Thursday, March 28, 2013

David Friedman on Intellectual Diversity, and a Response

David has a stimulating post here. Here's my response (apologies to my Marxian friends, but it has to be said. A guy in my department that likes Marx a lot and borrows from him knows that the theory doesn't work - I think you all can too):
"It's a tough knot to untangle, I think. There are obviously obstacles to a deep understanding of a minority perspective, as you point out. This is DuBois's veil - to bring it back to racial questions that inspired the discussion.

But there's a compounding problem here that minority positions on intellectual questions are often (not always, but often is plenty good enough for these purposes) minority positions because they are simply not defensible positions. A prior evaluation that a position is indefensible then leads to a situation where majority proponents are ill-equipped to argue with the minority position.

There is a difference, in other words, between an opposition being ill-equipped to engage a minority position and the determination that the minority position ought to be given a seat at the table.

Take Marxian economics instead of Goldwater so that there's no particular bias in evaluating the case (and not people who think Marx had some good points and sympathies - I'm meaning the actual architecture of Marxian economics). I think it's reasonable to say that non-Marxian economists are very poorly equipped to dispute Marxian arguments and that in a debate the Marxian could very well run circles around them. This might not have been the case 100 years ago, particularly in certain countries or schools.

But is this a reason to make sure every economics department is well stocked with Marxians? I don't personally think so. We have Marxians in sociology and not in economics for a very good reason today: Marxian economics was concluded to be largely indefensible and Marxian sociology was determined to have much more to it.

Presumably in academia what we want is not a diversity of ideas per se, nor even a collection of the most talented proponents of diverse ideas. What we want is a collection of the most talented proponents of the available set of defensible ideas.

I think about these issues with the Murphy/Krugman debate a lot. Krugman unambiguously has the better arguments - absolutely no question. That was clear in the 1930s before either of them were born. But it's equally clear to me that Bob knows Krugman's arguments far better than Krugman knows Bob's arguments, to the extent that Bob could plausibly get the better of him in a debate.


  1. This post puts me in mind of David Lewis' essay, Academic Appointments: Why Ignore the Advantage of Being Right? If one of the main goals of the academy is the pursuit of knowledge, then why shouldn't holding false views be held against a particular candidate when it comes to hiring, tenure, etc.?

    Ultimately, Lewis concludes that ignoring the wrongness of a candidate's views functions as a kind of mutual non-aggression pact. We know that there are other academics in positions of power who hold false views, and we implicitly agree not to hold people's false views against them in exchange for which they implicitly agree not to hold our true views against us.

    Lewis doesn't mention it, but this argument probably wouldn't apply to what you might call fringe views, positions that command almost no support in the academy. Since it is unlikely that, say, those who espouse pro-apartheid views would ever be in a position to punish fellow academics for taking an anti-apartheid position, then the grounds for ignoring the falsity of their position is weakened.

  2. "Ought to be given a seat at the table" is too strong. What I'm arguing is that if someone you already know (in my hypothetical) to be competent in your field also holds views which he can articulately defend and which you disagree with but have had little exposure to, that is an argument in his favor, not an argument against hiring him.

    Consider my example. Very few of us have seriously faced the arguments for apartheid, of which the obvious one is the history of African decolonization--several of the countries that, by conventional standards, did it right ended up killing something like a thousand times as large a fraction of their population in maintaining their government in power as the South Africans did maintaining theirs. We reject the position not because we have had to face the arguments but because it is officially wrong in our intellectual culture. Being exposed to those arguments would be intellectually valuable--as I think should be obvious to anyone who really values intellectual diversity.

    1. You put out "have little exposure to" as if that's the only quality of the viewpoint that we're dealing with. I'm not sure that's the case. It seems very reasonable that there are views that should not be given the time of day that any given opponent is not going to be equipped to respond to.

      Your example is perfect example for my point. People today are bad at arguing against segregation of any sort because they've never had to argue against it. They're pretty bad at arguing against what modern semi-articulate racists call "racialism". They're not so good at arguing with a real fascist either. They don't have much exposure to any of these ideas. But they don't have exposure precisely because of the prior defeat of those ideas.

      Being exposed to the arguments probably is intellectually valuable.

