It turns out that I am a mistake theorist

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In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that I find Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Moggcast quite interesting. I then went on to point out that I don’t agree with him about everything. I felt the need to do this, even though it is probably quite obvious. Now, I think I understand why.

A month-or-so ago, I published a piece for Quillette. I had been aware of Quillette for a while, having read a few interesting articles that appeared in my timeline. I did not always agree with everything – again, I feel the need to point that out – but Quillette is written in long form with a kind of openness that I enjoy.

When I noticed that the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), an Australian Thinktank, was broadcasting an event on Marx’s ‘Conflict Theory’, I initially did not pay much attention because it sounded a little dull. CIS is a free-market organisation into free trade and all that kind of thing and so I expected a bit of Marx bashing. However, when I noticed that Claire Lehmann, founder of Quillette, was speaking, I thought I would check out the Youtube video:

It’s really interesting…

Oh, hang on, I forgot to mention that I don’t always agree with the CIS. Has everyone noted that? Good.

…I cannot comment on the entirety of the presented thesis. The claims about university humanities departments certainly have resonance with the kinds of issues that I see in education faculties. Although it is alarming to think that critical theory might be being pushed in law degrees, I am unsure of the impact this will have.

However, from the outset, Lehmann introduced an idea I have been thinking about ever since. It is from Scott Alexander, author of the Slate Star Codex blog, and it is the distinction between those who hold a ‘conflict theory’ and those who hold a ‘mistake theory’.

I am clearly a mistake theorist. For instance, I believe that most politicians of whatever political persuasion are genuinely motivated by good intentions. The problem is that they are often quite wrong. I am an adherent of Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Mistake theorists think that social problems and the problems of running a state are, well, really difficult problems. Some of the proposals for solving these problems are bad but others are better and the purpose of debate is to try and sift through them. According to Scott Alexander:

“Mistake theorists think you can save the world by increasing intelligence. You make technocrats smart enough to determine the best policy. You make politicians smart enough to choose the right technocrats and implement their advice effectively. And you make voters smart enough to recognize the smartest politicians and sweep them into office.”

Yes. That’s me. That’s why I am involved in education. That’s my motivation.

Conflict theorists, on the other hand, see the world in terms of a conflict between the haves and the have-nots. They believe that the world is deliberately set-up in the way that it is in order to benefit the wealthy and privileged. Worryingly for mistake theorists, “Conflict theorists naturally think mistake theorists are the enemy in their conflict.” They perceive mistake theorist’s requests for an open debate as an attempt at obfuscation or gaslighting. I think I already knew this at some level and that is why I have been at pains to point out the obvious when I state that “I don’t always agree with X”. I am preempting the inevitable tactic of those who would paint me into a corner as an enemy. It’s probably pointless.

Conflict theorists don’t see the solution as increased intelligence. Instead, the oppressed need to seize power:

“Conflict theorists think you can save the world by increasing passion. The rich and powerful win because they already work together effectively; the poor and powerless will win only once they unite and stand up for themselves. You want activists tirelessly informing everybody of the important causes that they need to fight for.”

This is my understanding of Freire’s aims for education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book that I found rather interesting, even if I did not agree with all of it.

The distinction between mistake theorists and conflict theorists also suggests an important divide in educational aims. Do you, like me, seek to save the world by increasing intelligence? Or do you seek to save the world by increasing passion?

The answer to this question will affect the curriculum we teach and the methods we use to teach it.


11 thoughts on “It turns out that I am a mistake theorist

  1. David Roy says:

    Can you be a mistakingly, conflicted theorist if you want people to be passionately more intelligent and intelligently more passionate?

  2. I’m not sure this is a clear distinction (there are gradations, obviously), but I’d definitely be on the Mistake Theorist side of the divide as well. My father’s version of the Hanlon’s Razor theory is “given the choice between conspiracy and screw-up, it’s a screw-up every time”. (Although he prefers the more earthy four-letter Anglo-Saxon version of “screw” in that sentence.)

    I treat all politicians with implicit mistrust, and my few encounters with them have strengthened that attitude considerably, but I feel that they always want at least to be seen to be doing the right thing, which can be useful sometimes. There’s another good quote on that matter, from someone the Quillette people would probably admire, a certain Milton Friedman: “The answer [in politics] is not to elect the right people. They don’t exist. The answer is to make it politically expedient for the wrong people to do the right thing.”

    The Conflict Theory as you describe it here (an offshoot of dialectical materialism, I guess) certainly actuates plenty of people in the Ed world. But I’d describe the whole attitude as incompatible with educational humanism – partly for reasons explained in my latest blog post.

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    Even the most superficial contact with decision-makers should be enough to win anyone over to Hanlon’s razor–yet far from working together effectively, the rich and the powerful have little else to amuse themselves other than power struggles.

    James Flynn notwithstanding, I don’t really think we can make people more intelligent, or that this would somehow lead us to some utopian end state such as Marx envisioned. On the other hand, I think that we can make people more knowledgeable, and this is a good in itself. Samuel Johnson reckoned that people are never so innocently employed as when getting money, which is rather strange as he spent most of his rich and productive life getting knowledge.

    • Intelligence theorists have proposed that intelligence comprises two components: fluid and crystallised. We cannot do much about fluid intelligence – it is our raw processing power. However, crystallised intelligence is basically our accumulated knowledge. This makes sense to me because my area of research, cognitive load theory, proposes that you can use knowledge stored in long term memory to think with. Therefore, when I propose making people more intelligent, I see this as equivalent to making them more knowledgeable and this is my aim for education.

      • I think (the Good Judgement project) is an example of how people might be smarter (as measured by making more good decisions). It is an offshoot of the work of Phliip Tetlock who also splits people into two types.
        I am guessing anyone will be a mistake theorist or conflict theorist based on different situations but it is a propensity thing – some people define themselves around one of these.
        Certainly if your country is currently run by a conflict theorist then it is likely conflict theories explain why they do things. Fortunately I don’t think the dedicated conflict theorists survive too long in a democracy.

  4. Here in the US, education level has been found to be a good predictor of crystalized views on climate change–liberals and Democrats worry more about it the higher their education, and conservatives and Republicans worry less ( I do question whether education level is a good measure of intelligence, especially given that we have no national curriculum and many people who are highly educated in a very specific and narrow field can be ignorant of everything else. But the result of this poll seems to fall firmly into the conflict theory side. (I’m more of a mistake theorist, myself. I think, given the choice, most people prefer to be told what to think than to reason it out for themselves, and that intelligence or education level have little effect on this propensity.)

    • A good teacher should therefore require as much objectivity as possible, and, when students give their opinion, the students should be required to back it up with reliable evidence. Good teachers should also model this by trying to refrain from giving an opinion themselves, without presenting the evidence and the thought process that brought them to it.

  5. Jane S. says:

    While I lean toward the mistake theory, in some cases there is clearly conflict. Climate change denial by people associated with the fossil fuel industry is an obvious example.

  6. I’m with David Roy: can’t it be both intelligence and passion? Or maybe neither. The conflict theory position suggests that the masses really need to pay attention to the elites’ decisions to be ready to protest harmful decisions, which necessarily requires intelligence. But even the most brilliant leader can still be motivated by selfish desires. That’s not necessarily malice (in that the primary intention isn’t to harm) nor ignorance (in that they know the effect of their actions) but a profound lack of compassion for others, for the “out-group” that are so far beneath them that they barely register as human beings. More knowledge or passion won’t lead us in the right direction without concern for the well being of others.

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