The Ideological Turing Test

The Turing test is a means of assessing whether an automated system is truly intelligent by testing its ability to simulate an actual human being in conversation…the test to be conducted via terminals, over a communications link. Here’s an excerpt from Alan Turing’s own example of a hypothetical conversation:

Interrogator: In the first line of your sonnet which reads “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” would not “a spring day” do as well or better?

Witness: It wouldn’t scan.

Interrogator: How about “a winter’s day,” That would scan all right.

Witness: Yes, but nobody wants to be compared to a winter’s day.

Interrogator: Would you say Mr. Pickwick reminded you of Christmas?

Witness: In a way.

Interrogator: Yet Christmas is a winter’s day, and I do not think Mr. Pickwick would mind the comparison.

Witness: I don’t think you’re serious. By a winter’s day one means a typical winter’s day, rather than a special one like Christmas.

At a considerably lower literary level, quite a few automated telephony systems today make an attempt to convince their targets that they are dealing with an actual human being, at least for a few seconds.

The ideological Turing test…the term was invented by Bryan Caplan, following some comments by Paul Krugman…refers to an individual’s ability to accurately state opposing political and ideological views.  Caplan quotes John Stuart Mill: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

My observation is that neither side in America’s current political divisions is over-endowed with people capable of passing the ITT.  Paul Krugman asserted, unsurprisingly, that liberals do it better:


“A liberal can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen. We don’t think it’s right, but we pay enough attention to see what the other person is trying to get at. The reverse is not true. You try to get someone who is fiercely anti-Keynesian to even explain what a Keynesian economic argument is, they can’t do it. They can’t get it remotely right. Or if you ask a conservative, “What do liberals want?” You get this bizarre stuff – for example, that liberals want everybody to ride trains, because it makes people most susceptible to collectivism.”

But Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, had this to say:

“We tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand Americans to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were. Who was best able to pretend to be the other? The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal”.

Haidt suggests that conservatives base their moral decisions on a broader set of criteria than do liberals, and hence that “versatility makes conservatives more familiar with the limited moral repertoire of liberals than liberals of the more expansive moral universe of conservatives.”  It has also been suggested that, since the culture is largely dominated by people and institutions on the Left, conservatives are more exposed to opposing views than are liberals, who are largely either sheltered from opposing views or presented with them in skewed, comic-book form.

I think the most useful version of the ITT would ask people not only to predict the responses of their ideological opponents, but also the rationale that their opponents would give for those responses.  For example:  most liberals and “progressives” would probably predict correctly the positive attitudes of Evangelical Christians toward Israel…but I suspect they would do much worse at correctly assessing the constellation of reasons for this positive view to be held.

Traditional high school and college debate, at least the policy-debate variant, required the participants to be able to argue both sides of whatever question was at issue, and was surely very valuable in developing the ability to think like the opposition.  I believe that policy debate, at least at the college level, still does require individuals and teams to argue both side of the selected topic…but there is now so much emphasis on verbal fireworks, very fast speaking (‘spreading’), and bizarre meta-arguments, that I suspect that much of that value has been lost.

The ability to develop some understanding of the opposition’s thinking is obviously important for the reduction of pointless demonization of that opposition; it is also an obvious factor in effective political marketing, and one that is in many cases clearly missing.




30 thoughts on “The Ideological Turing Test”

  1. I have loved Jonathan Haidt and written about him often. I think he gets a few things wrong (he has corrected at least one of them) and he remains a liberal, but he is an honest man, and is more popular with conservative audiences at this point. Liberals regard him as a defector. He has written specific directions to liberals about how they can use the difference between conservative, libertarian, and liberal reasoning to persuade voters and get Democrats elected. It seemed good enough that I feared they might take his advice and all would be lost for conservatives.

