The case for mockery

Note: this is NOT an endorsement of mocking your political opponents. But Karl Smith has a post at Modeled Behavior from a few days back that I want to address. He writes:

Krugman mocks James Pethokoukis’s reply on business uncertainty and the recovery. I think that mocking is not the best strategy for getting people to give up even ridiculous positions. It raises the cost to them of admitting that they were wrong.

Its like your facing a wrath of zombie ideas and your solution is to tightenmonetary conversation policy. And, I should note that I believe Krugman is doing it for the same reason that people are pushing for tighter monetary policy – he is letting is moral sense get in the way of his practical sense.

People with bad ideas should be mocked. But, intellectual discourse is not a morality play. The goal is to increase understanding, whatever the source of misunderstanding is.

So, how should we be dealing with an idea like “Business uncertainty is the cause of the slow recovery?”

Well, we want to lower the cost to rejecting this idea and so we should divorce rejecting it from rejecting other ideas that people hold dear.

There’s good stuff in here, for sure. In particular, the last line really matters, perhaps in a way beyond Karl’s intention. Divorcing self-worth from the policy idea in question is a crucial part of changing anyone’s mind (as I mentioned in this Atlantic piece, and as Chris Mooney covers here.)

But to take a step back, I think Karl is missing the practical point of mockery. I think the point is not to change the mind of the opponent being mocked. The point is to discredit that person so that others – less stringent in their beliefs – feel pressure not to associate with them by sharing the belief.

Imagine you’re a business person generally open to the idea that regulatory uncertainty is holding back the recovery and you’re at a party where the subject is being discussed. You hold no strong view and so you didn’t start the conversation. But a Krugmanite, whom you know personally, is discussing the issue, taking one of the two potential tacts.

In the Karl Smith scenario, your Krugmanite acquaintance says something like “I’m not sure about this regulatory uncertainty thing. I just can’t see the case for it.”

In the Krugman scenario, the Krugmanite acquaintance says, “I just don’t believe the quacks on the right are still parroting that regulatory uncertainty argument. I mean, the economy is complicated, and heck if I know how to fix it, but these loons keep going back to that argument, despite zero evidence for it.”

It seems possible that in the first scenario, you the undecided business man remain somewhat sympathetic to the regulatory uncertainty argument. It was, after all, framed as being in the realm of debate at least. But in the latter scenario, presuming you have some measure of respect for – and desire to be liked by – your Krugmanite acquaintance, you feel compelled to dismiss it. You might disagree with that Krugmanite on many issues, but perhaps you accept his framing of the debate that the regulatory uncertainty argument is out of bounds.

I happen to think that Krugman, in his mockery, is thinking very practically. Maybe the model I’m describing in favor of mockery works and maybe it doesn’t. And, again, whether it’s justified is a separate question I won’t try to answer here. But I suspect this model is a better explanation for why Krugman and some others (Yglesias?) indulge in mockery of their opponents. The aim is to discredit a certain argument or group of arguers in order to more favorably frame the “legitimate” debate.

More on the evolution of argument

Thanks to Edge, I posted about the new research into the evolutionary basis of reason and argument well before The New York Times picked it up. But here, as a follow-up to that NYT piece, is another post that clarifies the authors’ position. Turns out it’s right in line with what I expected. Here’s what I wrote in my previous post:

The first question that comes to mind for me is this: Why, if reasoning isn’t based at least in part on developing correct beliefs, would reasons be useful for convincing others? In other words, if I’m not using reasoning in the traditional enlightenment sense then why would I treat reasons as useful input when someone else tries to convince me? Reasons would seem to be more useful tools for convincing in a world where individuals were also using them as tools for obtaining correct beliefs.

I take that to be what the authors are saying in the NYT follow-up:

We do not claim that reasoning has nothing to do with the truth. We claim that reasoning did not evolve to allow the lone reasoner to find the truth. We think it evolved to argue. But arguing is not only about trying to convince other people; it’s also about listening to their arguments. So reasoning is two-sided. On the one hand, it is used to produce arguments. Here its goal is to convince people. Accordingly, it displays a strong confirmation bias — what people see as the “rhetoric” side of reasoning. On the other hand, reasoning is also used to evaluate arguments. Here its goal is to tease out good arguments from bad ones so as to accept warranted conclusions and, if things go well, get better beliefs and make better decisions in the end.

Also, apologies for the light blogging lately. I’ve been writing a bunch about clean energy in the last few days over at the NECEC blog, so if you’re really desperate to read stuff I’m writing, you’ll find some new stuff over there.