Are You An Ideological Robot?

Brandon Turner,

Release Date
November 20, 2017


Free Speech

A lot of people don’t really understand their ideological opponents. Here’s how to test whether you are the exception.

  1. The Requirements of Persuasion (video): Prof. Brandon Turner talks with Dave Rubin about how we can have more meaningful conversations with our ideological opponents.
  2. Shaming Someone Doesn’t Change Their Mind (video): So you want to fight prejudice and change people’s minds? Cultural scientist Alana Conner explains why shaming people does not help persuade them to consider new ideas.
  3. Why You Should Tolerate Wrong Opinions (video): Dave Rubin and Prof. Brandon Turner discuss why we should practice tolerance and defend free speech for even those ideas that we can be sure are 100% wrong.

If someone called you a robot, would you be offended? Probably, right? After all, robots can’t actually think for themselves. They just mimic humans by cranking out pre-programmed responses. But what if I told you that more than likely, you and most of the people you know are a certain type of robot. No, not that kind of robot. I’m talking about an ideological robot.
Let’s back up. In 2011, a Nobel economist claimed that liberals like him do a better job of understanding their opponent’s political views than conservatives do. He said, “A liberal can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen.”
PAUL KRUGMAN: A liberal economist can imitate a conservative economist, can pretend. The reverse is not true.
In other words, he was saying that liberals don’t just mindlessly reject their opponents ideas, and they’re able to see all sides of an argument, while conservatives unthinkingly misrepresent the views they don’t like.
Whether or not conservatives or liberals are better at understanding their opponents isn’t something we’re going to tackle in this video. But it’s an interesting question, and it’s one that got George Mason professor, Bryan Caplan thinking, “How can someone show that they truly understand their ideological opponents, and that they’re not just repeating pre-programmed arguments?” Is there a way someone can prove they aren’t just some kind of ideological robot?
Enter The Ideological Turing Test. In 1950, famed computer scientist Alan Turing created a test that assessed whether a computer had achieved human-like intelligence. In 2011, Professor Caplan wrote about an idea he called The Ideological Turing Test, a way of testing a person’s ability to genuinely understand their opponents’ political views.
In this test, you talk with someone with opposing views and try to get them to believe that you share their viewpoint. If you’re able to fool them, bingo. You’ve passed the test. The difference here is instead of testing a machine’s ability to imitate a human, Professor Caplan’s version tests a human’s ability to imitate their opponent’s ideas.
So what? Well, consider all the bad ideas in the span of human history. Consider that most of the people at the time thought they were doing the right thing. Now consider all the bad ideas that are still dominant today and that statistically, you’re probably contributing to the survival of some of those bad ideas.
When the old steel trap in here has made up its mind, there’s no turning back!
Anyone who wants to help make a better world needs to be able to discern good ideas from bad ones. To imagine the possibility that you could be wrong and honestly consider other viewpoints. After all, it’s pretty easy to think your opponents are stupid, evil, or even crazy when you’re making up bad arguments for them. But what if you’re forced to make their strongest arguments? It just might put your own beliefs to the test.
The philosopher John Stuart Mill once said, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” Mill’s right. If you don’t understand the views you disagree with, then you’ve likely never put your own views to the test. When you ignore or misrepresent opposing views, chances are you’re not looking for the truth.
The human mind is biased, and yours is no exception. But there are real ways you can defy that bias. So, whenever you’re about to write off your opponent’s views, give yourself a mini ideological Turing test. See if you can describe their beliefs in a way that you can honestly tell yourself they’d accept. Chances are, their arguments will look a little more reasonable, even if you still don’t agree with them. But more importantly, it will prevent you from making bad, one-sided arguments, and hopefully bring you closer to the truth.