    Yet they did no such thing, of course, because adopting political positions is based on rational planning for only a small percentage of liberals. The rest need to virtue-signal, or to have targets to hate, or sense that their means of livelihood depends on government acting in a certain way. Conservatives are not exempt from this thinking, certainly. We have plenty on our side of the line who have bad motives for being where they are. Ironically, conservatives usually know a lot more of these unreasonable conservatives first hand than liberals do, yet somehow being associated with the Wrong Sort bothers us less.

    Krugman is all confirmation bias and cherry picking. He disdains the man on the street because he cannot make a Keynesian argument. Yet it is just a restricted version of C P Snow’s “two cultures.” The man on the street could ask Krugman about coding, or torque, or HIPAA, or psychiatric medicaine that he could not answer either, but so what? Even knowing more in one’s specialty is not enough to be actually right. Had I tried to argue with a professional geologist about plate tectonics a century aggo I would have gone down in humiliating defeat – but I would be right. Fifty years ago a psychoanalyst could have ripped me to shreds in public debate had I put forth the notion that schizophrenia, autism, and BPAD are medical diseases. Yet I would be right and he wrong. Experts are most dangerous when they forget this.

    Volokh Conspiracy discussed the idea of an intellectual Turing test for conservatives and liberals about ten years ago. I thought one side had much the better of the argument.

  2. Related to this is Chesterton’s Fence: One should not remove a fence unless one understands the reason it was put up in the first place. More generally, the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood.

  3. Where is PenGun in the Krugman audience?

    As far as I can tell, reality is conservative. The left has many plans about what SHOULD be but little about what is and why that is.

    Psychiatry seems to learn nothing as members keep going off the reservation ands trying to diagnose politicians they have never met.

    The device was even used in the movie “Anatomy of a Murder” when the prosecution refused a psychiatric exam of a prisoner who was going to claim insanity as defense, then had a psychiatrist “expert” sit at their table , during the trial and testify.

    Do people like this even realize how much damage they do ?

    Dr. Allen Frances, former chair of the Duke University psychiatry department, appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” to make this claim:

    “Trump is as destructive a person in this century as Hitler, Stalin, Mao in the last century. He may be responsible for many more million deaths than they were.”

    Victims of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Stalin’s Holodomor, and Hitler’s Holocaust, unfortunately, are unavailable for comment.

    But don’t call Trump “mentally ill,” says this psychiatrist. That tarnishes the reputation of all the harmless mentally ill people out there. Instead, Trump is “dangerous, because he’s a bad, evil con man.”

    Hold on, I thought the term “evil” doesn’t square with science! because evil infers Satan, and God, or all that other moral Christian stuff.

    Not even some nut with fake credentials. This man held a responsible position in his specialty. What is wrong with these people ?

  4. I must admit that I do find it very hard to follow Keynesian arguments. But I think the classical arguments favored by conservatives and libertarians really just are a lot easier to follow. Why do minimum wage laws make some people effectively unemlployable? supply and demand. Why does immigration of low-skilled workers tend to drive down wages for other low-skilled workers? supply and demand. Why does rent control exacerbate housing shortages? No reason I can articulate, I just feel it in my guts.

    The argument that says that you can stimulate the economy by paying men to bury jars of coins and having other men dig them up (yes, Keynes actually did say this) is considerably harder to follow. I submit, though, that an incorrect argument is harder to follow than a correct one. You have to either make the exact same mistake as the original author, or you have to just jump over a critical piece.

  5. To be fair, though, Krugman couldn’t pass an actual Turning test, so we can’t draw too many conclusions from him…

  6. I trust nothing that Paullie “The Beard” Krugman says. He always contradicts himelf, either before or after he utters something.

  7. “Where is PenGun in the Krugman audience?”

    Oh Mike have I upset you? Krugman is just another idiot. There are so many that do not understand no rules hardball. Trump is my favourite though, I’m not sure he understands that you pay the tariffs. ;)

    You must keep in mind I do not wish America well when I praise this man. He is doing what I want him to do. Exposing the real America to the world, and that is working very well. We have the halfwit Netanyahu riding on this attacking Iraq, and will probably get America tossed out of Iraq. Hell he could even lose hunks of Israel as he is not very smart. He has a nearly virgin army at this point, Everyone else in the area is seriously battle hardened.

