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Austen Frakt thinks so:

I’m simultaneously more cynical and practical. First the cynical: we’ll never have honest intellectual debate.

Can Avik and I have an honest intellectual debate about whether Medicaid helps or harms people, about whether Singapore’s low health spending is due more to the nature of its insurance and provider markets or to government intervention in them, about whether raising the Medicare retirement age is a helpful cost control step? He’s as familiar about my views on these issues as I am about his. We’ve gone back and forth on these issues for years, and I’ve never come close feeling like we have had an honest intellectual debate. My guess is that he hasn’t either, though he can correct me if I’m wrong. Yet, I bet we both likely feel that we, ourselves, are engaging honestly with each other and the evidence.

I think this is why people hate “dogmatic” economists because “our”insistence on understanding whether an outcome is efficient forces us into an honest intellectual debate about what our actual values are. Furthermore, I find the comment above by Frakt to be pretty incredible. If we have not come close to feeling like we are having an honest intellectual debate, then just say so at the outset of said debate. I’ve largely stopped blogging and doing speaking engagements in part because I don’t think people are interested in having an honest intellectual debate.

On the other hand, and I think this is a Humean point, I am not sure we need to have honest intellectual debate. If the social sciences have any resemblance at all to the “real” sciences, then all it takes is a vast and rigorous amount of experimentation with different ideas and we may end up seeing selection of the better ones, independent of the nature of the debate. I’m not sure I’m convinced by that, but it is one reason, perhaps, not to be worked up about the nature of our debate today. As always there is way more to say about this topic than a few paragraphs.

2 Responses to “Is Honest Intellectual Debate Overrated?”

  1. Harry says:

    You sent me to the books with your reference to Hume, WC. What I remember most about Hume is that he woke up every morning thinking about such things as the mind/body problem. That would qualify him as an expert on one of Kathleen Sibelius’s death panels, or whatever she calls them.

    Regarding serious discussion, Socrates had the same problem with the sophists, who were a hell of a lot more sophisticated than Andrew Cuomo. Can you imagine being marooned on a desert island with him?

  2. Scott says:

    I would say that it is impossible for any one individual to complete eliminate bias/preconceived ideas during any debate, whether you are discussing public health care or your favorite pizza place (I think perhaps the latter stirs more emotion than the the former, at least in my very sophisticated social circles)

    But I also think that true intellectual process is impossible without conflict. Conflict is uncomfortable – because it makes us question ourselves and puts a strain on relationships – so we avoid it as much as we can. But nevertheless debate, regardless of how flawed the debaters, is absolutely necessary. John Stuart Mill on liberty arguers that this is the most important reason that freedom speech is maintained – so we what the idiots have to say and go “Wow, you really ARE and idiot,” and so when we talk too much someone says “Wow, you really Are an idiot,” and we bounce are ideas around and off each other and adjust accordingly and push the aggregate opinion of society closer to truth.

    so the point is you can’t stop writing or else you are doing the society that hates you a major disservice.

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