In Most Conflicts of Ideas, Socratic Dialogue Beats Research

There are so many controversial issues in our world right now, and so many people who want to change the way we think, see, speak, feel, and live because of them.

I’m not an expert on COVID, not an expert on climate change, not an expert on China, not an expert on interracial and intersex relations, etc. I have my ideas and strong beliefs, sure. And yes, I should try to learn as much as is practicable about the issues that matter. But I must also realize that it would take a lifetime to gain the full data picture on any of these issues. And I also realize that any attempts at data gathering are especially colored now by strong bias, censorship (political or otherwise), hatred, and fear.

What’s a thinker to do? Maybe a cautious agnosticism is justified, but the vehement ideologies now held by most people won’t really allow for aloofness, particularly on issues with consequences for political freedom. If you wish to check anti-freedom ideologies,, you’re going to have to do some challenging.

But if it’s not realistic to expect the average person to dig into history and scientific studies in a rigorous way, what is the right approach?

In my experience, a Socratic dialogue style works best. Ask good questions, See what facts (or evidence thereof) your opponent puts forward. Unless you have opposing evidence, don’t worry so much about hurriedly Googling some confirmation of your own side. Accept their evidence. But question their premises or conclusions.

It is far more efficient to deal with identifying the errors in logic than the errors in fact (though correcting all kinds of errors are important). Logic works by a series of first principles that everyone can learn and no one can evade. Contradictions, fallacies, false equivalencies, and other errors in thinking are much easier to dislodge than disputes over evidence (often evidence can be ambiguous).

The other benefit to accepting your opponent’s evidence – conditionally, at least – is to make the truth-seeking process a bit less combative. Combative discussions rarely lead to a change in shared understanding. Try to listen and look for truth in the other person’s statements, then dismantle the bad connections of logic. If there are errors of fact, those can be fixed next.

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"Pandemic Pods" Make Homeschooling Easier For Parents and Profitable for Teachers

This tumultuous back-to-school season has parents and teachers alike scrambling to make sense of the madness: from ever-changing district directives to COVID-19 response protocols. Some school systems have announced that the academic year will start with remote-learning-only. Others are pursuing partial reopening options with both online and in-person instruction. Still others are planning to fully reopen for in-person learning.

Amid this chaos, parents and teachers are increasingly opting out of the conventional classroom entirely to find or create schooling alternatives this fall.

Parents have been vocal about their back-to-school concerns, with growing numbers of them choosing to homeschool this fall rather than contending with remote learning options or confronting viral exposure and dystopian social distancing measures in schools.

But it’s not just parents who have back-to-school worries. Many teachers, too, don’t want to go back and are upset at reopening plans.

Teachers’ unions are now battling districts over these plans. In Florida, where schools are scheduled to fully reopen for in-person learning next month, the state’s largest teachers’ union sued the governor and education commissioner this week. The Florida union is asking for smaller class sizes and more protective gear for teachers.

More parents and teachers are choosing to avoid this bureaucratic mess altogether and are pursuing their own educational solutions.

Entrepreneurial Educators Build A Better Way

Some parents are hiring tutors to augment their homeschooling experience this fall, and entrepreneurial teachers are serving that need and cashing in on the opportunity. One high school English teacher in Illinois, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that she made $49,000 a year teaching 9th grade and AP English, but several families have approached her for private tutoring and she realizes she can make more money as a private tutor, with fewer hours and more flexibility.

In addition to homeschooling, some parents are forming pandemic “pods,” or home-based microschools that allow a handful of families to take turns teaching their children or pool resources to hire a teacher or college student. The Wall Street Journal reports that these pods are sprouting throughout the country, fueled by parental unrest at school reopening plans and facilitated by informal Facebook groups connecting local families.

Recognizing this mounting demand for schooling alternatives this fall, entrepreneurial educators are helping to create more options for families. In Maryland, longtime educators Steven Eno and Ned Courtemanche created Impact Connections, a microschool enabler connecting educators and parents and providing learning support.

“COVID-19 exposed so many of the shortcomings we already knew about in education but also presented new opportunities to step up and help parents and their kids,” Eno told me in a recent interview. “Microschools offer a powerful, and largely untapped, opportunity to educate our kids in the COVID era and beyond. The best microschools offer highly-personalized instruction that is free of curricular red tape for a fraction of the price…,” he says.

