. One problem is that if I change my belief to match Krugman’s, I would still disagree with a lot of really smart people, including many people as smart as or possibly even smarter than Krugman. These people have read the same macroeconomics literature that Krugman and I have, and they have access to the same data. So the fact that they all disagree with each other on some margin suggests that very few of them behave according to the theory of disagreement. There must be some systematic problem with the beliefs of macroeconomists.
In their paper on disagreement, Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson grapple with the problem of self-deception. Self-favoring priors, they note, can help to serve other functions besides arriving at the truth. People who “irrationally” believe in themselves are often more successful than those who do not. Because pursuit of the truth is often irrelevant in evolutionary competition, humans have an evolved tendency to hold self-favoring priors and self-deceive about the existence of these priors in ourselves, even though we frequently observe them in others.
Self-deception is in some ways a more serious problem than mere lack of intelligence. It is embarrassing to be caught in a logical contradiction, as a stupid person might be, because it is often impossible to deny. But when accused of disagreeing due to a self-favoring prior, such as having an inflated opinion of one’s own judgment, people can and do simply deny the accusation.
How can we best cope with the problem of self-deception? Cowen and Hanson argue that we should be on the lookout for people who are “meta-rational,” honest truth-seekers who choose opinions as if they understand the problem of disagreement and self-deception. According to the theory of disagreement, meta-rational people will not have disagreements among themselves caused by faith in their own superior knowledge or reasoning ability. The fact that disagreement remains widespread suggests that most people are not meta-rational, or—what seems less likely—that meta-rational people cannot distinguish one another.
We can try to identify meta-rational people through their cognitive and conversational styles. Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.
All this seems obvious to me, but it’s discussed much too rarely. Maybe we can figure out ways to encourage this virtue that Cohen and Hanson call ‘meta-rationality’? There are already too many mechanisms that reward people for aggressively arguing for fixed positions. If Krugman really were ‘meta-rational’, he might still have his Nobel Prize, but he probably wouldn’t be a popular newspaper columnist.
The Azimuth Project, and this blog, are already doing a lot of things to prevent people from getting locked into fixed positions and filtering out evidence that goes against their views. Most crucial seems to be the policy of forbidding insults, bullying, and overly repetitive restatement of the same views. These behaviors increase what I call the ‘heat’ in a discussion, and I’ve decided that, all things considered, it’s best to keep the heat fairly low.
Heat attracts many people, so I’m sure we could get a lot more people to read this blog by turning up the heat. A little heat is a good thing, because it engages people’s energy. But heat also makes it harder for people to change their minds. When the heat gets too high, changing ones mind is perceived as a defeat, to be avoided at all costs. Even worse, people form ‘tribes’ who back each other up in every argument, regardless of the topic. Rationality goes out the window. And meta-rationality? Forget it!
Dourado talks about ways to “identify meta-rational people.” This is very attractive, but I think it’s better to talk about “identifying when people are behaving meta-rationally”. I don’t think we should spend too much of our time looking around for paragons of meta-rationality. First of all, nobody is perfect. Second of all, as soon as someone gets a big reputation for rationality, meta-rationality, or any other virtue, it seems they develop a fan club that runs a big risk of turning into a cult. This often makes it harder rather than easier for people to think clearly and change their minds!
I’d rather look for customs and institutions that encourage meta-rationality. So, my big question is:
How can we encourage rationality and meta-rationality, and make them more popular?
Of course science, and academia, are institutions that have been grappling with this question for centuries. Universities, seminars, conferences, journals, and so on—they all put a lot of work into encouraging the search for knowledge and examining the conditions under which it thrives.
And of course these institutions are imperfect: everything humans do is riddled with flaws.
But instead of listing cases where existing institutions failed to do their job optimally, I’d like to think about ways of developing new customs and institutions that encourage meta-rationality… and linking these to the existing ones.
Why? Because I feel the existing institutions don’t reach out enough to the ‘general public’, or ‘laymen’. The mere existence of these terms is a clue. There are a lot of people who consider academia as an ‘ivory tower’, separate from their own lives and largely irrelevant. And there are a lot of good reasons for this.
There’s one you’ve heard me talk about a lot: academia has let its journals get bought by big multimedia conglomerates, who then charge high fees for access. So, we have have scientific research on global warming paid for by our tax dollars, and published by prestigious journals such as Science and Nature… which unfortunately aren’t available to the ‘general public’.
That’s like a fire alarm you have to pay to hear.
But there’s another problem: institutions that try to encourage meta-rationality seem to operate by shielding themselves from the broader sphere that favors ‘hot’ discussions. Meanwhile, the hot discussions don’t get enough input from ‘cooler’ forums… and vice versa!
