What is Democracy? (68): The Expression and Aggregation of Bullshit?

Here’s a piece of news that’s both disconcerting and inspiring. We already knew that electorates in democracies are heavily polarized (although we also know that public opinion polls tend to exaggerate the distance and divisions between political groups). Polarization leaves democratic outcomes at the mercy of the undecided and the often clueless middle, ready to be swayed by irrelevant and irrational considerations. However, polarization is not only bad for democracy, it’s also bad for the polarized: if the distance to another opinion is too large, you’ll never be persuaded, and people who are never persuaded are a sad kind of being.

The news is this: apparently, the polarization that we witness is only skin deep. People often express partisan and biased ideas not because they really believe them but as a means to signal affiliation, trustworthiness and identity. In other words: they are bullshitting. Alex Tabarrok wrote:

I am for betting because I am against bullshit. Bullshit is polluting our discourse and drowning the facts. A bet costs the bullshitter more than the non-bullshitter so the willingness to bet signals honest belief. A bet is a tax on bullshit …

A recent paper provides evidence. It’s well known that Democrats and Republicans give different answers to even basic factual questions when those questions are politically loaded (Did inflation fall under Reagan? Were WMDs found in Iraq? and so forth). But do the respondents really believe their answers or are they simply signalling their affiliations? In other words, are respondents bullshitting? In a new paper, Bullock, Gerber, Huber and Hill provide evidence that the respondents don’t actually believe what they say and the authors do so by making partisans pay for their beliefs. (source)

Dylan Matthews:

Those in the control group were asked basic factual questions about politics; those in the treatment group were asked the same questions but were entered into a raffle for an Amazon gift card wherein their chances depended on how many questions they got right.

In the control group, … [t]here are big partisan gaps in the accuracy of responses. … But when there was money on the line, the size of the gaps shrank by 55 percent. (source)

Hence, it seems possible that people are able, given the right conditions, to stop the bullshit and to persuade each other of certain matters of fact. Hence we should be able to reduce polarization and to improve the workings of democracy and of public discourse in general.

The big caveat here is “given the right conditions”. Those conditions are only rarely in place in actual democracies. Normally, when people vote they don’t get paid to vote (and neither do they have to pay to vote). In a certain sense, that’s a good thing: vote-buying is objectionable (as are the property conditions that used to decide who has a right to vote and that were in a sense a price imposed on voting). In another sense, however, it’s a pity that people don’t get paid to vote. The study above shows that if people get some money when their votes are not based on factual mistakes they will tend not to make those mistakes.

If we want democracy to be more than the expression and aggregation of bullshit, we may have to consider paying people to vote.

More posts in this series here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (32): Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas

First, a brief reminder of how I understand the marketplace of ideas and how it justifies freedom of speech. I normally don’t do this, but I can save us all a lot of time by quoting myself:

The point is this: ideas that can get themselves accepted in a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. The marketplace of ideas therefore improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking. If different ideas are presented in an “ideas-market”, and if that market is populated by a maximum number of free agents expressing themselves freely, then those competing ideas will be exposed to a maximum number of supporting and dissenting arguments, and the balance of arguments in favor of or against an idea will be compared to the same balance for counter-ideas. The idea with the best balance will “survive”, because alternative ideas will be seen as comparatively defective, given the fact that the arguments in favor of them are weaker or the arguments against them are stronger.

It’s crucial that there is mass participation in the argumentation and deliberation going on in this market, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas. Hence, it’s also crucial that there’s a right to free speech and that everyone (or at least a large number of people) has and effectively exercises this right. This mass participation of free and expressive agents will improve the quality of ideas and of their supportive arguments even before the ideas reach the market: people who know that their ideas will meet probing and massive criticism will prepare themselves for this criticism, and this preparation means that they will preemptively develop supportive arguments and undermine opposing arguments. Hence, these ideas may even change and improve before they reach the market.

If this metaphor of the market is convincing then it can provide a powerful reason for adopting and protecting the right to free speech. There’s hardly a more valuable good than quality in thinking and if free speech can help to deliver that good it’s difficult to argue against this right.

