I recently debated a policy issue with a longtime advocate who had spent their career researching and writing in support of a particular perspective. I, in turn, expressed a contrary viewpoint. My basic thesis was that certain policy prescriptions of the past had failed to yield the intended results, and that the underlying assumptions needed to be reviewed. This went over like a lead ballon. The advocate dug in and reminded me that they had spent 20+ years studying and supporting their particular perspective. The not-so-subtle implication seemed to be that I could not possibly be correct since I had not dedicated the same amount of time during the course of my own career.
I should acknowledge two things right upfront. The first is, while I haven’t logged as many miles as some folks, my experience is not negligible. I usually don’t wade into territory about which I know nothing about, and my views on this particular topic are not entirely uninformed.
Second, I should note that I generally like and admire the advocate with whom I disagreed. Maybe they don’t believe this and maybe it doesn’t matter to them. But it sure matters enough to me to acknowledge that, despite the political and social climate of the past few years, it is still possible to disagree respectfully and with admiration intact.
And this is precisely why I was so disheartened during this exchange. No, it’s not because I unsuccessfully swayed the advocate’s opinion. Rather, it was the categorical unwillingness to consider an alternative perspective because of what it might mean for the person’s 20+ years of advocacy. The fear, left unstated, seemed to be that if this person’s sincerely held belief turned out to be wrong or incomplete, then the person’s 20+ years of advocacy would have been all for naught. To my mind, this kind of thinking aptly illustrates the sunk-cost fallacy. And the problem with the sunk-cost fallacy is that it is, well, fallacious.
What I wish I could convey to this advocate is that their 20+ years of dedication is no less valuable or admirable by shifting one’s perspective. I wish I could convey that all of our perspectives are subject to change amidst a changing world with changing facts and circumstances. And that it is not at all a sign of weakness to show some degree of elasticity in one’s perspective but, rather, it is a sign of strength and courage. These are the things I wish I could have conveyed but for the advocate’s categorical refusal to be proven wrong by anybody.
Of course, I could be wrong. What the hell do I know?