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Category Archives: Political Discourse

  • Tea Party voters’ embrace of Rick Santorum largely perplexes me.  I feel completely baffled as to how these individuals think, and don’t know how to learn.  Will Charles Murray’s book help on this front?
  • This post from the Cato Institute and this and this from Ezra Klein have me thinking that the difference between right and left on fiscal policy is much smaller than I’d thought.  Is it just me, or are these gaps remarkably small?


Eli Pariser has written a book and done a TED talk on the subject of filter bubbles, which he describes as a tendency of websites like Facebook and Google to skew the information presented to individual users in favor of their previous behaviors, insulating them from ideas that run contrary to their established thinking.  As a contrarian, I’m quite sympathetic to Pariser’s criticism of filter bubbles–I want people to see more contrary viewpoints–but, also as a contrarian, I disagree with Pariser on the party responsible for filter bubbles: he blames algorithms, whereas I would blame people.

Pariser first became aware of filter bubbles when he realized he was no longer seeing his conservative friends’ posts and links in his Facebook feed.  He determined that this happened because he wasn’t engaging with conservative posts and links (by commenting on the posts or clicking on the links), leading Facebook’s algorithms to remove them on the basis that he wasn’t interested in them.  The problem, as Pariser sees it, is that Facebook’s algorithm removed content that he wanted to see.  The problem, as I see it, is that Pariser wasn’t actually engaging with the content he claims he wanted to see.  Facebook removed his conservative friends’ posts because it deemed, correctly, that he was ignoring them.

The internet represents a specific instance of the problem of filter bubbles, but it’s only a small slice of the pie.  In free societies, individuals define their media consumption.  We choose which books, periodicals and web-sites to read, which television shows and films we watch, who our friends are, where we live, what our hobbies are.  These freedoms present us with opportunities either to create filter bubbles by surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals and agreeable ideas, or to actively seek out differing views, in order to challenge ourselves.  The first option is easier on us.  The second, I believe, is more rewarding, but also requires a certain amount of effort.

Here are some of the options that are available to Pariser upon realizing that his media consumption was tilted further to the left than he would like:

  • Criticize Facebook and Google
  • Search for a conservative blog or magazine to read
  • Follow conservative thinkers on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+
  • Write a note on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ explaining that you’re interested in understanding for conservative viewpoints and asking your friends for suggestions
  • Find the conservative friends that have been hidden from your Facebook news feed and start engaging with them

The first will get you a TED talk (and sell books).  The other four are technology-driven means of achieving the end that Pariser is aiming for–more balanced media consumption.

The internet can be a facilitator of the challenging task of seeking out differing viewpoints and confronting them.  It can also facilitate encapsulating ourselves in thought bubbles.  Ultimately, the control lies in our own decisions of which media to consume, not in the algorithms designed to help us.

I think that this story is much more important than this story.

2009 U.S. Deaths by Cause:

By my math, I’ve already spent far too much time discussing the death penalty.  Feel free to call me a psychopath.

Next topic…

In response to a request via facebook, I’ve compiled a short list of blogs that I read regularly.  My basic stance on media consumption is that people should read sources that resonate with them, but should also actively seek divergent viewpoints.  I disagree with a lot of what I read on these sites, but the writers are all brilliant, and they almost always present interesting, well-defended, and honest arguments.

  1. Marginal Revolution, RSS feed: George Mason University economist on politics, economics, travel and other interesting things.
  2. Matt Yglesias, RSS feed: Interesting blend of liberal activism, neo-liberalism, and some fairly unique policy ideas.
  3. Ross Douthat, RSS feed: Intellectually honest and quite conservative.
  4. Overcoming Bias, RSS feed: Another GMU economist, proposes fairly crazy theories merging economics, science, philosophy and future-gazing, and then defends them very convincingly.
  5. The American Scene, RSS feed: Group blog of conservative, mostly young writers on culture and politics.

