A Defense Against Mood Affiliation

Start with the proposition that outrage/support/passion should be proportional to knowledge. In other words, I should not be angry about something I know little about. Proceed through the following questions to assess how angry/supportive you should be (mainly relevant to issues of public policy):

1. Can I answer the next logical question to my statement? For example, if I am passionate that rich people do not pay enough in taxes can I answer the next obvious question, “How much do rich people pay in taxes?”

 

2. If I answered “yes” to #1 can I extend my knowledge one  step further and answer, “What do poor people pay in taxes? What do people in general pay?”

 

3. Take another step. Do I know the working definition of key terms? For instance, what does “effective marginal tax rate” mean or “proven oil reserves” or even “income”?

 

4. …and one more step, “Have I ever in my life read a single academic article/working paper/or think tank report about the issue?

 

5a. Now take a big leap toward knowledge about the subject more generally. What portion of the issue do I know (divide what I know by what is known)?

5b. Do I know enough to accurately estimate the denominator of 4a? 

If I believe FDR was the greatest American President presumably I should know a significant amount about the other 43 presidents. But knowing the number of US presidents is easy. Figuring how the evidence in support of different views on, say, income inequality or the minimum wage is more difficult. It’s hard for a layperson to even scope the amount of knowledge in existence. 4b is the step many otherwise well-educated people will fail. 

 

6a. What evidence would need to be presented for me to change my mind?

6b. Does that evidence already exist?

6c. Am I  sure (think again about step 4b)?

 

7a. Are there smart, knowledgeable people who disagree with me?

7b. What is their argument, how would I respond to it, and how would they respond to my response?

 

Select an issue at random. I would argue that with probability near 1 it cannot pass through the preceding sieve and remain unscathed even if conducted by an expert in the field. Most issues are extremely complicated. Most intellectuals will argue that “reasonable people can disagree.” Yet many less informed citizens would argue “anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot.” Next time you find yourself wanting to scream that at the top of your lungs try to answer the questions above. Maybe you’ll realize you’re not as sure as you think.

 

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