Monday, 12 November 2012

Against Democracy: My quick intro to rational ignorance and rational irrationality

A few days ago I wrote up a quick intro to two important ideas from public choice theory for the benefit of a group of Facebook friends involved in such projects as and Public choice theory is relevant to such projects insofar as they are intended to eventually affect public policy, or to provide effective methods of rational truth-finding and decision-making.

I repost that same text here, sans some of the major typos:


1. This stuff pertains to public choice theory, which is defined by Wikipedia as: "the use of modern economic tools to study problems that traditionally are in the province of political science. From the perspective of political science, it is the subset of positive political theory that models voters, politicians, and bureaucrats as mainly self-interested."

2. An important point for much of the theory of public choice in democracies is the fact that the probability that any individual's vote will affect the outcome of the election is generally negligible. For example, in U.S. presidential elections, the probability that your vote will affect the election's outcome is comparable to that of winning the lottery seventy seven times in a row. This is because your vote only makes a difference if all the other votes happen to be exactly tied, so that your vote turns out to be the deciding vote - or perhaps if your vote happens to be the one leading to an exact tie!

3. RATIONAL IGNORANCE: According to Wikipedia, "The term was coined by Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy". Wiki sez: "Rational ignorance occurs when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide." Applied to democracy, voters are to be expected to be rationally ignorant about the issues they vote on. This is because, since their vote almost certainly won't change policy, they have nothing to gain from making an informed vote rather than an uninformed one. On the other hand, the cost of informing themselves is considerable. Some people enjoy informing themselves about such issues, but they are a small minority.

4. Empirically, voters really are very ignorant about politics and economics. They are least ignorant about the aspects of politics that are the most entertaining.

5. Donald Wittman, in The Myth of Democratic Failure, has defended democracy against many of the usual criticisms from public choice theorists. One argument he makes in the book is that, because of the miracle of aggregation, rational ignorance is not actually a problem: provided that people are merely ignorant and not systematically biased, their mistakes should cancel out. Also, if you assume that 5% of the electorate is well-informed on the relevant issues, you could argue that those 5% effectively decide the outcome of the election, whereas the votes of the other 95%, which are randomly distributed, cancel each other out.

6. Bryan Caplan, who credits Donald Wittman with "waking [him] from [his] dogmatic slumbers in political economy" (echoing Kant re: Hume), has compiled empirical evidence that voters are, in fact, systematically biased, thus concluding that Wittman's argument is valid but not sound. In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Caplan identifies four main widespread biases about economics: "Make-work bias", "Anti-foreign bias", "Pessimistic bias", "Anti-market bias".

7. The term RATIONAL IRRATIONALITY, coined by Bryan Caplan, sounds all kinds of oxymoronic, but the two occurrences of "rational" in the phrase refer to two different kinds of rationality:

a. Epistemic rationality: "forming beliefs in truth-conducive ways"

b. Instrumental rationality: "choosing effective means to attain one's goals, given one's beliefs"

8. So while the idea of rational ignorance is that it is *instrumentally* rational to be ignorant, the idea of rational irrationality is that it is *instrumentally* rational to be *epistemically* irrational.

9. The costs of overcoming ignorance are generally high because studying the relevant issues takes time and effort. The costs of overcoming epistemic irrationality are generally high whenever people simply *enjoy* being epistemically irrational. Bryan Caplan argues that people have "preferences over beliefs": there are beliefs that people just like to hold whether they are true or not, and giving them up would be emotionally costly to them - often extremely costly. So if the expected rewards from giving them up aren't high enough, they won't.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Freedomain Radio in the news again: Molyneux's wife reprimanded by the College of Psychologists of Ontario

This blog still regularly gets visits from people who have questions about Freedomain Radio, so I'm going to "cover" the news about the College of Psychologists of Ontario's reprimanding Stefan Molyneux's wife, Christina, a practicing psychotherapist, for publicly giving the same kind of self-help advice that Stef gives on his podcast. You will not hear about this on the premises of Freedomain Radio, at least not on any of the forums and podcasts that are available to non-donators, as forum posts that make any mention of this are immediately deleted (more on this later).
On the face of it, this piece of news sheds a bad light on Freedomain Radio, but whether unfavourable conclusions about Stef's output should really be drawn from it is actually debatable, and I do not want to just use this as a weapon to discredit FDR as much as possible. I'm writing about this because I hope it will be useful to some people in assessing Stefan's legitimate authority on questions of how the human mind works (with all their practical implications).

