The Mill Fallacy and the Importance of Investigating Heterodox Ideas

If one legitimately wants to seek out the truth, one ought to investigate a myriad of different ideas and viewpoints. The natural biases, fallacies and irrationality of man, however, present many hinders arduous to overcome on this venture. We have a tendency to look for data confirming our own theories (confirmation bias), present the other side as ignorant, dishonest or even evil (out-group heterogeneity + group attribution error), react more or less aggressively when challenged on our core values and fundamental axioms, and so on. Thus, while we may want to be rational and objective truth-seekers, our actions often tell a different story. The increasing degree of political polarization in the United States the last few decades has unfortunately also turned the trend more towards group-think and partisanship, burying the needles of humility and independent thinking even further down in the haystack. What shall we do to overcome these barriers in our quest for knowledge? A start would be to learn about these biases, and to become self-aware about one’s own imperfection and irrationality.

Plenty of logical fallacies have been well documented before, as in yourlogicalfallacyis.com and in Rolf Dobbelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly, but for this article I want to describe a “new” fallacy which I have not directly encountered in these resources. I’ll coin the term “Mill fallacy” for the belief that certain ideas, perspectives, thinkers and/or schools of thought can be disregarded for the sole reason that contemporary authority figures in the field consider them debunked, without necessarily giving a satisfactory, or any, explanation as to why. This is clearly a mixture of an uncritical approach to authority and the bandwagon effect.

The name of the fallacy is taken from the famous enlightenment philosopher and classical economist John Stuart Mill, because, while still a quite knowledgeable thinker, he “simply did not spend time on old ideas which he regarded as having been refuted by his father, Say, and Ricardo years earlier,” according to economist Thomas Sowell (2006, p. 135-6). Sowell further quotes Joseph A. Schumpeter, famous for his writings on “creative destruction”, to have written that

…Mill, however modest for his own behalf, was not at all modest on behalf of his time. “This enlightened age” had solved all the problems. And if you knew what its “best thinkers” thought, you were in a position to answer all questions. … [T]his attitude, besides being ridiculous, made for sterility and – yes – superficiality. There is too little attention to groundwork. There is too little thinking-things-through and much too much confidence that most of the necessary thinking had been done already.

If it can happen to Mill, it can happen to all of us. Some significant changes to the economy occurs, and we may flock to whatever the “first and best” pundits on Fox Business or Bloomberg (or whatever other network they may appear on) opine on the issue. Followers of the Keynesian school may take a look at what Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz are saying, while those following the Austrian school (such as myself) tend to rather listen to Peter Schiff, what Tom Woods and Robert Murphy respond to Krugman with on their podcast “Contra Krugman” dedicated to debunking his weekly columns, or whatever new columns appear on the issue at sites like the Mises Institute, American Institute for Economic Research and Foundation of Economic Education. Pointing this out is not necessarily to encourage you, nor to make a promise to myself, to read absolutely everything that people say on all the issues you want to investigate. I’d imagine very few have both the time, the mental capacity and the dedication to be able to do that continuously. But we should be aware about the limits of our knowledge, and always seek to expand it, because there’s always More To That.

As Rolf Dobelli (2011, p. 62) points out in his book, studies show that the majority of people are over-confident about their own knowledge and skills, (i.e. as shown by the scenarios in which the majority consider oneself as above average on such-and-such, which is by definition impossible) and that experts are generally more over-confident than non-experts. This can be explained by the Dunning-Kruger effect, which suggests that those with little actual knowledge or experience with a topic generally have more confidence on their position than those with more. Thus, a lot of people can end up stuck on the peak without feeling the need for any more information on the topic. You’re right. Those who say otherwise are wrong. And that’s the end of it. One can easily get a feeling of superiority by holding this position, but not only is this demeaning to others, it’s also self-derogatory as one sets further limits to oneself against further growth, and disregards challenges to one’s knowledge and abilities that could make one improve. There’s always more to it than what meets the eye. The Psychology of Content Marketing: The Dunning–Kruger effect ...

The take-away here is that we should be aware of the existence of other points of views, and why they may have them, as well as introspect the basis for our own opinions. We can derive intellectual value from ideologies that are quite unpopular, and even those we despise. Though most people today have a strong distaste for Fascism and National Socialism, for instance, by learning more about the ideologies and their historical context can give one deeper insights into why many people in the 1930s and ’40s found them so appealing. It’s also an advantage to be aware of the theoretical reasons why Socialism tends to fail (incentive problem and economic calculation problem), rather than just point to all the practical attempts and keep being met with responses like “it wasn’t real Socialism!” Additionally, if you ever got into an argument with someone who follows the ideology, you would surely fare better if you were familiar with its philosophy and history. If you were to take the alternative route, to commit violence against them, such as self-proclaimed Anti-Fascists do, you would rather become the very thing you are proclaiming to fight against. If the real goal is the truth, debate between different viewpoints and open-minded venture in new fields and ideas must surely be the best means. Ludwig von Mises (1927, p. 34) urged followers of the Classical Liberal school of thought to follow this exact approach:

Liberalism demands tolerance as a matter of principle, not from opportunism. It demands toleration even of obviously nonsensical teachings, absurd forms of heterodoxy, and childishly silly superstitions. It demands toleration for doctrines and opinions that it deems detrimental and ruinous to society and even for movements that it indefatigably combats. For what impels liberalism to demand and accord toleration is not consideration for the content of the doctrine to be tolerated, but the knowledge that only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and
penury of centuries long past. Against what is stupid, nonsensical, erroneous, and evil, liberalism fights with the weapons of the mind, and not with brute force and repression.

Q.E.D.: We can never rid ourselves fully of our irrationality, but we can take advantage of becoming aware of it. Through venturing into new ideas and fields in literature and blogs, and debating with those with different (and the same, for that matter) views, we can always gain new insight into human nature and how the world operates, if we’re just willing to listen, for, as Epictetus says, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Sources

Sowell, T. (2006) On Classical Economics

Dobelli, R. (2011) The Art of Thinking Clearly [Norwegian translation: Kunsten å tenke klart]

Mises, L. (1927) Liberalism, https://fee.org/resources/liberalism-by-ludwig-von-mises/

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