Should we trust or distrust the dogmatic?

by on June 30, 2010 at 9:33 am in Economics, Education, Religion | Permalink

Paul, a loyal MR reader, writes to me and queries:

…would or should knowing that someone is deeply religious affect your assessment of the reliability of their economic judgments? I used to think not, but in the last couple of years have been gradually changing my mind. The financial crisis has brought out how many serious macro and micro misjudgments were due in part to the unwillingness of economists to re-examine cherished foundational beliefs. I now view with even greater suspicion than before any adherence to the idea that faith provides a justification for ignoring logic and evidence. But the paradox is that I have no actual evidence that religious economists were more likely than secular ones to cling to foundational economic hypotheses in the face of considerations that should have led them to change their minds. It is even imaginable that they were less likely to do so, since secular economists might have exercised similar failures of reasoning about non-theological issues. That is, antipathy to metaphysical reason might be a substitute for antipathy to economic reason, instead of being a complement as I have been presuming. Can anyone provide anecdotal or statistical evidence on this?

I don't know of any systematic evidence, but often I favor portfolio models of dogmatism (by the way, don't argue in the comments about whether religion is necessarily dogmatism; that's not the relevant point here and I'll delete discussion of that.  If you wish just treat this as a discussion of dogmatism).

That is, most people have an internal psychological need to fulfill a "quota of dogmatism."  If you're very dogmatic in one area, you may be less dogmatic in others.  I've also met people — I won't name names — who are extremely dogmatic on ethical issues but quite open-minded on empirics.  The ethical dogmatism frees them up to follow the evidence on the empirics, as they don't feel their overall beliefs are threatened by the empirical results.

Some people, if they feel they must always follow the evidence, respond by skewing their interpretation of that evidence.

There's a lesson here.  If you wish to be a more open-minded thinker, adhere to some extreme and perhaps unreasonable fandoms, the more firmly believed the better and the more obscure the area the better.  This will help fulfill your dogmatism quota, yet without much skewing your more important beliefs.

An alternative view is that people become addicted to dogmatism and the dogmatic habits spread to many more realms of their thought.  I believe this alternative model is true above some margin of dogmatism and also if the dogmatism infects the "wrong areas of thought."

I would like to know more about what the dogmatism portfolio looks like and what are the relevant coefficients of substitution and complementarity.

I believe in portfolio models of dogmatism very very strongly. 

1 Eivind June 30, 2010 at 9:39 am

You seem to argue, that everyone has the same “quota” of dogmatism, and that thus, if you are less dogmatic on one area, you “must” compensate by being more so on some other area.

This seems highly unlikely, and indeed I would think the correlation is the oposite: the person who is less dogmatic on area A is likely to be so on area B too, not the oposite, as you seem to be arguing.

2 sg June 30, 2010 at 9:40 am

“I believe in portfolio models of dogmatism very very strongly.”

Brilliant.

3 Noah Yetter June 30, 2010 at 9:43 am

I now view with even greater suspicion than before any adherence to the idea that faith provides a justification for ignoring logic and evidence.

Faith (in anything, not just a god) does not “provide a justification for ignoring logic and evidence,” faith IS ignoring logic and evidence. It is the pure denial of reason.

4 Edward Burke June 30, 2010 at 9:56 am

Faith, the pure denial of reason? Ahhh, the dulcet tones of dogmatic rationalism . . . !

TC: I know you habitually cite your “loyal MR reader(s)”, but in this case couldn’t you have cited Paul as a “faithful MR reader”? or were you being reflexively dogmatic in introducing this post?

5 scarytall June 30, 2010 at 10:10 am

“I now view with even greater suspicion than before any adherence to the idea that faith provides a justification for ignoring logic and evidence.”

We need, then, to define faith. ‘Faith’ that relies on logic and evidence is not faith: it’s observation or deduction. As another poster said, faith works specifically in the absence of or in spite of logic and evidence.

Criticizing faith for not being reasonable is like criticizing a square for not being round. It’s a true statement that entirely misses the point.

The problem is that people often misapply faith. They either place their faith in the wrong place (faith always has an object), or they misappropriate their faith in A by applying it inappropriately to B.

There are things that we do based on faith, and there are things worth being dogmatic about. The key is choosing those things carefully and applying them well.

But I suppose that’s true of any discipline. There’s a lot of bad science out there.

