The Ideological Turing Test

A few days ago I added a single line to the “about me” section of this blog.

I am a big believer in the Ideological Turing Test

Well — what is that exactly?

First, let’s talk about the Turing Test. This test, proposed by Alan Turing, key inventor of computation, defines a key milestone in artificial intelligence. The idea is that if a human is systematically unable to tell machine from human in the course of conversation, then the machine could be said to be “thinking” — like a human. To pass the test, of course, the machine has to be very good at imitating a human being.

So that brings us to our variation. I am sure that versions of this idea have existed for a very long time, but the genesis of this idea in the form that it reached me can be traced to Bryan Caplan. The idea is that in a debate between two opponents, the competitor that can more ably imitate the other’s argument is the more credible of the two. Why?

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.  …  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 unbelievably spot-on. Caplan, and others, go further and suggest that in long-running debates (like those between different camps of economists, which is the sort of conflict that inspired Caplan to develop this idea) that actual competitions be organized to determine a winner. But in general the logic of this thinking speaks for itself. In so many mini-debates I see the opponents mis-stating each others’ positions to the point where the points of contention are undefined, or at least understood differently by each participant. In these cases, no progress is made through discourse, and that’s a shame.

So, to repeat a homely adage, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

  • Tom, excellent summary and inspiration to seek understanding. Have you ever seen a website to facilitate these types of tests. Do you think one would be interesting?

    • I haven’t seen one. I think if people actually did participate in a website that facilitated that, it’d be awesome. But normally I just try to keep this in mind when in the midst of (or observing) a debate. Can I make my opponents argument? Should I ask my opponent to state my case as best as s/he knows how? Etc.