The Ideological Turing test — Bryan Caplan

Last updated 2019-10-16

Consider your position on abortion. If you’re pro-life, imagine you’re doing some research at a pro-choice event and you want to conceal your true position. Suddenly, someone hands you a microphone and a spotlight shines on you—the crowd wants to hear you say a few words about why it’s so important to defend women’s right to choose. (If you’re pro-choice, imagine you’re at a pro-life event and you have to say why it’s so important to protect the life of an embryo or fetus.)

Would you be able to pass for a proponent of a belief you don’t hold? Or would the true proponents know you’re a fraud because your arguments were too superficial or too one-dimensional for a reasonable person to believe?

If you can fool the believers into thinking you’re one of them, you have passed the Ideological Turing Test, a concept from the economist Bryan Caplan. (The idea is derived from the original Turing Test, which tests a computer’s ability to pass for a human.)

The Ideological Turing Test is one of the most-consulted concepts in my mental toolkit. It’s useful every time I’m in a disagreement. If I find that I can’t summarize my interlocutor’s position to their complete satisfaction, I try to back off on persuading them and focus more on understanding them. Of course, summarizing their position accurately isn’t the same as passing the Ideological Turing Test, because they already know my true position. But the Ideological Turing Test is a good target to keep in mind, because it’s strict enough that it could be empirically verified if I cared enough to set up the right conditions.

The Ideological Turing Test is not only socially useful, but also personally edifying. When learning about a controversial topic, I do my best to learn enough about each position on that topic that I could pass the Ideological Turing Test for each of them. If I haven’t gone through this exercise for a given topic, I try not to opine on it—at least, not very stridently.

Importantly, the Ideological Turing Test is not the same thing as finding better arguments for foreign positions than their proponents actually offer—a useful but distinct practice sometimes referred to as steelmanning. Instead, the goal is to internalize the perspectives of real people who see something differently than you do. If you can pass the Ideological Turing Test for those perspectives, you will reach a much deeper understanding of the issue than you would if you were to focus only on how the various arguments play upon your own mind.

Links to this page