The Temptation Of Punching Down

I almost published a blog post yesterday about a person whose politics differ from mine, who has recently blogged some personal details that would lead me to believe that those personal details are a significant driving force behind his-or-her politics. The post would have been a discussion of how one who had experienced those details would very understandably be lead to conclude XYZ, but that a more dispassionate analysis reveals that XYZ is incorrect; and finally, one shouldn't draw strong political conclusions from personal experience, as the blogger in question did.

Some days earlier, I almost published a similar blog post covering some surprising and erroneous philosophical beliefs held by an economist of note. I would have explained how one probably could not adhere to that economist's economic policy preferences without those underlying philosophical beliefs; and, since they're philosophically wrong, so, too, are the economic policy preferences held by the economist.

The reason I did not publish these posts is because I lost my ambition to write them about half way through writing each post. What I came to realize is that this is "punching down." It's one thing if somebody makes an honest mistake, hasn't come across recent developments in the literature, etc. It's quite another if someone has effectively convinced themselves of a lot of weak underlying ideas and bought into their own paradigms wholesale.

When my wife got pregnant, suddenly we were bombarded with a never-ending stream of folk theories about how to tell whether the baby would a boy or a girl. I don't remember them all, but you know... It's stuff like, "If you crave mostly salty snacks, then it will be a boy, if you crave sweet snacks, it will be a girl." That kind of thing. I remember realizing that the baby's sex was a 50/50 shot, which meant that there was as much evidence against each of these folk tales as there was for them. That's why people swear by these myths - one of them turned out to be "true" according to their own personal experience, hence "it seems to hold."

Put another way, we adopt certain paradigms more because we want them to be true than for any truly empirical reason. And we are clever monkeys who excel at quasi-logical rationalization, so we can very easily find a way to square the circle. It's no different than a theistic belief - faith without empirical evidence. We wrap our thoughts in a a paradigm and use it to explain everything. When the facts don't fit, we make clever use of language to enable the facts to be "true in a sense." This is very slippery, but ultimately it doesn't get us any closer to wisdom or happiness.

So, in a way, it's tempting to root-out these illusions in other people, call them out, and correct them. But it's also punching down. If someone is that invested in a such a deeply flawed paradigm then nothing I say or do - no point I make in a blog or elsewhere - will ever change their mind. It's more pitiful than it is objectionable. Why bother?

Yes, people can be wrong and ignorant. They can even be wrong and ignorant en masse and screw with the social, political, or economic landscape. But that can't be overcome by providing patient, logical explanations for their cognitive or psychological flaws. Adopting a given paradigm (or not) is a choice we make based on what we want outcomes to look like. People have a faith in god because they like what a theistic universe means. People subscribe to nutty economic beliefs because it seems to justify a set of ethical allegiances they hold. What good does it do to tell someone he's logically incorrect when he's making a leap of faith?

To be sure, there are also plenty of us who don't do this. We're a little more rare and a little more rigorous in our skepticism and our logic. I don't know if we're any "less wrong" than anyone else, but we're interested in trying. It's useful to engage such people, being the "honest truth-seekers" that we are. That's where the conversation should begin and end.

As for those who act mainly on paradigmatic faith, what can we do other than leave them alone?