Engagement Swaps

In broad disputes, such as we often find in economic policy, each "side" usually has points it thinks are neglected by other sides.  These points may be especially strong arguments for its own conclusions, or especially weak places in arguments for conclusions of other sides.  I can think of several such apparent neglected points favoring my "sides." 

Often members of a side will feel frustrated that their strongest points seem to be ignored.  Your point may seem too simple or unoriginal to be worth a new publication, but you'd sure love to make it clear to observers how weak are the responses to your strongest points.

You might think that if, in addition to wanting to support our side, we also put some weight on wanting to know the truth, we might find "gains from trade" by making "engagement swaps."  These would be deals between sides whereby we each agree to engage some points proposed by other sides.  We might agree to write so many words, or talk for so many minutes, on each point. 

I suggested this idea to my colleague Dan Klein and he actually tried a bit to see how feasible such swaps might be in his corner of the policy dispute world.  Alas, his verdict was negative; it doesn't seem very workable.  Which raises the question: why?

Some possible answers:

  1. Folks care little about truth, so there are no gains from trade.
  2. Even talking with other sides makes you seem disloyal to your side. 
  3. If they propose it, you fear adverse selection in topic, participant choices.
  4. Your responses to their strongest points will be weak, making you look weak.

Added 6May: Dan Klein comments:

It is often whole positions or whole issues that the other side too often ignores. For example, on FDA or occupational licensing, it's not that soc dems ignore individual points, but rather that they evade the whole issue.
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  • http://fasri.net Robert Bloomfield

    I am have trouble understanding exactly what you are proposing. So let’s see, someone who has a privileged platform, such as a website, passes the privilege on to two people for a debate, one arguing PRO and the other arguing CON. But readers believe their own PRO and CON arguments are poorly represented, so you argue we should give them a platform to engage with one another to put forward their own favorite arguments. Hmmmm….

    Oh, wait, now I get it! Blogs, and maybe even online newspapers, should have comment threads. You know, that just might work!

  • http://www.osborneink.com Matt Osborne

    Your possible answers cause me to ask: how is pride adaptive? It would seem rather non-advantageous to social grouping, at first glance.

  • Julian Morrison

    5. Your response to their strongest points will be “no it isn’t” or “so what”, because you don’t have enough premises in common.

  • conchis

    6. Neither side believes the other side will really engage.

    In general, it’s difficult to evaluate these hypotheses without more information that “negative verdict”. What sort of failure are we talking about? Was it that no-one was interested? Were people interested, but the process didn’t seem to work? In what way didn’t it work?

  • http://atheorist.livejournal.com Johnicholas

    More information on what Dan Klein tried and what he observed would be interesting

  • Stuart Armstrong

    More information on what Dan Klein tried and what he observed would be interesting

    Yep.

    The whole swap thing (which would be a great idea) feels like mutually agreed disarmament with people you already don’t trust. And it’s an unbalanced disarmament – you feel they should be engaging your brilliant arguments anyway, were they honest. And they’re forcing you to pay attention to their self-evidently idiotic points, that any reasonable person would reject out of hand.

    On top of that, this puts both sets of arguments on the same plane, and the other side is so dishonest they won’t really engage anyway.

    In other words, its a trade where each side gets less than what they traded for, and each side feels tarnished by it as well.

    It might work in formal debate scenarios – I’ll suggest it to the Oxford Union, see if they go with it.

  • http://soundsfamiliar.blogspot.com Swimmy

    I find reason 4 pretty compelling. Maybe it’s not a conscious “knowing” that your side is weaker, but you may think that you’re underqualified to debate a topic. Knowing that the loser of a high-profile confrontation is held in lower regard than those who refuse to confront, there’s probably fewer gains from trade for the side that appears weaker.

    Assymetric information (a la conchis’ number 6) may also be a problem in the beginning, though of course reputation could handle a significant bit of that after things got going. Then again, don’t those with underdog and widely-dismissed points of view have low reputations anyway? Yes it may lie along multiple boundaries (a person has a low reputation as an economist but a high reputation as an engagement trader), but the affect heuristic suggests people may conflate.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/equimarginal Zac Gochenour

    Aren’t formal debates already an engagement swap? Each speaker presents an overview of his side in turn, where he will focus on the strongest points in favor of his side. Then each speaker responds directly to the points made by the other side. To just continue to talk about your strongest points and blatantly ignore the points made by the opposing side is an exceptionally poor debating tactic.

    If one side consistently refuses a request for formal debate, they are most commonly accused of (4), probably rightly so. For the set of disagreements in which neither side ever proposes a debate, the reality is probably (1).

  • http://profile.typepad.com/Mudley Mario

    When it comes to economics, I think both sides usually agree with each other on the basics of even their strongest points, the difference is only the relative weight each side gives to the various problems. The negative effects on employment caused by minimum wage laws and increasing income inequality would be two ideas with which I think the vast majority of economists would agree, it’s just that the other side of each argument thinks the respective cures would be worse than the diseases.

    So… 7. The disagreements are not about facts but about values.

  • Dagon

    You need to distinguish truth-seeking from truth-pushing.

    There is _NO_ truth-seeking value in being “allowed” to make an argument to someone who disagrees. A swap makes no sense for truth-seekers, as neither “side” gets any additional truth by being given a platform to say what they already believe.

    If you seek truth, there is often value in HEARING alternate views, as they may contain information that you don’t already have. For this, rarely is the swap necessary, as most people are glad to give you their thoughts.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Swaps don’t seem liquid enough; you may have trouble finding two people who both want someone with the other’s status to engage their own arguments. We need engagement currency – so that I can offer to engage, say, Catholic arguments, and get Richard Dawkins to engage transhumanist arguments, because Richard Dawkins wants Catholics to engage Dawkins’s arguments. Or something like that.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, good idea.

    Dagon, you do get info from seeing how others respond to your arguments. Maybe they have a better response than you thought.

    Zac, a debate would force us to review lots of standard arguments, which we already know. There can be so many of these that the neglected arguments might well be neglected in the debate.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    I agree with Zac Gochenour. Want a debate with someone? Perhaps try paying them to attend one.

  • Gary

    Somewhat related: I’ve often thought it would be great if this blog would request that commenters take the opposite position to the one they really hold (would have to work on the honor system, obviously). Friends and I do this in email discussions occasionally, and I find it gives the discussants a greater appreciation for the other side (sometimes we switch positions!)