How to Torture a Reluctant Disagreer

Some of us think that (on facts) people disagree too easily, and so we try to disagree reluctantly if at all with others (we respect).  Brian Weatherson found one way to torture such reluctant disagreers:  write a paper telling them they should be reluctant to disagree with the reasonable people who don’t think they should be reluctant to disagree: 

A popular approach to the epistemology of disagreement, roughly that we should take everyone’s opinion as being equally likely to be true unless we have specific evidence to the contrary, leads to incoherent results when applied to disagreements within epistemology.

Tyler Cowen has found another way to torture a reluctant disagreer:  find one that respects your opinion, tell him you disagree with him, but refuse to say what exactly what you disagree about.  Instead, invoke vague labels yet insist you have been clear about what you disagree on.  Tell him that the fact that he wants clarity is itself a clear indication of the disagreement.  Bonus points for having co-written a paper with him on reluctant disagreement. 

Here is how it went down.  I said:

In Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, out this week, I seem to be similarly featured as a colorful character who can voice views Tyler is reluctant to embrace directly in a popular book. … I’m pretty sure Tyler wonders all these things [he has me wondering] as well." 

Tyler (who co-wrote my review of the rationality of disagreement) countered:

In some ways I think of the whole book as an (attempted) rebuttal to Robin.  Robin is the rational constructivist, the logical atomist, the reductionist, and the extreme Darwinian.  The Inner Economist is trying to reconcile (modified) economic reasoning and a (modified) version of common sense morality. …

Imagine an intellectual war with Darwin, Fourier, Comte, early Carnap, David Friedman and millenarian Christian eschatology on one side (that’s my mental image of how Robin maps into the history of ideas), with bits from Henry Sidgwick, Hayek, Quine, and William James on the other side, … I am (implicitly) defending gradualism, pluralism, the partial irreduciblity of individual choice, the primacy of civilization, and yes also a certain degree of social artifice.  …

Note that Robin is wrong to suggest I don’t reply to his views.  I paint him as engaged in a subjective quest — including on bias — rather than standing from an Archimedean point.  And within the realm of subjective quests, I try to outline a superior one, especially in the last few chapters of the book.  He doesn’t like being relativized in this fashion, and that he doesn’t see me as replying to him is itself an indicator of our underlying differences.

I commented:

I’m honored to be Tyler’s opposing foil, but I still find it hard to tell exactly what Tyler thinks he disagrees with me about. Somehow I am opposed to "Henry Sidgwick, Hayek, Quine, and William James", to "an Archimedean point", and to "gradualism, pluralism, the partial irreduciblity of individual choice, the primacy of civilization, and … social artifice." But I’m not sure how exactly. Yes, it must say something about our differing styles that I am more uncomfortable disagreeing about vague labels, instead of more precise claims. Come on Tyler, indulge me and try to state as precisely as possible an important claim you think we disagree on.

There followed alternating comments by Tyler, me, Tyler, me, Tyler, and me, but in my view he never clarified our disagreement.  So I the reluctant disagreer face the question: how much can or should I reduce such a disagreement only identified via vague labels?

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  • michael vassar

    Until you know whether you can it’s probably futile to ask whether you should.

  • josh

    Well, my oppinion provides additional evidence in this situation. I think this is an example of disagreement not being honest. Tyler is, I believe, self-deceived into thinking that he believes that some sort of non-reductionist (magic?) effects are necessary to understand the world. He refuses to come out and make such a claim, because he realizes it is obviously wrong.

  • Biomed Tim

    “I doubt Tyler will consider these will be news; for his purposes these details weren’t worth walking down the hall to clarify.”

    I suspect that it still isn’t worth that much for him to clarify. In this particular case, it seems like you value precision much more than Tyler does, so the hopes of reducing this disagreement looks slim unless you can somehow change his incentives. (like withholding your friendship, but this could quickly backfire)

    It hadn’t occurred to me until I saw your post title but could Tyler be doing this just to mess with you? What brilliant way to torture a rational truth-seeker. I guess economists can be cruel too:)

  • Carl Shulman


    Discovering that overcoming a bias is undesirable and discovering that overcoming it (at the margin) is impossible would both lead us to conclude that we should stop trying to overcome that bias. If we find out that the first proposition is true then we won’t waste efforts on testing the second, allowing us to reallocate our efforts more productively.

    Do you mean that to understand the desirability of reducing a bias we probably need to have detailed knowledge of it and the proposed method for reduction?

  • Norman Siebrasse

    I think many (or most) discussions, particularly public discussions, are not an attempt to come to a common understanding between the parties. They are aimed at third party observers, and the main goal is to gain personal support for the participant, as opposed to support for the participant’s position, by signaling cleverness, moral superiority etc. Arguments are not means to reach agreement, but signals to third parties. The strength of the precision argument is that it signals cleverness. But it also has serious drawbacks. Precision is hard. It is hard / costly for the participant to take the time and effort to be precise, and the payoff is low because it also takes time and effort for third parties to follow precise reasoning. Unless the point is of special interest, they are likely to lose interest and be unable to conclude whether you are being clever and precise, or stupid and nit-picky. Thus in order to be successful through precision, you have to be not only precise, but precise in such a way that it is transparently clear to observers that you are correct, and therefore clever rather than stupid. This increases the cost of the precision strategy. There are many alternative strategies that avoid these pitfalls. In the passages you have quoted Tyler seems to be trying to signal cleverness through references and jargon. The observer is supposed to conclude, “wow, he can actually knows all those big names well enough to imagine a battle between them.” I think this is often very effective (unless the audience is quite sophisticated, or sufficiently confident to say “enough with the big names — what’s your point?”) Another common strategy is moral superiority: “You evil economist, how can you talk about efficiency when I’m talking about equality.” No doubt there are other strategies. Obviously, as Michael has noted, precision is a poor strategy if you are wrong.

