The backfire effect has been greatly exaggerated

Sep 8 JDN 2458736

Do a search for “backfire effect” and you’re likely to get a large number of results, many of them from quite credible sources. The Oatmeal did an excellent comic on it. The basic notion is simple: “[…]some individuals when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs come to hold their original position even more strongly.”

The implications of this effect are terrifying: There’s no point in arguing with anyone about anything controversial, because once someone strongly holds a belief there is nothing you can do to ever change it. Beliefs are fixed and unchanging, stalwart cliffs against the petty tides of evidence and logic.

Fortunately, the backfire effect is not actually real—or if it is, it’s quite rare. Over many years those seemingly-ineffectual tides can erode those cliffs down and turn them into sandy beaches.

The most recent studies with larger samples and better statistical analysis suggest that the typical response to receiving evidence contradicting our beliefs is—lo and behold—to change our beliefs toward that evidence.

To be clear, very few people completely revise their worldview in response to a single argument. Instead, they try to make a few small changes and fit them in as best they can.

But would we really expect otherwise? Worldviews are holistic, interconnected systems. You’ve built up your worldview over many years of education, experience, and acculturation. Even when someone presents you with extremely compelling evidence that your view is wrong, you have to weigh that against everything else you have experienced prior to that point. It’s entirely reasonable—rational, even—for you to try to fit the new evidence in with a minimal overall change to your worldview. If it’s possible to make sense of the available evidence with only a small change in your beliefs, it makes perfect sense for you to do that.

What if your whole worldview is wrong? You might have based your view of the world on a religion that turns out not to be true. You might have been raised into a culture with a fundamentally incorrect concept of morality. What if you really do need a radical revision—what then?

Well, that can happen too. People change religions. They abandon their old cultures and adopt new ones. This is not a frequent occurrence, to be sure—but it does happen. It happens, I would posit, when someone has been bombarded with contrary evidence not once, not a few times, but hundreds or thousands of times, until they can no longer sustain the crumbling fortress of their beliefs against the overwhelming onslaught of argument.

I think the reason that the backfire effect feels true to us is that our life experience is largely that “argument doesn’t work”; we think back to all the times that we have tried to convince to change a belief that was important to them, and we can find so few examples of when it actually worked. But this is setting the bar much too high. You shouldn’t expect to change an entire worldview in a single conversation. Even if your worldview is correct and theirs is not, that one conversation can’t have provided sufficient evidence for them to rationally conclude that. One person could always be mistaken. One piece of evidence could always be misleading. Even a direct experience could be a delusion or a foggy memory.

You shouldn’t be trying to turn a Young-Earth Creationist into an evolutionary biologist, or a climate change denier into a Greenpeace member. You should be trying to make that Creationist question whether the Ussher chronology is really so reliable, or if perhaps the Earth might be a bit older than a 17th century theologian interpreted it to be. You should be getting the climate change denier to question whether scientists really have such a greater vested interest in this than oil company lobbyists. You can’t expect to make them tear down the entire wall—just get them to take out one brick today, and then another brick tomorrow, and perhaps another the day after that.

The proverb is of uncertain provenance, variously attributed, rarely verified, but it is still my favorite: No single raindrop feels responsible for the flood.

Do not seek to be a flood. Seek only to be a raindrop—for if we all do, the flood will happen sure enough. (There’s a version more specific to our times: So maybe we’re snowflakes. I believe there is a word for a lot of snowflakes together: Avalanche.)

And remember this also: When you argue in public (which includes social media), you aren’t just arguing for the person you’re directly engaged with; you are also arguing for everyone who is there to listen. Even if you can’t get the person you’re arguing with to concede even a single point, maybe there is someone else reading your post who now thinks a little differently because of something you said. In fact, maybe there are many people who think a little differently—the marginal impact of slacktivism can actually be staggeringly large if the audience is big enough.

This can be frustrating, thankless work, for few people will ever thank you for changing their mind, and many will condemn you even for trying. Finding out you were wrong about a deeply-held belief can be painful and humiliating, and most people will attribute that pain and humiliation to the person who called them out for being wrong—rather than placing the blame where it belongs, which is on whatever source or method made you wrong in the first place. Being wrong feels just like being right.

