Strong opinions, weakly held

Anthropological evidence, or fairness if you prefer

Tyler Cowen has a great post on the willingness of arguers on both sides of any debate to ascribe motivation to their interlocutors without any evidence of those motivations:

I’d like to propose a new research convention. Anytime a writer or blogger talks about what The Right or The Left (or some subset thereof) really wants or means, I’d like them to list their personal anthropological experience with the subjects under consideration. Davies presents Friedman as a shill for the Republican Party; I’d like to know how many (public or non-public) conversations he has had with Friedman about the topic of the Republican Party. I’ve been present for a few, and while I’m open to feedback from Davies, my guess reading his post is that he hasn’t been there for any. Yet he writes with a tone of certitude: “it’s clearly not intellectual honesty that makes American liberals act pretend that Milton Friedman wasn’t a party line Republican hack.”

And he wraps it up with:

It is sad that anthropological research has such a low status among so many smart people. It is fashionable to open up data sets for replication. So let’s do the same for research into ideology or even just proclamations about the ideology of others, especially those you disagree with. Tell us how much field work you did, who you did it with, how much they trusted you, and what you wish you could have done but didn’t. That is easy enough in the on-line world.

Fred Clark made a similar point back in March. He noticed that 84% of right wing bloggers surveyed believed that Democrats in Congress want the U.S. to lose the war in Iraq for political reasons. I’ll quote him:

Civility requires — that is, is impossible without — a presumption of charity. This is as fundamental to honest and meaningful conversation as the similar principle, the presumption of innocence, is to the legal system. Yet here are 84 percent of right-wing bloggers surveyed cheerily admitting that they view anyone who disagrees with them as guilty until proven innocent. Not just guilty, but treasonous, reprobate, evil.

This underscores why civility means so much more than politeness or decorum. Incivility of this degree renders conversation impossible. If you begin with the presumption that those you are talking to do not mean what they say then you have no basis for listening or responding to them. Their words, and the intent of those words, cannot be trusted. All that matters is their malevolent secret agenda, which of course they will deny because they are malicious liars.

This is from the guidelines for Wikipedia editors:

Assuming good faith is about intention, not action. Well-meaning persons make mistakes, and you should correct them when they do. You should not act as if their mistakes were deliberate. Correct, but do not scold. There will be people on Wikipedia with whom you disagree. Even if they are wrong, that does not mean they are trying to wreck the project. There will be some people with whom you find it hard to work. That does not mean they are trying to wreck the project either. It is never necessary that we attribute an editor’s actions to bad faith, even if bad faith seems obvious, as all our countermeasures (i.e. reverting, blocking) can be performed on the basis of behavior rather than intent.

This guideline does not require that editors continue to assume good faith in the presence of evidence to the contrary. Actions inconsistent with good faith include repeated vandalism, confirmed malicious sockpuppetry, and lying. Assuming good faith also does not mean that no action by editors should be criticized, but instead that criticism should not be attributed to malice unless there is specific evidence of malice.

This also ties into Larry Lessig’s crusade against corruption.

Sadly, there are entire industries built on the presumption of bad faith. Bill O’Reilly’s accusations that there is a war on Christmas center on the idea that people are out to get a holiday for some nefarious reason, even though it’s obvious that he’s reporting on a series of unrelated bureaucratic overreaches.

The bottom line: if you find yourself assuming bad faith on the part of someone you disagree with absent concrete evidence of its existence, you probably need to take a step back.


  1. Like I’m gonna believe anything you say.

  2. All good points, but — when there are reams of evidence that racism, say, or misogyny, is a driver or underlies much of what a particular group (or political party) espouses, isn’t it irresponsible (in fact, enabling) to ignore that and just accept the sanitized face-value version of what’s being espoused?

  3. Starting out a conversation by assuming good intentions on the part of the other works (is crucial actually) for real communication on an interpersonal level. How that extends to blogging or (even more) public figures and talking heads remains to be seen, but a healthy dose of scepticism is certainly comfortable for me in those cases.

  4. Sadly, there are entire industries built on the presumption of bad faith.

    Like the arms industry?

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