Pretty much the most interesting blog on the Internet.— Prof. Steven Landsburg

Once you get past the title, and the subtitle, and the equations, and the foreign quotes, and the computer code, and the various hapax legomena, a solid 50% English content!—The Proprietor

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Economist vs. The Armchair Economist


Some random googling brought to one’s attention a controversy from 2011 involving same-sex marriage, one’s favorite blogger, the most inconsistent—for good or ill—magazine in the world, and the most infuriatingly inconsistent—for good and ill—writer for that magazine. Somehow one had missed the entire kerfuffle at the time. But it is never too late to weigh in on it, perhaps throw in a few personal observations on the value of personal observations, and score the melee!

The controversy began when Zach Wahls, a University of Iowa engineering student, testified to the state legislature in opposition to a bill to restrict gay marriage. The sum total of his apparently moving argument was that he had been raised by a lesbian couple and turned out just fine. While the accuracy of neither of these statements is to be doubted, its evidentiary value to proving the utility of permitting gay marriage is.

When the above-linked video became a viral sensation among same-sex marriage advocates, Prof. Landsburg responded:

Some people claim (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, perhaps absurdly—I lean toward the latter) that gay people, on average, are less successful as parents. In a video that’s begun to go viral, University of Iowa engineering student Zach Wahls attempts to refute this notion without offering a shred of evidence beyond a single cherry-picked case (his own) to prove that children of gay parents sometimes turn out just fine (except, perhaps, for their ability to reason).

The other side might just as well (i.e. just as pointlessly) argue that Mr. Wahls’s penchant for irrelevance proves the inefficacy of gay parenting. What’s particularly disturbing to me is all the chatter about how eloquent this kid is, as if eloquence in the service of intellectual misdirection were somehow something to be admired.

Steve Landsburg, Hawkeye Talk (February 4, 2011). This observation seems indisputably correct. Score: Armchair Economist: 1.

Prof. Landsburg’s comment in turn drew the scorn of Will Wilkinson at the Economist:

Economists like Mr Landsburg specialise in the study of instrumental rationality. To act rationally in this sense is to take the means most conducive to one's ends. Sadly, means-ends rationality and epistemic rationality are often at odds. Fallacious arguments can be the best means to noble ends. If we were to concede, for the sake of argument, that Mr Wahls did fallaciously attempt to rebut a statistical argument with an anecdote, it may remain that he acted not in the service of intellectual misdirection, but instead acted with exemplary rationality and morality by speaking eloquently in the service of justice. The kind of humanising anecdote Mr Wahls offered does in fact tend to elicit sympathy and weaken ill-founded prejudice. Maybe the relatively tolerant attitude of people with gay friends and family flows from some kind of statistical slip-up, but that's how we are. A rational rhetorician takes his audience's inclinations, rational or not, into account.

In this light, Mr Landsburg’s criticism of Mr Wahls’ alleged error of reasoning seems to come down to a demand that the young man behave instrumentally irrationally and fight for his moral cause with inappropriate rhetorical means. Does Mr Landsburg believe Mr Wahls’ duty to observe the canons of sound reasoning trumps his duty to defend justice and the honour of his family? Maybe Mr Landsburg is hostile to marriage equality and just wants the guy to fail?

Will Wilkinson, The fallacy of careless contrarianism (February 8, 2011). This response in turn drew applause from the expected quarters.

There is a kernel of truth to be found in this comment. Landsburg does sometimes too quickly equate a person’s statements with a person’s belief. These are not always the same. Some things are smart to say and stupid to believe. Others are smart to believe and stupid to say. So one cannot exclude, as Landsburg apparently does, the possibility that Wahls fully understood the meaninglessness of his argument, but nevertheless presented it for effect. Score: Armchair Economist: 1, The Economist: ½.

However, there is also much to be objected to even in this short excerpt. To start with, consider the clearly bad-faith insinuation that Landsburg is an enemy of marriage equality. The very blog post which Wilkinson claims to respond to—only a few paragraphs in length—clearly stated that Landsburg’s position was the opposite of what Wilkinson implies. Of course, Wilkinson carefully excised just that part of Landsburg’s post and so deliberately misled his readers that Landsburg held a view which Wilkinson and his readers consider evil and that, hence, all his arguments must be disregarded by all Right-Thinking People.

Wilkinson might respond that he never directly stated that Landsburg was a foe of same-sex marriage. That is true. Wilkinson merely knew this to be false, and yet heavily implied it to his readers, while hiding the evidence to the contrary from them. Maybe Wilkinson does these things because he is a child molester?It is true that Wilkinson later in the article admits that he knows that Landsburg is not a foe of same-sex marriage. But if Wilkinson—who, by the way, I have absolutely no reason to believe a child molester—can cut out Landsburg’s statement, the author can cut Wilkinson’s, can’t he?

This small deception is a perfect illustration of Wilkinson’s broader argument. He defends Wahls’s testimony not on the basis that it offers any more than the faintest evidentiary support for its premise, but on the basis that it was effective.

That may very well be true. But many effective things can be said in support of—let’s stipulate—a good cause. For example, Wahls’s testimony would have been even more effective if he had invented a few non-verifiable heroic anecdotes about his mothers. Would Wilkinson laud such effective lies too? … No need to answer—Wilkinson’s own conduct in the affair provides the answer.

So Wilkinson defends Wahls from Landsburg’s charge of stupidity by noting that Wahls was actually just deceptive. This may—contrary to three of the author’s favorite maximsNever attribute to malice what is adequately explained by incompetence. After hydrogen, the second most common element in the universe is stupidity. Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; but three times is enemy action.—be an accurate description, if not much of a defense.

For there can be no doubt that Wahls, if he realizes that his anecdote provides virtually no evidentiary support for his premise, is being deceptive, the technical accuracy of each of his statements notwithstanding. If one deliberately gives a series of statements, in the knowledge, hope, and expectation that the audience will draw an incorrect inference, one is being deceptive, even if each statement is true. Very few people object to this reasoning when applied to the statements of, for example, stock promoters or pharmaceutical manufacturers. Why would it not apply to a nice young Iowa engineering student?

So, yes, implying that an anecdote supports a universal inference is a species of dishonesty. That is why the author, whenever he offers a personal anecdote (for example, how his two-year old daughter was abused by the TSANow with a contemporaneous photo!) which tends to reinforce views he holds (for example, the TSA is a rather thuggish gang), he invariably precedes it with a disclaimer that this anecdote proves nothing. Failure to do so would invite the judgment that the author is either stupid or dishonest.

One point penalty for dishonesty of both Wahls and Wilkinson. Final tally: Armchair Economist: 1, The Economist: -½.