      But I thought this discussion was about hiring or engaging with someone who believes those arguments. That, I think, probably has a lot less value. Indeed it poses a problem precisely because few have been exposed to it and therefore many are poorly equipped to deal with it.

    2. "But they don't have exposure precisely because of the prior defeat of those ideas."

      You're passing too quickly over the epistemological question. We may know that an idea was defeated; but how are we to say, without studying the question anew, whether to attribute its defeat to the falsehood of the idea, or another source?

      That requires a non-trivial response. Sometimes people do seem to be swept up in the Zeitgeist; good ideas are thrown out with bad ones, and half-truths are dismissed as utter falsehoods.

    3. PS Huff -
      I don't think I'm passing too quickly over the epistemological question at all. It's precisely because we're not sure of this that I disagree with David that it's a good thing.

    4. I'm not sure in what sense apartheid was "defeated," other than politically. If the question is whether the inhabitants of South Africa, black and white, were better off under that system than under a one man/one vote system, the answer is that we don't know, although we may know in another few decades. If you look at the nearest comparable case, which is Northern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, I think the evidence is pretty clear that they are worse off--and that the nominally one man/one vote government was no more democratic than the previous white minority government.

      Or in other words, I think you are confusing political fashion with decisive argument. You might want to consider how confident people were c. 1960 that the only way the poor countries of the world were going to stop being poor was by central planning, fueled if possible by foreign aid--which turned out to be precisely the wrong policy, with the result that India and China stayed poor for several more decades and started up only when they abandoned their versions of that. It might have happened a little sooner if western academics had been less sure that they had the right answer and had no need to listen to the small minority arguing the other side.

      Incidentally, apropos of something else you said (about Larry Summers), precisely how was it proven that innate differences in the distribution of mathematical ability were not one of the reasons why there were many fewer women math professors at Harvard (and similar fields at similar schools)than men? I think there too you confuse intellectual fashion with good arguments.

      And, if you read the NYT article I linked to for my blog post, you know just how extreme the political disproportion among social psychologists appears to be. I think explaining that away without assuming discrimination in employment, publication, etc. is a good deal harder than explaining the shortage of women math professors at Harvard without assuming discrimination.

    5. 1. It seems like pretty crude analysis to just tie Zimbabwe to one mane/one vote. But aside from that, the point is there are more bases for evaluating apartheid than just the consequentialist one (and it's a narrow consequentialist view you offer anyway - one way in which they're clearly not better off is the lack of political representation under apartheid!).

      2. You seem unwilling to acknowledge my point that I am not the one here offering a hard and fast rule for hiring faculty. Unless I'm misinterpreting you (and I may be), you are. I'm just challenging the idea that hiring these sorts of people is a good thing. I think it could be a good thing. I think in a lot of cases it's not a good thing.

      3. If you think I'm confusing the two you're likely misunderstanding me. That having been said, there is a sense in which "decisive argument" is always going to be a "fashion" (although I'm not sure it's a political fashion). We evaluate whether an argument is decisive based on a set of expectations, common understandings, and a community that is evaluating the claim. Decisive arguments at one point are not decisive today. I don't know how anyone could ever separate the two. Do you?

      4. I can't accept as serious the idea that the state of growth theory in the 1960s is comparable to the state of opinion on apartheid today. Do you just mean that there weren't a lot of anarcho-capitalists around? That seems to me to be a different claim entirely than the one you're making.

      5. I didn't say anything was proven w.r.t. Larry Summers, David. I also never said that it wasn't "one of the reasons". So please don't accuse me of confusing intellectual fashion with good argument. It's been looked into and as far as I know (do you know differently?) largely rejected as a major contributor. Tails on ability distributions for math are indeed narrower for men, but individuals on the far tails don't necessarily go into academia. Generally these ability scores are correlated with other high level skills and individuals are diverted into other fields (just like Ricardo/the Roy model would predict). Women with comparable math skills to men are also known to perform better on verbal ability tests than men, and therefore have (and pursue) other outside options. There are also major problems with the measure in general. The data usually cited are AFQT tests, which are administered after a kid has been in school for many years. The numbers are normalized anyway with respect to race and gender precisely because of concerns about picking up human capital acquisition rather than innate ability. There's no good reason to take it as a measure of "innate" ability, but it's a nice benchmark for the state of a kid's ability at eleven or twelve or whenever they end up taking it. Like I said, Summers didn't deserve the abuse he got and I'd add that the whole reason we know is because an attendant violated the Chatham House rules that Freeman had established for the talk. I'm very much a defender of Larry Summers on most occasions when people get mad at him for this incident. But there is a good reason why people were pissed off at him: he was spitballing on an issue in a way that made him appear under-informed about the ongoing discussion of these issues.

