What’s This Blog All About?

So, what is this blog all about? Quite simply, it will be aimed at exploring issues in as scientific a manner as possible to spark stimulating conversations and creating new connections and perhaps most importantly, to help me learn.

Now, I know the subheader at the top of the page mentions policy commentary, and that policy discussions means politics, and that political blogs often involve, for lack of a better term, a lot of yelling. I recall very distinctly that this level of incivility is not how it used to be in the political blogosphere ten years ago when I was single and used to blog and comment much more regularly. Now, supporting my wife and two kids, I perceive this divisiveness and polarization as the most critical danger to our society and thus am relaunching my blog.

So, I intend this blog to present my thoughtful attempt at objectivity1 as a better way at uncovering useful knowledge and engaging you, my dear reader, rather than use snarky attacks that might score points with some but put others on the defensive.

Of course, you’ve probably heard many others also claim to be objectively searching for truth, so let me tell you the story about how I decided upon my goal to stop arguing. Now, it’s not that I can’t argue! As an EECS major at Cal who didn’t really enjoy college life because of my lack of social skills, I spent my free time doing two things. 1) playing Netrek (one of the first real-time multi-player Internet games) and 2) getting into arguments on Usenet2 (kind of a precursor to Internet discussion forums).

“9 is bigger than 5, and bigger is better!” “No, 5 is less than 9, and less is more!”
Image courtesy of sweetpaul.com via Hasslein Books

So, I essentially spent most of my free time fighting and arguing on the Internet. When I graduated to become a software engineer, Netrek didn’t yet work on PCs, so I couldn’t do starship fighting anymore. Thus, I got more serious about online argument fighting. The arguments started out about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine versus Babylon 5 (I was a Trekkie3, so you can guess which side I was on), and then it branched out into other topics, particularly politics and economics (and indeed, wanting to win more of these arguments was, I must confess, the reason I went back to school to study economics).

And like most things in life, study and practice does wonders. For a while, I was very proud of how good I got at it. I learned to look for the telltale cues that the other person was getting angry and go in for the kill, that really snarky line that would shut them up because there was just nothing they could say. That cold silence was what I lived for (maybe because I was a sci-fi geek who loved space).

Now, I was pretty skilled at rhetoric (indeed, I took a class on it at Cal), but as I look back, I realize that the real secret was actually pretty simple:

1) Listen. 

2) Hold incorrect positions for as short a time as possible.

Sure, it means being willing to lose some arguments early on, but it results in gradually building up a body of beliefs that becomes sturdier and extremely difficult to assail.4 After all, if you have a choice of positions to defend — and when opinions are involved, you always have a choice — you ought to pick the high ground. And when your fight makes it clear your position has a weakness, then find a better one, even if it means reading a paper or book or, um, getting a master’s degree in economics.5

Those of you who have taken statistics probably recognize number 2) as being a Bayesian approach. I will confess that my statistical knowledge is probably best described as undergraduate level (but working for an EdTech startup and then a publisher where I did content editing for Intro Stats online homework questions [along with economics, of course], I think it’s probably more solid than average).6 But yes, this approach basically boils down to constantly updating my prior assumptions and beliefs as I encounter new evidence. Or, as my wife more elegantly puts it, holding your beliefs lightly. But later, I realized that holding an unassailable position still was not enough.

You see, I noticed something when arguing online, even with people with Ph.D.’s. One was that they weren’t actually much better at arguing than anyone else, just as prone to make human mistakes, and just as likely to have ideological blind spots. This was a huge ego boost, of course, although rather surprising. But a more confusing development was that I would encounter people whose arguments I’d already demolished but who were still clinging to the same beliefs I had clearly demonstrated to be untrue. 

Being a tech geek, I fully understood the beauty of history, search, tags, and links for online discourse. So, I tried making my case watertight by backing up all my claims, refraining from any and all logical fallacies or emotional appeals, citing only quality sources (especially ones that leaned the same way they seemed to), assiduously responding to every point they had made (no matter how long ago they had made them), and also repeatedly reminding them of points they had failed to respond to.

It didn’t matter.

I then guessed I’d somehow stepped over the line somewhere and had angered them, which might have shut down their logical reasoning, so I spent about a year being very careful to never, never, ever make any ad hominem attacks, even in the face of outright insults and to conduct myself with the utmost politeness and professionalism as I systematically demolished their beliefs.

As you might have guessed, it still didn’t matter.

All of this was with strangers on the Internet, and many Internet arguers are well versed regarding the psychological tendencies of confirmation bias as well as cognitive dissonance, as it’s pretty common practice for combatants to accuse each other of falling for these. But I was rather stuck about what to do to actually address it.

Around this time, I was also realizing that when I got into political discussions with friends, I would feel very awkward. My habit of systematically demolishing beliefs just didn’t sit well with me (for what are now obvious reasons) no matter how polite I tried to be. And I would get pretty similar results, often having the last word but never actually convincing anybody of anything (except that they were mad at me).

So, in 2020, I made a New Year’s Resolution to stop arguing (and yes, I was also partially motivated by how terribly polarized the country had become). So, I created this list of principles on Twitter (inspired by Dale Carnegie) and started trying to connect with people instead.

And the most surprising thing happened. I expected it to take a long time to see a difference, but I actually saw a sea change in the reactions I was getting almost immediately. Maybe it was because it was on Twitter, which is the last place anybody expects to find someone who really listens, or maybe because it’s just so rare to find a listener while discussing politics because partisanship is the norm. But I prefer to believe it had at least something to do with changing the focus away from winning… to conversation.

