Monthly Archives: December 2016

Beliefs that Don’t Self-Correct

Some people hold beliefs that are false according to the most rigorous, current scientific wisdom. Take, for example, anti-vaccine types’ beliefs about the risks of vaccines (e.g. autism risk).

What’s funny is that at a societal level, we find ourselves in seemingly intractable debates over these beliefs, as if they were moral issues. It’s funny because, from a material rational perspective, at some point and at some level the beliefs should be self-correcting.

What are some explanations? One possibility is externalities. As we are all now acutely aware, in democratic systems these false beliefs can aggregate into policies that threaten even those who hold the correct beliefs. But this works the other way around too. So long as the false beliefs are held by an electoral minority, the electoral majority protects them from their foolishness.

Externalities are sometimes more intrinsic to the issue at hand. With vaccines, current scientific wisdom holds that autism risks are negligible whereas benefits in terms of protection from other diseases are substantial. This particular case is also complicated by “herd immunity,” in that you are affected by your neighbor’s vaccination decision. If the fools reside next to sophisticates, then, again, the fools are protected.

Or, it may be that the costs are borne by future generations, and so do not feed back directly to those taking the consequential decisions. Climate change has this feature: it’s the fools’ children or grandchildren who will suffer. (Although, probably, the more immediate problem is that it is the children of others in faraway places that will suffer the fools’ lack of concern.)

Generally, the externalities explanation relies on the standard public goods logic: investing in learning about rigorous scientific findings is a public good, in which case we should expect widespread underinvestment.

The externalities case is not so tight, though. It seems the US hosts an electoral majority of climate change deniers, although one could attribute this to the intergenerational and interregional externalities. But for the more intrinsic, “herd immunity” kinds of issues, the story is not so clear either. For example, my understanding is that anti-vaccine types tend to cluster in their social interactions (home-schooling and whatnot) and therefore “own” and “neighbors’” actions will tend to be highly correlated.

To fill the gaps from the externalities story, here are some other things we might consider:

  • Intrinsic complexity, such that only advanced scientific methods can penetrate these issues and we cannot appeal to direct experience, in which case beliefs depend on some degree of faith.
  • Existence of vested immediate interests against the truth and who seek to manipulate the situation.
  • Similar coordination and team-signaling dynamics as I discussed with regard to “lies, dupes, and shit tests” (.htm)
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Notes on methodological individualism, ontology, and social science theorizing

From Sugden’s JEL review of Epstein’s The Ant Trap (.html):

The current “consensus view” [in philosophy] recognizes a distinction, first proposed by Lukes (1968), between explanatory individualism and ontological individualism. Explanatory individualism maintains that social facts are best explained in terms of facts about individuals and their interactions, while ontological individualism maintains that social facts are exhaustively determined by facts about individuals and their interactions. The consensus view is that explanatory individualism is a contestable claim about the most useful methodology for social science; it might be true that many social facts are best explained individualistically, but there are no good grounds for treating nonindividualistic explanations as unacceptable in principle. In contrast, the consensus view takes ontological individualism to be true—indeed, trivially true, a set of what Lukes (1968, p. 20) called “banal propositions.”

You could take the ontological point further to propose that facts about individuals are exhaustively determined by their finer moving parts (cells, all the way down to atoms), but this does not affect judgments of explanatory individualism. So don’t confuse the ontological point with evaluations of explanatory power.

Epstein thinks that these (and other) considerations do indeed support a ‘maybe, maybe not’ position towards explanatory individualism…. But he challenges the second part of the consensus view, that social properties are nothing over and above the properties of individuals.

Hmmm…so Epstein takes issue with social scientists’ emphasis on methodological individualism.

[Epstein’s] new way of thinking [“social ontology”] begins with the recognition that the actions of groups do not necessarily supervene on [that is, reduce immediately to,] the actions of group members. That allows us to understand that particular kinds of groups (legislatures being an example) can be set up to achieve particular purposes, and that thousands of years of sociality have endowed human beings with strategies for “improving the design of groups, helping to ensure that they accomplish their purposes” (pp. 234–35). In the case of a legislature, the [group-level] factors that can be manipulated [while keeping the individuals constant] include its rules for aggregating votes and the rules by which its members are elected.

Sugden is not convinced, at least not convinced that social scientists’ emphasis on methodological individualism has caused them to overlook such possibilities:

Of course, Epstein is right about this. But if these are new ideas for social ontology, they are not new for social science.

So even if social scientists’ principles are not stated in a complete fashion, it is not clear that there has been an important consequence to that. This leads Sugden to wonder, does progress in social science really require that ontological questions like this are sorted out?

If [a] counterfeit dollar is not detectably different from the real thing, both types of bills will serve interchangeably as a common medium of exchange. A natural way of modeling this scenario—say, as part of an explanation of changes in the general price level in an economy with forgery—would be to use a model in which paper money is a homogeneous commodity, produced both by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and by the Mafia. In a model of this kind, the concept of “money” does not correspond with…ontological accounts of what money really is [emph. added]. But in deciding to use this modeling strategy, the modeler does not need to engage in ontological analysis of the true nature of money. The rationale for amalgamating the two types of bills into a common category comes from economic reasoning about the properties of trade and from an understanding of what the model is designed to do.
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