But this is important work, among the most important work that anyone can do. Philosophy, mathematics, science, technology—all of these things depend upon it. Changing people’s minds by evidence and rational argument is literally the foundation of civilization itself. Every real, enduring increment of progress humanity has ever made depends upon this basic process. Perhaps occasionally we have gotten lucky and made the right choice for the wrong reasons; but without the guiding light of reason, there is nothing to stop us from switching back and making the wrong choice again soon enough.

So I guess what I’m saying is: Don’t give up. Keep arguing. Keep presenting evidence. Don’t be afraid that your arguments will backfire—because in fact they probably won’t.

The facts will not speak for themselves, so we must speak for them

August 3, JDN 2457604

I finally began to understand the bizarre and terrifying phenomenon that is the Donald Trump Presidential nomination when I watched this John Oliver episode:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-l3IV_XN3c

These lines in particular, near the end, finally helped me put it all together:

What is truly revealing is his implication that believing something to be true is the same as it being true. Because if anything, that was the theme of the Republican Convention this week; it was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts.

The facts against Donald Trump are absolutely overwhelming. He is not even a competent business man, just a spectacularly manipulative one—and even then, it’s not clear he made any more money than he would have just keeping his inheritance in a diversified stock portfolio. His casinos were too fraudulent for Atlantic City. His university was fraudulent. He has the worst honesty rating Politifact has ever given a candidate. (Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton are statistically tied for some of the best.)

More importantly, almost every policy he has proposed or even suggested is terrible, and several of them could be truly catastrophic.

Let’s start with economic policy: His trade policy would set back decades of globalization and dramatically increase global poverty, while doing little or nothing to expand employment in the US, especially if it sparks a trade war. His fiscal policy would permanently balloon the deficit by giving one of the largest tax breaks to the rich in history. His infamous wall would probably cost about as much as the federal government currently spends on all basic scientific research combined, and his only proposal for funding it fundamentally misunderstands how remittances and trade deficits work. He doesn’t believe in climate change, and would roll back what little progress we have made at reducing carbon emissions, thereby endangering millions of lives. He could very likely cause a global economic collapse comparable to the Great Depression.

His social policy is equally terrible: He has proposed criminalizing abortion, (in express violation of Roe v. Wade) which even many pro-life people find too extreme. He wants to deport all Muslims and ban Muslims from entering, which not just a direct First Amendment violation but also literally involves jackbooted soldiers breaking into the homes of law-abiding US citizens to kidnap them and take them out of the country. He wants to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, the largest deportation in US history.

Yet it is in foreign policy above all that Trump is truly horrific. He has explicitly endorsed targeting the families of terrorists, which is a war crime (though not as bad as what Ted Cruz wanted to do, which is carpet-bombing cities). Speaking of war crimes, he thinks our torture policy wasn’t severe enough, and doesn’t even care if it is ineffective. He has made the literally mercantilist assertion that the purpose of military alliances is to create trade surpluses, and if European countries will not provide us with trade surpluses (read: tribute), he will no longer commit to defending them, thereby undermining decades of global stability that is founded upon America’s unwavering commitment to defend our allies. And worst of all, he will not rule out the first-strike deployment of nuclear weapons.

I want you to understand that I am not exaggerating when I say that a Donald Trump Presidency carries a nontrivial risk of triggering global nuclear war. Will this probably happen? No. It has a probability of perhaps 1%. But a 1% chance of a billion deaths is not a risk anyone should be prepared to take.

 

All of these facts scream at us that Donald Trump would be a catastrophe for America and the world. Why, then, are so many people voting for him? Why do our best election forecasts give him a good chance of winning the election?

Because facts don’t speak for themselves.

This is how the left, especially the center-left, has dropped the ball in recent decades. We joke that reality has a liberal bias, because so many of the facts are so obviously on our side. But meanwhile the right wing has nodded and laughed, even mockingly called us the “reality-based community”, because they know how to manipulate feelings.

Donald Trump has essentially no other skills—but he has that one, and it is enough. He knows how to fan the flames of anger and hatred and point them at his chosen targets. He knows how to rally people behind meaningless slogans like “Make America Great Again” and convince them that he has their best interests at heart.

Indeed, Trump’s persuasiveness is one of his many parallels with Adolf Hitler; I am not yet prepared to accuse Donald Trump of seeking genocide, yet at the same time I am not yet willing to put it past him. I don’t think it would take much of a spark at this point to trigger a conflagration of hatred that launches a genocide against Muslims in the United States, and I don’t trust Trump not to light such a spark.

