How to Treat the Hacks

Most of my posts have been data related. I usually get in trouble when I shy away from data analysis. Especially when I end up ranting. But sometimes I rant none-the-less. I could feel one coming on the other day… I read two very good posts – one by PGL and by Mark Thoma (no links because I think which posts I have in mind will become evident below). And I had a rather frustrating bit of a debate with someone PGL has, on several occasions, referred to as a troll. It all got me a little bit angry… My thoughts:

We all have our biases. Some of us believe X and some of us believe Y. Now, most of us, even if we believe X, are capable of switching our beliefs to Y if presented with enough evidence that Y is more likely. (What constitutes enough evidence may vary according to the situation, and sometimes contradictory evidence will appear later.) That is how we learn.

Now, some people are not capable of changing their beliefs. They are deluded. But, some people do not change their minds because they simply choose not to change their minds, or at least behave as if they do not.

Perhaps I am naïve, but until recently I didn’t realize this second group really existed. For instance, if one’s life depended on believing the sky is green, most of us would be capable of saying, “Yes, I believe the sky is green” but few of us (I would assume) could truly will ourselves into believing it if we did not already do so.

We run into some such people in our everyday lives. Perhaps more commonly, they troll at websites we visit. Some of them have their own websites and magazines. The most successful of them are highly compensated for maintaining the beliefs that they do. The compensation takes the form of political power or influence, fame, prestige, and money.

Usually, not surprisingly, those policies go horribly, predictably wrong. And then we get a round of easily refutable nonsense defending those policies and their results. But the fact of the matter, these people either knew, or had the skills and the time and the information to know had they chosen, what the result would be ahead of time. They chose not to know, and through their choice, caused a lot of damage to a lot of people.

Now, what about the rest of us? Well, we pay the price. But we are also partly to blame. Because we treat the Harvard professor who advised the President with respect, even when we all know that he either knew what the results would be or he chose, willingly chose, not to know. And we are partly to blame because we do not turn our collective backs on the dean of the prestigious Ivy League business school when he walks into a room. And by the way we treat the rest of the ones who did everything they could in order not to know better.

When we treat them as honorable people, we are sending a message. It is not a message that honest disagreement is OK. (And honest disagreement is more than OK; it is vital.) The message we are sending is that choosing to ignore the evidence is respectable. In other words, we are reducing the costs associated with being a hack. Together with the folks that make the benefits of being a hack so very high, we are making the Harvard professor and business school dean into role models. We share the blame for creating the ones that follow.