    Most discussions are not about truth, they are about signaling personal virtues. Precision is a narrow strategy, as it only signals cleverness; the cost of precision is high; and many observers find it to be an unreliable signal. So, for many audiences, precision may be a very poor strategy.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Norman, very interesting post. I think this type of meta-analyses of each other in real time will enrich the site. I agree with you that signalling to third parties is probably a large contributor to any public discussion (and probably, irrationally, even in discussions between 2 parties with no 3rd party observers).

  • Paul Gowder

    Cowen feud aside, what do you have to say about the Weatherson paper? I’m pre-inclined to believe it, and, not surprisingly, I find the argument pretty appealing. But…?

  • Biomed Tim

    “…they are likely to lose interest and be unable to conclude whether you are being clever and precise, or stupid and nit-picky.”

    Norman, where’s the line between clever/precise, and stupid/nit-picky? Is it subjective or objective? I don’t think the cost of “precision strategy” is actually all that apparent to an argument presenter. Without knowing that cost, how does one decide the appropriate course of action? (signaling cleverness vs. truth-seeking)

  • Robin, I think you’re wrong about Tyler being vague. Because of puppies.

  • Scott Clark


    You’ve just raised infuriating to an art form.

  • David Bernstein over at the law department should be invited in to adjudicate this fued and allow everyone to move on to theoretical musings that don’t threaten friendships. This Tyler on Hanson on Tyler mud wrestling match undermines the blog’s purpose with its expert bias, confirmation bias, bias blind spot, and various other biases and attribution errors endemic to a hotly contested, personal, off-the cuff fued.

    (But Elizier’s post was very funny.)

  • Guy, Tyler and I aren’t feuding, our tone is not hot, and our friendship is not threatened.

    Paul, Weatherson’s argument (which Tyler and I discussed years ago) has a real but limited effect – you should still be somewhat reluctant to disagree, even if not as reluctant as you would be had no one thought it disagreement was not problematic.

    Eliezer, of course, puppies. That settles that.

  • Sorry about mispelling your name, Eliezer

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Guy, I didn’t think so. It seemed like an easy joke any of us could reach for at any time.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    “David Bernstein over at the law department should be invited in to adjudicate this fued and allow everyone to move on to theoretical musings that don’t threaten friendships. This Tyler on Hanson on Tyler mud wrestling match undermines the blog’s purpose with its expert bias, confirmation bias, bias blind spot, and various other biases and attribution errors endemic to a hotly contested, personal, off-the cuff fued.”

    I disagree with pretty much everything in this paragraph. And I find it hard to believe any friendship is being threatened by the Tyler/Hanson discussion here. Feud?

  • Norman Siebrasse

    I agree with Biomed Tim’s observation that it is difficult for a presenter to know how they will be perceived, and it is therefore difficult for the presenter to know which strategy is appropriate for a given audience. I don’t think that most people choose their strategy rationally or even consciously. Rather, most people discover what works best for them on a trial and error basis.

  • Tyler Cowen

    I am drafting a further post on where Robin and I agree and disagree. But I think it boils down to frameworks, as I outlined in the post that some of you found vague. It’s harder to specify a broad framework in very exact terms, in that sense it is more vague than a clearly articulable difference in beliefs about specific facts. But different opinions can in fact result from differences in (possibly vague) frameworks. I don’t see any a priori reason to discriminate against explanations of this kind. “Clouds” are possibly a vaguer scientific notion than “this duck sitting at some particular GPS coordinates,” but that doesn’t mean “clouds” cannot be a relevant causal force or perhaps a more relevant causal force than that particular duck.

  • Two smart people disagree on something. This could be a great opportunity to create a prediction market.

  • Tyler, it’s old advice, but I’d look for a difference of anticipated experience and work back from there.

  • TGGP

    I think Tyler wants to be likable and tries to avoid disagreements (this might be why he writes about culture a lot rather than rolling in the economic argument mud and saying things like, for example, FDR and the New Deal were wrongheaded, as Alex and Bryan did gleefully). Robin’s ideas are odd and unpopular, so Tyler cannot “drink the Kool-Aid” too deeply, and certainly does not wish to signal that he has. He stays vague because he doesn’t really want to get in a disagreement with Robin. And that’s my amateur psych bull-session for the day.

  • Tobbic

    A person’s belief system contains some beliefs which are vague or clouded. These beliefs serve as a ground for opinions (or choosing not to voice certain opinions). Were the person defend these opinions in occasion of disagreement, IMO he has to clarify these beliefs and their origins in order to defend his position. If clouded beliefs are not clarified it seems impossible to continue the argument and debate concludes: “person couldn’t give evidence for his opinions”.

    In my experince, clouded beliefs (which I have had plenty and by all odds still have) can result from intuision, a hunch or an emotional reflex. Defending an opinion grounded on vague intuition is hard ’cause you have to clarify& think through the belief yourself while avoiding a swarm of rationalizations coming to your mind.

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