    Oh I’m forgetting about the invisible airplanes, silly of me. ;)

  8. Re the Ideological Turing Test: what personal experiences have people had? Do your ideological opponents have the ability to state your opinions, more or less accurately, and the reasons for those opinions? Can you do the same for their opinions and reasons?

  9. From David’s excerpt:

    Why not then just bury money in the ground and let people dig that up?

    This would have the same effect as the discovery of new gold deposits and would alleviate unemployment though the same means.

    Except it wouldn’t have the same effect. Fiat money doesn’t have value by itself, but only in relation to what it represents. In Keynes example that would be gold. Gold universally recognized to have intrinsic value. Stop mining for gold and the money will soon not be to pay to “build houses and the like”.

    In our modern day system, our money is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States government”.

    If you read that and it makes you laugh then you know why digging holes in the ground can be worthwhile, and you are also a libertarian. If you read that and feel validated in believing that human civilization consists of a perpetual effort to not touch the ticking time bomb, then you are a conservative. If you read that and think the pace of building more roads and schools better increase then you are a liberal.

  10. Maybe Keynes gets an undeserved bad rap — as opposed to Krugman, who deserves all the bad rap he gets. Remember that during World War II, Keynes once stood side by side with Hayek on the roof of an English college, prepared to put out the fires from incendiaries dropped by German bombers. Nicholas Wapshott mentions this in his book “Kaynes Hayek”. Keynes can’t have been all bad!

    ARGUABLY, and it is very arguable, Keynes understood that production precedes consumption, but (even more arguably) in the Great Depression the problem was lack of demand rather than lack of supply. In certain very specific circumstances, it might make sense for government to stimulate demand to get the production side of the equation running normally again. Once the economy was restored, the government should then pay off the debts it had run up stimulating demand.

    Of course, the Political Class took this as an excuse to spend more than they could bring in through taxes & tariffs, year after year, regardless of the actual supply/demand balance. When it became difficult to borrow, they printed. And they never made any sustained effort to pay down what Keynes had envisaged as a temporary debt. And once globalization (ie offshoring of production) was instituted, then any benefit of Keynesian stimulation was actually going to China.

    I guess if Keynes were alive today, he would be very disappointed in the way the Best & Brightest have twisted & misused his rather narrowly-focused ideas.

  11. Keynes, like other brilliant men, was probably less zealous, less rigid and more sophisticated than many of his acolytes. The popular view of Keynesianism as rationalization for excessive govt spending is an overgeneralization of Keynes’s suggested remedy of increased govt spending in response to liquidity traps that might occur in limited and unusual circumstances such as during the 1930s depression.

  12. What happens when you ask French how Japanese think, and Japanese how French think? Electrical Engineers how Mechanical Engineers think, and Education majors how Civil Engineers think? If we had well known and clearly defined personality flavors, how about those?

    I can think of at least three or four interesting models. The left is defined by the dogma of the moment, and models most things worse. The right understands reality better. The right understands more types of people better. The right understands the left better because the number of left wingers that convert to right wing remember how they thought back in the day, and can use that to guess better.

  13. “What happens when you ask French how Japanese think, and Japanese how French think? Electrical Engineers how Mechanical Engineers think, and Education majors how Civil Engineers think? If we had well known and clearly defined personality flavors, how about those?”

    Or even better, when you ask Electrical Engineers how Salespeople think, or ask Salespeople how Finance people think.

    Once a person is in a management job where they are managing multiple functions, a big part of their success or failure will be based on their ability to think beyond the typical patterns of the function that they came up in.

  14. Krugman, in June 2000, discussing Alan Blinder, cited “rent control” as an economic idea that ALL economists agreed upon — it was terrible: reduced the amount of housing available, raised rents for everybody outside of rent-controlled housing, and encouraged owners to let property “run down”, un-maintained, because they couldn’t cover the costs of maintenance via rents.