      6. I would think it's a good deal easier to explain because all sorts of relevant selection effects apply that don't apply for women and minorities and because politics is a lot harder to observe than race or gender.

    6. What makes you think discrimination is a better explanation than my four: (1.) pipeline issues, (2.) inadequate academic preparation, (3.) less intelligent people select into conservatism/libertarianism, (4.) progressing through the academy makes a person more likely to choose to select out of conservatism/llibertarianism?

      Your whole argument that it's hard to explain political disparities seems to rely on:

      1. There are really big disparities, and
      2. Everybody thinks smaller or comparable disparities in other fields is discrimination

      The second point simply seems wrong to me, and the former point clearly doesn't privilege a discrimination argument over other arguments.

      Have you considered that you may be the one mistaking intellectual fashion for a hard-to-accept but more convincing argument?

    7. Here's a PDF of a Haidt-inspired study by Inbar and Lammers with good evidence for the bias finding:


  3. Vitamins
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    1. Thank a ton for the comment, as well! It is amazing and wonderful to see such a comment.

  4. I have no idea why or how one would think that "Marxian economics was concluded to be largely indefensible." For example, I know of no where Duncan Foley's take was shown to be wrong, when compared with neoclassical economics. Likewise, for Ian Steedman's take. Likewise, for John Eatwell's take on Sraffa's standard system.

    My examples do show that, as one would expect for a viable approach, debate exists among scholars that have looked at Marxian economics.

    1. And hence my intro.

      Look, for one thing you have to differentiate between people who have a "take on" X and present a reasoned heterodox take on things. Lots of people rightly get inspired by things that Marx had to say. There's a difference, it seems to me, between saying that Marx had some important things to say that we can use fruitfully today and presenting Marxian economics as a viable alternative paradigm.

      And certainly there's nice debate.

      Where do you draw the line, Robert? You're going to find defenders of essentially everything under the sun, and of course they're going to think they're plenty capable of holding their own. And they'll do pretty well because so many people have decided its not worth spending any time on that they won't be able to deal well with the arguments.

      So where do you draw the line?

  5. But it's equally clear to me that Bob knows Krugman's arguments far better than Krugman knows Bob's arguments,

    I think that Krugman would disagree with you. Of course, Krugman also finds a 25% inflation rate to be unremarkable, so maybe I should listen to you instead of him.

    1. 1. I think he would too, which is precisely why individual pronouncements like this are always most satisfying to the individual doing the pronouncing, and

      2. I don't think he would find 25% inflation to be "unremarkable". I don't know the case you are referring to, but I think you may be confusing "not hyperinflation" with "unremarkable".

    2. 2) Krugman and Yglesias lauded Argentinian monetary policy less than a year ago. Its inflation rate is now estimated at 25% by outside agencies. Argentina is now enforcing price controls. Is this what we can expect from what Krugman considers wise monetary policy? Hard to say, because after accusing the austerians of not giving Argentina its due and after news of price controls, he's not remarked. Unremarkable.

    3. Daniel,

      Above I linked to a study where the liberal scholars in question were polled about anti-conservative bias and admitted that they would choose to harm them for ideological reasons. Is that study unremarkable?

  6. (I’m taking this point by point, and responding in this comment to only one of your responses to me. Your software objects to the length of my post, so I'm making it two posts.)

    1. “one way in which they're clearly not better off is the lack of political representation under apartheid!”

    Hence my points about Zimbabwe and waiting a few decades to see what becomes of South Africa. A common result of decolonization in Africa, under the rules conventionally approved of, was one man, one vote, once. The result was less political representation than under apartheid, not more—replacing a minority democracy with a military dictatorship.

    In some cases, the result was also a blood bath on a horrendous scale—the Biafran war alone killed more than a million people, with similar death rates in Rwanda in 1994 and very large ones in a number of other places. One of the things driving the violence, although not the only thing, was democracy—killing people is one way of keeping them from voting in your opponents. Criticism of that killing in the west was a good deal less forceful than criticism of killing by the South African government in repressing its opponents—although the latter was on the scale of hundreds, not hundreds of thousands.

