The Mellow Heuristic
By Bryan Caplan
No one protested me when I spoke at Oberlin College last week. (Topic: The Myth of the Rational Voter). A few days later, however, Oberlin showed factual feminist Christina Hoff Sommers a rather different face:
The entrance to the classroom where Sommers spoke was surrounded by flyers accusing her of supporting rapists. “F*** anti-feminists,” read one sign.
The students responsible for the safe space were more polite,
although they did joke about biting people they disagreed with and
promised to zealously guard their precious space from “toxic, dangerous,
and/or violent” people–anyone who didn’t share their perspective, in
other words. (Video of that here, courtesy of Nick Mascari, Third Base Politics).
Sommers told Reason that the most bizarre form of protest was the students who sat in the front row during her talk with their mouths taped shut.
“They just stared,” she said.
Others did more than stare; they interrupted and booed whenever
Sommers said something that irked them. At one point, a philosophy
professor in the audience stood up and called for civility. They mocked
him and yelled at him to sit down, according to Sommers.
I know a lot about the science of gender, so the crowd’s poor behavior has little effect on my views. But I must confess: If I knew less, this would be a perfect time to apply what I call the Mellow Heuristic. The Mellow Heuristic is a rule of thumb for adjudicating intellectual disputes when directly relevant information is scarce. The rule has two steps.
Step 1: Look at how emotional each side is.
Step 2: Assume the less emotional side is right and the more emotional side is wrong.
Why should we believe the Mellow Heuristic tracks truth? Most obviously, because emotionality drowns out clear thinking, and clear thinking tends to lead to truth. The more emotional people are, the less clear thinking they do, so the less likely they are to be right.
Furthermore, people who hope to persuade others normally highlight their strongest evidence. So if advocates of a view spend most of their time emoting on you, it is reasonable to infer that they lack better evidence. And sides with low-quality evidence are also less likely to be right.
Like all heuristics, the Mellow Heuristic is imperfect. If Hannibal Lecter debated one of his traumatized victims, the Mellow Heuristic would probably conclude that Lecter was in the right. But it’s a good heuristic nonetheless. On average, the calm are really are more reliable than the agitated.
On some level, you already know this. That’s why you tell yourself, “Calm down” when the costs of error are high. If you don’t trust yourself to reach the truth when you’re upset, why would you trust strangers who aren’t even trying to keep their emotions in check?