How should we judge appeals to identity

Bryan Caplan wrote this in his description of GMU blogger culture:

Appealing to your identity is a reason to discount what you say, not a reason to pay extra attention.

Bryan explains more, not easy for me to summarize but do read his full account.  Let me instead try to state my own views:

1. If someone makes a claim new or foreign to you, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you probably should up the amount of attention you give that claim because the person is from a different background.  Your marginal need to learn from that person is probably above-average, noting of course this can be countermanded by other signals.  That said, I recognize that our ability to learn from “different others” may be below average, given the possible absence of a common conceptual framework.  Nonetheless, I say be ambitious in your learning!

2. If someone makes a claim you already disagree with, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you should try to figure out why that person might see the matter differently.  You should try harder, at the margin, precisely because the person is from a different background.  Again, this follows from a mix of marginalism and Bayesian reasoning and ambition in learning.

3. When you hear a person from a different background, try not to get too caught up in the “identity politics” of it, either positively or negatively.  Try to steer your thoughts to: “People from this background in fact have a wide diversity of views on this topic.  Still, I will try to learn from this person’s different background.”  Try not to think: “This is how group X feels about issue Y.”

4. I’ve already noted that you often learn more efficiently from people who come from similar backgrounds as yourself.  Even putting language aside, I am more likely to have a fruitful career-enhancing dialogue with another nerdy economist than with a Mongolian sheep-herder.  In this regard I worry when I hear an uncritical celebration of intellectual diversity for its own sake.  To me it too often sounds like mere mood affiliation, subservient to political ends and devoid of cognitive content.

But still, I do not wish to rebel against such sentiments too much.  At the end of the day I am left with my intellectual ambition and I really do wish to go visit Mongolia, including for the sheep herders.  And to the extent I am informed in some ways that maybe not all of my peers are, the intellectual ambition I am presenting here is a big reason why.  I seek to encourage more such ambition, rather than to give people reasons for evading it.


I am a Wimmin and I am offended by this appeal to reason. Which is literally violence towards me. Why does Bryan seek to negate my identity with his hate-logics? I am crying right now with tears that are so real. Or something.

You're a friggin moron.
Here's hoping that reincarnation is Real. (God is perfect, after all; therefore God must be into recycling). My fervent wish is that you return in female form - hopefully, dark-skinned, gorgeous & poor in some location that hates females even more than AmeriKKKa does. Then, may you have the opportunity to experience the "full spectrum" of female experience of living in this world, created by men for men. Hope, in that scenario, you'll run into guys just like yourself, Kavanaugh & Judge. Then perhaps you'd be able to come up w/ some thoughtful, intelligent commentary. For now, you're just 1 more entitled punk with crap for brains and an empty chasm where your empathy should reside.

> "My fervent wish is that you return in female form - hopefully, dark-skinned, gorgeous & poor in some location that hates females even more than AmeriKKKa does."

It is not okay to imply that darker men in other parts of the world are even more sexist than Amerikkkan men. You should be ashamed of thinking such racist thoughts.

Have you met white American males these days? All servile cucks. Africans, Arabs, and Asians know how to be real men and keep their wimmenz in check.

Take a look at the countries with highest rape rates:

1. United States, 2. South Africa, 3 .Sweden, 4. India, 5. United Kingdom, 6. Germany, 7. France, 8. Canada, 9. Sri Lanka, 10. Ethiopia

6 of the top ten countries are White majority. 2 are African, 2 are South Asian. Zero are Muslim majority. Zero are Mexican. Trump needs to update his priors. Looks like Whites are the rapey race.

Tell us how you really feel about women!

Sounds on the lines of "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins."

Reminds me of the Israeli stand-up comedy joke (better seen in person rather than read here) where the joke is the Palestinian punchline is that the little old Jewish lady slipped on a banana peel, cracked her head, and died, and the Arab audience, kids and old people and the like, split their sides from genuine laughter. It's a joke but underscores 'relativism'.

