The Ideological Turing Test: Circumcision Edition

I seek to avoid political discussions here because wrapping politics into the circumcision debate makes the situation worse. The purpose of this post is not political, despite the topic’s origin as an approach to political philosophy.

Bryan Caplan is an economist at George Mason University. He is a libertarian. In response to a statement by economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Professor Caplan proposed an ideological Turing test. A Turing test is when “a computer tries to pass for human”:

A human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each emulating human responses. All participants are separated from one another. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.

Professor Caplan challenged Krugman’s assertion with this:

… Mill states it well: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” If someone can correctly explain a position but continue to disagree with it, that position is less likely to be correct. And if ability to correctly explain a position leads almost automatically to agreement with it, that position is more likely to be correct. (See free trade). It’s not a perfect criterion, of course, especially for highly idiosyncratic views. But the ability to pass ideological Turing tests – to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents – is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom.

I think this is fantastic and relevant to the circumcision debate. A large problem we have in trying to convince others that non-therapeutic child circumcision is wrong rests with the inability of our opponents to correctly state our position. The recent (justified) uproar over “Foreskin Man” issue 2 is an example, since it then gets applied universally to all activists. Those who support non-therapeutic child circumcision should be able to correctly state or summarize our position. They rarely do.

We have no power to make someone debate fairly beyond the power of our words. I don’t present this concept to demand that our opponents attempt it. I wish they would, but I expect nothing. I present this because it’s important for us to pass the test. We must be able to accurately restate the position of those who advocate for circumcision. When we promote conspiracy theories about doctors, we fail the test. When we promote conspiracy theories about religious individuals, we fail the test. When we deny the possibility of benefits from non-therapeutic circumcision, we fail the test. We must be able to accurately explain why people advocate for circumcision, including when the facts are superficially against us. When we don’t, we give those people an excuse to dismiss everything we say, even if one misstatement of their position is our only misstatement.

For example, I can counter the potential benefits from circumcision as separate to the application of circumcision to a healthy child. But when activists state that there are no benefits, that they’re all lies, people stop listening to everything we say. They assume circumcision opponents don’t care about facts, not the subtle way in which we might disagree on interpretation or the application of facts. We need to care about accuracy so we may convince others of the legitimate ways to apply the facts involved. Once we can recite their position, then we can demand they be able to recite ours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.