Are some ideas too ridiculous to bother with?

Apr 22 JDN 2458231

Flat Earth. Young-Earth Creationism. Reptilians. 9/11 “Truth”. Rothschild conspiracies.

There are an astonishing number of ideas that satisfy two apparently-contrary conditions:

  1. They are so obviously ridiculous that even a few minutes of honest, rational consideration of evidence that is almost universally available will immediately refute them;
  2. They are believed by tens or hundreds of millions of otherwise-intelligent people.

Young-Earth Creationism is probably the most alarming, seeing as it grips the minds of some 38% of Americans.

What should we do when faced with such ideas? This is something I’ve struggled with before.

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to actively address and refute them—but I don’t think I’ve even once actually persuaded someone who believes these ideas to change their mind. This doesn’t mean my time and effort were entirely wasted; it’s possible that I managed to convince bystanders, or gained some useful understanding, or simply improved my argumentation skills. But it does seem likely that my time and effort were mostly wasted.

It’s tempting, therefore, to give up entirely, and just let people go on believing whatever nonsense they want to believe. But there’s a rather serious downside to that as well: Thirty-eight percent of Americans.

These people vote. They participate in community decisions. They make choices that affect the rest of our lives. Nearly all of those Creationists are Evangelical Christians—and White Evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly in favor of Donald Trump. I can’t be sure that changing their minds about the age of the Earth would also change their minds about voting for Trump, but I can say this: If all the Creationists in the US had simply not voted, Hillary Clinton would have won the election.

And let’s not leave the left wing off the hook either. Jill Stein is a 9/11 “Truther”, and pulled a lot of fellow “Truthers” to her cause in the election as well. Had all of Jill Stein’s votes gone to Hillary Clinton instead, again Hillary would have won, even if all the votes for Trump had remained the same. (That said, there is reason to think that if Stein had dropped out, most of those folks wouldn’t have voted at all.)

Therefore, I don’t think it is safe to simply ignore these ridiculous beliefs. We need to do something; the question is what.

We could try to censor them, but first of all that violates basic human rights—which should be a sufficient reason not to do it—and second, it probably wouldn’t even work. Censorship typically leads to radicalization, not assimilation.

We could try to argue against them. Ideally this would be the best option, but it has not shown much effect so far. The kind of person who sincerely believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old (let alone that governments are secretly ruled by reptilian alien invaders) isn’t the kind of person who is highly responsive to evidence and rational argument.

In fact, there is reason to think that these people don’t actually believe what they say the same way that you and I believe things. I’m not saying they’re lying, exactly. They think they believe it; they want to believe it. They believe in believing it. But they don’t actually believe it—not the way that I believe that cyanide is poisonous or the way I believe the sun will rise tomorrow. It isn’t fully integrated into the way that they anticipate outcomes and choose behaviors. It’s more of a free-floating sort of belief, where professing a particular belief allows them to feel good about themselves, or represent their status in a community.

To be clear, it isn’t that these beliefs are unimportant to them; on the contrary, they are in some sense more important. Creationism isn’t really about the age of the Earth; it’s about who you are and where you belong. A conventional belief can be changed by evidence about the world because it is about the world; a belief-in-belief can’t be changed by evidence because it was never really about that.

But if someone’s ridiculous belief is really about their identity, how do we deal with that? I can’t refute an identity. If your identity is tied to a particular social group, maybe they could ostracize you and cause you to lose the identity; but an outsider has no power to do that. (Even then, I strongly suspect that, for instance, most excommunicated Catholics still see themselves as Catholic.) And if it’s a personal identity not tied to a particular group, even that option is unavailable.

Where, then, does that leave us? It would seem that we can’t change their minds—but we also can’t afford not to change their minds. We are caught in a terrible dilemma.

I think there might be a way out. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but I think what we need to do is stop taking them seriously as beliefs, and start treating them purely as announcements of identity.

