When federal subsidies for college education were expanded in the 1960s with the goal of engineering social mobility and equity, some results were obvious; more students had the chance go to college. Identifiable students could be pointed to as instantiations of the fact that the subsidies were achieving their goals. But something was missing. In the 1960s, there was no tangible incarnation of the 1,000% increase in tuition prices that would occur over the next several decades. There was, at the time, no fact about how the inflating proportion of Americans with degrees would reduce the relative economic value of each degree, further reducing the ability of graduates to pay for those degrees. Even today, there is no concrete fact about what the contributions of student loans to the record high personal and national debt will do to the economy and the people who depend on it.
The problem isn’t just a simple failure to consider consequences. The problem is an asymmetry in considerability. Even if we assumed the sort of economic theory that would predict rising tuition prices and debt, such theories couldn’t tell us how large the increases would be, how long they should take, or whether the increases would be observable at all or be masked by countervailing factors. But we could immediately see, count, and touch the specific students who were helped by subsidies. So in the political debate concerning subsidies, we’re left with solid facts on one side and nebulous theory on the other.
In The Truth About Facts Part 1, I explained that for many political facts, there are equal and opposite alternative facts, which exist in alternative units of analysis. In this case, it gets worse; the alternative facts are unknowable. They exist in alternative units of temporal analysis (year vs decade vs century). And worse yet, the knowability of the alternative facts decreases in proportion to their importance. Isn’t the outcome of the decade more important than the outcome of the year? It’s also less knowable.
So not everything that matters is knowable, and what you’re less likely to know is most likely to matter. This dual epistemological asymmetry is taylor-made to fool humans. It’s the fatally matching puzzle piece to a psychological asymmetry called the availability heuristic. Humans tend to overestimate the probability of events which are easily brought to mind, and underestimate the probability of events which are more effortful to imagine. That is, people give too much credence to trivial concrete facts, and not enough credence to gravely important theoretical possibilities.
Next time you think about a political disagreement, see if you can find these epistemological and psychological asymmetries hiding under the surface. Ask yourself which side of the argument benefits from the asymmetric darkness (as educational subsidies did). That’s a side that has underestimated dangers. I tend to see asymmetries operative in the issues of gun control, welfare, healthcare socialization, affirmative action, drug prohibition, and speech codes, to name a few. Policies in all of these fields have trivial factual outcomes and grave unknown possible outcomes.
The only window we have to glimpse a portion of the unknown possibilities is theory. But theory is notoriously unreliable as well. Facts are prone to triviality and irrelevancy; theory is prone to naïveté and factual falsity. When facts fail us, not just any theory will do. Only theories that are logically coherent and not empirically falsified should be given any credence at all. But those theories that pass logical and factual scrutiny should outweigh their alternative facts in decisions about the future.