6 Rbarr June 30, 2010 at 10:23 am

This is consistent with my experience with East Germans. Many are anti-religious to the point of thinking religious people are inherently stupid. On the other hand, they dogmatically cling to socialist or passivist principles against all evidence.
I tend to agree that the curve may change, but space beneath remains the same. I expect that the “quota” varies among individuals.

7 Yancey Ward June 30, 2010 at 10:51 am

We all have our religions- atheists and nonatheists alike.

Open-minded thinkers? They are few and far between.

8 Sean June 30, 2010 at 11:22 am

For what it’s worth, I went to Grove City College which, aside from being militantly free market and teaching almost purely Austrian Economics, is also very religiously conservative. There I saw instances where dogmatism in one area created it in another. Case in point: One paper put out by a former prof of mine argued that global warming could not be real because man does not have such power to destroy the perfection of God’s creation. For or against GW, this is not a valid argument.

On the other hand, I witnessed many students and professors who, coming from the same theological root, reached very different political and economic ends. The gamut of opinion ranged from complete anarcho-capitalists who believed that man was incapable of ruling man in accordance with God’s will, to those willing to institute any sort of authoritarian government to realize God’s plan for His
world.

On the other hand, it was always interesting to meet free market thinkers from around the world at our annual conferences who were either agnostic or outright atheists. Starting from very different places theologically, they had reached the same conclusion in terms of economics and government.

Point being, religious (or areligious) dogmatism does not necessarily translate into any specific set of economic beliefs. We all become most dogmatic about the things in which we are most deeply emotionally invested and build internal bridges between our dogmas of various subjects. I think one could hardly call Krugman a religious dogmatist, but he certainly defends his economic views like one!

9 Bill June 30, 2010 at 11:41 am

There are two types of reasoning that support belief: inductive and deductive.

Inductive reasoning by a dogmatic ignores inconsistent evidence, and only looks for evidence supporting a belief. Deductive reasoning by a dogmatist relies on untested assumptions, or ignores challenges to assumptions.

Either way, dogmatists miss the world.

I vote for pragmatism and realism. The world is not either or.

10 Edward Burke June 30, 2010 at 11:59 am

One digression on the historical development of “religious dogma”: while in 21st century America “dogmatic” conventionally connotes “uncritical thought” (in those case where “dogmatic” does not in truth denote “uncritical thought”), it pays to recall that the formal declarations of dogmas of faith in the history of Christianism did not commence until the fourth century, with the convocations of the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Councils. The dogmatic professions emerging from these Councils were the results of three centuries of argument concerning the nature and identity of Christ, the mystery of the Trinity, scriptural exegesis, the nature of the Church, et cetera. Whereas Catholic Christians today are compelled by the structure of time and history to rely on dogmas dating from the fourth century as authoritative preambles–as bases from which to argue–the dogmas themselves were the authoritative results or summaries of almost three hundred years of wide-ranging and long-standing disputes and differences of theological opinion and theological reasoning, both from within the Catholic Church and resulting partly from disputations with Jews, pagans, and non-Catholic Christians (e.g., docetist, “gnostic”, and montanist groups, just for the second century). Are we allowing is this discussion consideration that “dogma” equally well connotes (or denotes) “trusted or tested summary”?
To simply equate “dogmatism” with “uncritical religious thought” would seem to require us to at least consider giving the terms “Ptolemaic dogmatism”, “Galenian dogmatism”, “Baconian dogmatism”, “Cartesian dogmatism”, or “Newtonian dogmatism” due prominence in discussions of the history of science (although in the latter case, we might want to further distinguish Newton’s “scientific” thought from his vast investigations into “alchemy”, which played their own role in the development of his notions concerning gravity and celestial mechanics; granted, Sir Isaac may have exposed himself to mercury poisoning along the way, but still . . . .).

11 William Barghest June 30, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Sometimes you must assume some crazy stuff in order to get somewhere, for instance the idea that nature follows the forms of mathematics was dogma among the Pythagoreans, but ended up giving us physics. If everyone along the line was forced to be “reasonable” the idea would’t have hung on long enough for anyone to figure out that it actually works in several important areas.

12 Dan June 30, 2010 at 12:56 pm

We should be careful that what we define as dogmatic may reflect more our own biases than the beliefs of others.

And no, I have not observed the portfolio theory of dogmatism you described. Quite the opposite. However, my experience is anecdotal, not systematic.

13 JS Allen June 30, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Islamic banks weathered the storm far better than western banks, because they dogmatically think that leverage is bad.