Meanwhile, liberal policy wonks are looking on in horror, wondering how anyone could be so stupid as to believe him—and even publicly basically calling people stupid for believing him. Or sometimes we say they’re not stupid, they’re just racist. But people don’t believe Donald Trump because they are stupid; they believe Donald Trump because he is persuasive. He knows the inner recesses of the human mind and can harness our heuristics to his will. Do not mistake your unique position that protects you—some combination of education, intellect, and sheer willpower—for some inherent superiority. You are not better than Trump’s followers; you are more resistant to Trump’s powers of persuasion. Yes, statistically, Trump voters are more likely to be racist; but racism is a deep-seated bias in the human mind that to some extent we all share. Trump simply knows how to harness it.

Our enemies are persuasive—and therefore we must be as well. We can no longer act as though facts will automatically convince everyone by the power of pure reason; we must learn to stir emotions and rally crowds just as they do.

Or rather, not just as they do—not quite. When we see lies being so effective, we may be tempted to lie ourselves. When we see people being manipulated against us, we may be tempted to manipulate them in return. But in the long run, we can’t afford to do that. We do need to use reason, because reason is the only way to ensure that the beliefs we instill are true.

Therefore our task must be to make people see reason. Let me be clear: Not demand they see reason. Not hope they see reason. Not lament that they don’t. This will require active investment on our part. We must actually learn to persuade people in such a manner that their minds become more open to reason. This will mean using tools other than reason, but it will also mean treading a very fine line, using irrationality only when rationality is insufficient.

We will be tempted to take the easier, quicker path to the Dark Side, but we must resist. Our goal must be not to make people do what we want them to—but to do what they would want to if they were fully rational and fully informed. We will need rhetoric; we will need oratory; we may even need some manipulation. But as we fight our enemy, we must be vigilant not to become them.

This means not using bad arguments—strawmen and conmen—but pointing out the flaws in our opponents’ arguments even when they seem obvious to us—bananamen. It means not overstating our case about free trade or using implausible statistical results simply because they support our case.

But it also means not understating our case, not hiding in page 17 of an opaque technical report that if we don’t do something about climate change right now millions of people will die. It means not presenting our ideas as “political opinions” when they are demonstrated, indisputable scientific facts. It means taking the media to task for their false balance that must find a way to criticize a Democrat every time they criticize a Republican: Sure, he is a pathological liar and might trigger global economic collapse or even nuclear war, but she didn’t secure her emails properly. If you objectively assess the facts and find that Republicans lie three times as often as Democrats, maybe that’s something you should be reporting on instead of trying to compensate for by changing your criteria.

Speaking of the media, we should be pressuring them to include a regular—preferably daily, preferably primetime—segment on climate change, because yes, it is that important. How about after the weather report every day, you show a climate scientist explaining why we keep having record-breaking summer heat and more frequent natural disasters? If we suffer a global ecological collapse, this other stuff you’re constantly talking about really isn’t going to matter—that is, if it mattered in the first place. When ISIS kills 200 people in an attack, you don’t just report that a bunch of people died without examining the cause or talking about responses. But when a typhoon triggered by climate change kills 7,000, suddenly it’s just a random event, an “act of God” that nobody could have predicted or prevented. Having an appropriate caution about whether climate change caused any particular disaster should not prevent us from drawing the very real links between more carbon emissions and more natural disasters—and sometimes there’s just no other explanation.

It means demanding fact-checks immediately, not as some kind of extra commentary that happens after the debate, but as something the moderator says right then and there. (You have a staff, right? And they have Google access, right?) When a candidate says something that is blatantly, demonstrably false, they should receive a warning. After three warnings, their mic should be cut for that question. After ten, they should be kicked off the stage for the remainder of the debate. Donald Trump wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. But instead, they not only let him speak, they spent the next week repeating what he said in bold, exciting headlines. At least CNN finally realized that their headlines could actually fact-check Trump’s statements rather than just repeat them.
Above all, we will need to understand why people think the way they do, and learn to speak to them persuasively and truthfully but without elitism or condescension. This is one I know I’m not very good at myself; sometimes I get so frustrated with people who think the Earth is 6,000 years old (over 40% of Americans) or don’t believe in climate change (35% don’t think it is happening at all, another 30% don’t think it’s a big deal) that I come off as personally insulting them—and of course from that point forward they turn off. But irrational beliefs are not proof of defective character, and we must make that clear to ourselves as well as to others. We must not say that people are stupid or bad; but we absolutely must say that they are wrong. We must also remember that despite our best efforts, some amount of reactance will be inevitable; people simply don’t like having their beliefs challenged.

