An interesting post on The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog:
DAVID FRUM quotes the following passage of Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010″, in the midst of a long, scathing review (about which I here enter no opinion):
Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.
I found this exceedingly odd. I can easily imagine what evidence would cause me to change my position on any of these issues. How about you?
The author, W.W. (The Economist‘s tradition of editorial anonymity extends even to its blogs), goes on to address each above-mentioned issue individually. On marijuana and same-sex marriage, for example:
Legalisation of marijuana. I support legal weed! If it were shown that marijuana is super-addictive, impossible to use responsibly, and that its users predictably harm others and/or egregiously harm themselves, I’d support something in the neighbourhood of status quo prohibition.
Same-sex marriage. I’m so pro, I almost wish I were gay so I could have one. If compelling evidence were unearthed that showed that widespread same-sex marriage really would precipitate the unraveling of the traditional family and subsequently the stability of society and the ruin of us all, I suppose I’d settle for the right of same-sex couples to shack up.
This all leads to the conclusion—not stated outright, but implied—that if you can’t imagine yourself similarly reversing course, you’re probably doing something wrong.
I’m not convinced. I’m not overly interested in taking a utilitarian approach to policy issues to begin with, except to the extent that I’m not sure there can ever be an overall societal benefit to prohibiting a behavior that causes no direct harm to others, and thus libertarianism is utilitarian, but that’s neither here nor there. W.W. tries to circumvent the libertarian argument by describing a hypothetical world where pot is “impossible to use responsibly” and “predictably” leads to others being harmed—a level of dangerousness that makes prohibition seem defensible, if not imperative, but is also absurdly out of line with everything I’ve ever read or observed about marijuana.
And it’s the same with marriage—sure, W.W. would reconsider, given “compelling evidence” of the imminent “unraveling of the traditional family,” leading of course to “the ruin of us all.” And that evidence should be surfacing any day now, right? There’s nothing especially open-minded about saying, “if a thing turned out to be different from what I thought it was in every meaningful way, then perhaps I’d think about it differently.”
Underwhelmed by The Economist, I clicked on David Frum’s “scathing review” of Murray’s book. Here’s what Frum had to say in response to the above-quoted excerpt:
[I]f you announce that there can exist no possible information that might change your mind about abortion, the death penalty, marijuana, same-sex marriage, and the inheritance tax, then yes you are an unreasonable person—or anyway, an unreasoning one. I’ve changed my mind about same-sex marriage as experience has dispelled my fears of the harms from same-sex marriage. If somebody could prove to me that marijuana was harmless or that legalization would not lead to an increase in marijuana use, I’d change my mind about marijuana legalization. And so on through the list.
I try to be careful about speaking in absolutes, but I’m almost willing to here, because I have a very hard time imagining a set of circumstances that would change my view on same-sex marriage (or, to an only marginally lesser extent, the death penalty or marijuana), which to Frum makes me an “unreasoning” person. And yet, his evidence that he, by contrast, is a reasoning person, is that his view on marriage—to which considerable thought has been devoted, I presume—is in accordance with mine, and has been for almost eight months now. So is it that I need to be more willing to objectively assess the evidence and challenge my assumptions? Or is it that I’m just right, and I happened to get there before David Frum did?
I think everyone agrees that being willing and able to challenge your beliefs is a very good thing, but what’s being lost here is that you still have to be realistic about it. Several of W.W.’s examples only make sense in an alternate reality that in no way resembles our own, both in terms of what the evidence is and the likelihood of that evidence unambiguously supporting a particular conclusion. Frum, meanwhile, turns Murray’s measured language into hyperbole (“if you announce that there can exist no possible information that might change your mind…”), then pats himself on the back for deciding to support same-sex marriage and for being open to supporting marijuana legalization, and good for him on both counts, but those are two positions for which popular support has substantially increased in recent years, and with good reason. A cynic might ask what took him so long.
And I’ll leave it there, because apparently this is merely the latest chapter in an ongoing feud between Frum and Murray, and I have no interest in going down that rabbit hole. But the question—what would cause you to change a strongly held opinion, and when, if ever, is “nothing” an appropriate answer?—remains an interesting one, and undoubtedly there are better answers out there than what I’ve seen so far.