The news:

Stef's wife, Christina, is a psychotherapist. That profession is subject to licensing in Canada, and thus Christina is a member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario (CPO) and needs to comply with their rules in order to be allowed to work as a therapist. Four days ago, she has pleaded guilty to charges of professional misconduct, and the CPO have now imposed some sanctions upon her, including a six month suspension of her license and the requirement that she undergo additional mentoring and training for the period of one year, at her expense.

Christina used to actively participate in Stef's Freedomain Radio podcast. She admitted to being somewhat uncomfortable with this kind of public exposure, but her participation was actively solicited by listeners who were interested in getting advice from a psychotherapist, especially one whose world view was in line with Stef's. Thus Christina was featured, most prominently, in a series of podcasts called "Ask a Therapist", in which Stef and Christina read emails from listeners and gave their opinions and advice.

In 2009, a complaint against Christina was filed with the CPO. Presumably, the complaint was that Christina had encouraged specific listeners of the podcast to cut ties with their families (to "deFOO", in FDR lingo, where FOO stands for family of origin) while relying on her status as a licensed therapist - or at least that was part of the complaint. A similar complaint was filed in 2011. And the hearing finally took place on 30 October 2012, from what I gather.

Ever since the first complaint was filed, all the podcasts in which Christina had participated have been pulled from the website, and any mention of their disappearance on the FDR forum has been suppressed (i.e. the posts were quickly deleted). Among the podcasts that were pulled was one - the most recent one, I imagine - in which the couple talked about Christina's concerns that she would face repercussions from the CPO for the advice she had given on the podcast and, more generally, for the role she had played in shaping some of Stef's core positions, such as the idea that the reason why most people are not anarcho-capitalists is because they were abused by their parents. No explanation has since been provided to listeners who wanted to know why that material was no longer available.

A succinct, matter of fact article about this has been published in The Globe and Mail. The CPO's website provides further details about the case and about the CPO's reasons for the penalty, and states that "The panel's written reasons are pending".

The CPO's statement on the Public Register makes it clear that the allegations against Christina are not limited to her encouraging listeners to deFOO:
The Member made general statements and provided advice, both in general terms and directed towards particular individuals, that are not supported by current professional literature or consistent with the Standards. One example is the following statement, made in the context of answering a question regarding whether some people are better off single than coupled. The Member replied: (...)
"Given how dysfunctional many people are in today’s society, I’d say that it is better for them to be single. In fact I do counsel a lot of my clients not to date while they're going through the process of therapy, because it is far too difficult to manage a relationship while you're trying to figure yourself out, and often times those relationships will end up failing.”
Another example is the following statement, made in response to a question about why someone was attracted to women who were not interested in a romantic relationship: 
“I would say that it’s because he questions himself that he ends up choosing women who are not interested in him, or – not necessarily interested in him, who are not emotionally available or whom move him directly into a guy friend status. There’s part of you, my dear friend, that doesn't think you are worthy of having that level of intimacy, or that level of connectedness with someone. There’s a part of you, I think, that’s also quite afraid of it so you’re drawn to people who aren't going to be able to give it to you.” 
It also makes it clear that the CPO does not categorically oppose therapists' recommending to people that they deFOO:
While it may be appropriate to recommend family separation in cases of abuse, the Member did not obtain a sufficient history to ascertain whether the advice was warranted in the circumstances discussed in the podcasts. Although the Member advised that listeners seek professional help in their home communities on a number of occasions, she acknowledges that this advice was given in the absence of any meeting or proper assessment, and there was significant risk of misunderstanding by members of the public and the individuals to whom the Member directed advice and comments and such misunderstandings posed a risk of harm.
 A friend of mine has posted a link to this CPO webpage on the FDR forum, and the post was promptly deleted. I imagine they must have been deleting quite a few such posts since this news came out. As I have already mentioned, though, this systematic deleting of any statement or question that would bring up the formal complaints against Christina has been going on for years, so this is not a new thing.

So much for the mere facts of the matter. I will give some of my thoughts in the next blog post, as this one's getting quite long. Feel free to contact me :)