Bonus trivia: though I try to avoid it, what's kind of funny is to make fun of animals like chickens you are about to butcher, by rubbing the knife against them, they being in a hysterical state, or slaughtering their companions in front of them before you slaughter them. It is sort of like what I say above: 'relativism' aka "species-ism". After all, no harm since they are animals right? Along similar grounds, the Japanese don't believe you should mistreat machinery since they have a sort of inanimate soul.


"I am more likely to have a fruitful career-enhancing dialogue with another nerdy economist than with a Mongolian sheep-herder."

"Career-enhancing," that's a very narrow way to think about learning.

It most definitely is.

And I say that is exactly what I am trying to nudge people away from. Wake up!

So, is there is a Straussian meaning to the text that follows the citation? - 'In this regard I worry when I hear an uncritical celebration of intellectual diversity for its own sake. To me it too often sounds like mere mood affiliation, subservient to political ends and devoid of cognitive content.

But still, I do not wish to rebel against such sentiments too much.'

Or is having something both ways 'nudging?' You know, not rebelling against something too much to enjoy career enhancement? Seemingly because your peers (which just might say something about your peers) do not share the intellectual ambition you are presenting, nor your proven skill in career enhancement.

Or to put it a bit differently, some people are simply unique, like that libertarian calling for more defense spending to enhance economic growth.

... seems "appeals to identity" is the primary basis of formal classroom education -- as supposed 'identified-authorities' (teachers) base the nominal truth of their message (instruction to students) entirely upon their identity as teachers.

Is it the message or the messenger that should be the basis for learning ?

You are being charitable. Appeals to identity are about placing value on ethnicity or race. It is the root of the 'cultural appropriation' bullshit, or the idea that only a black woman author can have a black woman character in a novel.

It is a lovely idea if you want to convince a generation to not read novels because they are atrocious and boring.

Appeals to authority are a sell job. Fine as far as they go but never trust without verification.

Those are all very wise comments, but Bryan might respond that he is referring to "appeals to identity" and your response is about the value of diversity of identity. Personally, I like hearing from people from alternative cultures, even more so when they do not make appeals to their identity.

On the other hand, Bryan's use of the term 'discount' might suggest an unwarranted hostility to alternative cultures. Perhaps we should welcome the views of alternative cultures, and dial back to neutral when they are accompanied by appeals to identity.


It's odd that Bryan Caplan wouldn't want to be careful not to suggest unwarranted hostility to alternative cultures. Sometimes the shoe is on the other foot:

I’m not sure Bryan is being afforded a charitable interpretation of his opinion. I read it as meaning that when someone supports a proposition with an appeal to identity argument, rather than a substantive argument, then you should infer that the potential range of arguments in favour of the proposition are weak.

Sort of how you may discount an argument when the proponent resorts to an ad hominem.

Is it not simply the case that appeal to identity is a weak argument for most propositions

Exactly right, although I do think that some of Tyler's considerations apply despite this point. So for example, if the conversation is about steppe husbandry, I do think that your credibility goes up when you mention that actually, you happen to be a Mongolian sheep herder. Identity info adds credibility when it substantially increases the probability that you have "ears on the ground" in a community that's relevant to a conversation, when the other members of that conversation don't have some level of participant-level insight. If someone wants to understand the rave scene, and you are a rave organizer, or a rave-busting cop, an impartial judge should add a bit of weight to your judgments. Granted, this extra credibility comes from your experiences - not simply from "who you are" - but reasonable people must assume that those two things are often related.

This works until you need to make comparisons. If the discussion is about how much harder steppe husbandry is compared to, say, a firefighter neither party really has much of a clue, outside of how difficult things are in their shoes. Empathy helps with bridging this divide, but can still be error prone, particularly when personality/cultural differences come into play.

If the person of a different background is speaking to people of his own background, likely he, and they, know things you and your circle do not know.

If the person of a different background is speaking to people of your background, likely it is a malicious deception intended to harm people of your background.

Sigh. What a sad, paranoid world view. May i suggest that you get out & do some traveling in the world, both for education & pleasure?

Sounds like any travels you've made thusfar were as a soldier of some sort. And if so, God Bless & Thank You for your service. But there IS far more to Life than war, and it may be time for you to begin a new chapter...

