Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lax Defense of Ideas Judged to be Good

Sort of in the same vein as the last post - how we store ideas in our head and how that results in some less than convincing use of ideas.

When we've evaluated an idea as a good idea, I think we tag it as "proven" or even "self-evident" before storing it away. Like the catechismic use of ideas this makes a lot of sense. It would be wasteful of cognitive resources for me to run through the arguments justifying the allocative efficiency of the market every single time the allocative efficiency of the market came to mind. Instead, I tag it as a "good" idea, keep the evidence and arguments on the back burner, and feel comfortable whipping it out and applying it.

Generally speaking that's fine. After all, if challenged we're usually OK at dredging up the evidence and proofs.

But it can lead to blindspots when we go beyond assertion and try to make an argument. Tagging ideas as "good" can lead to lax defense of those ideas because we associate them with strong evidence and proof already - so what's the use of adding more? It's self-evident! We identify the idea with the quality of being well-defended.

I won't go into details because I'm really distracting myself from work at this point, but Bob Murphy has a great example of this with a Paul Krugman post on monetary policy under Lincoln. I thought Krugman's post was a fine post when I first read it (before reading Bob). Made sense to me! But as Bob points out, Krugman offers no real evidence to defend his kinda weird claim that everything was fine in the 1860s and 70s. Krugman may in fact be right. I think he is right. But what a weird period in history to bring up if you want to defend the ideas he presents! There's so much going on - so much noise. And Krugman doesn't even try to present the defense.

On the flip side (since I gave two cases in the last post too), I think you see this a lot with Austrian citation of 1921 or 1946. They've tagged their idea as "good", so they go ahead to latch on to the thinnest of evidence that they think supports their idea, because it's self-evident. (It doesn't need their defense after all - the marginal contribution of effort exerted in the defense of the idea is small, from their perspective). But to outsiders who have not tagged the idea as "good", the major problems with 1921 and 1946 are pretty obvious.


  1. Hi Daniel. I won't further adjudicate that Murphy post. I would say more generally that we often should just take certain ideas as self evidently proven.

    For many years after Galileo and Copernicus, we still had flat earthers and those who believed the earth is at the center of the universe.

    As time went by though, probably less and less people bothered to explain why these foks were wrong in some full and comprehensive way.

    Who would spend two seconds on that today? If someone insists 2+2=5 how much time would you take to disabuse him of this. That's how progress in science works. We don't simply go back to the beginning of time because somebody insists on remaining a flat earther.

  2. I call it the spiral of conviction. It's a sort of confirmation bias, with affectual tags reminding you that for some reason, you found X convincing, so now not-X has to meet a very high standard of proof--possibly much higher than the standards that persuaded you of X. (But you don't remember what the evidence for X was.)

  3. Krugman's point was that nothing bad happened as a result of going off the gold standard. In the passage quoted by Murphy we find "the United States, ... had been experiencing strong economic growth fueled by the Second Industrial Revolution in the decade following the American Civil War." The fact that ten years after Lincoln died the world had a global recession can hardly be laid at the door of Lincoln's monetary policy. ( The economic turmoil of the 1870s was probably a result of the need to redeploy resources as a consequence of the second industrial revolution. )

  4. What I found strange about both blog posts was the idea that it was in 1878 that the US went on the gold standard. According to a number of sources, it was in 1873, when Congress ended the bimetallic standard. Jay Gould's railroad failed, too. Both were likely factors in the Panic of 1873 and the ensuing depression.

    I can see how 1878 could be a mistake for 1873 in Krugman's notes and then he forgot and did the arithmetic with the wrong number. Murphy remembered the date correctly, but forgot that it coincided with going on the gold standard.

    Murphy's claim about Krugman ignoring the human suffering of the Civil War was a debating trick. Krugman's use of language was normal. The context was monetary policy, and his language should be interpreted in that context. The panic and depression were fair game, the war was not.

    Oh, yes. The suspension of a metallic standard during war time was the usual practice, and wartime inflation was typical. Napoleon was an exception. He paid cash.

  5. In light of all the people who apparently won't even tolerate someone pointing out that Krugman made a bad argument, I guess I should take my hat off to you, Daniel.

    Also, everyone, Krugman picked that time period because that was when the dollar was not at parity with gold. It lines up with his graph, after all. So the gold bugs are saying, "OMG! Lincoln debased the dollar!!" and Krugman is saying, "No, in the 15 year period when the dollar was debased, nothing bad happened."

    1. Krugman did not make a bad argument. Like most of the people who attack Krugman, you attribute to Krugman things he did not say or means so you can set up straw men and knock them down. When you said "the whole Civil War (... aka War of Northern Aggression)" you said everything anyone needs or should want to know about your values and thought processes.

    2. So Krugman can say false things and it's fine, whereas I can make true statements and reveal the utter depravity of my value system. I'm glad we had this exchange. You guys think you are blowing me up, and by the same token I'm happy to let fence-sitters see how you're proceeding here in your defense of Krugman.

    3. BTW Absalon, let me clarify because it's possible you really don't understand the joke: If you are in the south and call it the "Civil War," people get upset. They will say it wasn't a civil war, because the Southern states weren't trying to take over Washington DC. Just like the War for US Independence wasn't the "English Civil War."

      So that's why I put in the first "aka," because I didn't want to get lectured in the comments. The second "aka" was a joke because it's such a loaded term that I think it's funny.

    4. And its not just the war - it's the battles too. I remember as a kid being very confused about this early battle called "Bull Run". It sounded an awful lot like the battle of Manassas that we had talked about earlier and the Manassas battlefield we had visited.

  6. "So Krugman can say false things and it's fine, whereas I can make true statements and reveal the utter depravity of my value system."

    It's the fact that you claim that what Krugman said is false and that assert what you said is somehow an answer to Krugman that reveals the "utter depravity" of your value system.

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