More on ideology

by Russ Roberts on October 18, 2011

in Truth-seeking & ideology

I hope to write more on the dogmatic nature of economists. In the meanwhile, here are some interesting and relevant thoughts from Nathan Bashaw (HT: Hacker News 20):

When political events occur, our first impulse is to try to fit it in a box. We hear that something has happened, and we efficiently make up our mind about what it means and whether or not we agree.

In fact, neuroscientists have recently discovered that the part of our brains we use when making decisions about politics is totally different from the part we use when trying to solve reasoning problems. To see if this makes sense to you, first imagine yourself having a political discussion with someone who disagrees with you, and then imagine yourself attempting to work with a colleague to solve a complex problem at the office. Does your brain feel the same in both cases? Probably not.

Of course, my ideology about ideology finds this appealing…

His ending is particularly insightful:

Ideology is a double edged sword. Without it, you have no drive to create solutions to problems. But for every belief you integrate into your identity, you’re closing off possibilities. It creates mental shortcuts so we don’t have to spend time evaluating and deciding. The trick seems to be finding the right balance between doubt and belief, between seeing the world anew and applying old ideas.

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{ 27 comments }

Mitch October 18, 2011 at 11:57 am

The last bit is indeed good.

I always struggle with those who say “stop being ideological” or “I am moderate, not ideological”.

How does one approach these people and tell them that position is indeed an ideology(of moderation in some cases)?

So many today truly do not know what ideology means, or inherently think is synonymous with dogmatism or blind devotion.

Mitch October 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Forgot to add, I think the negativity toward ideology is a political slight of hand primarily but not exclusive the fault of the left. Which start when the “Arts” became the “Social Sciences”.

Darren October 18, 2011 at 5:32 pm

I find it useful to be ideological. At the same time, an individual should assume his ideology is not perfect (a good assumption) and *constantly* question it.

Fred October 18, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Why is it that those who use the word “ideological” as an epithet are never called out for their own ideology?

These people see more government as the solution to any and all problems, real or perceived.

Is that not an ideology?

Darren October 18, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Is that not an ideology?

Yes it is. Ideology is useful for complex questions. Otherwise, you’d spend all your time analyzing one question after another and never have time to actuallly answer it. The important thing is to constantly reconsider the premises of that ideology. You’ll either confirm your beliefs or change your mind.

Scott G October 18, 2011 at 12:08 pm

When I have a political discussion with someone I disagree with, I sometimes feel threatened by the other person’s ideas. This is rarely a conscious feeling during the discussion however; I’ve only been able to realize that I felt threatened after the discussion or debate, usually only when the discussion and turned into a shouting match.

Will October 18, 2011 at 12:09 pm

It is amazing to me how similar religious and political thinking is to each other. I suspect religious and political thoughts use the same part of the brain. How many times do people debating religion end with “you just have to have faith” no matter how logical the other side of the argument may appear (even people within the same faith). Most people shape their theology based on their preconceived thoughts and are unable to accept arguments that conflict with those basic believes, even when they cannot provide proof that they are right. The same can be said about politics, and to a degree economics.

Daniel Kuehn October 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm

I have two thoughts -
First, it seems like we should be careful about generalizing this. His results seem reasonable to me, but I can’t imagine they’re uniform. If the “political issue” is nuclear power, I’m sure a nuclear engineer’s brain will respond differently when it reacts to those questions. The nuclear engineer may have philosophical views informing what he wants government to do, but his analysis of the question probably will pull from the reasoning center. Same with the way a military strategist responds to political discussions about going into Iraq. He may have all kinds of philosophical views that predispose him towards taking one action or another – but in thinking through the consequences of the decision itself his brain will probably look different from the general populace (probably in these cases both areas will light up because a positive thought process is informing a normative thought process).

I’d simply extend that to economists. Krugman is responding analytically to these questions. I still think you probably are too, although your differing philosophical views may lead you to a different normative position regardless.

My second thought is to wonder about this definition of “ideology” in the last paragraph. If it’s just a belief that one identifies with that seems to change the question substantially. If that’s the case then one could say that their ideology is heliocentrism. I don’t think through the physics of that every time I assert it (and I’d probably present a shoddy version of the physics if I was made to). But it’s still a belief I identify with that “creates mental shortcuts so we don’t have to spend time evaluating and deciding”. I’ve been operating on the assumption that that is NOT something we are calling an “ideology”, but it’s true the word is slippery.

I find nothing to disagree with in that last quote you provide, except to say I might not have defined ideology that way. I don’t think that paragraph carries with it all the implications that you communicated in your previous post on this topic.

Darren October 18, 2011 at 5:37 pm

In regard to nuclear engineers, etc., I’d say they just have more information. Some areas of knowledge lend themselves to more technical analysis, some more to philosophy. The ‘more information’ argument for the latter is not as relevant.

Seth October 18, 2011 at 12:35 pm

In a recent Freakonomics podcast, “The Folly of Prediction”, Phil Tetlock (who has studied predictions) said that the main characteristic of a poor predictor is dogmatism.