If you open both your mind & your heart, this planet & all its varied, fascinating peoples may well astound & delight you. But you'll need to leave both your fear & your hatred at home in order to enjoy the full benefit of travel-based education & personal development. Until you can do that, wherever you go, you remain trapped in a foxhole of your own making.

I do wish you well. Perhaps some therapy may help. That's Not intended as an insult at all - the Whole World would be better off if Everyone spent a bit of time "on the couch". Good luck.

I am a world traveller, a citizen of more than one land, and legal resident of some more. When those of a different group speak to me as an individual, they are somewhat less likely to speak the truth than individuals of my own race, sex, nationality, and religion, though it tends to be polite untruths, rather than malicious untruths. When those of a different group speak to me as a member of a different group, rather than as an individual, they are overwhelmingly less likely to speak truth, and are apt to lie in ways that are hostile and harmful.

Watch a feminist comedienne making jokes to women about men.

In Iraq, if you tell a Shiite, "There is a man on trial for murdering eight people." He will ask, "Is his Sunni or Shiite, and are they Sunni or Shiite?" If it a Sunni killing Sunnis, he doesn't care, and if it a Shiite killing Shittes, he will to express higher reasoning and concern, considering evidence and social policy and impact, etc. If you tell him it is a Sunni killing Shiites, he is obviously guilty no matter how strong the exculpatory evidence. If it is a Shiite killing Sunnis, he is obviously innocent, no matter if he was caught red-handed on video.

This was Lee Kuan Yew's multiethnic society problem that justified the abolition of juries among other things. I am reluctant to call it tribalism because of the way political commentators are abusing the term lately, but it's a pretty classic example of Who, Whom? group solidarity-based double-standards trumping identity-blind neutral rules and procedures of fair justice.

In a diverse society things will reliably and predictably get that nasty that layers of vendetta create a hole too deep to climb out of, there is really no effective rhetorical or exhortative way to keep people from going at each other. It's a bad--but-stable game-theoretic equilibrium point. So Saddam comes in and is brutal enough to keep the peace (with, yes, some de facto supremacy for his group, though if that group is a minority / "naturally vulnerable in the specific context" group, then that's probably necessary for tranquility).

This is what Assad had (and may soon have again) in Syria, and somewhat related to Stalin and Cromwell suppressing anyone on both the right and left).

To stop the fever that has burned so many countries, and is now burning America, will very likely take a Saddam or an Assad to stop the madness.

Reflect on the recent race based acquittal of Francisco Sanchez for the race based murder Kathryn Steinle while she was walking the Embarcadero San Francisco. Suddenly, considerably fewer pretty white girls walking the Embarcadero

In most countries, race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality trumps truth and justice. That is the way the world is. That is what is completely normal in most places outside America, and anyone who does not know this has his head in the clouds. America used to be different, is rapidly becoming less different.

That is why Singapore had to abolish jury trial, that is why Syria needs and Assad.

And the way the wind blows, we are going to need an Assad also.

Full credit to Prof. Cowen to writing this - 'Try not to think: “This is how group X feels about issue Y.”'

Because the Caplan example 'If I want to discuss the prevalence of sexual abuse among Catholic clergy' is just as easily imagined going this way these days - 'As a Catholic, I am disgusted at child abuse in the church, and fully support prosecuting child abusers and those who shield them.' Even if Caplan seems unable to imagine that 'as a Catholic...', that is precisely what many Catholics think, the Catholic Church not actually being a safe haven for pedophiles, one hopes. Admittedly, a number of ex-Catholics do believe that is the case, but we will see.

Yes. i can imagine two "As a Catholic" responses from a psychological perspective.
1. Shame, horror, and embarrassment, resulting in anger at the clergy for letting it happen and to shaming the entire community of Catholics.
2. Shame and horror so intense such that it results in a state of denial. Such things couldn't possibly be true. Therefore they must be false, and part of a conspiracy against us.

I imagine the same two reactions are basically true for lots of other situations. Like, right now and for the past several years, the Republican party.

3. Gratitude there is no biblical/theological support supplied by the offenders for the offending behaviors. Unless I missed a meeting. Can be concurrently held with 1.

