February 12, 2012 6 Comments
Inevitably when I dip into certain types of arguments, such as BYOFS, someone out there will pop up with what he thinks is a decisive Would-Think parry. How does Would-Think work? You just say something like this (emph. mine):
“I would think insurance companies would want to cover contraception, because I would think that would save them costs overall, due to [unwanted pregnancies avoided? just make something up in this part].”
This Would-Think pops up again and again in econ-tinged public policy, e.g. when the argument for the policy involves a claim of cost savings. It’s a cost-saver to extend unemployment insurance, because I would think that would spur the economy and ultimately increase tax receipts. It’s a cost-saver to publicly finance ‘green’ energy, because I would think that would save on oil-related wars down the road. It’s a cost-saver to cover preventative medicine, because I would think that would save on more costly health care down the road.
The great thing about Wouldthink is that it’s a cheap and easy way to dress up your analysis in Smart People clothing, as being ‘reality-based’. You don’t have to do any actual thinking to Wouldthink, let alone analysis or data gathering or to fend off opposing arguments and evidence. You just Wouldthink what you already wanted to believe, and you’re done. (Maybe you link to a study or something. The study doesn’t have to be all that wide-ranging, definitive, or even germane. Let’s face it, you didn’t actually read it.)
In reality (not Reality-Based Reality but actual reality), most Wouldthinkable questions are far more complex than the Wouldthinker is capable of unraveling or even approaching as a topic of apprehension. Not only that but they may be too complex to have ‘an’ answer – at least unless that answer is ‘it depends’.
Consider for example how many people would think that insurance companies ‘would want’ to cover, say, contraception, or various screening tests. Note that these are questions that insurance companies might have a tremendous incentive to answer for themselves. Indeed, they hire armies of actuaries precisely in order to try to extract the answers to such questions from their reams of data using the most advanced and mind-numbingly boring statistical methods, databases, and software. The upshot is that, if insurance companies haven’t decided on their own to cover something, you can be pretty sure that’s because – contrary to what you Wouldthink – they didn’t see a reason to in the actual data.
But you, having done no such work whatsoever, would think otherwise, wouldn’t you? Yes, you would. So there should be a government regulation, QED! Now sure, it’s possible the actuaries are wrong, and you are right.
But why would we think that? We wouldn’tthink that, of course.
UPDATE: To clarify (as if it wasn’t clear from “it’s possible the actuaries are wrong”), I am NOT saying that the ‘actuaries’ in that example are automatically correct (i.e. that I wouldthink the actuaries are correct). Remember, I’m the one who thinks that all large calculations are wrong so I am just as suspicious of their result as of anything else. What I AM saying is that your Wouldthink doesn’t trump their actual work, i.e. that the onus is on you, as the person claiming to Wouldthink, to overturn the presumption in favor of them having come up with the best known answer, and that just saying “I would think…” does not give anyone a reason to even pay attention to your so-called argument.