For example: we have researchers in climate science who publish in refereed journals, which mostly academics read. We have conferences, seminars and courses where this research is discussed and criticized. These are again attended mostly by academics. Then we have journalists and bloggers who try to explain and discuss these papers in more easily accessed venues. There are some blogs written by climate scientists, who try to short-circuit the middlemen a bit. Unfortunately the heated atmosphere of some of these blogs makes meta-rationality difficult. There are also blogs by ‘climate skeptics’, many from outside academia. These often criticize the published papers, but—it seems to me—rarely get into discussions with the papers’ authors in conditions that make it easy for either party to change their mind. And on top of all this, we have various think tanks who are more or less pre-committed to fixed positions… and of course, corporations and nonprofits paying for advertisements pushing various agendas.
Of course, it’s not just the global warming problem that suffers from a lack of public forums that encourage meta-rationality. That’s just an example. There have got to be some ways to improve the overall landscape a little. Just a little: I’m not expecting miracles!
Here’s the paper by Aumann:
• Robert J. Aumann, Agreeing to disagree, The Annals of Statistics 4 (1976), 1236-1239.
and here’s the one by Cowen and Hanson:
• Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson, Are disagreements honest?, 18 August 2004.
Personally I find Aumann’s paper uninteresting, because he’s discussing agents that are not only rational Bayesians, but rational Bayesians that share the same priors to begin with! It’s unsurprising that such agents would have trouble finding things to argue about.
His abstract summarizes his result quite clearly… except that he calls these idealized agents ‘people’, which is misleading:
Abstract. Two people, 1 and 2, are said to have common knowledge of an event E if both know it, 1 knows that 2 knows it, 2 knows that 1 knows is, 1 knows that 2 knows that 1 knows it, and so on.
Theorem. If two people have the same priors, and their posteriors for an event A are common knowledge, then these posteriors are equal.
Cowen and Hanson’s paper is more interesting to me. Here are some key sections for what we’re talking about here:
How Few Meta-rationals?
We can call someone a truth-seeker if, given his information and level of effort on a topic, he chooses his beliefs to be as close as possible to the truth. A non-truth seeker will, in contrast, also put substantial weight on other goals when choosing his beliefs. Let us also call someone meta-rational if he is an honest truth-seeker who chooses his opinions as if he understands the basic theory of disagreement, and abides by the rationality standards that most people uphold, which seem to preclude self-favoring priors.
The theory of disagreement says that meta-rational people will not knowingly have self-favoring disagreements among themselves. They might have some honest disagreements, such as on values or on topics of fact where their DNA encodes relevant non-self-favoring attitudes. But they will not have dishonest disagreements, i.e., disagreements directly on their relative ability, or disagreements on other random topics caused by their faith in their own superior knowledge or reasoning ability.
Our working hypothesis for explaining the ubiquity of persistent disagreement is that people are not usually meta-rational. While several factors contribute to this situation, a sufficient cause that usually remains when other causes are removed is that people do not typically seek only truth in their beliefs, not even in a persistent rational core. People tend to be hypocritical in have self-favoring priors, such as priors that violate indexical independence, even though they criticize others for such priors. And they are reluctant to admit this, either publicly or to themselves.
How many meta-rational people can there be? Even if the evidence is not consistent with most people being meta-rational, it seems consistent with there being exactly one meta-rational person. After all, in this case there never appears a pair of meta-rationals to agree with each other. So how many more meta-rationals are possible?
If meta-rational people were common, and able to distinguish one another, then we should see many pairs of people who have almost no dishonest disagreements with each other. In reality, however, it seems very hard to find any pair of people who, if put in contact, could not identify many persistent disagreements. While this is an admittedly difficult empirical determination to make, it suggests that there are either extremely few meta-rational people, or that they have virtually no way to distinguish each other.
Yet it seems that meta-rational people should be discernible via their conversation style. We know that, on a topic where self-favoring opinions would be relevant, the sequence of alternating opinions between a pair of people who are mutually aware of both being meta-rational must follow a random walk. And we know that the opinion sequence between typical non-meta-rational humans is nothing of the sort. If, when responding to the opinions of someone else of uncertain type, a meta-rational person acts differently from an ordinary non-meta-rational person, then two meta-rational people should be able to discern one another via a long enough conversation. And once they discern one another, two meta-rational people should no longer have dishonest disagreements. (Aaronson (2004) has shown that regardless of the topic or their initial opinions, any two Bayesians have less than a 10% chance of disagreeing by more than a 10% after exchanging about a thousand bits, and less than a 1% chance of disagreeing by more than a 1% after exchanging about a million bits.)
Since most people have extensive conversations with hundreds of people, many of whom they know very well, it seems that the fraction of people who are meta-rational must be very small. For example, given people, a fraction of whom are meta-rational, let each person participate in conversations with random others that last long enough for two meta-rational people to discern each other. If so, there should be on average pairs who no longer disagree. If, across the world, two billion people, one in ten thousand of who are meta-rational, have one hundred long conversations each, then we should see one thousand pairs of people with only honest disagreements. If, within academia, two million people, one in ten thousand of who are meta-rational, have one thousand long conversations each, we should see ten agreeing pairs of academics. And if meta-rational people had any other clues to discern each another, and preferred to talk with one another, there should be far more such pairs. Yet, with the possible exception of some cult-like or fan-like relationships, where there is an obvious alternative explanation for their agreement, we know of no such pairs of people who no longer disagree on topics where self-favoring opinions are relevant.
