The Devil’s Advocate: when is it right to be wrong?

That’s a mighty am­bi­tious ti­tle, isn’t it? Sorry, I don’t ac­tu­ally have an an­swer to the ques­tion though. All I have is an anec­dote. Two warn­ings ahead of time:

  • This in­volves poli­tics, so feel free to skip it if you think that’s too mind-kil­ling. You can still par­ti­ci­pate in com­ments just based on the ti­tle above.

  • In this case I ac­tu­ally think I’m right. The only rea­son I’m dis­cussing it un­der the head­ing above is that on a meta level I think that it would be OK if I were wrong.

So, here’s the situ­a­tion. I be­lieve that the main vot­ing method used in the US, Canada, and the UK is crap. (This method is known as “first past the post”, FPTP, even though “top of the heap” would be more de­scrip­tive and have a bet­ter acronym.) I think that they can be fixed in the­ory, and that in prac­tice the chances and con­se­quences of fix­ing them are high and big enough that this is worth my at­ten­tion and that of oth­ers.

Of the peo­ple in the US who agree with me on those points, most of them are (roughly speak­ing) af­fili­ated with FairVote, which ad­vo­cates a pair of vot­ing meth­ods they call “RCV”: that is, IRV for sin­gle-win­ner elec­tions and STV for multi-win­ner. The vot­ing the­ory de­tails of those aren’t im­por­tant here.

I be­lieve that these “RCV” meth­ods are an im­prove­ment over FPTP, but fall far short of the best vot­ing meth­ods. More im­por­tantly, while FairVote is mak­ing real progress at get­ting RCV adopted (for in­stance, statewide in Maine), I ex­pect them to “hit a wall” be­fore get­ting it adopted in the most im­por­tant cases (pres­i­dent, US congress, and state leg­is­la­tures) in a way that could be avoided if they were ad­vo­cat­ing for bet­ter meth­ods.

I’ve prob­a­bly de­voted as much deep thought to vot­ing meth­ods as about 1000 av­er­age FairVote mem­bers. But there are many tens of thou­sands of them, and a few of them have de­voted com­pa­rable amounts of thought as I have. Also, pre­dic­tions like “strat­egy X is bound to fail (even though it’s par­tially suc­ceeded in the past) but strat­egy Y has a chance of suc­ceed­ing (even though it’s new and has no di­rect track record)” are very hard to get right. So from an out­side view, chances that I’m wrong are ac­tu­ally pretty high, and even chances that I’m wrong AND they’re right are ap­pre­cia­ble.

But I’m not go­ing to give up try­ing to do it my way. (In par­tic­u­lar, I’m go­ing to try to or­ga­nize a grass-roots move­ment for PAD vot­ing in Low­ell, MA.)

Partly, that’s for rea­sons dis­cussed in Against Modest Episte­mol­ogy. But that’s not the whole story.

The other part is that I think it’s healthy to have peo­ple “on my side” (in this case, vot­ing re­form ac­tivists) dis­agree­ing, as long as they’re be­ing em­piri­cal about it. As long as I’m ac­tively try­ing to make my vi­sion come true, then there’s more ways for it to fail if it’s wrong than if it’s right, so be­ing wrong isn’t a prob­lem.

But on the other hand: there are effec­tively an in­finite num­ber of pos­si­ble vot­ing re­form strate­gies. If ev­ery sin­gle ac­tivist just de­votes our­self to try­ing to pro­mote their own perfect solu­tion, with no at­tempt to come to any con­sen­sus, we’ll get in each oth­ers’ way and fail.

The way I deal with that is to ac­tively seek op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­crease con­sen­sus. My be­liefs should make pre­dic­tions, I should be ac­tively check­ing the out­comes, and if those pre­dic­tions are failing I should aban­don them. And in­so­far as pos­si­ble, I should be try­ing to use what­ever power I have over oth­ers (mostly just rhetor­i­cal) to cor­ner them into mak­ing that same com­mit­ment.

But un­til con­sen­sus is achieved… well, I could well be wrong. Even if I am, I think it’s healthy to re­main a devil’s ad­vo­cate.


OK, that’s my anec­dote. Ob­vi­ously, there’s some mo­ti­vated rea­son­ing in there, but I am at least try­ing to en­sure that the prior doesn’t com­pletely over­whelm the like­li­hood.

On an ob­ject level, it’s just poli­tics, so prob­a­bly not ap­pro­pri­ate for this site. But it’s some­thing I needed to think through, and hav­ing you as an au­di­ence has helped me do that. Thanks! In re­turn, I think that the ques­tion in the ti­tle might be a good one and might help you think through some­thing you need to. So in the dis­cus­sion, feel free to jump off from the ti­tle and ba­si­cally ig­nore my anec­dote.

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