New York Times reported that evangelical Christians were less likely to get burned by the housing crisis: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/30/houses-of-god-did-evangelicals-curb-the-housing-bubble/

This is supposedly because they dogmatically expect the apocalypse.

14 berger June 30, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Not sure if the people questioning whether religious people can trusted to do economic research have heard of Robert Aumann…

15 John 4 June 30, 2010 at 3:24 pm

To make a tired point, faith is most certainly not, by definition, opposed to reason. That view has become prominent in the somewhat recent history of Christianity, but the dominant view for the bulk of history was that faith does not oppose reason at all. Furthermore, this is still the teaching of what is, by far, the most populous form of Christianity (Roman Catholicism).

16 Rich Berger June 30, 2010 at 4:01 pm

“I would like to know more about what the dogmatism portfolio looks like and what are the relevant coefficients of substitution and complementarity.

I believe in portfolio models of dogmatism very very strongly.”

Ha-ha.

17 Steve Sailer June 30, 2010 at 5:01 pm

“I’ve also met people — I won’t name names — who are extremely dogmatic on ethical issues but quite open-minded on empirics.”

Let’s take the most important example of angry dogmatism in the intellectual world today: the dogma of intelligence equality across racial groups, over which heretics like James D. Watson are routinely hounded. In support of Tyler’s observation, I’ve noticed that Noam Chomsky, who tends toward extreme dogmatism on foreign policy ethics, is more open-minded on the empirics of race-IQ than similar leftist intellectuals. Chomsky is more open-minded on the empirical issues because his commitment to egalitarianism ethically is so much stronger than, say, Stephen Jay Gould’s was.

18 Sigivald June 30, 2010 at 7:49 pm

What Rbarr said.

Religious people have a dogmatic belief that’s easily seen and against the “norm” for some social groups; that makes it appear aberrant.

I’ve met any number of non-religious or anti-religious people just as dogmatic and un-rational about things that were simply less apparent in casual conversation.

(Communists, for instance, don’t say “God bless you!”… and there’s not even a Red equivalent, really.)

19 TomG June 30, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Of relevance, perhaps: http://mises.org/daily/846

20 Albert Farangh June 30, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Dogmatism is a mental defect.
We should not trust the thinking or the judgment of such a person.
This, however, does not mean that they are always wrong.
Complexity makes it impossible to calculate the effects of this (and most other) malfunctions.
Sorry, but you have to rely on your own judgment. Just don’t be dogmatic about it.
Good luck.

21 TomG July 1, 2010 at 4:18 am

“My Karma ran over your Dogma” is a cute bumpersticker and quip – but inane too. Karma is a resulting outcome (fate, destiny) and socially used as meaning emanations felt by some person or action; Dogma being the set of principles/tenets one upholds. And it’s the power to maintain firm beliefs, ironically, that makes us most free to become more open-minded and tolerant. And the more one’s able to achieve a consistent framework of tenets across all fields of inquiry and endeavor, the more sound and purposeful one’s outlook would be in at least the rational-based disciplines I would think. So that it could be that the concern isn’t so much with fulfilling a quota of dogma personally, as much as striving to temper variability amongst held tenets – that may result in inconsistencies and contradictions in our mental paradigms. My question here is, what are these possibly “wrong areas of thought” – where dogma may not apply? Thank you.

22 King Cynic July 1, 2010 at 10:29 am

There is relevant empirical data on this in the form of studies of the religious beliefs of scientists. Some findings:

1) Higher education correlates with lower levels of religious belief.
2) Training in empirical science strongly correlated with lack of religious belief.
3) More accomplished scientists, as evidenced by membership in the US National Academy of Sciences, have extremely low levels of religious belief.

This all suggests that skill in empirical science (which is anti-dogmatic) is related to lower levels of religious belief. This goes directly against Tyler’s theory, and instead suggests that people who avoid dogmatism in their professional lives also avoid it in their personal lives.

23 god July 1, 2010 at 11:54 am

I think the answer to this question lies in the persons willingness to acknowlege their dogmatic ways. In other words, if the person is humble enough to admit they may not be correct, then there is reason to trust them.

However, the ironic thing about your question is that trust is in fact dogmatism. Why does a person trust another person? Seems that it’s because they do not possess the evidence to obtain the answer themselves. So in a sense, trust is itself dogmatic.

24 Patrick Molloy July 1, 2010 at 7:07 pm
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