Personally, I do think that the metaphor of the free market can help us to understand the logic and benefits of free and widespread public discussion and of the free exchange of and competition between ideas, and that this understanding can provide a good justification for freedom of speech. Much of what goes on in the marketplace of ideas is similar to what goes on in a market of goods or services. The important similarity is the free exchange of and competition between ideas, the lack of restrictions on exchange and competition, and the freedom of all to join in the exchange and competition on a equal footing. And although I would advise not to push the metaphor too far (a perpetual and fatal temptation of all economic metaphors), there’s probably one more similarity that can be useful, namely the concept of market failure.

Market failure in economics refers to those cases in which a free market, left to itself, fails to allocate goods and services efficiently. In other words, there is at least one market participant who may have been better off without anyone else being worse off had other systems operated instead of the free market. Examples of market failure are

  • information asymmetries, which occur when one party in a transaction has more or better information than the other (classic examples are the used-car salesman selling a defective car to someone who has no knowledge of cars, and the terminally ill person buying a life insurance)
  • externalities, which occur when a transaction has a cost that is not transmitted through prices and that is incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost (the classic example is industrial pollution imposing costs on the whole society, costs that are not included in the transaction price of the polluting goods).

Market failures can also occur in the marketplace of ideas. It’s important to check whether these market failures are enough of a problem to render the concept of a marketplace of ideas unworkable. If the marketplace of ideas can’t work properly most of the time, then it can’t function as a justification of freedom of speech. However, if market failures are due to insufficient free speech, then free speech can still be justified by the concept of the marketplace of ideas. The problem is that market failures in the marketplace of ideas often go beyond insufficient free speech. Let’s list some of those market failures:

  • Political correctness: political correctness is a form of silencing and therefore introduces market failure; if some arguments or some positions can’t be expressed and heard, then they can’t enter into the calculus of arguments and can’t improve our thinking. This is true even if those arguments or positions are manifestly unsound, because silencing them means that we lose a way of stressing the soundness of other arguments and positions (saying what’s wrong about something is often an indirect way of saying what’s right about something else).
  • Silencing more generally: political correctness isn’t the only form of silencing; pornography may silence women and hate speech may silence minorities; silencing means the absence of arguments and positions, and such an absence always harms the operation of the marketplace of ideas.
  • Polarization: polarization occurs when groups in society do not argue, convince or engage in public thinking but instead simply express claims motivated, not by the willingness to persuade, but by the need to show their identity or belonging; no one is convinced, people stay in their respective camps and these camps drift further apart because absent an exchange of reasons for beliefs, people start to see other groups as increasingly strange, alien and incomprehensible.
  • Biased media attention: a lot of the argumentation in the marketplace isn’t direct but gets channeled through media; if these media don’t take the ideal of the marketplace seriously and don’t function as stages for debate but instead play the game of polarization and present ongoing debates in a biased way, then there’s less debate.
  • Lack of education: the argumentation in the marketplace of ideas obviously requires a relatively high level of education; absent this education for the large majority, the marketplace can’t function since it depends on massive participation.
  • Psychological biases: even if general education levels are high, certain psychological biases can hinder the operation of the market; one example is confirmation bias, the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable; it’s obvious that this harms the operation of the marketplace.
  • Privacy issues: some people may be discouraged from entering the marketplace of ideas because they can’t handle exposure or the possible intrusions into their private lives that may follow from participation in the marketplace.
  • Etc.

Now, many of these market failures do look pretty serious and may discredit the whole notion of a marketplace of ideas, at least in the foreseeable future. However, most can be addressed in some ways. Media can be forced to present different viewpoints, hate speech can be curtailed etc. So there may be ways of rescuing the ideal of the marketplace of ideas both as an ideal in itself and as a justification of free speech. Much like the economic market in goods and services isn’t necessarily discredited by economic market failure and can be rescued by targeted government intervention.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (17): Inequality

A transition to democratic government is very unlikely when the population of a country is sharply divided in unequal classes or groups. Some of these groups will try to monopolize political power in order to repress rival groups and maintain the distributional status quo. For example, when there’s a division between a landowning class or an industrial class on the one hand, and a group of impoverished rural or urban workers on the other hand, then the former group will fear election victories by the latter group because such victories will lead to redistribution of land or other assets. Privileged classes will therefore work against democracy. As a result of this, the working classes will radicalize and aim for a revolutionary overthrow and the abolition of property rights altogether, thereby also making democracy less likely.

Something like this is arguably a good description of much of the recent history of Latin America. Positively stated: more economic equality – perhaps following the expansion of a middle class – will make democracy more viable, since different groups have less to lose from a democratic power shift.

