Power and Persuasion

Francis: What is on your mind? You seem troubled.

Paco: I’ve been reading a lot lately about this country’s many military adventures abroad, from drone bombings to funding various factions in other nations’ politics, to boots on the ground and air support in the sky.

Francis: That will put anyone in a sour state of mind. What has driven you to this morbid line of research?

Paco: I just wonder if there is such a thing as civilization, or if it is just a sham, a part we play while others engage in barbarism on our behalf.

Francis: Is there any point to talking in such categories these days? The whole dichotomy of primitive and civilized seems so…offensive.

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Good Faith


A lot of philosophy and social science boils down to the quest for the right standards.

  • What standard of measurement shall we use for overall or even individual well being?
  • What standards of behavior should we hold ourselves and one another to?
  • What standards of justification should we use to undergird our use of the other standards, and how could these standards of justification themselves be justified?

The standard, as an ideal, is supposed to be something set apart from our particular interests, biases, and social status—in short, they’re supposed to be fair, and perhaps even neutral.

I was recently reminded of a metaphor my dad had for standards internal to most bureaucracies: the treadmill.

The ideal is for the treadmill to be used to determine whether or not you qualify for something. A baseline standard of health is set, and everyone gets to be tested against it. It sounds impartial, even egalitarian. It doesn’t matter who you are—so long as you can pass the treadmill test, you qualify.

Unfortunately, the people who run the test are part of the political machinery of the bureaucracy, and it turns out to be quite easy to put their thumb on the scale.

When the powers that be want someone to qualify, they are given a much less taxing experience on the treadmill. Meanwhile, if those powers are determined that you will not qualify, they crank up the speed and leave you on until you die of a heart attack.

Standards can never be neutral, but they can be fair. But only when we’re able to trust one another to act in good faith.


I am fascinated by the questions that philosophers have asked for thousands of years, but amused by how completely worthless all our answers are without a foundation of faith.

Increasingly I’ve come to believe that trust is the most important aspect of faith in this respect. How is coordination and cooperation among millions of strangers possible? A widespread trust. How are we able to learn anything? By trusting in certain authorities and in the authority of certain sources. How has science advanced? By creating specialized communities of inquiry who trust each other enough to learn from each other, and develop standards of evidence that they believe will be employed in good faith.

What you believe is, I think, much less a factor of your theoretical pre-commitments, or your religion, or your politics, than of who you trust. Indeed, your pre-commitments, religion, and politics are largely determined by a combination of who you trusted in the first place and your own judgment.

The so-called culture war is nothing more than the professionalization of political mistrust, the monetization, glamorization, and weaponization of bad faith. We are more likely to trust people we don’t know who espouse beliefs similar to the ones we do, than people we don’t know who disagree with us. If people in the first group are pouring a lot of energy into portraying people with different beliefs as untrustworthy and cynical opportunists, then the already existing divisions in trust will only grow wider.

I like to use the example of anti-vaccine people, something I trust most of my audience will agree is an instance of a group being simply wrong about something. This piece depicts how often this group makes other choices outside the mainstream, opting, for instance, for alternative forms of education for their children. When it comes right down to it, trusting the authority of doctors and medical researchers is conventional. It therefore makes sense that communities who reject big, central conventions in one area (like the standard American education) would also be more likely to mistrust those who are conventionally trusted.

Note that even a fairly nuanced piece on this group is entitled “Vaccine deniers: inside the dumb, dangerous new fad”. The intended audience is clearly not the “deniers”. And any denier who saw this piece would no doubt dismiss it out of hand, without reading it, since it leads off by insulting their intelligence.

Imagine you wanted to persuade a member of this group that they are mistaken about vaccines. Would you lead off by demanding that they prove they even care about their children’s health, or the health of the larger community? Of course not. No amount of “proof” could suffice; trusting that they do care about such things is always a leap of faith, one that can only be given and never earned.

The problem is precisely that they trust sources that spread skeptical narratives about vaccines and the authority of mainstream medicine, while mistrusting the conventional authorities on the subject. Any hostility directed at them from people whose trust is more conventional only reinforces their belief in the bad motives of those people, and their defensive responses surely only reinforce the reciprocal assumption of bad faith on the other side.

I have no solution to such deficits of trust, other than to do the best you can to be worthy of trust yourself—by striving to act in good faith—and to start from an assumption of good faith on the part of others. If you can’t grant this assumption, if you can’t extend your trust, then there is no point to having a conversation at all.

If my father is correct, then we are living through a time when trust in conventional authorities is bleeding away at an alarming rate, with no clear successors in sight. I hope he is wrong, or at least that the trajectory can be reversed or a better one found. Such a path cannot lead anywhere good.

Science is Persuasion


Even Heterodox Economics is Misguided

Earlier this week, Arnold Kling—who taught the first economics class I ever took—wrote a post comparing behaviorism in psychology to Samuelsonianism in economics. In his view, the chief failings of these approaches are an overemphasis on mechanistic models on the one hand, and a “blank slate” view of human nature on the other. For both reasons, he’s rereading Stephen Pinker, enemy of blank slate models and enthusiastic booster of computational, rather than mechanistic, models of cognition.

I argued that computational models are not different in kind from mechanistic ones, they are just more sophisticated. I pointed him towards works in the rhetoric of inquiry tradition, in particular Economics and Hermeneutics, an excellent collection edited by the late Don Lavoie and available for free online.

It seems that he’s now reading that very collection, which is great. However, I remember my own first encounter with this tradition of thought—through Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics—and I found it quite baffling at the time.

I think there are a lot of people educated in economics who sense that something is wrong in the house that Samuelson built. However, the tools that most heterodox schools have to offer—and here I include even most versions of the Austrian school—simply won’t help you see some of the fundamental errors of the mainstream view. At best the problems of the mainstream schools are replaced with more nuanced, subtle, and complex models that nevertheless share the same underlying characteristics.

This is the basis of McCloskey’s critique of the neo-institutionalists; they think they’ve moved beyond Samuelsonian limitations, when in fact they’ve simply subsumed the idea of an institution into a Samuelsonian framework. Thus instead of conveying meaning or providing frameworks of interpretation or shaping conjective reality, institutions are treated as structures of reward-and-punishment designed in just such a way to make utility maximizers cooperate with one another.

The writers in the Project On Rhetoric Of Inquiry, as well as hermeneutics and what Lavoie calls “the interpretative turn” in general, can be hard for outsiders of that tradition to get their head around. So this post will be my attempt to introduce one version of that line of thinking. My intended audience are primarily heterodox economists, but the argument will be relevant to economists and social scientists in general, and indeed any scientist or scholar.

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