If you lean conservative and thus want more left-leaning analysis, I like Ezra Klein (RSS) and Nicholas Kristof (RSS); if you’re a liberal and want more right-leaning analysis, I’d try Daniel Larison (RSS) and Conor Fridersdorf (RSS).  Will Wilkinson (RSS) and EconLog (RSS) have pretty solid analysis from, respectively, left-libertarian and right-libertarian perspectives.  Please submit any further suggestions in the comments; I’m always looking for new sources of content.


American conservatism is fixated on the idea that the country’s most numerous and powerful group identity—white, right-leaning Christians—is under relentless attack by the “cultural elite”. These nasty, moronic comparisons of tea-party Republicans to terrorists are high-octane fuel on the right’s raging identity-politics bonfire. And that’s the thing. Why are liberals so eager to invigorate the right by justifying its grievances? It completely baffles me.

I can think of two answers: habit and cynicism.  By the first explanation, party-line extremists say stupid and extreme things because they don’t know how not to.  By the second explanation, party-liners deliberately try to empower the fringe elements on the other side; they want the debate to move to its extremes so that they–extremists–can gain in prominence.  Regardless of cause, this is a dynamic that thinking people across all ideologies need to oppose, as it does real damage to discourse, to public policy, and ultimately to everyone’s well-being.

The more I think about this Andrew Gelman post, the more ridiculous it seems.  Gelman argues that economists, especially popular economists, use a pair of contradictory arguments to explain phenomena:

1. People are rational and respond to incentives. Behavior that looks irrational is actually completely rational once you think like an economist.

2. People are irrational and they need economists, with their open minds, to show them how to be rational and efficient.

In the comments, he clarifies his position:

My problem with some pop-economics is not with the use of arguments 1 or 2 but rather with what seems to me as the arbitrariness of the choice, accompanied by blithe certainty in its correctness.  This looks more to me like ideology than science.

I have no problem criticizing economists for their blithe certainty, a criticism I’d also to apply to just about everyone, myself included.  But I don’t follow Gelman’s criticism of the fact that economists apply different models to different situations.  This happens in all disciplines, including Gelman’s field of statistics.  For instance, statisticians often apply one of the following arguments:

  1. Phenomenon X follows a normal distribution.
  2. Phenomenon X follows a log-normal distribution.

1 and 2 are entirely contradictory, and to a non-statistician, it would appear entirely arbitrary whether to apply 1 or 2.  But to a statistician, there is a logic (part science, part art) as to whether to apply 1, 2, both, or neither.  Similarly, it may appear arbitrary to Gelman whether to assume rationality or non-rationality in a particular situation, when there is a consistent logic apparent to economists.  Ultimately, models should be judged based on the reliability of their predictions, not perceived arbitrariness by outsiders.

Liberal Massimo Pigliucci on libertarians:

Now I have acquired yet another reason to dislike [Larry] Summers, while reading Debra Satz’s Why Some Things Should not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets, which I highly recommend to my libertarian friends, as much as I realize of course that it will be entirely wasted on them.

Libertarian John Goodman on liberals (in a post David Henderson describes as a home  run):

I generally try to avoid ethical discussions with my friends on the left for two reasons. First, with respect to actual legislation they seem incapable of distinguishing what really happened from their ideal vision of what should have happened. More fundamentally, I find that people on the left seem incapable of thinking rationally about the ethics of public policy.

I find these comments fascinating, firstly because they’re basically equal and opposite, and secondly because they’re entirely self-defeating.  Both read, essentially, as: “My intellectual opponents are idiots.  Why won’t they listen to me?”  The answer to the question comes from the preceding statement, but not in the way the authors suppose.  It’s trivial to show that neither libertarians nor liberals are, exclusively, idiots.  It’s also trivial to show that libertarians and liberals generally don’t like to be called idiots, and don’t listen to people who treat them as such.

Pigliucci, Goodman and Henderson have a choice to make.  They can continue to insult each other, toe their party lines, and reinforce the boundaries between themselves.  Or they can recognize that complicated systems can be understood in multiple ways, respect each other, try to better understand where the other side is coming from, and work to bridge the gap.

One purpose of this blog has been to question the way to think about problems.  I’m specifically interested in how philosophy of science, statistics, and rhetoric shape the way we think.  Another purpose has been to identify which world problems are most worthy of discussion, having received insufficient attention.

