Monday, September 8, 2008

Objectivity or Dogmatism

Rather than focusing on the typical market, I think I'll go in a slightly different direction--the marketplace of ideas. I had another occurrence in a non-economics course today which reminded me of an article run over at Marginal Revolution entitled "Are There Reasons to be Dogmatic". Hopefully a few of the philosophy majors I invited to the blog will be able to contribute to the following discussion...

Today, we watched a fairly innocent (and in my opinion rather balanced) documentary on the plight of the prairie dog on the Great Plains. After the film, a student--a junior environmental studies major--complained that the perspective was too "pro-prairie dog" and inquired whether we would hear the other side of the story. This rises many questions (and also a few eyebrows, given that it was fairly balanced and, considering the audience of ES majors, probably could have been much more bias), but I'd like to momentarily avoid criticizing the modern emphasis on "presenting both sides of every argument". 

Instead, I wanted to ask whether any of you believe that you have an ethical responsibility to brandish a dogmatic point of view. As an individual who has specialized in a particular science, and also studied the philosophy of science, I can likely defend both sides of any argument convincingly. However, if I took the "anti-environmental" side, I'd likely be preaching to the choir. Also, if I restrain my point of view because I know there are two sides, but my "opponent" does not because they are ignorant of one of the sides, how will the marketplace of ideas allocate decisions?


Pete Abbate said...

I think the modern obsession with presenting "both sides of every argument" ends up leading to mis-information as well as limited information. I will look for some links but I recall a classmate's paper from last year suggesting that past FCC attempts to regulate radio talk show simply limited the amount of news presented.

There are two problems, in my opinion, with trying to have the same person present both sides of any situation. First, the person may simply not present either side because they are unwilling or unable to present the side with which they do not agree. Second, the person may not feel the need to research and verify every fact they use for the side with which they do not agree, and misinformation can being to spread very quickly.

In "regular" marketplaces, we call for specialization and trade, because when everyone does what they do best and trades for all the rest, we are all better off. In the marketplace of ideas, we ought to stick to the same principle. People should argue for what they know/understand best and allow others to take care of the other sides. And if no one's taking the other side, maybe that's not a bad thing. Maybe it's a sign that there is in fact no argument or it's time for a policy change.

Zachary Piso said...

I agree with you almost entirely. But I still wonder if we should take the idea of subjectivity even further.

Say you are on a panel and your opponent is extremely dogmatic, but you believe that they are generally wrong. You are aware that blatantly calling them out would be politically incorrect, and hope that the audience recognizes their dogmatism and aggression for what it is. So instead of clearly contradicting them, you concede some of their points (those that you feel are less important) and stick to your point of stasis, which you feel justifies your opinion.

Now, you've essentially hedged your bet. You are betting that the "uncommitted" will reward you somewhat for being strong, but not too headstrong, and will reward you for being rhetorically polite. Economically, you are betting that recognition for being dogmatic (which would come off as confident) is more inelastic than recognition for being rhetorically polite.

I think that this assumption is false, and that the success of negative campaign ads suggests that people will choose the fighter, if only due to his narrative appeal in a machiavellian world view.

Pete Abbate said...

Narrative is an extremely powerful tool, and I think you're right about negative campaign ads illustrating the power of rhetoric.

Do you think the lack of perfect information applies as another explanation for people deferring to rhetoric, even when logic would have them choose the other side?

Zachary Piso said...

Uhm, I don't think it's a product of lack of perfect information but rather lack of perfect rationality. This again is in reference to psychological epistemology...

If a person is presented with information that fits his understanding of the subject of that information, he will accept its truth heuristically, or as a rule of thumb.

If a person is presented with information contrary to his understanding of the subject of that information, he will either accept or reject the truth analytically, by considering all of the arguments.

This is known as a theory-motivated reasoning bias. As is fairly obvious, it is not a matter of whether the individual is confronted with all available information. You could argue that what determines his irrationality is the order in which he is exposed to the information. I consider "deferring to rhetoric" as accepted an argument heuristically. Does the fact that opponents of your argument will defer to analytical reasoning suggest that dogmatism isn't efficient?