A Brief Theory of Very Serious People

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 21: Thomas L. Friedman speaks during a rehearsal before a taping of Jeopardy! Power Players Week at DAR Constitution Hall on April 21, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Tyler Cowen argues that the concept of “Very Serious People” refers to people who “realize that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics.” I’m not either the originator nor the popularizer of the term, but I think that’s wrong. As I understand it, the theory underlying the concept of Very Serious People is as follows.

1. Everyone has a mix of beliefs, some of which are right, and some wrong.
2. Everyone co-exists in a social system that tends to value, heavily reinforce and widely disseminate some people’s beliefs while disparaging, heavily discounting, and tending to limit the circulation of certain other people’s beliefs. This bias is not random, but instead reflects and reinforces existing power structures and asymmetries.
3. People whose beliefs are reinforced and widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong, are Very Serious People. The system provides them with no incentives to admit error or perhaps to understand that they have erred, even when their mistakes have devastating consequences.

Or: Shorter Theory of Very Serious People.

1. Being Tom Friedman Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.

Unless my memory is badly mistaken (it might be), Duncan Black arrived at the concept of Very Serious People during the intra-US Iraq War debates. Duncan, Paul and others (including many of us at CT) were very, very unhappy with how debate on the Iraq War was conducted. Those who advocated the pro-invasion case were treated as serious thinkers, of enormous gravitas, who were taking the tough decisions necessary to protect America’s national security. Those who disagreed were treated as flakes, fifth columnists, Commies and sneaking regarders. As we know, despite the agreement of the Very Serious People that the Iraq war was a grave and urgent necessity, it turned out to be a colossal clusterfuck. As we also know, many of the People who were Very Serious about Iraq still continue to be Very Serious about a multitude of other topics on our television screens and in our op-ed pages.

Being a Very Serious Person is about occupying a structural position that tends to reinforce, rather than counter, one’s innate biases and prejudices. Put slightly differently, the Very Serious Person theory is one that is at least as much about collective structures of opinion as it is about individuals. We all err, sometimes very badly. The theory says that VSPs face less incentive either to second guess their errors as they are making them, or to think through their errors after they have made them, because collective structures reinforce their tendency to think that they are right in the first instance, and their tendency to think that they ought to have been right (if it weren’t for those inconvenient facts/specific and contingent circumstances that meant that things didn’t go quite as predicted just this once) in the second.

My version of the VSP problem would hence lead one to focus more on the weaknesses of collective structures of error correction than on trying to correct individual biases. We all have biases which lead us to understand the world in particular ways.

These biases, however, can be valuable as well as problematic. I’ve been looking for years for a Joseph Schumpeter quote that I think I saw once, but may have inadvertently reconstructed for my own convenience, to the effect that our vision is blinkered because of our ideological biases, but that without these ideologies we would not be able to see at all. As Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have argued, individual biases, together with a certain degree of pigheadedness can have advantages for group problem solving, as long as people have a minimal capacity to come around to recognizing the advantages of a better perspective, however grudgingly, and (my addition) as long as collective structures of decision making do not systematically entrench certain kinds of bias.

This is the advantage of democracy when it works; it harnesses mulishness and rancorous dispute, to reveal the information that is latent in the disagreements between our various perspectives on the world (which are inextricably intertwined with our value judgments). However, when certain people’s perspectives are privileged, the value of democracy is weakened. Their perspectives will continue to prevail, even when they are wrong. Weak arguments that they make will be treated as strong ones, while strong arguments made by their opponents will be treated as weak ones.

One implication of this argument is that centrist opinionators – those whose opinions are closest to the social core and hence most likely to be reinforced by the social system they live in – are especially likely to be prone to VSP syndrome. So too, perhaps, are people (on left, right or center) who believe that their reasoning capacity makes them more likely to be free from bias than those around them – Mercier and Sperber convincingly argue that reasoning evolved less as a way to figure out the world than to defend one’s one biased view of it and hence to win arguments. The problem with VSPs is not that they are biased (we all are) – it’s that the systems around them magnify that bias, reinforce it, and reflect it, creating the risk of vicious feedback loops of self-satisfied yet consequential ignorance (as in the Iraq war).

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.