So, what implications does this have for this blog? For one, it won’t be trying to sell you anything. I’m not saying that I don’t have opinions and will not try to present them along with the reasons I believe in them. But I promise that I will never accept funding from someone trying to promote a point of view, whether it be for a political party or movement or to promote a product or service. Not a dime. I will also not run advertisements, as chasing eyeballs and clicks can also have a corrupting influence.

“Must! Pretend! Carrot! is a Giant! Pile! of Bitcoin!”
Image via the Adam Smith Institute.)

Students of economics understand that people respond to incentives. Any time you could make a decision that results in making more money, that is an incentive that acts upon you to alter your behavior. Even if you consciously act against the incentive, it is extremely difficult to gauge this correctly. This is exactly why judges should recuse themselves if it turns out they have a relationship with the accusee. This is also why public officials who have the power to impact markets should have all of their assets kept in a blind trust (and no, this is currently not required, but I think it’s clear that it ought to be). 

And this is also why you can no longer trust a lot of what you find on the Internet these days. So much of what you read was paid for by someone who did not have the readers’ best interest in mind. 

And I must confess, in my Internet arguments, my overarching desire to win the argument tilted me against my readers’ best interest as well, and one practice that I was not proud of was how I used scientific papers. I would make a token effort to research both sides, but I certainly did not look at the other side’s case objectively, nor would I try to present it fairly. Instead, I just cited sources to back my side and make it seem more unassailable. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was commonplace, but I hereby resolve not to take that approach here. In the interest of finding the most unassailable position, I will strive to approach all controversies, disagreements, and issues as research questions to be settled as scientifically as possible.

Towards that end, I have hired a small group of research assistants: Kiki, Muhammad, Bree, and Ena (I will let them introduce themselves in more detail later). But instead of asking them to bolster my pre-existing opinions, I am instructing them to research questions as scientifically and objectively as possible with no regard to my opinion (and I will refrain from telling them my priors as much as possible). This is, I hope, the obvious way everybody ought to behave when choosing their opinions, and I hope my example inspires people to do the same and document their own journeys to the truth. I was pleasantly surprised at how many extremely qualified applicants were interested and spent quite a long time making my final decision with as scientific a process as I could manage, and so I hope you’ll be as impressed with their work as I’ve been. I have invited them to write guest posts occasionally, so you will be hearing from them soon.

Now, I cannot promise I’ll get things right the first time, but I do promise that I will do my best to correct any inaccuracies when I become aware of them, and any such corrections will be labeled as such (and if I fundamentally rewrite a post, it will include a link to the original version for comparison). I also pledge to do my utmost to listen to what others have to say in order to learn as much as possible. Although I only taught in a college classroom for a year, I hope my content here makes it clear that I remain an educator at heart, and I truly believe the best teachers strive to constantly learn what they can from everyone that they can (even if I sometimes slip up and sound didactic or patronizing at times). And I can’t promise that I’ll always remember to be positive and avoid being argumentative (old habits die hard), but I do promise that a gentle reminder should suffice to get me back on track.

So, I invite you to relax, get comfortable, pull up a chair, and… well… probably wait a week or two for the next post, because honestly, I’ve got a full-time job and am helping my wife raise two boys while also volunteering for a couple of political organizations (not to mention trying to increase the signal-to-noise ratio on various social media platforms), so this is probably not going to have the most regular posting schedule (hint! hint! you won’t have to keep checking back if you click the subscribe button there to the right). I am confident, however, that the amount of research and/or thought that goes into each post should be worth the wait, and so I invite you to join this conversation.

Adapted from a Twitter thread.

Footnotes

[1] I understand that complete objectivity is impossible to achieve because all human beings are necessarily biased by our nature and life experience, but I consider it to be a worthy goal to strive towards. Return.  

[2] Yes, that is a link to Wikipedia. I promise you that I will search around for a good article and that Wikipedia will not be my go-to, but it is actually such a good research resource that I find it to be the best starting point for most research topics. I used to be deeply embarrassed about this until I saw Kevin Kelly rave about Wikipedia in The Inevitable and then realized it was simply a great example of The Wisdom of Crowds. Return.

[3] I prefer the term “Trekkie” to “Trekker” because I am not so obsessive a fan that I fail to realize that I am a viewer of a goddamn television show. Most of the Trekking I actually did at the time was to go to Star Trek conventions, but watching the show — intellectual as it was — is obviously still largely a passive activity. And that I held such an opinion about terminology so strongly should give you a clue about how argumentative I was. Return.

[4] This reminds Kiki of Karl Popper’s (1962) words in Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge: “in searching for the truth, it may be our best plan to start by criticizing our most cherished beliefs. This may seem to some a perverse plan. But it will not seem so to those who want to find the truth and are not afraid of it (p. 6)… truth is often hard to come by, and that once found it may easily be lost again. (p. 8).” Who is Kiki? Well, I’ll get to that later. Keep reading… Return.

[5] Yes, I really did do this (well, in applied economics). Winning more Internet arguments was actually and truly one of my motivations, I must confess, and my career plan when I entered the program was to aim to work at a research institute (aka think tank) where basically I would have been paid to do this. I am glad I avoided this path, and that is a story for another time. Return.

[6] Yes, I am a bit too in love with all of my random thoughts that I use way too many parentheses. But never fear, footnotes are here! Or maybe that should really mean that you do need to fear more of these irrelevant tangents? Always fear, footnotes are here? Return.

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