So when someone says something like, “The Rothschilds run everything!”, instead of responding as though this were a coherent proposition being asserted, treat it as if someone had announced, “Boo! I hate the Red Sox!” Belief in the Rothschild conspiracies isn’t a well-defined set of propositions about the world; it’s an assertion of membership in a particular sort of political sect that is vaguely left-wing and anarchist. You don’t really think the Rothschilds rule everything. You just want to express your (quite justifiable) anger at how our current political system privileges the rich.

Likewise, when someone says they think the Earth is 6,000 years old, you could try to present the overwhelming scientific evidence that they are wrong—but it might be more productive, and it is certainly easier, to just think of this as a funny way of saying “I’m an Evangelical Christian”.

Will this eliminate the ridiculous beliefs? Not immediately. But it might ultimately do so, in the following way: By openly acknowledging the belief-in-belief as a signaling mechanism, we can open opportunities for people to develop new, less pathological methods of signaling. (Instead of saying you think the Earth is 6,000 years old, maybe you could wear a funny hat, like Orthodox Jews do. Funny hats don’t hurt anybody. Everyone loves funny hats.) People will always want to signal their identity, and there are fundamental reasons why such signals will typically be costly for those who use them; but we can try to make them not so costly for everyone else.

This also makes arguments a lot less frustrating, at least at your end. It might make them more frustrating at the other end, because people want their belief-in-belief to be treated like proper belief, and you’ll be refusing them that opportunity. But this is not such a bad thing; if we make it more frustrating to express ridiculous beliefs in public, we might manage to reduce the frequency of such expression.

No, advertising is not signaling

JDN 2457373

Awhile ago, I wrote a post arguing that advertising is irrational, that at least with advertising as we know it, no real information is conveyed and thus either consumers are being irrational in their purchasing decisions, or advertisers are irrational for buying ads that don’t work.

One of the standard arguments neoclassical economists make to defend the rationality of advertising is that advertising is signaling—that even though the content of the ads conveys no useful information, the fact that there are ads is a useful signal of the real quality of goods being sold.

The idea is that by spending on advertising, a company shows that they have a lot of money to throw around, and are therefore a stable and solvent company that probably makes good products and is going to stick around for awhile.

Here are a number of different papers all making this same basic argument, often with sophisticated mathematical modeling. This paper takes an even bolder approach, arguing that people benefit from ads and would therefore pay to get them if they had to. Does that sound even remotely plausible to you? It sure doesn’t to me. Some ads are fairly entertaining, but generally if someone is willing to pay money for a piece of content, they charge money for that content.

Could spending on advertising offer a signal of the quality of a product or the company that makes it? Yes. That is something that actually could happen. The reason this argument is ridiculous is not that advertising signaling couldn’t happen—it’s that advertising is clearly nowhere near the best way to do that. The content of ads is clearly nothing remotely like what it would be if advertising were meant to be a costly signal of quality.

Look at this ad for Orangina. Look at it. Look at it.

Now, did that ad tell you anything about Orangina? Anything at all?

As far as I can tell, the thing it actually tells you isn’t even true—it strongly implies that Orangina is a form of aftershave when in fact it is an orange-flavored beverage. It’d be kind of like having an ad for the iPad that involves scantily-clad dog-people riding the iPad like it’s a hoverboard. (Now that I’ve said it, Apple is probably totally working on that ad.)

This isn’t an isolated incident for Orangina, who have a tendency to run bizarre and somewhat suggestive (let’s say PG-13) TV spots involving anthropomorphic animals.

But more than that, it’s endemic to the whole advertising industry.

Look at GEICO, for instance; without them specifically mentioning that this is car insurance, you’d never know what they were selling from all the geckos,

and Neanderthals,

and… golf Krakens?

Progressive does slightly better, talking about some of their actual services while also including an adorably-annoying spokesperson (she’s like Jar Jar, but done better):

State Farm also includes at least a few tidbits about their insurance amidst the teleportation insanity:

But honestly the only car insurance commercials I can think of that are actually about car insurance are Allstate’s, and even then they’re mostly about Dennis Haybert’s superhuman charisma. I would buy bacon cheeseburgers from this man, and I’m vegetarian.

