What Wisdom Tradition?

Russ Roberts wrote

I happen to believe that concealed handguns do deter crime and allowing concealed handguns is a good thing. … But what’s clear to me is that my belief in the virtues of allowing concealed hand guns has little to do with the empirical evidence. And I would argue that the opponents are really in the same boat.

I then asked:

If Russ relies little on data to draw his conclusions, then on what does he rely?  … Can’t we say the same thing about theory, that we mainly just search for theory arguments to support preconceived conclusions?  … Either you should believe that truth-correlated data or theory has substantially influenced your belief, or you should retain only a very weak belief. 

Russ has responded:

When scholars can run hundreds of multivariate regressions at very low cost, it easy to convince yourself that the results that confirm your prior beliefs are the "right" results.  The Pragmatists … believed that the rationalism of Descartes had a dangerous element of hubris. … Your grandmother is right. She believes in certain things. When you ask her to justify her beliefs she shrugs and says she can’t. … Norms of behavior that survive, survive because they’re effective even when no one understands why.

The Cartesian belief that you should examine every one of your beliefs … the pragmatists argued that that was akin to examining the planks of your boat while you were at sea. … All of which is to say that we shouldn’t pretend to be scientific when we’re only doing something that has the veneer of science. That’s much more dangerous than saying, I don’t know or we can’t answer that question. … I also did not mean to imply that data and evidence are irrelevant in how we form our beliefs about what is true. Or that our biases never get overturned.

I’m still confused.  Does Russ think his life will "sink" if he further considers his reasons for his believing in concealed handguns, even though it was he who raised this issue?  Does he think only scientists should want reasons for their beliefs?  Does he believe concealed handguns deter crime because his grandma had hidden guns and lived a long life?  Or is it because grandma’s society had them and was prosperous?

Yes, if one prosperous society had concealed handguns that is at least weak evidence for the reasonableness of that behavior.  But since other prosperous societies forbid concealed handguns, I don’t see how you can have more than a weak belief on this basis, unless you rely on one of those complex data analyzes Russ distrusts.  Russ doesn’t seem to think there is simple clear data on concealed handguns, and he hasn’t taken up my suggestion to claim that he is persuaded by theory, either complex and subtle or simple and clear.   And yet Russ still seems to retain a strong belief.  This seems literally unreasonable to me.   

Added 1Nov:  Russ has responded:

Robin is taking my observation about pragmatism and applying it to handguns. I didn’t mean to. … Cynicism … seems to leave us with anecdotes. Well, there’s also common sense, intuition and general lessons gleaned from experience and empirical work that is less prone to manipulation. …   Here’s how my biased neoclassical view works. … You’re going to find it very hard to convince me that an increase in demand holding everything else constant lowers wages. … For what it’s worth, I am less of a hard-core neoclassical economist than when I left Chicago. …. Finally, a commenter at Overcoming Bias, Constant, does a much better job than I did explaining the differences between the Pragmatist and the Cartesian …

Applying this to the current case, the pragmatist approach says that if you have a belief about guns and the evidence does not contradict the belief, then keep the belief.

OK, Russ finally answers as I’d originally expected: he relies on simpler clearer data and theory.  So I’ll now only complain about his bias to hold his previous beliefs to a lower standard than he holds posssible alternatives. 


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  • Douglas

    > Does he think only scientists should want reasons for their beliefs?

    I think that he’s trying to say that not all belief needs to be scientific. Plus a side note that anything we call scientific should have reasons for it.

    With everyone telling each other that everything should be scientific, that isn’t a fashionable point of view. Hence Russ wrapping up the idea in so many words. Perhaps the heart of the problem is not being able to say out loud that your beliefs are irrational without being mocked as an idiot.

    Perhaps even unreasonable.

  • g

    Douglas, are you really saying it’s wrong to call someone unreasonable if they declare their own beliefs to be irrational?

    Certainly not everything needs to be scientific, but it’s not only in science that beliefs should be proportionate to evidence.

    So far as I can tell, it was Russ and not Robin who started expressing the issue in terms of whether every belief has to be scientific. That’s a straw man.

  • Constant

    I will try to approximate the pragmatist position as it contrasts with the Cartesian position. The Cartesian approach is to discard every idea unless it can be verified. The point is to believe only things which are certainly true, and to avoid believing falsehoods. It is a maximally skeptical approach. In contrast, the pragmatist approach is to keep every idea until it is falsified (or found wanting in some other particular way). So the Cartesian gets rid of all the planks of his boat that he can’t demonstrate to his satisfaction are necessary for the boat’s operation, while the pragmatist keeps all the planks of his boat unless he can demonstrate to his satisfaction that a particular plank is unnecessary.

    Applying this to the current case, the pragmatist approach says that if you have a belief about guns and the evidence does not contradict the belief, then keep the belief. The Cartesian approach says that if you have a belief about guns and the evidence does not demonstrate this belief, then discard the belief.

    The pragmatist approach is similar to the Popperian approach of hypothesis formation and refutation. You form a hypothesis, and then hold the hypothesis unless it is refuted.

    With enough evidence, falsifiable hypotheses are eventually refuted, so it’s not as though the Popperian or pragmatist approach causes you to retain delusions indefinitely.

