Thursday 15 December 2011

It's the bet, not the stakes

Robin Hanson wonders why folks have taken offence at Mitt Romney's holding fellow GOP nomination contender Rick Perry*, ** to account by offering a bet: $10k if Perry could prove what he claimed existed in Romney's book. Here's Robin trying to make sense of things:
The idea that a presidential candidate couldn’t afford a $10,000 bet is crazy, as is the idea that ordinary folks don’t know this fact. Candidates pay for TV commercials, which cost lots more than $10,000, and they fly all around the nation in planes, which gets expensive.

So clearly we have moved high up into belief meta-levels here. “Yes, most people know Romney can afford $10,000, but some aren’t sure that most others know this, and so this shows that Romney doesn’t know about such folks.” Or “It is rude to point out that you are rich, even when everyone knows you are rich. Yes wearing nice suits shows he’s rich, but not wearing suits is socially unacceptable. Offering smaller bets is acceptable, however, so offering a big bet could be interpreted as bragging about wealth. Not that I’d interpret it that way, but someone might, and this shows Romney doesn’t realize that.”
I'm not generally one to disagree with Robin, but I think explanations based on voters' having sophisticated conjectural variations models in their heads is a bit of a stretch.

My hypothesis: there'd have been just as much offence taken if he'd offered $100 or $1000 stakes. A non-trivial proportion of statements made in political debates are demonstrably false. They're thrown out in the heat of debate with little chance that the opponent will have ready access to counterevidence; worse, there's risk that bringing up counterevidence moves the debate to where the opponent wants to go anyway. Sure, plenty of online armchair quarterbacking lists all the falsehoods. The candidates never have to front up and answer FactCheck or the news articles. But paying up on a bet is far more humiliating, both for the candidate and his supporters. No partisan wants to witness his idol's humiliation in having to pay up. And so they come up with other reasons for being offended.

If partisanship is more faith-based than fact-based, offering a bet in political debate is akin to going into a Catholic Church with a gas chromatograph in the middle of Mass and offering to bet the priest $10,000 that the wafers are chemically identical before and after purported transubstantiation. The followers might say they're offended about the stakes, even though the Church could back it. But the real problem is nobody wanting to see that their prophets are false.

* Rick Perry's campaign ad, nicely lampooned here, reminded me a lot of the old Dead Milkmen*** song Stuart. Rick Perry's supporters aren't like the other people here in the trailer park - the ones who don't know what the queers are doing to the soil....

** Why hasn't anyone done anything useful RickRolling Rick Perry?

*** First, footnotes in footnotes is cool. Second, the Dead Milkmen are awesome. And "Big Lizard" is the 3-year old's current favourite bedtime song. But I have to Bowdlerize it. And I don't know whether it's better to keep him away from Dead Milkmen 'till he's ready for the proper version, or ease him into it with Bowdlerized versions. Tough problems.

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