The legality of these pandemic pods and microschools is sometimes unclear. As a new model that blends features of homeschool co-ops with small, private schools, regulations in many places haven’t caught up. Additionally, the sheer numbers of parents choosing not to send their kids back to school this fall, and the pandemic’s overall disruption, may make enforcement of any existing regulations more difficult.

This presents an ideal moment for what Adam Thierer calls “evasive entrepreneurship,” where entrepreneurs push boundaries and challenge existing systems. Thierer writes in his book, Evasive Entrepreneurs:

Increasingly today, evasive entrepreneurs–innovators who don’t always conform to social or legal norms–are using new technological capabilities to circumvent traditional regulatory systems, or at least to put pressure on public policymakers to reform or selectively enforce laws and regulations that are outmoded, inefficient, or illogical. Evasive entrepreneurs rely on a strategy of permissionless innovation in both the business world and the political arena. They push back against ‘the Permission Society,’ or the convoluted labyrinth of permits and red tape that often encumber entrepreneurial activities. In essence, evasive entrepreneurs live out the adage that ‘it is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission’ by creating exciting new products and services without necessarily receiving the blessing of public officials before doing so.

Not Just For The Wealthy

Criticism over these private education options has surged over the past few weeks, as commentators claim that homeschooling and pandemic pods will widen gaps between higher- and lower-income families. An op-ed in The New York Times this week decried these private pods, saying “they will exacerbate inequities, racial segregation and the opportunity gap within schools.” These criticisms ignore the fact that some parents create no-cost pods in which they take turns educating their children in a co-op format, and as an article in today’s New York Times points out, “the population of home-schoolers — before the pandemic — was less affluent than average.” Homeschooling, and its current “podding” variation, are not just for the wealthy.

Moreover, if education funding supported students rather than school bureaucracies, more families would get access to an array of education options–including these new models and ones that have yet to be invented. Taxpayers spend about $700 billion each year on US K-12 education. If that money was redistributed to families in the form of education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, tax-credit scholarship programs, and other education choice mechanisms, parents would have many more options beyond an assigned district school.

Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation, has written and spoken much about this, stating: “More families would have access to these alternatives if education funding followed children to wherever they receive their educations. Teachers could also benefit from such a system, which would likely offer them smaller class sizes, more autonomy, and higher salaries.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting many of the systems and structures that have prevented choice and innovation in the past. Frustrated parents, along with entrepreneurial educators, have the opportunity to experiment with new models of teaching and learning, and education choice policies will make these new models accessible to any family that wants them.

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Coronavirus vs. the Non-Identity Problem

Many people think that if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, the coronavirus crisis would have been less severe.  On reflection, this is a drastic understatement.  If Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, it is near-certain that the coronavirus crisis never would have started.

To see why, let’s review what philosophers call the Non-Identity Problem.  Consider the following statement: “If my parents had won the lottery before my conception, I would be rich today.”  Sounds true, right?  On reflection, however, you should rather say, “If my parents had won the lottery before my conception, I never would have existed.”  Why not?  Because winning a pile of money would have changed when you parents had sex, which would have changed which of your father’s hundreds of millions of sperm impregnated your mother.  Indeed, even if the timing of the sex was unchanged, winning the lottery would have led your father to jump for joy, reshuffling his sperm, and again nullifying your existence.

Philosophers often invoke the Non-Identity Problem when they imagine one of our descendants moaning, “If only our ancestors had stopped polluting, I’d be better off.”  While it’s true we can help our descendants, the very acts of helping them changes who our descendants will be.  If we had cared more about the future, the moaners wouldn’t have been around to moan.

What on Earth does this have to do with coronavirus?  Simple: The birth of a new pathogen biologically parallels the birth of a new human.  A new virus is the result of a perfect genetic storm – DNAs ultra-improbably combine, then ultra-improbably get into a human body, then ultra-improbably infect that body with an ultra-low viral dose instead of being destroyed by the host’s immune system.  That’s why new pathogens are so thankfully rare; the odds are stacked massively against the rise of any specific strain.  If matters were otherwise, virologists would detect what arson investigators call “multiple points of origin” for novel pathogens.  To the best of my knowledge, they almost never do.

Given this knife-edge origin process, it is extremely likely that any major change in the events prior to the rise of coronavirus would have precluded the rise of coronavirus.  Hillary’s election would have led to different Chinese policies, which would have reshuffled human behavior in China, implying no coronavirus.

