Tyler Cowen tweets on “understanding the Right,” and argues that Douthat is one of the few who passes the intellectual Turing test on this issue.
Ross Douthat on understanding the Right, , most others are failing the intellectual Turing test.
— tylercowen (@tylercowen) October 2, 2013
The intellectual Turing test is based on the original Turing test. In an original Turing test, a judge communicates with an unseen subject that is either man or computer. The test is meant as an assessment of a computer’s level of artificial intelligence; if the judge cannot reliably tell the difference between human responses and those of the computer, then the computer can be said to have passed. (The answers it gives to do not have to be correct , they just need to resemble the answers that humans would give to the same questions.)
As far as the intellectual Turing test goes, the idea here isn’t to establish that the subject is human but rather that he understands the positions of his intellectual opponents, and can restate them in a manner that they themselves would recognize. Bryan Caplan gives a model for what a very simple intellectual Turing test would look like:
We don’t have to idly speculate about how well adherents of various ideologies understand each other. We can measure the performance of anyone inclined to boast about his superior insight.
How? Here’s just one approach. Put me and five random liberal social science Ph.D.s in a chat room. Let liberal readers ask questions for an hour, then vote on who isn’t really a liberal.
The point isn’t so much that anyone actually does this, but rather that people concerned with truth and ideas should always be striving to be able to pass. It also works as a rough estimation of how credible somebody else is on any given topic of debate. Should I really be putting that much stock into what this guy says? Does he really seem to understand all of the arguments that he’s dismissing, or would he fail the intellectual Turing test? Things like that.
This brings us back to Cowen’s tweet. Cowen claims that many of the pundits who’ve been lambasting Republicans and conservatives over the last few days would fail an intellectual Turing test, and I have to admit that I’m tempted to agree with him.
Now, although I am sure that there must be some Republicans out there who have less-than-wholesome motivations for supporting a government shutdown and opposing the Affordable Care Act, I think that a lot of commentary that has been produced on this over the past few days has failed to make a serious attempt to understand the other side. I’ll provide a brief example. One thing I’ve heard a lot is that if the Republicans truly believe that the Affordable Care Act will be a disaster, then they should allow it to go into effect, because this would prove their point and give them grounds for repeal.
I have a few problems with this argument (it ignores how difficult it becomes to repeal a program once it is put into place, for instance), but I just want to point out here that this position is only consistent as long as you sincerely believe that Republicans care more about being right than they do about trying to improve medicine in America. Otherwise, this is an extremely bizarre argument to make. If Republicans truly believe that the ACA will be a disaster for the delivery of health care in America, and if any of them cared at all about other people, then the last thing they’d do would be to allow the law to go into effect just to prove a point. And, although I’m sure that there are some Republicans who care only about their own reputations, is it really plausible to suggest that every single one of them is actually that disingenuous? Doesn’t that seem oddly convenient?
If you really want to be fair on this, try flipping the argument around, and this time apply it to whichever side you tend to favor:
If Democrats are so against the sequester, then they should allow it to go into effect.
If Democrats are so against school vouchers, then they should allow them to go into effect.
If Democrats are so against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, then they should allow it to take place.
If libertarians are so against the War on Drugs, then they should allow it to continue.
If communists are so against private ownership of the means of production, then they should allow everything to be privatized.
These arguments are absurd. Most honest Democrats oppose those things because they’re convinced that they would be harmful to people. Likewise, a lot of honest Republicans are fighting programs and politics that they’re convinced would be harmful to people. There are plenty of legitimate objections to the Republican/Democratic/libertarian/communist point of view on any given topic, but I don’t think the above arguments make any sense at all unless you totally write off your intellectual opponents from the beginning.
In which case, maybe it’s not their point of view that needs reexamining.