Yet even all this is probably not enough. Many people don’t watch mainstream media, or don’t believe it when they do (not without reason). Many people won’t even engage with friends or family members who challenge their political views, and will defriend or even disown them. We need some means of reaching these people too, and the hardest part may be simply getting them to listen to us in the first place. Perhaps we need more grassroots action—more protest marches, or even activists going door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps we need to establish new media outlets that will be as widely accessible but held to a higher standard.

But we must find a way–and we have little time to waste.

The many varieties of argument “men”

JDN 2457552

After several long, intense, and very likely controversial posts in a row, I decided to take a break with a post that is short and fun.

You have probably already heard of a “strawman” argument, but I think there are many more “materials” an argument can be made of which would be useful terms to have, so I have proposed a taxonomy of similar argument “men”. Perhaps this will help others in the future to more precisely characterize where arguments have gone wrong and how they should have gone differently.

For examples of each, I’m using a hypothetical argument about the gold standard, based on the actual arguments I refute in my previous post on the subject.

This is an argument actually given by a proponent of the gold standard, upon which my “men” shall be built:

1) A gold standard is key to achieving a period of sustained, 4% real economic growth.

The U.S. dollar was created as a defined weight of gold and silver in 1792. As detailed in the booklet, The 21st Century Gold Standard (available free at http://agoldenage.com), I co-authored with fellow Forbes.com columnist Ralph Benko, a dollar as good as gold endured until 1971 with the relatively brief exceptions of the War of 1812, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and 1933, the year President Franklin Roosevelt suspended dollar/gold convertibility until January 31, 1934 when the dollar/gold link was re-established at $35 an ounce, a 40% devaluation from the prior $20.67 an ounce. Over that entire 179 years, the U.S. economy grew at a 3.9% average annual rate, including all of the panics, wars, industrialization and a myriad other events. During the post World War II Bretton Woods gold standard, the U.S. economy also grew on average 4% a year.

By contrast, during the 40-years since going off gold, U.S. economic growth has averaged an anemic 2.8% a year. The only 40-year periods in which the economic growth was slower were those ending in the Great Depression, from 1930 to 1940.

2) A gold standard reduces the risk of recessions and financial crises.

Critics of the gold standard point out, correctly, that it would prohibit the Federal Reserve from manipulating interest rates and the value of the dollar in hopes of stimulating demand. In fact, the idea that a paper dollar would lead to a more stable economy was one of the key selling points for abandoning the gold standard in 1971.

However, this power has done far more harm than good. Under the paper dollar, recessions have become more severe and financial crises more frequent. During the post World War II gold standard, unemployment averaged less than 5% and never rose above 7% during a calendar year. Since going off gold, unemployment has averaged more than 6%, and has been above 8% now for nearly 3.5 years.

And now, the argument men:

Fallacious (Bad) Argument Men

These argument “men” are harmful and irrational; they are to be avoided, and destroyed wherever they are found. Maybe in some very extreme circumstances they would be justifiable—but only in circumstances where it is justifiable to be dishonest and manipulative. You can use a strawman argument to convince a terrorist to let the hostages go; you can’t use one to convince your uncle not to vote Republican.

Strawman: The familiar fallacy in which instead of trying to address someone else’s argument, you make up your own fake version of that argument which is easier to defeat. The image is of making an effigy of your opponent out of straw and beating on the effigy to avoid confronting the actual opponent.

You can’t possibly think that going to the gold standard would make the financial system perfect! There will still be corrupt bankers, a banking oligopoly, and an unpredictable future. The gold standard would do nothing to remove these deep flaws in the system.

Hitman: An even worse form of the strawman, in which you misrepresent not only your opponent’s argument, but your opponent themselves, using your distortion of their view as an excuse for personal attacks against their character.

Oh, you would favor the gold standard, wouldn’t you? A rich, middle-aged White man, presumably straight and nominally Christian? You have all the privileges in life, so you don’t care if you take away the protections that less-fortunate people depend upon. You don’t care if other people become unemployed, so long as you don’t have to bear inflation reducing the real value of your precious capital assets.

Conman: An argument for your own view which you don’t actually believe, but expect to be easier to explain or more persuasive to this particular audience than the true reasons for your beliefs.

