Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Intellectually honesty and epistemic closure

Bruce Bartlett gives a detailed account of his own battle with intellectual honesty and how it made him an outcast within the Republican party and conservatism as a whole:

After careful research along these lines, I came to the annoying conclusion that Keynes had been 100 percent right in the 1930s. Previously, I had thought the opposite. But facts were facts and there was no denying my conclusion. It didn’t affect the argument in my book, which was only about the rise and fall of ideas. The fact that Keynesian ideas were correct as well as popular simply made my thesis stronger.

I finished the book just as the economy was collapsing in the fall of 2008. This created another intellectual crisis for me. Having just finished a careful study of the 1930s, it was immediately obvious to me that the economy was suffering from the very same problem, a lack of aggregate demand. We needed Keynesian policies again, which completely ruined my nice rise-and-fall thesis. Keynesian ideas had arisen from the intellectual grave.
On the plus side, I think I had a very clear understanding of the economic crisis from day one. I even wrote another op-ed for the New York Times in December 2008 advocating a Keynesian cure that holds up very well in light of history. Annoyingly, however, I found myself joined at the hip to Paul Krugman, whose analysis was identical to my own. I had previously viewed Krugman as an intellectual enemy and attacked him rather colorfully in an old column that he still remembers.

For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman. The blind hatred for him on the right simply pushed me further away from my old allies and comrades.

This isn't just bad for the Republican party. It's bad for the country because it makes it harder to pass good policy. If Republicans weren't so blindly opposed to the Keynesian solutions to the type of recession we were under it's very possible that the economy would be in much better shape right now. As for the deficit they love to complain about when they don't control things, it would likely not be nearly as big if they didn't blindly vote for whatever Bush wanted.

But as Bartlett points out, they are so intellectually dishonest that they can't acknowledge their own mistakes and thus any solutions or ways to prevent making them again.

I don't want to make this strictly about Republicans. There is a lot of research that confirms that everyone seeks confirmation bias (ignoring things that contradict what you already thing and seeking out only things that confirm what you think). I do it to at least a small extent. But I try to be honest enough with myself that I read people like Andrew Sullivan and Conor Friedersdorf to make sure I'm not seeing things only through a liberal lens. But I do that because I value the truth and data. Not all liberals value those things like I do. So I hope we don't fall into the trap Republicans have put themselves in.

I think we can avoid that because liberals tend not to identify themselves so strongly to the tribal/cultural things conservatives value. I'm not sure how Republicans can get out of their trap because they so heavily form their identity around tribal/cultural things. Earlier tonight at dinner I got my conservative uncle riled up by bringing up sexism in the catholic church. He takes that criticism personally because it's a big part of his identity. I'll argue about that stuff but I won't take much personal offense with those who disagree because it just doesn't make up much of who I am.

Because of the nature of conservatives I tend to agree with the consensus of the conservatives I read regarding when their behavior will change, which is after another big electoral defeat. That's the strongest incentive for any party to change it's behavior. And though I try not to put too much faith in top down leadership, I think a strong leader who practiced and enforced some intellectual honesty would help solve the problem. Let's hope for the sake of the country something changes, and relatively soon.

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