One of the things I have noticed on the blogosphere, Facebook and other outlets where I have access to popular opinion is that skepticism goes out the window when it collides with cynicism.
In an only mild exaggeration, if I were to propose that the moon were made out of cheese, I would be met with a deep skepticism by almost everyone. However, if I were to propose to a unified subgroup, that their sociopolitical adversaries had conspired to make them believe the moon was not made out of cheese the skepticism level would drop dramatically.
Still most people would combat it, but far less forcefully and more on the grounds that “every knows that the moon is not made of cheese” rather than on genuine skepticism.
However, no matter how likely you think it is that some one is tricking you into believe the moon is not made cheese, that must be less likely than moon being actually made out of cheese. For someone to hide the truth from you, it must first be the truth.
Let me give a more concrete but unfortunately more charged example. There is a debate over whether or not the Obama Stimulus worked. As I have said before, I favored a different type of stimulus, both at the time and now. This gives me enough cachet to enter into non-heated conversations with strong Obama detractors.
They ask me frequently whether or not I “really believe” the stimulus worked. I say, “I presume so.” Then they counter with a line of reasoning more or less like the following:
The economy was bad even with the stimulus. It was worse in fact than the Obama administration said it would be without the stimulus. The Obama administration would like us to believe that it would have been even worse without their stimulus. However, this is just a convenient ruse. One cannot prove a counter-factual. Thus we cannot know whether the economy would have been worse without the stimulus. Thus we should not believe the Obama’s administration’s claim that stimulus worked.
This is all well and good except that its an argument that the Obama administration has no credibility on stimulus. That fact alone can’t lower your estimate of stimulus’s effectiveness from what it was before the crisis.
Well presumably the Obama administration, at absolute worst, will say whatever it needs to say to put the stimulus in the best light. If the stimulus worked, they will say it worked. If it did not work then they will still say it worked.
This implies that statements from the Obama administration are orthogonal to the truth. That is, utterly uninfluenced by it.
However, if a statement is orthogonal to the truth then it cannot rationally affect your estimate of the truth. That is, it simply doesn’t matter what the Obama administration says. Your best guess at the truth is whatever you thought the truth was before. You might as well simply ignore everything the Obama administration says.
Yet, this is not what the argument above is asking. It is asking that I lower my estimate that stimulus is effective based on the Obama administration’s lack of credibility. This is only rational if I think the Obama administration is anti-truth. That is, that they seek to lie even when it is not in their best interest to do so.
Or, said another way I have to believe if the stimulus had worked the Administration would lie to me and tell me that it didn’t. I have to believe they would do this because they enjoy lying or are otherwise motivated to spread disinformation for its own sake.
Said, in additional way, I have to believe not that the Obama administration has no credibility, but that they have negative credibility. If I take what they say and simply assume the opposite, I will be right more than not.
Its an easy proof but beyond this post that negative credibility is credibility. And, that someone who always lied no matter what, is just as trustworthy as someone who always tells the truth. You simply have to logically invert the questions.
So, back to the point, this implies that, at worst, the Obama administration has zero credibility. Negative credibility would be better than zero credibility.
However, zero credibility by definition means that you should believe whatever you believed before. It also by the way, means that the fact that the economy was worse than the Obama administration predicted means nothing. After all, they have zero credibility. Under that assumption, everything they say is meaningless.
The moral of that example is that there is no consistent amount of cynicism about the Obama Administration that should lead you to downgrade your estimate that stimulus worked.
Now, if you independent of the Administration, thought that unemployment would top out at 9% in the absence of stimulus, and you independently hold to that prediction then the fact that with stimulus unemployment rose above 9% is evidence that the stimulus failed. However, it’s a rare person that I meet, who is making this claim.
The moral of the whole post is that assuming your adversaries have low fidelity to the truth is not the same as assuming that they have high fidelity to lies. Generally speaking the worst I should think of someone is that, something is no more or less likely because they told me it was so. I should not lower my skepticism of their proposition being false, simply because they told me it was true.