Good point. If there was then people holding 2 might split off and form an opposing pro-pedophile splinter movement. Sort of like what happened with the Southern Baptists.

#4. it's true, but that's okay, because it's GOOD! Nothing to be ashamed of here!

Omg you are waaaaay harder on the Baptists than I am. Inspired now to try harder . . .

Speaking of pedos, QAnon and other alt-right conspiracies try to paint the Dems of being deviants. Yet the reality shows that with Roy Moore, Rob Porter, Delgado/Miller, Kavanaugh, heck Trump himself and numerous other sex scandals that the Republican party is where the real perverts and pedos live.

Chances are you can learn something interesting from, say, Transylvanian shemales, but you rarely learn much from people who start out by saying things like "Speaking as a Transylvanian shemale...". What follows is rarely surprising or insightful. The self-appointed spokesperson for Transylvanian shemales usually ends up sounding like the self-appointed spokespeople for just about any other group that wants to move up in the hierarchy of the oppressed.

As the self-appointed spokesperson for self-appointed spokespeople, I am highly offended by your comment. You have wounded me to my very soul.

I only managed to wound your soul? Guess that means I'm getting old; I was going for the kill.

If the speaker's identity is a reason why they know something you don't, it's worth knowing about. If you want to make a point about the morality of abortion "speaking as a black woman," I doubt there's any value added by knowing your identity. But if you want to make a point about the market in black hair-care products, essentially the only people likely to know what they're talking about in that sphere are black women. Similar things apply elsewhere--frex, a friend of mine is a transwoman, and she has some really interesting insights into sex roles and how people treat you differently as a woman vs a man, which her identity (and life history) has given her a chance to see. Few other people could have had her experiences. OTOH, if she wants to talk about tax policy, "speaking as a transwoman" doesn't seem likely to illuminate anything.

How about “Allahu Akhbar! Die infidels!”? What can you learn from me, who comes from a different background?

Mainly, that I should remember to send a donation to the NRA.

Yes, if we're solely speaking of ISIS here, they're people who have turned their souls over to terror & chaos, every member becoming a lost cause, merely part of a hate-cult that has hijacked an otherwise peaceful religion (as "otherwise peaceful" as Christianity is, when you study the origin & history of each religion). As such, the planet is better off w/o them. But please don't make the mistake of lumping ALL Muslims together. That would be similar to saying that ALL caucasion Baptists belong to the KKK, right?

Also, the NRA is Not the friend of the average American, not when it ignores the needless deaths of so many of our children, blocking measures that could well protect them. Imagine if auto firms had fought the seatbelt laws that have saved so many lives. Gun laws need an overhaul so that it's not easier to get a gun than a driver's license. Both are tools capable of taking lives; both require adequate protective measures. The NRA, like our politicians, have sold their souls for the sake of greed & power. Make no mistake about that.

And yes, our current leaders WANT you to hate folks who have differing opinions - that helps them keep control of the masses. If they can keep us all at each others' throats, fewer citizens will notice as they collect even more resources for themselves (i.e. tax reforms primarily benefiting the rich) or make boneheaded, uninformed decisions (i.e. tRump's trade wars) which Will hurt the average GOP voter.

The BEST bet, for ALL of us on both sides of the aisle, is to vote based on "What's best for the future prospects of those people I love most", rather than voting based on our hatreds, or on the fears being spoon-fed to us by our media & government.

"a mix of marginalism and Bayesian reasoning"

Are there English-language equivalents for the words "marginalism" and "Bayesian"?

People at Slatestarcodex always say "Bayesian" and this annoys me. I looked it up once and thought about what I'd redd [past tense of "reed"] and decided that the idea is to keep in mind that the thing you're worrying about might have been caused by factors other than the ones that you were focusing on ...?

To a first approximation, the SSC folks talking about Bayesian reasoning means:

a. You assess factual questions in terms of probabilities. So you can say "I'd put the probability of a military coup in the next decade in the US at less than 1/100000."

b. You think that evidence should update your probabilities. If you read about how lots of top military officers are grumbling about the illegitimacy of the elected government and are storing caches of arms in the US "in case of trouble," your probability on a US military coup should increase.