Doesn’t the same go for thousands of other changes?  Absolutely.  If Trump had negotiated a different trade deal with China, coronavirus would never have happened.  If China had left the Uighurs alone, coronavirus would never have happened.  Indeed, if Avengers: Endgame had been released a week later, coronavirus would have never happened; the movie grossed $614M in China, so it must have indirectly changed the space-time positions of a bunch of people in Wuhan.  If something alters which humans are born, it can also easily alter which pathogens are born.

Wait, does this mean that if Hillary had won, we could have had a worse virus instead?  Absolutely!  Given how bad this virus has been, however, that’s unlikely.  If Hitler had never been born, maybe Germany would have been taken over by an even more bloodthirsty dictator, but smart money says otherwise.  Nevertheless, over the very long-run, the uncertainty becomes great indeed.  Without Hitler, World War II could have been fought fifteen years later… with nuclear weapons.  As Tyler explained a while back:

For small changes to translate into large final effects, we need only postulate that some individuals, or some leaders, play a significant role on the global stage. Even if most individuals do not matter, or most small changes wash out, some of the small changes today will alter future identities, once we look a generation or two into the future. So the argument requires only that a very small number of personal identities matter for the course of history. If Hitler’s great-great-grandfather had bent down to pick one more daisy, many of the effects might have washed out; nonetheless Europe today would be a very different place.

In my experience, non-philosophers stridently resist non-identity arguments.  But that’s their problem.  The arguments are sound.  Whenever the conception of a crucial critter is on the line, small events have massive consequences.  The crucial critter could be a human or virus.  Strange but true: This whole mess could have been avoided if Chris Hemsworth had a minor accident while shooting the latest Avengers movie.

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Krikorian’s “Category Error”

During our last debate, an audience member asked Mark Krikorian if his arguments for restricting immigration of foreigners were also arguments for restricting the child-bearing of natives.  You might think that Mark would insist that native babies are somehow better than foreign adults.  How hard could it possibly be to craft such an argument?  However, Mark adamantly refused to compare the worths of different kinds of people.  Instead, he informed the questioner that his question was based on a “category error.”

In so doing, Mark signaled high IQ, because smart people love to announce that someone has made a “category error.”  But precisely what is a category error?  Here’s a standard definition:

To show that a category mistake has been committed one must typically show that once the phenomenon in question is properly understood, it becomes clear that the claim being made about it could not possibly be true.

Here’s a more detailed discussion:

Category mistakes are sentences such as ‘The number two is blue’, ‘The theory of relativity is eating breakfast’, or ‘Green ideas sleep furiously’. Such sentences are striking in that they are highly odd or infelicitous, and moreover infelicitous in a distinctive sort of way. For example, they seem to be infelicitous in a different way to merely trivially false sentences such as ‘2+2=5″ or obviously ungrammatical strings such as ‘The ran this’.

Which raises a big question: How could the audience member’s perfectly intelligible question possibly be a “category error”?!  If you say, “We should restrict immigration because immigrants burden taxpayers,” what on Earth is wrong with responding, “In that case, should we restrict child-bearing if babies burden taxpayers?”  The answer, of course, is: Nothing at all.  Not only is the latter question in the same “category” as the former question; it is the textbook way to check the logic of Mark’s position.  And it starkly reveals the inadequacy of Mark’s original argument.  Whatever your views on immigration, Mark definitely needs to assert something like, “We should restrict immigration because immigrants burden taxpayers and only natives are entitled to burden taxpayers.”

This in turn shifts the argument over to the fundamental question: What is morally permissible to do to foreigners but not natives – and why?  Which recalls a previous Krikorian-Caplan dialogue.  I asked Mark: “Suppose you can either save one American or x foreigners. How big does x have to be before you save the foreigners?”  And Mark responded:

Another meaningless hypothetical.

Not only is this a meaningful question; it gets to the heart of what Mark needs to formulate a coherent position on immigration.  I’m confident that Mark, as an avowed Christian, thinks we have no right to murder or enslave foreigners.  And an avowed restrictionist, Mark clearly thinks we have a right to prohibit foreigners from domestic labor and residential markets – even though plenty of natives are eager to trade with them.  Why, though, does Mark draw the line there?  While it is rhetorically convenient for him to dodge the question by calling it a “category error” or “meaningless,” he intellectually doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

So why not face the question instead of stonewalling?  I stand by my previous explanation: Mark thinks like a politician, not a truth-seeker.  To make his position intellectually credible, he’d have to say, “Foreigners’ welfare is of near-zero value.”  Unfortunately for him, this sounds terrible – and like most politicians, Mark hates to utter anything that sounds terrible.  Occasionally bullet-biting is essential for truth, but it’s bad for winning popularity contests.

