Three Thoughts on Iowa

  • I made a series of predictions on the eve of the caucuses that turned out to be wrong. I predicted that Sanders and Trump would win; I placed some small bets on that basis. I was roundly proven wrong, even though some pundits are calling the outcome a “virtual tie” and a few delegates were apparently allocated by coin flip. I respect the Sanders campaign for trying to spin the loss as a victory, but I don’t get to collect on the bet for a virtual tie for the same reason you don’t get to move in to the White House on the basis of a virtual tie.

Now, I wasn’t really confident in either prediction (I say after the fact). I was swayed by a late poll by Ann Selzer that has had a history of being pretty good. So I’m again struck by the value of making probability forecasts rather than predictions: at best that poll shifted my uncertainty on Cruz/Trump and Clinton/Sanders a little bit towards certainty. But it’s also the case that the right attitude before the event really should have been uncertainty: some outcomes were impossible, but several outcomes were live possibilities. The goal really shouldn’t be to gloat or mope after the fact: the goal should be to update your forecasting abilities, to get better at making future predictions.

  • The caucus format is deliberative. (More so for the Democrats than the Republicans, but still.) That makes polling somewhat less predictive, because polling can only measure pre-deliberative attitudes. We published a really good account of the issues with polling as a measure of “public opinion” in The Good Society a few years back: Liz Turner’s “Penal Populism, Deliberative Methods, and the Production of ‘Public Opinion’ on Crime and Punishment.” Turner argues that surveys produce only one version of the “hypothetical public” which is aggregative, generalized, individualized, and passive. It can (when properly massaged) produce a good prediction about electoral outcomes, since voting ballots, too, have become aggregative, generalized, individualized, and passive. But even mildly deliberative moments like the Iowa caucuses can lead to surprising outcomes because a very different public (no longer hypothetical) is constituted by the caucus form.
  • Finally, the real problem throughout the (Republican) race has been the number of candidates who had some claim to viability. The larger the number of candidates running, the more likely you are to have Condorcet loser (the one who would win the majority of head-to-head ballots) winning the election. Large numbers of (viable) candidates make voting irrational. In Iowa, there were at least six viable Republican candidates measured by delegates, and eleven candidates received at least 1% of the vote. We can see this problem on a much smaller scale with the way that the Clinton campaign planned to use Martin O’Malley as a spoiler, to prevent Sanders from picking up delegates at the margins. That said, I haven’t seen any evidence that this ended up happening, but rather the reverse.

Calm is not Rational

I’ve written a bit before about Tyler Cowen’s idea for a fallacy of mood affiliation, and I generally find something useful in discussions of it. Here’s the basic story:

It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood.  I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning.  (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

Byran Caplan offers some reflections on using mood as a credibility heuristic (that are consonant with others things he has said) and so it seems worth discussing where he goes wrong.

On Caplan’s account, evidence is the best way to judge credibility and truth. There we agree. But he adds that using appropriate mood as a heuristic for credibility is a wise backup for discounting some movements or claims. He describes the appropriate moods that environmental activists ought to bring to bear on fossil fuels:

A reasonable person who was convinced that fossil fuels posed a major danger would feel a specific package of moods:

1. Sadness that a crucial resource has terrible side effects.

2. Gratitude for all the wonders the resource brought us in the past.

3. Resignation that mankind must forego many of these wonders.

4. Determination to salvage as many wonders as possible by using the best available substitutes for fossil fuels.

When an opponent of fossil fuels evinces none of these moods, it strongly suggests he isn’t reasonable.

This seems unlikely to be true. On the one hand, I do think those are basically the right judgments about fossil fuels: they are awesome, we should be glad that they existed, and it really sucks that we’re going to be giving them up, but it’s time to take action. That said, it’s not clear why I can’t also feel:

  1. Anger that providence does not supply as good a solution without the costs.
  2. Resentment that those who have profited from fossil fuel extraction are willfully denying the evidence that we must change.
  3. Frustration that scientific consensus does not bind more of my fellow citizens and their elected representatives.
  4. Suspicion of the ways that our current interests cause us to downplay the risks and need for resignation and determination.

Those seem perfectly rational to me, too. And we might not be able to hold all those emotions in our mind at the same time, and thus we find that we’re unable to capture the state of perfectly neutral ambivalence that Caplan here suggests is a prerequisite for being considered rational. Worse, though, Caplan’s account of those prerequisite “moods” mistakes how social movements work with how scholars comport themselves.

  1. For Cowen, mood is about having too much of the wrong sort of alignment within your portfolios of beliefs. So mood affiliation is not about demeanor but about getting your beliefs to support your preferred mood (like the just world fallacy.) Some things are good and some things bad, some things are more certain than others, etc. And yet we tend to adopt similar judgments rather than diversify, suggesting that it’s us and not the world that’s drawing those beliefs together. So Bryan Caplan is not using mood in Cowen’s sense, but rather describing something like demeanor.
  2. Most of the evidence suggests that groups of people actively resisting the status quo fall into group polarization dynamics. This is regardless of whether the status quo is just or unjust or safe or dangerous. This means that they will tend to circulate ideas and attitudes among themselves, developing more extreme and fanatical opposition to it than the overall community could support. Thus a heuristic based on demeanor is basically a pro-status quo heuristic.
  3. Sometimes this polarization is primarily attitudinal, and sometimes it is primarily evidential: that is, sometimes movement members help each other engage in motivated reasoning and skepticism, and sometimes they help each other by egging each other on with a bias for action. The attitudinal polarization is likely to be MORE reasonable than the evidential one. Yet representatives of the status quo can then use those attitudinal group polarization dynamics to depict the resistors as irrational and thus wrong. (We can see this in all sorts of places, not just the standard ones.)
  4. The demeanors of calm and dispassionate analysis are, frankly, overrated by college professors and college graduates. It’s how we signal competence, but it’s not the same as subject-matter competence, rather it’s generally a prerequisite competence in dealing with other college graduates.
  5. Lots of obviously wrong people demonstrate the wrong demeanors. But lots of *subtly* wrong people have the right demeanors. Probably then, we should actually develop enough subject-matter expertise to parse the evidence (as Caplan is doing by reading Epstein) and not rely on demeanor so much as a heuristic.

Basically, where I see Cowen contributing is in allowing us to reflect on the ways that our ideas may be too tightly connected to each other by some overarching mood or partisan affiliation. Disaggregation, decoupling, debundling: these aren’t always smart epistemological moves, but there’s a lot of good reasons to experiment with them, rooted in methodological individualism and the necessities of the scientific method.

Caplan, by contrast, seems to want to use it as a heuristic for discrediting others. I’ll admit a bias here: I really want to bend over backwards to understand the views of others and listen carefully to their arguments in hopes of finding useful insights. That’s my fallibilism talking, a mood that I’m quite sure has its own pitfalls. But still, doesn’t it seem unwise to pretend you can’t hear people just because they are shouting? After all, they’re very likely to be shouting because no one listened when they spoke.