Great ground rules for dinner table discussions

From Bertrand Russell (via Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution via Brainpickings)

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

If we had a course or two in critical thinking and discussion in the junior high or high school curriculum designed to teach mastery of these ten ground rules plus some common fallacies, politically we’d be in better shape.

Similarly, an oath from Bryan Caplan of EconLog:

Blathering talk surrounds us, but I will take no part in it.  My word is my bet; I will always put my money where my mouth is.  When challenged, I will bet on my words, refine them, or recant.  When no one is present to challenge me, I will weigh my words and thoughts as if my fellow oath-takers were listening.

Similarly, several years ago a friend told me of a rule his workplace had implemented. It went like this:

If you are to point out a problem, you must follow it with, “…and this means we should do…” to show that not only have you discovered a problem, but you thought of a solution and you are willing to publicly advocate that solution.

At first blush, it may not be apparent how this last one is similar to the first two.

But, I’ve worked in companies that rewarded problem detection rather than problem solving. That led to a lot of, to use Caplan’s words, blathering talk as many people floated trial balloons of  problem detection in order to be rewarded for finding a problem. And, of course, they were not punished if it turned out that the problems they found were not problems at all. They were given credit for “at least, trying.”

My friend’s company had a similar problem. The leaders recognized it and put the new rule in place. It significantly cut the blathering talk. They correctly reasoned that if people were to have to present solutions along with their problems, that would be like asking people to put their money where their mouth was.

Why? Because it’s easy to see whether a solution solves a problem or not.

In other words, it’s easy to be a critic when you have nothing on the line.

One more story…I coach my kid’s soccer team. After a loss where our team looked scared of the ball, one grandparent told me after the game “You need to get them more aggressive, Coach.” I said, “I’d love to. Do you have any suggestions on how to do that? If so, I’m all ears.” He laughed and said “Nah” and I believe he realized that talk is cheap and it’s easy to criticize with nothing at stake.

How much of what you advocate, especially strongly advocate, would you bet on? Our opinions are typically much more refined in topics where we pay the direct costs of being wrong.

Through trial and error, I learned that paying a plumber to do what they know best is well worth the cost. It saves time, headaches and future catastrophes.

But, I can go on a whole lifetime holding damaging political beliefs, mainly because I never directly pay for the damage it causes. I can claim good intentions, without ever knowing whether those intentions actually ever helped.

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