Conversion: The Quantity/Quality Trade-off
By Bryan Caplan
Confession: Whenever I write, I’m looking for converts. I don’t just want to share some information. I want to change how my readers think – and how they see themselves.
When I read other proselytizing thinkers, however, I cringe. I cringe not merely because I disagree with their conclusions. And I certainly don’t object to the conversion motive itself. I cringe, rather, because my competitors seem far too focused on the quantity of their converts rather than their quality.
How can I tell? If your main goal is to convince as many people as possible, you naturally focus on emotional appeals – especially to anger, fear, and disgust. Everyone feels these emotions, so everyone’s a potential convert. If you bother making arguments at all, build your case around vivid stories, not step-by-step arguments. Don’t bother trying to pass an Ideological Turing Test for opposing views; you’ll just confuse your audience. In fact, don’t bother anticipating and answering the best objections to your views. Just troll and move on. Why respond to arguments most of your potential converts have never even heard?
In contrast, if your main goal is to improve the intellectual quality of people on “your side,” you do the opposite. Start by urging your allies to calm down, because anger, fear, and disgust impede careful reasoning. Then, review popular arguments for your allies’ views – and point out flaws in said arguments. Finally, offer better arguments – and more reasonable conclusions. Along the way, you’ll eagerly address the best objections you’ve encountered – and try to present them as skillfully as their best advocates. By the end, most of your potential audience will have wandered away in anger, fear, and disgust. But the few who remain will be better thinkers and better people.
I can’t honestly claim to focus solely on quality. Frankly, it gets a little dull. But from where I’m standing, most public intellectuals focus almost exclusively on quantity. This is hardly surprising for slower-witted pundits; maybe they can’t do any better. But when I see brilliant minds demagoguing, I’m aghast. Even if they made converts by the boatload, I’d be ashamed to emulate them.
Admittedly, you could accuse me of sour grapes. My quantity-conversion skills are, at best, weak. My quality-conversion skills, in contrast, are pretty good. Give me an hour with someone who sympathizes with my general views, and I can reliably inculcate more reasonable versions of those views.
And if you give me ten minutes every day on EconLog, I can do much more. You will not be numerous, my readers. But you will be marvelous! 🙂