    In the case of the Biafran war, western governments on the whole supported the people doing the killing. The essential difference was that the South African case could be fitted into a narrative having to do with largely unrelated issues in the U.S., while the much worse black on black conflicts couldn't—political fashion, not good reasons.

    2. I am arguing that hiring such people is a good thing—conditional on their being able to do an intellectually competent job of defending the unpopular position.

    3. “We evaluate whether an argument is decisive based on a set of expectations, common understandings, and a community that is evaluating the claim.”

    I try to evaluate arguments based on evidence and logical coherence. In doing so, I observe that I have a strong bias in favor of what I already believe, and I try to balance that by being willing to pay attention to people even when I and those around me think they are wrong.

    It’s clear that there are some arguments that it is dangerous to make, due to the reaction of the “community.” The argument for apartheid is one of them. I think that represents political fashion much more than reasoned conclusion—and is a bad thing, something that makes it harder to find out what is true.

    “Decisive arguments at one point are not decisive today.”

    But they would be if people were sufficiently unwilling to pay attention to those they—or their “community”—disagree with.

    4. The state of growth theory, or of economics more generally, in the 1960’s is an example of people ruling out views they disagreed with as obviously wrong—and being mistaken. Neither of us knows whether the attitude to apartheid at present is another example, although you apparently think you do.

    I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the early sixties. I remember being told by a fellow student (who had no idea who I was) that he couldn’t take an econ course at Chicago because he would burst out laughing. Pretty obviously, that was the conclusion he had reached from taking an elementary econ course at Harvard.

  7. 5. Re Summers: “It's been looked into and as far as I know (do you know differently?) largely rejected as a major contributor.”

    And that is inconsistent with what Summers said in what way? If you “never said that it wasn't ‘one of the reasons’” then you aren’t disagreeing with him—what he said was that it might be one of the reasons.

    On the general issue of wide tails of distributions … . You offer reasons why they might not explain the m/f ratio in mathematicians, which does not rule out the possibility that they might.

    I probably know less about the data than you do—what makes me think the argument plausible is the evolutionary reason to expect wider tails for male characteristics than female ones. That suggests an obvious possible explanation for discrepencies in numbers far out on the tails.

    6. Politics, in the context of who is in what academic field, is easy to observe unless people go to some trouble to conceal it. And, in the particular example of the quote, the discrepency was enormous—a factor of more than a hundred.

    On an entirely different subject … . You are accepting as real comments on your blog, such as as the one by “vitamins,” which are there to get hits on the commenter’s web site, linked to his name. It’s a common technique—say something positive which doesn’t require the commenter to actually read the blog and so lets him spam the same comment to lots of them. I get them all the time—and delete them.

  8. I think you are really misunderstanding my view of Summers.

    I think he's guilty of entertaining something that probably wasn't worth that much effort entertaining (because it's not considered a serious contender as an explanation by people that study this) but was certainly plausible. I think exploring that angle was unnecessary. I thought the reaction was way overblown too.

    re: "which does not rule out the possibility that they might"

    Well of course not. I have no intention of ruling out the possibility that they might, David.

    You seem to think I'm sympathizing with the reaction. I do not understand why - I don't think I've ever come out rabidly against Summers or anything.

    Anyway, I feel like we're going in circles at this point so I won't say much on much else - but I wanted to make that clear.

    I delete the spam too, just didn't get around to this one. Unfortunately making real commenters easy to get through has increased the rate at which the spam comes in.

  9. You write:

    “Your whole argument that it's hard to explain political disparities seems to rely on:

    1. There are really big disparities, and
    2. Everybody thinks smaller or comparable disparities in other fields is discrimination”

    That might be Haidt’s argument—I was quoting him. But I think his real point was the inconsistency in his colleagues’ views. They took it for granted that enormously smaller disparities in other fields were probably due to discrimination, but were very unwilling to consider that the huge disparity in their field was.

