Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hanson To Fellow Bloggers: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Robin Hanson responds to Vladimir M's post about when one should or should not trust an academic consensus. First a bit from Vladimir,      
When looking for information about some area outside of one’s expertise, it is usually a good idea to first ask what academic scholarship has to say... [I]t would be astonishing if there didn’t exist at least some areas where the academic mainstream is detached from reality on important issues... Areas affected by ideological biases... tend to drift much further into outright delusion, possibly lacking a sound core body of scholarship altogether... I’ll have to read much more on the technical background of these subjects before I can form any reliable opinion on these questions. 
Then Robin
But if you plan to mostly ignore the experts and base your beliefs on your own analysis, you need to not only assume that ideological bias has so polluted the experts as to make them nearly worthless, but you also need to assume that you are mostly immune from such problems!...  If ideology severely compromises others’ analysis on this subject, then most likely it severely comprises yours as well.  You should mostly just avoid having opinions on the subject.  But if you must have reliable opinions, average expert opinions are probably still your best bet.
The conundrum is that Robin himself does this all the time. See for example this post literally two days earlier, where he is skeptical of an academic consensus because he has reason to believe that the authors are biased, does some digging on his own from the raw data, and draws some interesting conclusions. That's exactly what Vladimir is saying one ought to do.

So Robin's disagreement seems a bit inconsistent, but it's really not. He has admitted that he doesn't specialize as much as he thinks people should. Specialization requires trusting the surface arguments in most fields in order to focus on one's own. In other words, he thinks people should generally not be contrarian, if only because it's a waste of time. Consensus definitions of hypocrisy emphasize that it's OK (i.e., not hypocritical) to preach temperance for others when you yourself have not conquered your passions, as long as you do not claim to have done so. So Robin is not being hypocritical.

Still, it might be nice if he admitted to often not following his own "don't be a contrarian" rule.