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Jacob Falkovich, of PutANumOnIt fame, published a post-mortem on the Harris-Klein debate over IQ and race in Quillette. Not just the Quillette article, but the blog post inspiring it, The Context is the Conflict, are both worth a read. As Falkovich sees it, the Harris-Klein debate was merely one example of conflicting forms of political reasoning, pitting those who see political opponents as mistaken against those who see political opposition as conflict, and also pitting cognitive decoupling against contextualizing. To summarize the story the way Falkovich sees it, Sam Harris tells Ezra Klein, “Ezra, it’s dishonest of you to be so concerned with the social implications of the data that you discount what the data has to say,” and Klein shoots right back, “Sam, it’s dishonest of you to be so concerned with what the data allegedly says that you discount its social implications,” that is, whose interest is served by treating the data in question as reputable, and whose interests are harmed.
Both Klein and Harris have a point. We on the right are fairly open in our mistrust of “scientism,” after all. We know that, no matter how much data might seem to speak for itself, the scientific validity of data can’t be entirely separated from the nonscientific interests of the ones gathering, analyzing, publishing, and popularizing the data. Who funded a study, we wonder? Would funding have biased it? Was one study widely reported on while studies contradicting it were not; reflecting media bias? We aren’t fools for asking these questions, merely fools if we take them to their paranoid extreme: at some point, data must matter, even though it’s collected and interpreted by biased humans. Nonetheless, we suspect, probably rightly, that even good science can’t be wholly divorced from its social implications once it’s fodder for political dispute.
Harris represents what Falkovich and others call cognitive decoupling: “Let’s set aside context for a moment, and just consider these facts on their merit.” Klein, on the other hand, represents contextualizing: “No, we can’t ignore context, we must contextualize facts in order to be truly honest.” Nobody is all-decoupler or all-contextualizer. Rather, we alternate between both forms of cognition as needed — and we tend to disagree on what’s “needed”. Furthermore, we also alternate between two models of politics, “mistake theory”, which sees our political opponents as mistaken, and “conflict theory”, which sees politics as war. As Scott Alexander puts it at Slate Star Codex,
Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.
Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.
Mistake theory is technocratic in mindset. This doesn’t mean mistake-theorists must favor technocratic solutions. Indeed, Hayekian arguments for why technocracy fails are mistake-theoretic arguments!
It’s perfectly possible to be an anti-technocrat mistake theorist. Nonetheless, mistake theory arguments tend toward the technical, favoring cognitive decoupling over contextualizing politics as conflict. Conflict theory, on the other hand, is tribal in mindset. Never mind who’s right, some side’s gotta win, so whose side will it be? Conflict theory correctly acknowledges that cognition surrounding politics is cultural, always done in the context of identity and affiliation, then turns this acknowledgement up to eleven.
We on the right often mix mistake theory with conflict theory, just as we mix decoupling with contextualizing. For example, when right-leaning STEM logic “decoupling blackbelts” express skepticism of the data in a study because they suspect left-wing institutional bias, they’re contextualizing, just in a very decouply way. Public choice theory? Classically a discipline populated by mistake-theorists, but one used to detect conflicts of interest arising in government. And so on. When we label one another mistake or conflict theorists, decouplers or contextualizers, these labels are provisional, reflecting who’s playing what role when, rather than innate identities. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to notice some general trends.
Some people consider it a matter of principle to play politics in decoupling mistake-theory mode as much as possible, while others consider it a matter of realism to play politics as much as possible in contextualizing conflict mode. Wonkishness is a decoupling mistake-theory trait; partisanship, a contextualizing conflict-theory trait. The horse-race aspects of politics are particularly oriented toward conflict theory, and the spread of a conflict-theory worldview corresponds to rising political polarization.
There are a lot of conflict theorists on the right as well as the left these days. Many conflict theorists on the right will tell you they’ve been bullied into favoring the conflict-theory worldview: they didn’t start out as conflict theorists, they didn’t want to be conflict theorist, but they believe the left has left them no choice, and so conflict theory it is. They tend to see those on the right who remain mistake theorists as wimps and dupes. Ironically for righties who feel bullied into conflict theory, conflict theorists often come across as bullies to their opponents, and especially to the opponents who are also other conflict theorists.
