Monday, November 1, 2010

Is stupidity dangerous? - Part I

I was talking to a friend about why I don't like people who study serious topics but don't really care whether they get the right answer to the question they're asking.

When I write it, it sounds so ridiculous that it's hard to believe anyone would do it. So I'm going to write one blog on how it happens and come back to the question of whether it's dangerous in the next blog.

Here is the key fact. It's usually harder to tell if your argument is correct than to make a correct one. It's hard to think up proofs in math, but it's much harder to check whether proofs are right. It's easy to give an opinion on a philosophical topic that is logically coherent. It's harder to check an argument for consistency.

This isn't always the case. It's easier to check if a solution (x,y) to a system of equations is correct than to find a solution, and it's easier to check the dates of important historical events than to remember them.

But in general, where arguments are concerned, it's easier to make a correct argument than to verify the correctness of one.

The result is that there are a lot of people who are capable of making correct arguments (and, also, incorrect ones) but can't verify is there argument makes sense. They understand enough about logic and cost-benefit analysis and regressions to weave some evidence together, but not enough to just the evidence on the whole for themselves.

In Washington these people are tasked with writing briefs and memos and sometimes giving presentations on topics, and they give them. But since they are incapable of assessing their arguments, and often most of their audience is equally incapable (their bosses, the voters in congress are often less informed than they are!), sometimes bad arguments spread.

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