    Krugman wasn’t addressing rent control, per se. His essay was about how experts have the least influence when experts are most in agreement. Today, he might argue that we don’t fix global warming because all the epxerts agree that carbon dioxide causes it. (He’d be wrong…) But it’s interesting that when the topic actually IS rent control he doesn’t put his expertise into the discussion, or doesn’t do so on the same side as he did when discussing the nature of experts.

  15. Further to Krugman-izing the Turing Test:

    Krugman often has recourse to John Rawls and the “veil of ignorance”. Rawls and Krugman argue that, were we to design a system, ignorant of where, later, we would fit into such a system, we would take pains to ensure the system was “fair”.

    This entirely ignores the segment of the human race who don’t want to live a typical, average, normal, unexceptional life. Some people have a “go big or stay home” attitude. Imagine the Turing style conversation between two Rawls-ian designers, contemplating how to allocate territory that might, or might not, contain gold.

    “We set up a grid. Prospectors draw lots and are assigned acreage in a grid-square. Some will strike pay-dirt and get rich. Some will go bust. That’s a gamble *I’d* take — to get rich!”

    “That’s not fair! We set up a partnership. Each digs his own grid-square and pools whatever he finds into the common poke. At the end of the year everybody who dug, gets an equal portion.”

    “Okay, ONE, nobody will dig very hard for a meager share. BEE, everybody will hold out or skim off some of the ore before contributing to the pool. FINALLY, your way, there’s going to be more grid-squares to BE dug than diggers to dig them. And NEXT, the total amount of gold going into the whole legal economy will be less because of all four reasons.”

    “If you dig hard and go bust, you die before the economy gets any gold, anyhow. And me, I would dig just as hard to be sure of staying alive as I would to get rich. ”

    “Yeah, AAY, that’s you, not me and not everybody. TWO, I forgot to mention before that, your way, somebody who isn’t digging has to be in charge of the pooled poke and HE’s going to be skimming, too. The best way to get the most gold out of the mountain is every man for himself.”

    “That’s NOT FAIR. As long as I’m designing this system, I wanna be sure I stay alive.”

    “I’m not TRYING to be ‘Fair’, I want to be in a system that’s best compromise among all the stakeholders to get the most gold out in the shortest time. And gives me a chance to get rich.”

    “Greed is no basis for a modern society.”

    “Nobody has ever come up with a better one…”

  16. ““We set up a grid. Prospectors draw lots and are assigned acreage in a grid-square. Some will strike pay-dirt and get rich. Some will go bust. That’s a gamble *I’d* take — to get rich!””

    I’m not sure this has to violate the Veil of Ignorance, as long as *some* gold fields are allocated based on the lottery approach, others are allocated with the partnership approach, and everyone gets to choose which one he wants to do his gold mining in.

  17. Well…
    Socrates points out that one should know both sides of an argument. As did Mill. Mill went further, writing that it was not enough to know an opposing argument, but that one should argue with a supporter of the other argument.

  18. I had never heard before that buriying coins was meant to be a metaphor for gold mining, thanks for the link.
    It seems to me though that Keynes is spouting nonsense when he asserts that everyone or indeed anyone regards the labor expended in gold mining as being a god thing. To the extent that it’s true that gold’s value is inversely proportional to its scarcity and therefore mining creates no real value, it is indeed a waste, but one that cannot be prevented. Obviously people or nations which possess large stockpiles of refined gold but no exploitable gold deposits would forbid further gold mining if they somehow could.

  19. Oh Mike have I upset you? Krugman is just another idiot

    Like you. My comment was directed at all the Canadians who hated their health care system.

    I know you wish America ill. You resemble the dog who dropped his bone in the water to bark at his reflection.

