Saturday, June 21, 2014

Confirmation Bias Watch

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In the "liberals are the real fascists" department, one of my favorite cases was "public intellectual" Yuval Levin (that's really one of his professions according to the Wikipedia biography, suggesting it's actually on his C.V.) calling out the economist Paul Krugman for being one of those tradition-minded, hidebound, inflexible liberals who, in spite of their also being demonically relativistic postmodernists, consistently insist they are in possession of absolute, indiscutable truth, as in the brief debate I covered in April; in Shorter form,

Krugman: Confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out evidence that confirms your prior beliefs and ignore evidence that contradicts them, seems to be a typically conservative characteristic.
Levin: Twinkle twinkle, Nobel star, what you say is what you are, nyah na-na nyah nyah.
But as I was able to show at the time, no. An experimental test found that in a random (or Googled, anyway) sampling of instances in which "Paul Krugman" was associated with the phrase "changed his mind", he was himself the one who had changed his mind in 50% of the cases; whereas performing the same search with "Yuval Levin" yielded zero cases, or 0%, in which that noteworthy public intellectual had changed his mind.

Another case of Krugman changing his mind in the face of the evidence has just surfaced (via ImmaSmartyPants) in his NYRB review of Timothy Geithner's memoir, Stress Test, on Geithner's handling of the banking crisis of 2008-09, when Krugman believed the banks should be temporarily nationalized, so that the government (i.e., the people) instead of the bankers would take the profits:
A principal part of Geithner’s argument against nationalization was the belief that a “stress test” of banks would show them to be in fairly decent shape, and that publishing the results of such a test would, in conjunction with promises to shore up banks when necessary, end the crisis. And so it proved. He was right; I was wrong; and the triumph of the stress test gave him the title for his book.
Which is kind of interesting as illustrating a "rightward" shift of opinion; the Krugman mind changes I previously noted were pretty generally to the "left", just in case you suspected he had a kind of ideological bias for changing his mind in only one direction.

It's hard to find Yuval Levin touching on these issues at all, except to purvey some gossip about possible dissension in the cabinet and complain that the Bank of America had been nationalized (along with AIG and General Motors) although it had not (say, he could practice admitting he was wrong on that one!), so it's hard to find out whether or not he has changed his mind. Apparently economics at that nitty-gritty level just isn't part of the public-intellectual portfolio.

Re-running the test, I find Levin defending Edmund Burke against the accusation that he changed his mind too readily—
such a charge miscasts both Burke’s earlier and later views, neglecting the arguments he offered both as a reformer and as a con- server of Britain’s political tradition. Those arguments were always about finding a balance between stability and change
—i.e., no he didn't, suggesting that he regards changing one's mind as a deplorable kind of weakness for which one needs to make excuses, but otherwise nothing new. In the Confirmation Bias Stakes, Krugman remains as far ahead as ever.
Fritz Lang, Metropolis (1927).

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