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


Jameson Quinn

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.