He went on:
“I think an unwillingness to change one’s mind in a reasonably timely way in response to new evidence. A tendency when asked to explain one’s predictions, to generate only reasons that favor your preferred prediction and not to generate reasons opposed to it.”

GrizzlyAdam October 18, 2011 at 1:37 pm

In the article:

“After all, the biggest problem with democracies tends to be the voters.”

Eh… I don’t think so. I get bored of the “people are just so stupid” line of thinking. As individuals, people are (mostly) quite intelligent, and insightful. Of course, as groups, things can fall a part. But blaming the voters for the corruption and fraud within government is not exactly fair. We vote for a candidate in good faith, with a glimmer of hope that he is is half as honorable as he likes to claim.

Ed Abbey once said that the “cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.” Of course, the USA is not a democracy by definition. We have checks and balances to prevent democratic majoritarianism, or mob rule. But more voices, more ideas, in the world of problem solving is always a good thing.

Darren October 18, 2011 at 5:40 pm

I tend to think of it in terms of power centers. Each individual is a power center. Greater power centers are formed by groups of individuals (corporations, goverernment, unions, clubs, etc.) The more distributed power is and the more centers of power we have, the better.

Henri Hein October 18, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Right on, Darren. Well and succintly put.

GrizzlyAdam October 18, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Yes. Well put.

Ken October 19, 2011 at 1:44 pm

It certainly seems to accord with reason. I like it.

Economic Freedom October 19, 2011 at 6:07 pm

As individuals, people are (mostly) quite intelligent, and insightful.

Five glaring exceptions to that assertion on this board:

1. Muirgeo
2. Luzhin
3. Invisible Backhand
4. House of Cards (including his recent aliases)
5. GiT

Greg Ransom October 18, 2011 at 2:13 pm

“Ideology” is a horrible word to latch on to — and I predict the word itself will prevent this conversation from going anywhere.

Larry Wright recommends using alternative language in cases of essentially contested alternative world views — it helps a bit to keep from staying in the rut of habitual ways of thinking, enforced by habitual language tropes which substitute for rethinking things.

Give it a try, Russ.

Wright is a philosopher of language and argument steeped in Kuhn and Wittgenstein and the literature on explanation, theory rivalry, and informal argument.

His papers on argument and understanding are highly recommended.

Ken October 18, 2011 at 3:27 pm

@Greg, will EBSCO have his work? Which database would be most profitable to search?

Greg Ransom October 18, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Google search: “Larry Wright” “UC Riverside”

Greg Ransom October 18, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Sorry, Wright is a philosophy of _science_. He’s well know for his landmark work on teleological and functional explanation, which Alex Rosenberg calls the most important work on teleology since Aristotle, which is probably right.

Ken October 18, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Very interesting, and I thank you. My marketing theory seminar (no, really!) was largely about philosophy-of-science and the “science wars” fought through the late 1980s and 1990s in the discipline’s journals.

Daublin October 18, 2011 at 2:52 pm

What Will said. Religions, movements, and parties are structurally the same. The only difference is that religions involve gods, and how much difference does that really make?

People are hardwired to interact with these larger groups. Among other things, it is not important for the group members to understand how the group works. Yet, it actually is important for group members to fight for the group. Small surprise, then, that we have evolved to be able to fight for groups we hardly understand.

Ken October 18, 2011 at 3:26 pm

1. Keep your word.

2. Don’t aggress against people or their property.

Yeah, it’s an ideology.

Fred October 18, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Don’t forget self ownership.

vikingvista October 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Yep. One useful dichotomy to slice the political landscape is pro- vs anti-slavery. Of course modern slavers resent any comparison to their whip-holding slave-trading plantation-running forebears.

Ken October 18, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Yes. Well, sort of. I hold more with self-stewardship, using my time, talent, and treasure for the One who made me.

I recognize that one’s mileage may vary, and of course one’s mileage is at perfect liberty to vary. It amounts to near enough the same thing as makes no odds; the claim of any earthly authority rests only on force (and maybe warmed-over Filmer, if said claimant is claiming to be G_d’s Anointed, whether by divine right, descent from the winning line of bandits from the mists of history, the election returns, or whatever).

I always want to ask these johnnies, “Why does G_d’s Anointed need to have thugs point guns at me?” (“Why does G_d need a starship?”) But certainly, no mortal man can lay claim to any portion of my life and labor on any basis other than force.

JKGDS October 18, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Neuroscientists haven’t discovered much, Bashaw (and many others) are overly credulous. In this experiment, neuroscientists transmitted a radio frequency pulse at the hydrogen nuclei in the brains of some paid folks diddling about on some contrived task. A detector coil detected something, probably a hydrogen nuclei (this is quantum physics) tipping its longitudal magnetization. A time-series of these detections (i.e., magnetic resonance images) in the half-assedly engaged subject’s brain might make a computer display light up a local area of the brain. The scientific theory is that a local increase in the ratio of oxygenated to deoxygenated hemoglobin occurred in that area.

That’s it, everything else is a tottering pile of inferences that might be an improvement on phrenology but not yet common sense.

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