  20. There are of course subconscious motivations for political opinions as well as conscious ones, and it is worthwhile trying to understand which of these might be motivating one’s political opponents. For example, I just re-ran across this post suggesting that certain types of environmentalist behavior (organic foods) can be motivated by a feeling of loss of control:

    OTOH, it’s important to avoid Slychology…assuming that one’s opponents are always motivated by some irrational subconscious factor. Probably at least *some* of the organic-food-only people can actually argue for and are really motivated by some level of health-related benefits.

    The Left has done themselves a lot of harm with a large group of voters, especially blue-collar workers, by stridently stating their negative assumptions about the motivations of these voters.

  21. The left has subscribed to a series of irrational belief systems over the years,

    Progressivism is a belief in rule by experts. What greater experts were there than George III and Louis XIV ?

    Then they adopted the untried communist system, which defied all of Adam Smith’s experience.

    More recently, like a tulip mania they have adopted global warming/climate change.

    The models said we would all be dead by 2000, then 2010.

    Now comes the Green Nude Eel. Trillions of dollars and impossible plans, plus no trans ocean transportation. I like sailing and have gotten pretty good at it but I am not ready to go back to the 18th Century,.

  22. Regarding Rawl’s veil of ignorance, I have long thought — going back a couple of decades at least — it would be vastly improved by requiring that one consider and compare actual real world societies, rather than the imagined, fantastical ones that dreamers like to think can exist, but never have and likely never will. Then I came up with several pairings and groupings to sharpen the issues. So, not knowing your wealth, race, height, looks, gender, social status, health status, religion, etc., or specifically when you are being born (limited to say the 20th Century to the present) would you rather be born into Mainland China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong? How about Haiti or the Dominican Republic? Puerto Rico or Cuba? Israel or, well, almost any other Middle Eastern country? Sweden or the United States? North or South Vietnam? Same for Korea, though that’s almost cheating. Hawaii, New Zealand, or the Philippines? South Africa or Nigeria?
    This is an exercise that is, I believe, vastly more instructive than making up and comparing assumed wealth and power distributions that have never actually existed anywhere. Some of these choices are obvious, but others require balancing trade-offs such that different people could reasonably make different choices.

  23. There might actually be a niche market for goods shipped by sailing ship and sold based on their low “environmental” footprint. Need to focus on products which are high value per cube and have long shelf lives, and which are inherently appealing to the target market.

    I don’t understand the Neoline ship in the picture; sail area looks quite inadequate for the size.

  24. My guess is the sails are designed to be a fig leaf attempt to say that their ships are a few percent more efficient than the competition. They are clearly absurdly non-functional based on that diagram.

    Anyone who would claim to care about the planet but rather purchase something “sailed” halfway around the world rather than a locally produced product is an unserious nitwit.

  25. Not all products are locally produceable, though; spices are the classic example. Various art & craft products…I suspect there is a significant segment of people who would rather buy something “made by skilled artists in Paraguayan villages using their traditional techniques” that something made by artists in Appalachia using *their* traditional techniques.

  26. The Neoline article quotes the ship at 4200 square meters of sail area; this is equal to 44900 square feet. I’ve sailed on the Star Clipper, a sailing cruise ship which does operate under sail alone most of the time…36000 square feet of sail area, 366 ft in length.

    To my eye, the sail plan on the Neoline ship doesn’t seem as if it could possible be anything like the number quoted.

  27. I’m not a sailor but I don’t think the arraignment of the sails make any sense in the Neolines handout, I suspect it’s just a publicity piece by an artist that doesn’t know anything about sailing vessels.

    The problems I see are: Modern commercial ships are designed to have the shallowest draft consistent with stability, this doesn’t allow for much of a keel and still enter most harbors and canals. Some sort of raiseable keel would be very expensive and take up a lot of cargo space, so the sails would only be usable with a following wind. At the other extreme, the sails would have to fit under bridges.

    I imagine that these sails would be like all wind power, showy virtue signalling that will probably never really pay off without some sort of subsidy.

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