Saturday, October 20, 2012

The new Critical Review is out

Here is the table of contents with abstract. I started reading it last night, and it looks very interesting. It's a symposium on "motivated skepticism" or "political dogmatism", depending on how you view it. The idea is that empirical evidence shows that the best informed people on political issues are the most "dogmatic". The theory is that you develop theoretical frameworks for understanding political issues and as you receive new evidence you either reject it if it contradicts your theory (which is presumably supported - in your mind - by a long history of other evidence) or you investigate contridctory evidence much more skeptically than you would confirmatory evidence. So "dogmatists" end up being very well informed (or, to put it another way, well informed people tend to develop "dogmas").

The symposium explores whether this is the right way to think about it and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.

As a description of the way people approach and use evidence, this all sounds very plausible to me.

My hesitation comes in with this word "dogma" ("ideology" is also used and I have the same hesitation about that). Maybe people aren't acting "dogmatically", they are acting "decisively" or "decidedly". Dogma usually implies a set of views you hold in the absence of empirical evidence which is not what Jeff Friedman and others are really talking about in this issue. They are using evidence here. Their use of it may be guided and directed by certain frameworks, but it seems very strange to me to call it dogmatic.

And that changes things considerably. Because if we all converge on an interpretive framework that's probably a pretty decent framework to work with, even if the way we got there is more sociological or pyschological than "rational".

The problem, of course, it what happens if you don't converge. You could have path dependence and multiple equilibria. I still think that's a great case for moving forward with pluralist institutions. If you have lots of frameworks that seem to do decently well for understanding the world, getting those frameworks together in a room to hash it out seems valuable to me. None of these are awful frameworks if they've helped people navigate a confusing sea of evidence.

He does some analogizing to social science which I think is a little dangerous. The whole point of a community of scientists is that you don't get to just dismiss evidence and peer review. It's a collective, consensus building endeavor in a way that the political beliefs you privately hold are not. It's weird to think of public and private scientific beliefs. They're essentially all public and we may hold private doubts about the veracity of certain consensus positions. That's a very different famework generating process compared to our political beliefs.

And when Friedman lists the social scientific frameworks that are in constant conflict with each other, something jumps out: they're all macroeconomic perspectives! Well as readers know macroeconomics is a lot like string theory right now. We have some basic things we may agree on, but there's not enough data to arbitrate between theories and so we have a lot of theories. Obviously we'd prefer it were different (or maybe not, it's kind of fun to fight about it), but this is not something that's characteristic of social science as a whole in the same way that string theory is not characteristic of physics as a whole.

I spend most of my time doing labor economics. Labor economists will argue a lot about how well you've identified your empirical model or about the relative magnitude of different elasticity estimates. But there's no real disagreement on the consensus body of theory and evidence itself. If labor economists disagree its in the political/policy realm more than the scientific realm.

Those are my reservations - it looks like an interesting issue, and I look forward to moving through it.


  1. Thanks, Daniel. But my point is that a consensus generated by a big pile of evidence interpreted in a certain way is no less dogmatic for being shared by a number of people. Indeed, since "experts" are the most informed people of all, we would expect to see the spiral of conviction (as I call it) among them more than among non-experts. The bigger the pile of evidence, the stronger the priors.

    My only point about disagreeing macroeconomists is that different interpretations allow different people to view the same evidence in a different light so they reach different conclusions. This situation does not change where there happens to be just one dominant interpretation of the big pile of evidence.

    The facts do not speak for themselves.


  2. Is it appropriate to apply "Dogma" to non-belief systems?

    Is the intended meaning that conviction / confidence grows with increased levels of education / expertise / understanding?

    Might describing the increases in conviction that accompany increases in objective understanding be setting up a false dichotomy?

  3. I would say it makes a difference whether you reject it or treat it more skeptically. The difference between No, of course, and No, but, and Yes, course, and Yes, but. Less skeptical means more dogmatic and more skeptical means less dogmatic. While evident in how contradictory evidence is processed, it is even more evident in how confirmatory evidence is processed. If when faced with confirmatory evidence, your question is how valid and what are the limits of it, you are much less dogmatic than someone that reserves their skepticism for contradictory evidence alone.


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