There's this basic problem of figuring out whether the person you're hearing from is worth listening to at all.

Is this a person who's reasonably intelligent, shares enough of your worldview to be useful to converse with, and is talking in good faith? In that case, things they say that are trivial or sound obviously wrong or seem needlessly complicated are worth spending some extra time thinking deeply about.

But if the person you're talking with is talking in bad faith (using complex language and technical terminology to confuse you or intimidate you into silence), or is living in a different reality than you are (commonly this amounts to being so deeply into his particular ideology that he can't see any world outside of it), or is just not very bright, then listening to them is probably a waste of time.

To some extent, publisher/gatekeepers help with this problem. But only to some extent--plenty of dumb things not worth any attention at all get published in major newspapers and magazines. Most everyone will publish poorly-reasoned dumb things that agree with their priors or their ideology or tell a story they want to tell. And there are more people writing longish pieces on the internet than anyone could ever read.

'“As a Catholic…” they’re not-so-subtly telling me, “You better tread lightly, lest you insult my faith!”'

The dynamic in this claim can be true, and I think I've witnessed times when it was true, but it's not necessarily true. (I'd love to see data of how often it is true, and in what contexts.) It's perhaps worth thinking what our default responses to such "as a X" statements should be, and I suspect our default should rarely be to attribute motivation.

I really like this quote from your second Bryan Caplan link

Once you identify with any large, unselective group, you will be regularly tempted to commit the villainous act of standing up for your groups’ villains. When they do wrong – as they inevitably will – your impulse will be to ignore, minimize, or justify their misdeeds. To quote the underrated 8mm, “If you dance with the devil, the devil don’t change. The devil changes you.”

Food for thought for people of all political stripes, including libertarians.

Appealing to identity is close to the classical concept of ethos - the idea that who you are, your background, and your particular experiences give you the right to speak about certain topics. Ethos was one of the three ways of making a persuasive appeal, the other two being pathos (appeal to emotion) and logos (appeal to reason).

This was very good.

On career advancement and listening to sheep herders, it intersects with a thought I had yesterday, about when knowledge advancement should yield to wisdom .. integration?

Is wisdom an integration of of knowledge, once sufficient knowledge is achieved? Archived?

When someone prefaces an assertion or remark with "Speaking as an 'X'..." and if I'm not an 'X' then I assume the assertion is not something anyone who's not an 'X' could understand (or at least a truth that could only self-evident to those who are 'X').

The premise seems to be that only an 'X' could evaluate such assertions, and, since I'm not 'X' therefore I can't (or shouldn't) do so.

But, if I'm not permitted to evaluate (let alone criticize) such assertions then I'm just not all that interested in hearing them either. Thus, the preface tends to activate my "ignore what follows" filter.

This I think is the best comment on the thread. The herder in Mongolia will be willing to talk about their experiences with the expectation that you might be able to understand them, even though you are not a herder. Whereas someone appealing to identity is making the assumption that there is something about their experience which cannot be communicated or explained.

Bryan's original quote is one of the smartest statements I have come across recently.

Caplan: an uber-mansplainer

" I am more likely to have a fruitful career-enhancing dialogue with another nerdy economist than with a Mongolian sheep-herder."

Like a good Bayesian, based on previous evidence I vote for a conversation with the Mongolian sheep-herder being more fruitful. ; )

Okay, I see Prof Cowen's comments above, which seem to imply that he'd be better off conversing with Mongolian sheep-herders, so i take the above back.

1) Reputation systems and past predictions and general ideological novelty are more efficient signals of useful opportunities for learning than "whether a person is different from you". Or similar to you!
You can evalutate the quality of a reputation system by predictive accuracy and replication, and internal consistency. If it lacks those elements, discount it as a reputation system.

Trying to add "Is X foreign to me?" to these systems (in either directin) likely decreases signal to noise.

2) However, that said, outgroups are less likely to make honest claims with your interests at heart. If an outgroup is making claims about a group you have membership of it, you should probably discount their claim more strongly. If they're not making a claim with impact on your group's interests or position, less discounting necessary.

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