“That’s just theory” is an admission of cognitive dissonance


Just in case you actually come here somewhat regularly, you might have noticed I haven’t been around much, and that’s because I’m in the middle of working 12+ hour shifts for a month.  This is the same work that inspired me just over a year ago to write our most popular article where I ask the question if you can sue your company for firing you if you refuse to engage in some sort of illegal activity.

But that’s really irrelevant to the topic I want to talk about.  There seems to be a new trendy way to argue against free markets: “Well, that’s all well and good, but theory doesn’t explain how things really work.”  And then they leave it at that.  You take time to come up with an argument that is logically sound and rational and utilize ideas like supply and demand and the law of comparative advantage, but the only response is: “Blah, that’s just theory!”

Not too long ago, I was discussing with a friend the concept of price gouging and how Chris Christie’s Hurricane Sandy policies in New Jersey caused shortages when he put price limits on goods.  His response to my argument that it’s just a natural reaction of the market and it actually serves as a natural means to ration goods was “Look at Rollo, Mr. Theoretical.”  I tried to explain it over and over, but he kept repeating that.

This attack does nothing to discredit the actual argument but instead creates a straw man, which is that the claims only exist in theory.  Okay, so if these ideas only exist in theory, the person arguing against me should be able to point out where “in the real world” it doesn’t actually work with relative ease.  Instead, they’ll demand examples from you.  When you do provide examples, they’ll claim that your analysis of them is based on theory and thus continues their circular argument.

In reality, their dismissal of your argument as being “just theory” is an admission of their cognitive dissonance.  They have a belief that runs counter to your argument or point.  Instead of being able to properly justify their position, they declare your argument to be invalid for no particular reason (or at least no good reason).

Point this out to them.  Say something to the effect of “You can’t come up with any reasons why my view only exists theoretically?  Your counter is that it’s only ‘theory?’  That’s not an argument.  Explain to me why I’m wrong.”

Chances are this will end the debate.

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Are you saying that if someone says “that’s just theory” they believe the theory to some extent, but because it causes them some degree of stress, they dismiss it as “just theory” as a way of reducing their stress?

Rollo McFloogle

Well, they may not necessarily believe this theory in particular. However, it’s is silly and pretty easily disproved that theory and models can accurately depict and/or predict reality. But since a certain theory creates incongruity with their beliefs, instead of examining the theory or their own beliefs, they just dismiss anything developed theoretically (or even in the abstract or logically) as an argument against their beliefs.