Esurance is also relatively informative (and owned by Allstate, by the way); they talk about their customer service and low prices (in other words, the only things you actually care about with car insurance). But even so, what reason do we have to believe their bald assertions of good customer service? And what’s the deal with the whole money-printing thing?

And of course I could deluge you with examples from other companies, from Coca-Cola’s polar bears and Santa Claus to this commercial, which is literally the most American thing I have ever seen:

If you’re from some other country and are going, “What!?” right now, that’s totally healthy. Honestly I think we would too if constant immersion in this sort of thing hadn’t deadened our souls.

Do these ads signal that their companies have a lot of extra money to burn? Sure. But there are plenty of other ways to do that which would also serve other valuable functions. I honestly can’t imagine any scenario in which the best way to tell me the quality of an auto insurance company is to show me 30-second spots about geckos and Neanderthals.

If a company wants to signal that they have a lot of money, they could simply report their financial statement. That’s even regulated so that we know it has to be accurate (and this is one of the few financial regulations we actually enforce). The amount you spent on an ad is not obvious from the result of the ad, and doesn’t actually prove that you’re solvent, only that you have enough access to credit. (Pets.com famously collapsed the same year they ran a multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ad.)

If a company wants to signal that they make a good product, they could pay independent rating agencies to rate products on their quality (you know, like credit rating agencies and reviewers of movies and video games). Paying an independent agency is far more reliable than the signaling provided by advertising. Consumers could also pay their own agencies, which would be even more reliable; credit rating agencies and movie reviewers do sometimes have a conflict of interest, which could be resolved by making them report to consumers instead of producers.

If a company wants to establish that they are both financially stable and socially responsible, they could make large public donations to important charities. (This is also something that corporations do on occasion, such as Subaru’s recent campaign.) Or they could publicly announce a raise for all their employees. This would not only provide us with the information that they have this much money to spend—it would actually have a direct positive social effect, thus putting their money where there mouth is.

Signaling theory in advertising is based upon the success of signaling theory in evolutionary biology, which is beyond dispute; but evolution is tightly constrained in what it can do, so wasteful costly signals make sense. Human beings are smarter than that; we can find ways to convey information that don’t involve ludicrous amounts of waste.

If we were anywhere near as rational as these neoclassical models assume us to be, we would take the constant bombardment of meaningless ads not as a signal of a company’s quality but as a personal assault—they are needlessly attacking our time and attention when all the genuinely-valuable information they convey could have been conveyed much more easily and reliably. We would not buy more from them; we would refuse to buy from them. And indeed, I’ve learned to do just that; the more a company bombards me with annoying or meaningless advertisements, the more I make a point of not buying their product if I have a viable substitute. (For similar reasons, I make a point of never donating to any charity that uses hard-sell tactics to solicit donations.)

But of course the human mind is limited. We only have so much attention, and by bombarding us frequently and intensely enough they can overcome our mental defenses and get us to make decisions we wouldn’t if we were optimally rational. I can feel this happening when I am hungry and a food ad appears on TV; my autonomic hunger response combined with their expert presentation of food in the perfect lighting makes me want that food, if only for the few seconds it takes my higher cognitive functions to kick in and make me realize that I don’t eat meat and I don’t like mayonnaise.

Car commercials have always been particularly baffling to me. Who buys a car based on a commercial? A decision to spend $20,000 should not be made based upon 30 seconds of obviously biased information. But either people do buy cars based on commercials or they don’t; if they do, consumers are irrational, and if they don’t, car companies are irrational.

Advertising isn’t the source of human irrationality, but it feeds upon human irrationality, and is specifically designed to exploit our own stupidity to make us spend money in ways we wouldn’t otherwise. This means that markets will not be efficient, and huge amounts of productivity can be wasted because we spent it on what they convinced us to buy instead of what would truly have made our lives better. Those companies then profit more, which encourages them to make even more stuff nobody actually wants and sell it that much harder… and basically we all end up buying lots of worthless stuff and putting it in our garages and wondering what happened to our money and the meaning in our lives. Neoclassical economists really need to stop making ridiculous excuses for this damaging and irrational behavior–and maybe then we could actually find a way to make it stop.