Back when we were on the gold standard, it was the era of “Robber Barons”. Poverty was rampant. If we go back to that system, it will just mean handing over all the hard-earned money of working people to billionaire capitalists.

Vaporman: Not even an argument, just a forceful assertion of your view that takes the place or shape of an argument.

The gold standard is madness! It makes no sense at all! How can you even think of going back to such a ridiculous monetary system?

Honest (Acceptable) Argument Men

These argument “men” are perfectly acceptable, and should be the normal expectation in honest discourse.

Woodman: The actual argument your opponent made, addressed and refuted honestly using sound evidence.

There is very little evidence that going back to the gold standard would in any way improve the stability of the currency or the financial system. While long-run inflation was very low under the gold standard, this fact obscures the volatility of inflation, which was extremely high; bouts of inflation were followed by bouts of deflation, swinging the value of the dollar up or down as much as 15% in a single year. Nor is there any evidence that the gold standard prevented financial crises, as dozens of financial crises occurred under the gold standard, if anything more often than they have since the full-fiat monetary system established in 1971.

Bananaman: An actual argument your opponent made that you honestly refute, which nonetheless is so ridiculous that it seems like a strawman, even though it isn’t. Named in “honor” of Ray Comfort’s Banana Argument. Of course, some bananas are squishier than others, and the only one I could find here was at least relatively woody–though still recognizable as a banana:

You said “A gold standard is key to achieving a period of sustained, 4% real economic growth.” based on several distorted, misunderstood, or outright false historical examples. The 4% annual growth in total GDP during the early part of the United States was due primarily to population growth, not a rise in real standard of living, while the rapid growth during WW2 was obviously due to the enormous and unprecedented surge in government spending (and by the way, we weren’t even really on the gold standard during that period). In a blatant No True Scotsman fallacy, you specifically exclude the Great Depression from the “true gold standard” so that you don’t have to admit that the gold standard contributed significantly to the severity of the depression.

Middleman: An argument that synthesizes your view and your opponent’s view, in an attempt to find a compromise position that may be acceptable, if not preferred, by all.

Unlike the classical gold standard, the Bretton Woods gold standard in place from 1945 to 1971 was not obviously disastrous. If you want to go back to a system of international exchange rates fixed by gold similar to Bretton Woods, I would consider that a reasonable position to take.

Virtuous (Good) Argument Men

These argument “men” go above and beyond the call of duty; rather than simply seek to win arguments honestly, they actively seek the truth behind the veil of opposing arguments. These cannot be expected in all circumstances, but they are to be aspired to, and commended when found.

Ironman: Your opponent’s actual argument, but improved, with some of its flaws shored up. The same basic thinking as your opponent, but done more carefully, filling in the proper gaps.

The gold standard might not reduce short-run inflation, but it would reduce longrun inflation, making our currency more stable over long periods of time. We would be able to track long-term price trends in goods such as housing and technology much more easily, and people would have an easier time psychologically grasping the real prices of goods as they change during their lifetime. No longer would we hear people complain, “How can you want a minimum wage of $15? As a teenager in 1955, I got paid $3 an hour and I was happy with that!” when that $3 in 1955, adjusted for inflation, is $26.78 in today’s money.

Steelman: Not the argument your opponent made, but the one they should have made. The best possible argument you are aware of that would militate in favor of their view, the one that sometimes gives you pause about your own opinions, the real and tangible downside of what you believe in.

Tying currency to gold or any other commodity may not be very useful directly, but it could serve one potentially vital function, which is as a commitment mechanism to prevent the central bank from manipulating the currency to enrich themselves or special interests. It may not be the optimal commitment mechanism, but it is a psychologically appealing one for many people, and is also relatively easy to define and keep track of. It is also not subject to as much manipulation as something like nominal GDP targeting or a Taylor Rule, which could be fudged by corrupt statisticians. And while it might cause moderate volatility, it can also protect against the most extreme forms of volatility such as hyperinflation. In countries with very corrupt governments, a gold standard might actually be a good idea, if you could actually enforce it, because it would at least limit the damage that can be done by corrupt central bank officials. Had such a system been in place in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, the hyperinflation might have been prevented. The US is not nearly as corrupt as Zimbabwe, so we probably do not need a gold standard; but it may be wise to recommend the use of gold standards or similar fixed-exchange currencies in Third World countries so that corrupt leaders cannot abuse the monetary system to gain at the expense of their people.