But polarization doesn’t have to be exclusively economic in nature. Religious or ethnic divisions can also hinder the creation and continuity of democracy, especially when there’s also a spatial division between groups. This is probably what happened in Africa since decolonization. Of course, non-economic divisions are often exacerbated by economic ones, in which case we can hope that more economic equality will take the sting out of ethnic divisions.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (20): Does Polarization Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

(Perhaps it’s best to read this post together with a previous one dealing with a similar topic).

One of the justifications of the right to free speech is an epistemological one: free, equal and massive participation in public discourse produces better decisions and opinions because it allows for

  • the appearance of a large number of arguments and perspective and
  • widespread criticism and examination of possible decisions and opinions.

Looking at possible decisions and opinions from a variety of perspectives and listening to a maximum number of critical arguments for and against, improves the quality of decisions and opinions. Freedom of speech is not, in theory, necessary for this improvement, since a single talented individual can, in isolation, imagine perspectives and counter-arguments. However, better than to trust the imagination and the limitless neutrality of an individual, it is better to use the resources of the crowd, and there is no better way to do that than to protect freedom of speech as an equal right for all. This idea has been called the marketplace of ideas.

An added advantage of involving the crowd in public discourse is that individuals will anticipate criticism and will therefore make better use of their imagination and improve their arguments even before entering the quality enhancing public discourse. (I’ve made a somewhat more profound version of this argument here).

Intuitively, one would expect that this marketplace of ideas, protected by freedom of speech, should result in some convergence: bad arguments and weakly argued opinions and decisions would lose support in public discourse, because they are publicly shown to be bad or weakly supported. The majority of people should then gravitate towards the better opinions. However, we often see the opposite, namely polarization, i.e. increasingly sharp divisions in society with groups having extreme opinions that are strongly held and that aren’t thoroughly examined. Often, the strength at which those opinions are held bears no relation to the strength of the arguments in favor of them. That’s the marketplace of ideas equivalent of harmful but popular products.

We then have to ask ourselves which of these two statements is true:

  • Polarization is the result of an insufficient or inefficient functioning of freedom of speech and public discourse. In which case we can hold on to our epistemological justification of that right.
  • Or polarization happens notwithstanding freedom of speech. In which case we seem to lose a possible justification for freedom of speech.

“Both” is probably the best answer. Freedom of speech facilitates public discourse and improves the quality of it, but only if it is used. If people decide not to use freedom of speech, and decide not to listen to opposing views or to argue with opponents, then this freedom can’t improve public discourse. Yet the absence of a proper use of this freedom does not invalidate the freedom itself. It does make it harder to justify this freedom as something beneficial. If many people don’t use freedom of speech to improve public discourse it becomes more difficult to argue that we should protect freedom of speech because it improves public discourse. And yet, this doesn’t undermine the theoretical or philosophical argument that freedom of speech can – in theory – improve public discourse. So the inherent desirability of free speech remains, even if the practical desirability is weak. (Note that there are other possible justifications for freedom of speech, some of which have nothing to do with the topic we’re discussing here).

Also, we often see that polarization is the result of an insufficient or inefficient functioning of freedom of speech and public discourse. Cass Sunstein, for example, wrote about the “law of group polarization” and showed that polarization is to some extent the result of exclusively intra-group deliberation (climate change deniers who discuss their views only with fellow-deniers tend to come out of these discussions with an even stronger version of their initial opinions).

And finally, we should be careful in our estimates of polarization. Some high profile cases of polarization can give the impression that polarization is rampant. But people disagree about the extent of polarization. It all depends what topic you’re dealing with, and things differ from country to country as well. Also, the political class can make polarization look more common than it is among the general population. If polarization isn’t as widespread as we think it is, then its impact on freedom of speech is also smaller.

More on polarization here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (14): Does Confirmation Bias Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable. It’s a form of self-deception that we all suffer from, to a different extent, and that leads us to stick with our original beliefs rather than review them, even if a whole lot of contrary evidence is available. We just seem to be very good at ignoring it and focus on other, confirming evidence, even if the quality of this other evidence is dubious. The “stickiness” of beliefs resulting from confirmation bias is in turn an important cause of polarization of beliefs, the “dialogue of the deaf” style of political discourse, and “gladiator politics“.