    My view of the subject is based on spending most of my life in American academia and observing that large parts of it are more of a political monoculture than the participants wish to believe. I’m in a pretty tolerant school and feel free to express my views on most although not all subjects—but I also have tenure and enjoy arguing with people. If I was an applicant for a tenure track position, I might be more careful about expressing my views—and believing that I would have to conceal my views if I wanted an academic career might be a reason to choose a different one.

    Incidentally, Nozick somewhere has a different explanation from yours for the leftish dominance of much of academia. His argument is that, in K-12, students experience two different status hierarchies. One, grading, is centralized and claims to be based on objective fact. One, social status, is decentralized and subjective.

    People who do well in the first are attracted to academia, have the grades to get into good schools, and have a bias in favor of centralized, purportedly scientific, systems of control, such as socialism. People who do well in the latter are attracted to participation in the private marketplace, and have a bias in favor of decentralized systems of control, such as the market.

    On another subject, you write:

    “It fits my story - I was conservative in high school, was a libertarian that dropped all the stuff I didn't like about conservatism when I moved into college, and as I learned more and more economics I became much less libertarian (some people may become more libertarian, but they probably have different starting points).”

    It doesn’t fit mine. I was a classical liberal in high school, became a more extreme libertarian as I thought more about the question and learned more economics.

    And I would expect, on average, that learning economics would make people more libertarian. The strongest argument against laissez-faire, although not the best, is the difficulty of seeing how a decentralized system can coordinate production. Understanding that is central to understanding economics, so learning it makes one more, not less, likely to approve of a laissez-faire system.

    It’s true that there are more sophisticated economic arguments against laissez-faire, but there are also more sophisticated economic arguments against those arguments, most obviously public choice theory.

    My expectation is consistent with my observation. Most economists are less libertarian than I am but more libertarian than other social scientists. And extreme libertarians in academia, although rare, seem to very often be economists.

    1. re: "I’m in a pretty tolerant school and feel free to express my views on most although not all subjects"

      Does the medieval stuff get around or do you keep that hush hush? :-D

    2. re: "And I would expect, on average, that learning economics would make people more libertarian."

      I think learning economics would make people value things like spontaneous order more. I find it grating that libertarians identify this so instinctively with libertarianism. Libertarianism and anarchism are examples of quite extreme social engineering in a lot of ways (obviously any given libertarian is going to vary in the extent to which this characterizes them - Hayek, for example, was very good at seeing the risk of things like this).

      So I'd say if you came in not appreciating spontaneous order you ought to come out of economic education appreciating it a lot more. But that doesn't seem like quite the same thing as libertarianism to me. I may try to post on this this weekend, because I think the conflation of the two is pervasive.

  10. Daniel asks if the medieval stuff gets around.

    I gave a talk at my law school on my first novel, which has a more or less medieval setting (marketed as a fantasy, but there's no magic and the technology and institutions are based on classical and medieval models). I think there's a copy in the cabinet on campus that displays some of my books, along with books of colleagues. That may contain a copy of the medieval and renaissance cookbook my wife and I coauthored as well, but I'm not sure.

    Or in other words, yes.

    One of the decisions I had to make when I set up my web page, about sixteen years ago, was whether to include my medieval hobby and my political stuff, whether having that visible would be a professional liability ("How can he be a serious economist if he wastes so much time cooking from medieval cookbooks?") I decided to do so, and have seen no reason to regret it. I was amused to see one Amazon review of my _Law's Order_ which amounted to "I thought Friedman was supposed to be a crazy anarchist, but this is pretty straightforward law and econ."

    1. Checking the cabinet on campus, it doesn't actually have either my novel or our cookbook. But my colleagues know about both.

  11. "I think learning economics would make people value things like spontaneous order more."

    I think you may be missing my point, which is specifically about decentralized coordination. That isn't the same thing as spontaneous order--one might spontaneously produce a centralized dictatorship, after all.

    At first glance, it seems as though the coordination problem requires someone at the center telling everyone else what to do. That's the obvious solution, but one that scales badly. The possibility of doing it via a decentralized mechanism is much less obvious--but anyone who doesn't understand it isn't an economist.

    So anyone who is an economist has gotten past the first big barrier to believing in using the market to coordinate things. That doesn't guarantee that he will be a libertarian, but it makes it more likely.

  12. Daniel,

    These observations/claims are less compelling vis-a-vis humanities, particularly philosophy departments in general and value theory in particular.


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