Friday, 8 August 2014

On Disagreeable Disagreement

Boston University's 2012 presidential hopeful and Economics Professor Larry Kotlikoff recently pleaded with Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman to stop being so rude to his intellectual opponents. If Professor Krugman's point with his abrasive debating style is to better advocate his opinions (and I don't know if it is, it just seems like one candidate to explain why he writes his popular column and blog for the New York Times), it strikes me that his rudeness may score points with some subset of like-minded folks who, for one reason or another, have no problem with abrasive commentary, but otherwise fail to advance Krugman's views.
The reason is that advocacy is futile, but the point of this blog post is not to talk about Professor Krugman's advocacy or his disagreeable debating style in particular, but rather about disagreeable disagreement in general. If somebody were to tell an adherent of Ideology A that he likes Ideology B, the result may be a fierce and infected dispute. The thing is that this makes about as much sense as scolding a driver of an SUV - or whatever those large cars are called - because he contributes to global warming. It makes about as much sense because the impact on policy and the impact on global warming are both less than a drop in the bucket from an individual's liking some ideology or an individual's driving a car which consumes a great deal of petrol. Your having views different from mine will not affect the world I live in, so why should I display anger about it?
Of course, the disputants may succeed in changing one another's opinions, but that success is worth very little in combating the disliked ideology or global warming. More to the point, what reason is there to expect hostile argument to be more successful than a pleasant dialectic? I would think that the psychology of the situation suggests that pleasantness encourages further interaction and thereby increases the odds of conversion, since pleasantness makes it more difficult for one of the disputants to throw up his hands and leave. It is hard to be rude to nice folks.

Maybe the reason for disagreeable disagreements is that in small, hunter-gatherer societies, intimidation, while just as epistemically worthless as it always has been and always will be, could win the "policy" debate. Because humans evolved under such conditions, hostile argument has survived. Such a pity.

HT: Greg Mankiw

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