Now, why is there confirmation bias? We all value consistency in our identity and self-image, and are afraid to acknowledge mistakes, especially regarding values or facts that are and have been for decades the foundation of our identity. We want to feel good about our “original” and fundamental views and affiliations. If our views are intertwined with our group affiliations, then the elements of group pride and loyalty also promote confirmation bias and our disregard of evidence that contradicts our views. It’s then not only our views that are at stake, but also our sense of belonging and the future of our group. Suppose evidence is found that Jesus Christ could never have lived. If we, as Christians, disregard this evidence, taint it or reinterpret it, then we are able to keep feeling good about ourselves and our previous thinking – we feel like consistent human beings with reasonable thinking powers and without a strong propensity to error – but we are also able to support the continued existence of our group, and that’s important for the wellbeing not only of ourselves but of millions of people. Our pride in our belonging, our identity and reasoning powers, as well as our loyalty to the other members of our group are powerful forces that produce confirmation bias. Patriotism and nationalism can also be seen in this light.

How does this relate to freedom of speech? This human right is often justified by and grounded in the argument that the public and equal appearance of a maximum number of viewpoints and arguments for and against something enhances the quality of thinking, much like the observance of a physical object from different angles yields a better understanding and knowledge of that object. It’s the famous concept of the “marketplace of ideas” where opinions have to enter the struggle of competition, review and criticism. These opinions are then either rejected or they come out better at the other end. The same idea justifies democracy because democracies – ideally – use freedom of speech to find and test the best policies and laws. Equal participation of a maximum number of citizens should then guarantee the same market processes. (More on that here, here and here).

That, of course, is an ideal. In reality, we see that even in free societies public discourse is often – but not always – far removed from the search for truth and improved thinking that should characterize it. Confirmation bias is one of the causes of the distance between reality and ideal because it inhibits the public examination of viewpoints and arguments. Propaganda, dysfunctional media, inept institutions, group pressure, vote buying, disregard of expert views, irrational behavior, deliberate polarization etc. are other causes. But here I’ll focus on confirmation bias.

At first glance, confirmation bias seems to undermine the whole “epistemological justification” – if I may call it that – of free speech and democracy. The more information there is (thanks to free speech), the more likely that people can just pick those pieces of information that confirm their biases, and I understand the word “information” in a broad sense, not just including facts but theories and arguments as well, however “wild” they are. So freedom of speech seems to be more like a bad thing, when viewed in this light.

However, in order to know if something is really bad you have to imagine what would happen if it went away. Without freedom of speech, the appearance of new and conflicting evidence is much less likely, and hence it’s more likely that people stick to their biased and pre-existing beliefs. Freedom of speech doesn’t promote confirmation bias, but doesn’t eliminate it either. People have to do that for themselves. However, freedom of speech gives people the tools to combat confirmation bias, if they are so inclined. And therefore freedom of speech is neither invalidated nor validated by confirmation bias.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (11): Polarized Statistics as a Result of Self-Selection

One of the most important things in the design of an opinion survey – and opinion surveys are a common tool in data gathering in the field of human rights – is the definition of the sample of people who will be interviewed. We can only assume that the answers given by the people in the sample are representative of the opinions of the entire population if the sample is a fully random subset of the population – that means that every person in the population should have an equal chance of being part of the survey group.

Unfortunately, many surveys depend on self-selection – people get to decide themselves if they cooperate – and self-selection distorts the randomness of the sample:

Those individuals who are highly motivated to respond, typically individuals who have strong opinions, are overrepresented, and individuals that are indifferent or apathetic are less likely to respond. This often leads to a polarization of responses with extreme perspectives being given a disproportionate weight in the summary. (source)

Self-selection is almost always a problem in online surveys (of the PollDaddy variety), phone-in surveys for television or radio shows, and so-called “red-button” surveys in which people vote with the remote control of their television set. However, it can also occur in more traditional types of surveys. When you survey the population of a brutal dictatorial state (if you get the chance) and ask the people about their freedoms and rights, many will deselect themselves: they will refuse to cooperate with the survey for fear of the consequences.

When we limit ourselves to the effects of self-selection (or self-deselection) in democratic states, we may find that this has something to do with the often ugly and stupid “us-and-them” character of much of contemporary politics. There seems to be less and less room for middle ground, compromise or nuance.