We therefore conclude that unless meta-rationals simply cannot distinguish each other, only a tiny non-descript percentage of the population, or of academics, can be meta-rational. Either few people have truth-seeking rational cores, and those that do cannot be readily distinguished, or most people have such cores but they are in control infrequently and unpredictably. Worse, since it seems unlikely that the only signals of meta-rationality would be purely private signals, we each seem to have little grounds for confidence in our own meta-rationality, however much we would like to believe otherwise.
Personally, I think the failure to find ‘ten agreeing pairs of academics’ is not very interesting. Instead of looking for people who are meta-rational in all respects, which seems futile, I’m more interested in to looking for contexts and institutions that encourage people to behave meta-rationally when discussing specific issues.
For example, there’s surprisingly little disagreement among mathematicians when they’re discussing mathematics and they’re on their best behavior—for example, talking in a classroom. Disagreements show up, but they’re often dismissed quickly when one or both parties realize their mistake. The same people can argue bitterly and endlessly over politics or other topics. They are not meta-rational people: I doubt such people exist. They are people who have been encouraged by an institution to behave meta-rationally in specific limited ways… because the institution rewards this behavior.
Personal policy implications
Readers need not be concerned about the above conclusion if they have not accepted our empirical arguments, or if they are willing to embrace the rationality of self-favoring priors, and to forgo criticizing the beliefs of others caused by such priors. Let us assume, however, that you, the reader, are trying to be one of those rare meta-rational souls in the world, if indeed there are any. How guilty should you feel when you disagree on topics where self-favoring opinions are relevant?
If you and the people you disagree with completely ignored each other’s opinions, then you might tend to be right more if you had greater intelligence and information. And if you were sure that you were meta-rational, the fact that most people were not might embolden you to disagree with them. But for a truth-seeker, the key question must be how sure you can be that you, at the moment, are substantially more likely to have a truth-seeking, in-control, rational core than the people you now disagree with. This is because if either of you have some substantial degree of meta-rationality, then your relative intelligence and information are largely irrelevant except as they may indicate which of you is more likely to be self-deceived about being meta-rational.
One approach would be to try to never assume that you are more meta-rational than anyone else. But this cannot mean that you should agree with everyone, because you simply cannot do so when other people disagree among themselves. Alternatively, you could adopt a “middle” opinion. There are, however, many ways to define middle, and people can disagree about which middle is best (Barns 1998). Not only are there disagreements on many topics, but there are also disagreements on how to best correct for one’s limited meta-rationality.
Ideally we would want to construct a model of the process of individual self-deception, consistent with available data on behavior and opinion. We could then use such a model to take the observed distribution of opinion, and infer where lies the weight of evidence, and hence the best estimate of the truth. [Ideally this model would also satisfy a reflexivity constraint: when applied to disputes about self-deception it should select itself as the best model of self-deception. If people reject the claim that most people are self-deceived about their meta-rationality, this approach becomes more difficult, though perhaps not impossible.]
A more limited, but perhaps more feasible, approach to relative meta-rationality is to seek observable signs that indicate when people are self-deceived about their meta-rationality on a particular topic. You might then try to disagree only with those who display such signs more strongly than you do. For example, psychologists have found numerous correlates of self-deception. Self-deception is harder regarding one’s overt behaviors, there is less self-deception in a galvanic skin response (as used in lie detector tests) than in speech, the right brain hemisphere tends to be more honest, evaluations of actions are less honest after those actions are chosen than before (Trivers 2000), self-deceivers have more self-esteem and less psychopathology, especially less depression (Paulhus 1986), and older children are better than younger ones at hiding their self-deception from others (Feldman & Custrini 1988). Each correlate implies a corresponding sign of self-deception.
Other commonly suggested signs of self-deception include idiocy, self-interest, emotional arousal, informality of analysis, an inability to articulate supporting arguments, an unwillingness to consider contrary arguments, and ignorance of standard mental biases. If verified by further research, each of these signs would offer clues for identifying other people as self-deceivers.
Of course, this is easier said than done. It is easy to see how self-deceiving people, seeking to justify their disagreements, might try to favor themselves over their opponents by emphasizing different signs of self-deception in different situations. So looking for signs of self-deception need not be an easier approach than trying to overcome disagreement directly by further discussion on the topic of the disagreement.
We therefore end on a cautionary note. While we have identified some considerations to keep in mind, were one trying to be one of those rare meta-rational souls, we have no general recipe for how to proceed. Perhaps recognizing the difficulty of this problem can at least make us a bit more wary of our own judgments when we disagree.