Today I followed Tyler Cowen’s link to Mike McGovern’s essay about development economics.  Development economics is a topic I don’t understand well but consider highly important and under-discussed.  It’s also a meta-analysis, exploring different ways to think about problems.  For instance:

The difference between poets and economists…there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points…Paul Collier, William Easterly, and Jeffrey Sachs can all be tenured professors and heads of research institutes, despite the fact that on many points, if one of them were definitively right, one or both of their colleagues would have to be wrong. If economics really were like a natural science, this would not be the case.

I wasn’t expecting to find philosophy of science (or philosophy of poetry) in an essay about third world development, but I think this type of thinking is necessary to address the particulars of third world development.  It’s a slightly morbid point of view; most people who want to solve problems want to do something; instead I want to think about thinking.  But actions are driven by views, and views and driven by the way we think about the world; when we don’t analyze the ways we think, we’re more likely to hold misguided views and take misguided actions.

McGovern’s assessment of development economics is shaped by his philosophy of science; in the above paragraph, he first criticizes economists for trying to be scientists, and then criticizes economists for being bad scientists.  The two criticisms contradict, and don’t account for the fact that throughout history, hard science regularly maintains contradictory points of view, whether in cosmology or mathematics.

My concerns about McGovern’s philosophy of science should dismiss what’s he written; his concerns about development economists may have more to do with their rhetoric than their scientific thinking.  On the whole, his essay is a really interesting read, and I’ll continue to think about it throughout the day.

Happy July 4th.

Just as it’s easy to write computer code that would badly fail a Turing test, it’s easy for humans to fail an ideological Turing test.  All you have to do is express your own thinking.  For instance, here’s Brad DeLong:

I have never met a believer in Nozickianism who can [successfully explain Nozickian political philosophy], and I expect never to do so…if any Nozickian believer ever grasps the structure of the argument well enough to successfully explain it, they thereby cease to be a Nozickian believer. Nozickian believers are thus, in a sense, incapable of passing the Turing Test.

This is a failure of the ideological Turing test, since it’s obvious to any observer from this writing that its author is indeed not a Nozickian.  Indeed, DeLong is expressing his liberal interpretation of Nozick.  Which is a fine thing to do.  But it’s not something that Nozickians would ever do, (unless they were trying to pass the ideological Turing test for Nozickians).

DeLong is arguing that an opposing view, if understood the way he understands it, is wrong.  This is not a way to win the ideological Turing test; it merely begs the question of whether DeLong actually understands the opposing view correctly.  There are other thinkers who understand Nozick differently and, unsurprisingly, they have different interpretations of the merits of Nozickian.  The point of the ideological Turing test is not for thinkers with opposing views to angrily point fingers at each other and say “You’re wrong!” “No, you’re wrong!”  The point is for thinkers to try to show that they can express opposing views in a favorable light, such that a neutral observer would think the arguer supported these views.

Meanwhile, I’m pretty unimpressed by Bryan Caplan–who initially proposed the ideological Turing test–backtracking:

If someone wanted to make me fail an ideological Turing Test, what kinds of questions would they ask? … Questions that explicitly solicit arguments.  I’m apt to get carried away, and forget that these implicitly test whether you understand what people take for granted.  Even if I keep this fact in mind, it’s hard to strike a believably intermediate stance.

My prediction remains that Caplan would fail an ideological Turing test quite miserably. as would most thinkers with strong views.  Here he’s saying that while he can state liberal viewpoints, he can’t defend them the way a liberal would.  Or, in other words, he doesn’t think about liberalism the same way a liberal does, and couldn’t convince observers that he does.

Which is fine.  It’s okay that Brian Caplan is a libertarian and Paul Krugman is a liberal, that David Gordon likes Nozick and that Brad DeLong does not.  Ideological diversity is a good thing.  What’s not fine is for Caplan or Krugman or anyone else to get up on a high horse and claim that they understand their opposition better than their opposition understands them.  Rather, they need to recognize that their views are theories, based on their own (highly limited) perception of the world, that their theories clash, and that in order for them to improve their and our understanding of their world, they need to talk to each other.


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