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Tracy Wilkinson
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Patrick: You are of course free not to buy the slippery slope argument. As I have said, I believe in freedom of speech. However, in this case I think the slippery slope argument is valid, in my own lifetime I've seen the taxation of dietary fat move from being a reductio ad absurdum to being an apparently serious policy proposal. I've heard health professionals recommend laws restricting freedom of speech about medical research. I know that democratic countries have laws banning holocaust denial, or vice-versa calling the killings of Armenians in the 1920s a genocide. The truth or otherwise of an argument is independent of whether you agree with it or not, millions of people "don't buy" evolution, but that doesn't mean that the law of evolution is false. (Note, I am not claiming that my slippery slope argument here is as well supported as the law of evolution, just that the fact that someone says that they "don't buy" an argument doesn't necessarily mean that there's anything wrong about the argument itself, all it may mean is that they don't like the conclusion.) I notice that you don't present any actual argument as to what principle would limit the potential losses in freedom, under your proposal. You also don't make any response to my observation that since government is run by people, if people make irrational decisions then we can expect government to make irrational decisions. And yes, I do want to rig democracy to favour my preferences, who doesn't? I'm a citizen of a democracy, when I vote I am hoping that the person or party I'm voting for gets in. When I vote in a referendum on a particular policy issue, I hope that the side I prefer wins. I think democracies should extend voting rights regardless of gender, race or sexuality, because I think a country is a better place when the government must take all those people's views into account. When I argue in favour of a policy, or against, I do so because I hope to persuade other people to act democratically in a way that I prefer. You say that "nobody is proposing that we eliminate democracy", but the fact that you apparently think that there's something illegitimate about me wanting to rig democracy to favour my preferences, makes me wonder if your argument here does imply an ending to democracy. How could the democratic process work, if everyone was indifferent to what the outcome was? (That's a serious question, btw, because I do think you are in favour of democracy despite what you've said about my argument.)
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Patrick: "To what extent is this sort of objections based on fear of the prospect of being forced to not do things you'd rather continue doing?" If by "you'd" you mean the plural "you", I think to a very large extent. "Someone else's irrational preferences costs the rest of us money. So who wins? Do we dump universal tax funded health care, or does the state use its power to coerce people to behave differently?" If we had a rational government, then the logical answer would be the government. But we don't have rational government, what you don't mention in your analysis is that the state is made up of people. If people have irrational preferences in their own lives, I can think of no reason why they will suddenly be rational when running a government, or passing laws. (And we also know that even with perfectly rational voters, voting can produce irrational results). So we should expect a state to use its power to coerce people to behave irrationally form time to time, and indeed I can think of a lot of examples in history of them doing so (for a start, getting into a war was always a bad decision for the side that lost, sometimes arguably for both sides, and there have been a lot of wars). I am reasonably confident that some laws do make society better off than total anarchy. But on the other hand, we know in the past that governments have passed and enforced laws, such as those requiring religious conformity, or male patriarchy, or banning homosexual acts, on the basis that such laws were necessary for society to function, but our modern societies are happily getting along with a lot more freedom in those areas. So governments can be wrong about whether a particular set of laws are necessary. In terms of universal tax-funded healthcare, someone's rational preferences might also cost us a lot of money. For example, my brother (a non-smoker) was out cycling when a van turned right in front of him, leading to him getting a severe brain injury and costing the NZ government somewhere likely in the 100,000s of dollars range. He was wearing a helmet, and the doctors thought that without it he would have died, which, to be cold-hearted about it, would have been a lot cheaper for the NZ government. Was his decision to wear a helmet though, irrational, from his point of view? How about his decision to go road cycling rather than staying in the safety of a gym? How about his decision to enter a cycling road race which probably influenced his decision to be on the road rather than in a gym? "I think it's perfectly legitimate to democratically decide that, in return for the benefit of public health care, people give-up some freedom and have some responsibility imposed on them. " I would prefer for it to be rather illegitimate, as the potential loss of freedom in return for public health care strikes me as unending. What human behaviours don't have an influence on health? Speech can hurt people mentally, requiring mental health services and thus public expenditure, and quite arguably speech has contributed to some people with good persuasive skills getting into positions of power beyond their competence (as a Kiwi, my example is Winston Peters, you can probably think of a politician from your own country), so by your principle it would be legitimate to restrict freedom of speech. Freedom of religion - some religious practices impose health care costs (how many people are hit by cars while travelling to church?), so it would be legitimate to restrict that. Freedom of association - battered spouses do often require hospital care, so the state should be able to make decisions about who gets to associate with who. Of course, I believe in freedom of speech, so I think you should be able to make some arguments in favour of restricting anything. But overall I'd prefer to live in a country where the constitution (be that written and/or in people's hearts) was such as to require a very high level of consensus to pass such laws, and to keep them on the books). I'd rather pay higher taxes for publicly-funded healthcare than give up on freedom whenever someone comes up with a plausible-sounding argument that exercising a freedom increases healthcare. Especially given all the evidence that we're likely to be making irrational choices ourselves.
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K: Maybe 5, 10 years ago, I would have thought like you, and defended the social sciences that way. But I've been reading more and more results of scientists' research into people's irrationality, and now I have my doubts. How do I know that the principal consumers of that research have that strong incentive to disprove it, am I possibly being subject to availability bias? Do I value the opinions of scientists and skeptics above those of creationists, aromatherapists and philosophers because the arguments are better, or because I've chosen to identify with those groups for non-rational reasons? And note, particularly, we're talking about the social sciences here. Cold fusion belongs to the hard sciences - where often engineers can and will try to build something using that principle. A really good reason for thinking that evolution can work is that engineers use evolutionary algorithms. With the social sciences, it's harder to think of places where attempts to use the information in social engineering produce results that are clearly incompatible with the theory. Government programmes typically are implemented, have different results than expected, which the opponents proclaim as clear evidence of the failure of the programme, and the proponents say merely shows that the programme wasn't implemented right. One can still come across people who argue that a centrally-planned economy could work, what the collapse of Communism merely showed was the collapse of that particular system. "If you think that a believing in science is equivalent to accepting any random idea on authority, I don't think you have thought about how science functions." I don't even know what you mean by "believing in science", so I am unable to apply this idea to myself. I can believe in some scientific results, the Laws of Thermodynamics I believe in. I can believe that the process of science is better as a way of finding things out than any other way I know about (at least when mathematics cannot be applied). But I don't know whether this adds up to "believing in science", I certainly don't believe in every result that is claimed to be scientific, and indeed I think that such an attitude would be the opposite of scientific. However, as I said in my reply to Patrick, my problems with the research into irrationality come from my being inclined to accept those *particular* scientific results. If you have some good reasons why this research is wrong, I would be delighted to hear them.
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Min: "Furthermore, to show that people are irrational, the scientists have to show what is rational, and that means that the scientists and their audience have to be rational. " No, all the scientists have to do is to convince themselves, and their audience, that they have shown what is rational. Patrick: I agree with you that evidence of irrationality doesn't deserve any special skepticism. And in fact, my problems come from the fact that I am inclined to accept it as being right (and, on top of that, my inability to think of any compelling reason why said evidence should not be applied to itself). If I thought that the scientists just had gotten this research wrong, like homeopathists, I at least would be saved these doubts about my own rationality. I agree with you that there's no problem in principle why it would be illegitimate for people to chose to implement policies that force them to be 'rational', such as Frances Woolley putting cookies in the opaque container. Where I do see the illegitimacy is in deciding to implement policies for other people to force them to be 'rational', as the people doing the forcing are apparently as likely to be irrational as the people being forced.
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Sep 2, 2011