I’m never nervous when I debate Mark; he has good manners and reminds me of my dad.  In contrast, I would be quite nervous even to be in the same room as a white nationalist.  They seem like sociopaths.  In terms of intellectual rigor, however, leading white nationalists far exceed Mark.  I naturally think they’re deeply wrong.  Still, if you want to construct an airtight argument for immigration restriction, your best bet is to build on the twin premises that (a) almost all immigrants are inferior to natives, and (b) the well-being of these inferior people is of little worth.

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Billionaires in a Free Market

Someone else having a billion dollars does no harm to you.

It very likely makes their life harder – not materially, but emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically – but it does nothing to make you worse off. If you feel less happy because you envy them, that is not caused by their billion dollars, but by your choice to judge yourself in dollars and against another person. That’s an unhappiness only you can fix by changing your orientation.

It is possible that someone obtained a billion dollars through violence. The most likely scenario is via collaboration with government, as it would be very difficult and very rare to do so violently without at least some state cooperation. Gaining wealth via government, which is always backed by the initiation of violence, causes harm to the world. Taxpayers and those prohibited from peaceful activity by monopoly protections are harmed.

But notice it’s the acts of theft and violence that do the harm, not the billion dollars itself. The having of the billion does not by itself cause harm, only if the process of obtaining it did. Then the problem is with that process, not the money.

One could use a billion dollars to do harmful things, like buy weapons to hurt people. But then the hurting of the people is doing the harm, not the holding or spending of the billion dollars.

There is no way in which another person having possession of a billion dollars can harm you. Outside the peaceful free market they may cause harm in obtaining it or use it to cause harm.

But if they obtained it via market means (no violence, just voluntary exchange) and use it on the market (again peacefully), not only does someone else getting, holding, or spending a billion dollars do the world no harm, it does tremendous good and creates value.

The only way to obtain money (absent force) is to take a resource valued at X, do something to it, and exchange it with someone who values it at >X. The > is the profit you earn, and also a measure of the minimum amount of value that was created. Value that did not exist prior to the exchange.

Even those who earn billions by investing in companies and then “doing nothing” while the company gains value are creating value. Not only by providing capital that the company needs to earn profit (create value), but the process of investing itself is so full of efforts and failures that it generates untold new information that makes the market better and better and innovating and creating new value. The billions earned on a few winning investments pale in comparison to the untold benefit created by all the failed investments that pushed ideas and products forward and created priceless info about what works and doesn’t.

So billionaires in a free market are no threat, and their wealth is likely a sign of tons of value created for you and others. This doesn’t make them morally good people or intellectual adept or fun or kind or anything else. It just means their existence is no threat and how they got their created benefit for others, intentionally or not.

Billionaires in an unfree market don’t harm you by mere fact of having a billion dollars, but they way they got it or what they use it for could.

Fight for freedom, not against others having arbitrary amounts of money.

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Changing Your Beliefs

I used to think people could change their beliefs.

I thought if people were presented with better information which showed the flaw in their belief, they would change their belief to fit the new information. I thought the process would be almost automatic.

After all, I’ve done it many times over the course of my life. I’ve also seen it happen in people I know. I know from personal experience that it can be done.

Sadly, it seems this isn’t as common as I had assumed.

In spite of overwhelming evidence, people still believe cops (and political government) are good and necessary– or, at least a “necessary evil” [sic]. They fear or hate anarchy without even understanding what it is. They imagine there’s such a thing as “too much liberty” and see it as a threat.

No amount of information, logic, or evidence to the contrary will budge them from their belief. They believe it, and that’s the end of it.

I realized the problem: even flawed beliefs based on bad information can still “work”. It’s not as dangerous to hold an erroneous belief as it seems it should be. So, as long as the belief isn’t causing them immediate agony or death, it’s less painful to hold onto it than to change it.

Therefore, I no longer expect better information to influence anyone, but I still put it out there so they’ll have no excuse. And I’ll still make fun of them for believing such ridiculous things.

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