Monday, June 27, 2011

New ways to talk politics - Bullshit Detectors

It can be a frustrating experience to watch political debates on television. Rival politicians push party agendas, blatantly avoiding difficult questions from journalists or distorting the arguments of their opponents. Like children in the schoolyard they sometimes argue to score political points against one another, not bothering to really explore important topics. Occasionally participants flip out, voices get raised, faces redden and the whole thing falls apart into childish quarrels.

I lack the patience for this nonsense yet the excellent TED talks show that video really can be used to share politically-relevant knowledge. Hans Rosling's amusing and informative presentations of the Gapminder animated graphs are especially fact-heavy but still accessible and fun.

So I have been wondering about more functional ways to share information and politics. In TED, participants give one-way presentations (often using PowerPoint or props) to a passive audience. The problem of course is that their claims are not questioned. The televised debates I criticised are combative, with journalists and political rivals constantly interrupting and challenging arguments. I find those interruptions irritating, but they do at least serve to undermine nonsensical claims.

Are there other ways, though, of challenging political claims? How about this:

1) The participant gives a speech like those on TED, using PowerPoint or some other technology that allows them to back up their claims with graphed statistics, video footage and so on.

2) A team of researchers watches this presentation (or, to save time, could be given the presentation before the show) and systematically explores the data for errors, searches for relevant articles, scientific papers, etc.

3) The team announces any useful results. If, for example, the politician makes some claim about a historical event then the fact-checking team can show that this is correct or otherwise, can even show their sources. If a politician makes a scientific claim - 'studies show...' - the fact-checkers can browse scientific studies to verify or refute the claim.

The good thing about this is that it takes the combative element out of the picture while still challenging claims. There would be nothing personal about it, no raised voices, but fact-checkers could expose political lies and distortions simply by presenting factual evidence instead.

The down side is simply that many things are still unknown. A politician might discuss the causes of the Great Depression and while fact-checkers could find alternative interpretations, they might not be able to show which interpretation is correct. Fact-checkers could check facts, but not interpretations of these facts.

So let's look at further ways to explore politics.

A constant problem is that many politicians and lobbyists lie. Normally, journalists challenge and harass their interviewees in order to expose these lies. But there are psychological ways to get to the truth too.

One interesting (and fun) test worth thinking about is the Implicit Association Test, which I wrote about here. The test gets participants to quickly associate apparently unrelated concepts. When participants already link those concepts in their minds, they tend to be very quick and accurate in responding. When they don't link them their responses are slower.

For example, a participant may be asked to associate positive words (joy, happiness, great) with white people and negative words (sad, pain, anger) with black people. If the participant has an unconscious preference for white people over black people, this will be very easy and they will respond swiftly. If, however, the same participant is asked to reverse and associate black people with positive, white with negative words, they slow down and make mistakes. They struggle to override their implicit prejudices and the computer records that hesitation, exposing the hidden racial preference.

This test shows the implicit preferences and prejudices we harbour, but one needn't act on such prejudices. Someone might be a raging racist deep down but, aware of the unpopularity of such views, might never act on such racism.

Still it would be fascinating to test the entire political spectrum to see what implicit prejudices are associated with each party. If we could spot a pattern, with advocates of a particular politics having particular prejudices we might be able to better understand, or undermine, their political beliefs.

This post was inspired by a rather brilliant idea by the libertarian economist Bryan Calpan. He was responding to this article by left-leaning economist Paul Krugman:
A liberal can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen . We don't think it's right, but we pay enough attention to see what the other person is trying to get at. The reverse is not true. You try to get someone who is fiercely anti-Keynesian to even explain what a Keynesian economic argument is, they can't do it. They can't get it remotely right. Or if you ask a conservative, "What do liberals want?" You get this bizarre stuff - for example, that liberals want everybody to ride trains, because it makes people more susceptible to collectivism. You just have to look at the realities of the way each side talks and what they know. One side of the picture is open-minded and sceptical. We have views that are different, but they're arrived at through paying attention. The other side has dogmatic views.
Calpan suggested that there was a way to test this claim:
Put me and five random liberal social science Ph.D.s in a chat room. Let liberal readers ask questions for an hour, then vote on who isn't really a liberal. Then put Krugman and five random libertarian social science Ph.D.s in a chat room. Let libertarian readers ask questions for an hour, then vote on who isn't really a libertarian. Simple as that.

My challenge: Nail down the logistics, and I'll happily bet money that I fool more voters than Krugman.
Calpan's idea would show whether or not individuals understand the perspectives of their ideological opponents well enough to convince strangers that they actually subscribe to that ideology.

This is intriguing. Often in online debates I see individuals who are indoctrinated into political perspectives and who have never seriously considered the views of their opponents. They understand their rivals only in terms of daft caricatures and distortions. It is likely that such individuals would not pass this test.

I would love to see politicians, lobbyists and outspoken journalists take this kind of test! Let's see if they even understand the perspectives they so despise. How would I do? I think I could pass myself off as a casual follower of libertarianism or democratic socialism - I have some of the buzzwords down from these - but would struggle to convince a panel that I had in depth knowledge (because I don't). Feminism would be harder; most of my reading has come from blogs and articles rather than books so I still struggle to understand the arguments. I have general ideas about kinds of Islamism but I lack the Arabic vocabulary to be convincing.

Anyway some of Calpan's readers are already exploring his proposed test, like Ilya Somin here.

More important than this actual test, though, is Calpan's idea of putting ideas into action to test their strength. In a conventional debate one individual would make Krugman's point, arguing that the other side is closed-minded and dogmatic. The other side would angrily deny this and say that in fact it is Krugman's side which is closed-minded. There would be no significant evidence either way, just angry words: all heat and no light. Calpan tries to side-step this with some kind of objective way to measure the veracity of ideas.

And that is the spirit of this post too. I weary of political discussions made up of childish accusations and denunciations, egged on and interrupted by aggressive journalists. I think politics could be both more colourful and more rational by taking alternative approaches to it, removing the interpersonal anger and arguments and making it easier to expose bullshit for what it is. Tests and fact-checking might help to do this.

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