Conflict theorists tend to see their opponents as oppressors, either actual or potential, and consequently believe that “taking the oppressors down a peg” isn’t bullying, but merely retributive justice and self-defense — necessary for the good order of society as well as the survival of their own kind. The uncharitable term for this would be “crybullying”. We on the right see Ezra Klein as a crybully. When Klein doesn’t like the facts, he throws a tantrum of moral indignation to socially manipulate purveyors of inconvenient facts, like Harris, into shutting up. We on the right look upon Harris as heroic by comparison: look at him being all principled and reasonable and stuff! Bask in the radiance of his pure STEMlogic! Nonetheless, the tables could easily be turned.
As I mentioned earlier, we righties are also quite ready to contextualize scientific claims which raise our hackles. Whose interest, after all, is served by calling studies which threaten our tribe’s worldview good science? If some neuroscientists reportedly claim there really is no difference between male and female brains, do we believe them, or is our immediate hunch that something’s off? If Ezra Klein pelted us with study after study to show we were in the wrong, would we believe him? No. In fact, our argument with him might run something like this:
Klein: Look at all these studies! I have so many studies!
Us: Yeah, government studies.
Klein: What’s wrong with government studies? Do you think your Uncle Sam would lie to you?
Us: Yeah, we do. Deep state. Public choice. Whatever you want to call it, it means lies.
Klein: OK, then show me your data.
Us: If you insist, here are some industry studies.
Us: Industries can’t lie very much to themselves and still expect to turn a profit. This limits their bias, which maybe ain’t saying much, but it’s still closer than government work.
Almost immediately, what started as wonky mistake-theoretic data comparison devolves into one side shouting “But Big Government!!!” while the other side shouts, “But Big Business!!!” What started all nice and decoupled is now contextualized and tribal. It’s now not a matter of facts, but of whose facts you trust. Mere data by itself is no longer the source of conflict. Instead, the context is conflict.
Whose facts do you trust? Ezra Klein is wrong about many things, but he’s right that facts in isolation can’t tell the whole story. Whose facts they are matters, even when we wish it didn’t. Even in matters of science, trust in the people involved comes into play. So who gets the benefit of your doubt?
@drbastiat recently posted on a friend of his, Bob. Bob’s advanced training in chemistry makes Bob sound like a paragon of STEMlogic decoupling. And yet, to Dr Bastiat’s puzzlement, Bob is a flaming leftist. How can this be? My best guess is that Dr Bastiat and Bob probably differ on whom they give the benefit of the doubt.
The benefit of the doubt is more than charitable mental hygiene. It’s also a powerful social statement. Who gets it, and how much? Harris, used to playing in mistake-theory land where trust is high and benefit of the doubt is relatively mutual, naturally sees Klein’s objections to him as mistaken. For, as Scott Alexander says,
Mistake theorists naturally think conflict theorists are making a mistake… [that] conflict theorists don’t understand the Principle of Charity, or Hanlon’s Razor of “never attribute to malice what can be better explained by stupidity”…The correct response is to teach them…
…Conflict theorists naturally think mistake theorists are the enemy in their conflict… [that] they’ve become part of a class that’s more interested in protecting its own privileges than in helping the poor or working for the good of all. The best that can be said about the best of them is that they’re trying to protect their own neutrality, unaware that in the struggle between the powerful and the powerless neutrality always favors the powerful. The correct response is to crush them.
Or, if not crush them, then at the very least distrust them. To Harris, Klein not giving the data Harris cites the benefit of the doubt is a massive display of bad faith. It’s morally wrong. To Klein, giving untrustworthy people the benefit of the doubt by, for example, accepting their data as data rather than propaganda, is likewise morally wrong: the benefit of the doubt is too socially powerful to bestow so lightly.
[“Crush them”] points to a key asymmetry between conflict theorists and mistake theorists. It takes two to tango, and it takes two to have an honest debate, which is the mistake theorist’s favored approach to disagreement. But it only takes one to declare war. When conflict theorists and mistake theorists meet, the result is more often war than an honest debate.
As my fictional Klein-vs-us skit illustrated, even when two sides of an issue agree to meet in mistake-theory land, if there’s enough distrust, their debate will devolve into war. Who gets the benefit of your doubt, and how much? That’s the key to so much of our political conflict.Published in