Friday, April 26, 2013

What's wrong with public debate, part 2

previous post sparked another frustrating Facebook debate. Remarkably, the most active participant (other than me) continued to do many of the things that I had criticized in the post, even though these very criticisms initiated the debate, and even though I repeatedly pointed out that he was doing this. He never took issue with the items in the post itself; he just continued to provide examples of unreasonable, non-constructive debating tactics (inadvertently, I presume).

Regarding gun control specifically, these tactics do nothing to foster understanding between opponents, not to mention consensus of any kind. Still, to me, the more interesting and important issue is the nature of the debate itself. It may be understandable that people argue in nonsensical, counter-productive ways without realizing it, but it’s harder to understand, and to defend, when these things are at the forefront of the conversation. Limitations on cognitive ability or effort may provide part of the explanation, but not all of it. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is something other than pure reasoning going on: see, for example, Haidt's elephant and rider analogy, Kahneman's system 1 vs. system 2 thinkingLakoff's metaphors and frameworks, or Kling's three axes model. I am nonetheless surprised to see the aggressive opposition to reason that I have encountered recently, and I wonder how typical it is.

Clearly we don't understand these psychological issues entirely, and if everyone could be aware of the things we do understand, we wouldn't have agreement on every issue that is currently contentious; but it would be clear where the disagreements really lie, and surely some areas of disagreement would be eliminated, if we were all on the same page about how the reasoning is actually happening. So should we strive toward greater enlightenment as a means of resolving (or reducing) conflict over public policy? I'm inclined to think that this is unrealistic. More likely we as a society will have to take these weirdnesses in mental processing as given and do the best we can in the face of them. For example, rules of evidence can be viewed as a means of managing jurors' potential irrationality, rather than trying to break through it (or pretend it isn't there). I have new respect for this approach. What to do in broader contexts, I have no idea. Yet.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Too much and not enough

I've been thinking about informational issues for several years. Part of the motivation for this arose during the vaccination scare, which was at a fever pitch around the time my son was born.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Luck and taxes

Consider what makes a movie a blockbuster. Many factors contribute to a film's success: quality of the writing, acting, directing, marketing, etc., as well as the public's response to these inputs. Not all of these are within the control of any one person, including the film's producer. If a film is unusually successful, chances are that it is due to a combination of factors, including some that are not predictable or controllable. One way to see this is to note that sequels to very successful films are, on average, more successful than typical films but less successful than their predecessors, because it is generally impossible to replicate everything that made the original film successful. (It's also possible that a sequel is produced just to milk the success of the original, without any intent of comparable quality, or that a sequel happens to be better than the original; thus the qualification of "on average" above.) This is a well-known statistical phenomenon: regression to the mean. Observations at the extreme of a distribution tend to get there for lots of reasons, including some randomness. Successive observations tend to be closer to the mean of the distribution. For another example, the sons of extremely tall fathers tend to be taller than average but shorter than their fathers, whereas the sons of very short fathers tend to be shorter than average but taller than their fathers.

Now consider income distribution. Someone with a very high income probably got there for a number of reasons, not all of which were under the individual's control: i.e., such a person probably worked hard, made good choices, etc., but also got lucky in some respects. Similarly, someone in the very low end of the income distribution probably got there partly as a result of individual action (or inaction) but partly as a result of happenstance. It's also possible that one man becomes rich even though external factors are against him, and another man becomes poor despite having every advantage in life; but on average, those in the extremes of the income distribution are there because of a variety of factors pointing in the same direction. This to me is the most compelling justification for progressive income taxes. Life is not fair, and the tax system (as well as some of the ways in which the revenue is spent) mitigates the inequities. The justification is even stronger when we consider that some advantages or disadvantages are systematic but still outside an individual's control. Note also that the tax system is not coming anywhere close to equalizing incomes, because there are still plenty of factors contributing to income that would generally be regarded as fair and should not be discouraged.

Of course there are other rationales, including the idea that those who earn higher incomes are benefiting more from our whole economic infrastructure, and therefore should contribute more toward its maintenance; and this one from Mark Thoma.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What's wrong with the gun-control debate (and public debate in general)

The debate over gun control frustrates me immensely, and this has nothing to do with whether or not anyone supports any specific law that I may or may not support.  It's all about how people defend their own opinion and criticize others' opinions.  This debate is a good illustration of problems that appear in public debate over lots of issues.  After the jump is a (probably non-exhaustive) list of tactics that aren't helping any.