    Caveat: the similarity between my description of the pragmatist and Popperian idea is suspicious, and so I think that I have at best approximated the idea.

  • How does a rationalist decide what to believe when dealing with a hypothetical, e.g. “if the British had won the American revolution we would be better off”. To me the questions Russ is addressing are hypothetical of this kind: “if everyone was carrying a concealed weapon we would be better off”. It’s a hypothetical situation and empirics can help only so much, so in the end you have to guess some probabilities and you stick to them until really conclusive evidence comes along.

  • Caledonian

    When dealing with situations where the evidence is lacking and our decision-making procedures are unclear, it seems to be human nature to make a decision, stick with it, and let the universe determine whether it’s viable or not.

    One of the problems with today’s world is that our eggs are collectively in much larger baskets, so the cost of trying out beliefs to see if they work has become much greater. With many small tribes, humanity can afford to try out different social structures and ways of doing, because the worst that will happen is that the failures will perish and be replaced by the successes. When humanity is unified into one tribe, dropping the basket will break all the eggs.

  • This new study is off topic for this post, but highly relevant to the blog I suspect. . .

  • Stuart Armstrong

    This seems literally unreasonable to me.

    It is. It can be developed into something a bit more reasonable (a Burkian take on the particular interconnected society of the US), but there are no signs that Russ has done so. A crucial giveaway is:
    And I would argue that the opponents are really in the same boat.

    This is necessary: if the opponents are not in the same boat (ie they have strong evidence of their position), then Russ is wrong. Despite his claim of not looking for evidence to back up his position, he has gone looking for a certain type of reassurance: just enough to convince himself that the counter-arguments are not powerful and well known. That means that he has made sure that there are no strong social penalties to holding his opinions, rather than spending effort to check the accuracy of these opinions.

    The whole thing feels like an argument from social conventions and laziness, in fact.

  • SnappyCrunch

    I think that Robin has misinterpreted Russ’s statements. He makes two in the first paragraph alone. He says that he believes that “concealed handguns do deter crime”, and that he believes so without evidence. I think we can agree this is irrational. He then goes on to say in a completely separate point that allowing concealed weapons is virtuous (i.e. allowing concealed weapons is the morally right choice) and that he makes /that/ decision separate from evidence about it’s effectiveness. He’s made a moral decision that is completely divided from the utilitarianism of that choice. He also says that his opponents do the same thing. That is, they have decided that concealed weapons are not moral, and that they decided that without the help of evidence as well.

  • Shakespeare’s Fool

    Perhaps I am putting my own ideas into my interpretation
    of Roberts, but I thought he was saying:

    “Lott has studied the data on guns and crime and concluded
    that an armed citizenry deters crime. Others have studied
    the data and have concluded that an armed citizenry does
    not deter crime. Because I have studied economics and
    statistics, I understand how their analysis of the data
    can lead to opposite conclusions. A substantial part of
    why they can come to opposite conclusions is that the data
    do not clearly lead to either conclusion. Fog in the data
    allows them to see what they believed before they looked
    at the data. Given the state of the data no use of the
    data can clear this up. If we are to argue honestly we
    must admit we cannot prove either conclusion with the
    data. We must form our opinion on something else. I
    choose to use my general understanding (common sense,
    perhaps) of how the world works to form my conclusion.

    If analysis of the data led clearly to one or the other
    conclusion, I would follow the data to the conclusion
    it led to.”

    Try an analogy: When you’re in a fog, you can’t follow
    the fog. Use a compass. My compass is made of tradition,
    experience, and a reading of history.


  • douglas

    In Russ’s response he says:
    “My basic point was that when it comes to high-powered sophisticated statistical techniques, our biases as researchers and as consumers of that research often triumph over truth.”
    I have been trained to take a set of data and using valid statistical techniques use that data to come to different conclusions. So that point is well made.
    Later Russ admits that if there were clear data to support one side or the other he would follow the data. (As pointed-out in the post above)
    Perhaps Russ’s belief isn’t as strong as Robin assumes and that Russ is making the bigger point about the invalidity of using statistical analysis to analyze complex situations (especially in areas where the researchers are bound to have personal bias).
    I am douglas– who is Douglas?, and should I change my moniker to eleviate possible confussion? What is the protocol?

  • I thought this quotation from the great religious empiricist William James was interesting, especially in light of your exchange with Russ.

    One word, also, about the reproach that in following this sort of an empirical method we are handing ourselves over to systematic skepticism.
    Since it is impossible to deny secular alterations in our sentiments and needs, it would be absurd to affirm that one’s own age of the world can be beyond correction by the next age. Skepticism cannot, therefore, be ruled out by any set of thinkers as a possibility against which their conclusions are secure; and no empiricist ought to claim exemption from this universal liability. But to admit one’s own liability to correction is one thing, and to embark upon a sea of wanton doubt is another. Of willfully playing into the hands of skepticism we cannot be accused. He who acknowledges the imperfectness of his instrument, and makes allowance for it in discussing his observations, is in a much better position for gaining truth than if he claimed his instrument to be infallible.

  • A response to Roberts’ claims can be found here.

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