An improved ideological Turing Test

Bryan Caplan, a creative and blinkered thinker who at once interests and maddens me, proposed a few months ago an ideological Turing test as a heuristic for assessing the strength of a political or economic position. The test starts from the premise that “to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents. . .is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom,” and thus those who can best argue their opponents’ points are more likely to hold the better position.

I think Caplan is half right. The problem with his proposal, though, is that it privileges esoteric or fringe positions, and that it is entirely an input- rather than output-based measure. Austrian economics is a fringe position, for example. I personally think it’s largely meritless, in a similar way that intelligent design is meritless. Yet anyone who is well versed in Austrian economics is familiar enough with mainstream Keynesian economics to be able to articulate a reasonably convincing simulacrum of a Keynesian position; similarly, proponents of intelligent design (ID) are likely to be knowledgeable about the consensus in favor of evolution so that they might engage with people who are persuadable in one way or the other. People who are actual bioscientists, however, don’t bother learning all of the esoteric arguments in favor of intelligent design because intelligent design is silly and not worthy of spending any time on. So of course the IDers will do a better job of articulating the “evolutionist” argument than the “evolutionists” will of articulating, or, in Turing-test terms, simulating or imitating the ID arguments.

I recall my parents having bought me a logic/mathematics puzzle book that posed, among many others, the following problem: You wish to buy, among three boats, the slowest of them. At first, each owner pilots their own boat, but the “race” is interminably slow because they each try to advance their boat as slowly as is perceptible. How do you identify which boat is truly the slowest?

The answer was to have each boat owner pilot somebody else’s boat. That way, they would drive the boat to its limit in an effort to make it upstage their own boat. I think this is a better model for a ideological Turing test than Caplan’s. Find an uninformed (but not stupid), disinterested third party, and convince him or her that he or she has the power to effect some change in the world that is meaningful to the two ideologically opposed parties. The party that genuinely favors X argues position Y to the third party, and the party that genuinely favors Y argues position X to the party, and whichever position the third party ends up favoring is the position whose prescriptions is *not* carried out.

I think this is a much better test of the quality of two sides’ respective arguments than is simply the ability to recite what the other side thinks.

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2 thoughts on “An improved ideological Turing Test

  1. Interesting!

    Clarifying for my own understanding – at the end, when you say

    “whichever position the third party ends up favoring is the position whose prescriptions is *not* carried out”

    do you mean the winning arguer’s TRUE position (rather than pretend position) gets to be implemented (strictly as a reward/incentive to him), because he successfully presented the other side’s arguments and demonstrated they are better than his own, as presented by the other side?

    (Sorry, I’m not good with a lot of binary flips at once.)

    • That’s what I meant at first, but now that I think about it, I haven’t normalized for the fact that some positions simply have better arguments for them than other positions do. So, Caplan started with a rhetorical-inputs-only approach; I added to it outputs, but there’s still the substantive inputs that need to be accounted for.

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