Opinion warning signs

by on September 26, 2010 at 10:11 am in Education, Philosophy, Religion, Science | Permalink

Robin Hanson makes a list of "Signs that your opinions function more to signal loyalty and ability than to estimate truth:"

  1. You find it hard to be enthusiastic for something until you know that others oppose it.
  2. You have little interest in getting clear on what exactly is the position being argued.
  3. Realizing that a topic is important and neglected doesn’t make you much interested.
  4. You have little interest in digging to bigger topics behind commonly argued topics.
  5. You are less interested in a topic when you don’t foresee being able to talk about it.
  6. You are uncomfortable taking a position near the middle of the opinion distribution.
  7. You are uncomfortable taking a position of high uncertainty about who is right.
  8. You care far more about current nearby events than similar distant or past/future events.
  9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.
  10. You are reluctant to change your publicly stated positions in response to new info.
  11. You are reluctant to agree a rival’s claim, even if you had no prior opinion on the topic.
  12. More?

I would add: You feel uncomfortable taking a position which raises the status of the people you usually disagree with.

Tyler Fan September 26, 2010 at 10:39 am

8 seems rather dubious to me.

Bill September 26, 2010 at 10:42 am

These are all great points showing the fallibility of humans in forming opinions. I am sure few people follow these precepts.

But, I am a bit surprised that they are coming a supporter of opinion and betting markets as a way of discerning truth. GIGO. I am sure that someone will come back and say you can lose money betting this way, but people blow money for all sorts of foolish causes, including supporting losing candidates.

James September 26, 2010 at 10:49 am

@Rahul

Great point. I feel that most “moderate” writers with opinion columns in the big papers end up as more ideological because of this reason.

koen September 26, 2010 at 11:01 am

James: As Robin Hanson points out, “Of course you may want your opinions to mainly signal loyalty and ability”.

This is true for people like politicians and writers of opinion columns. I’m not sure if this is entirely a bad thing.

Robert Bloomfield September 26, 2010 at 11:06 am

Especially in political matters, we must identify a third goal: not just search for truth and signaling, but also pursuit of outcomes. If my goal is to accomplish a policy goal (e.g., to encourage others to support a law), I would probably exhibit many of the behaviors the post attributes to signaling.

beezer September 26, 2010 at 11:19 am

What if you are right? What if you did your research fairly and as comprehensibly as practicable?

What if your opposition did neither? Is it OK to ask them for reason and facts? And if they don’t provide both, can you at least be allowed to call them ‘lazy.’ Is that an acceptable word to use?

Is it OK not to be interested in debating everything?

And what is your position if, after 30 or more years of faithfully holding one worldview, you investigate and find out you were wrong? Does this increase the value of loyalty to your new position?

Or maybe do you not comment at all.

AaronM September 26, 2010 at 11:46 am

How about: You feel comfortable attacking the positions of others in the absence of having formed a well-articulated position on the relevant topic.

Chris MacDonald September 26, 2010 at 12:03 pm

How about verbal cues, like use of the word “agenda” when describing other people’s point of view? Almost nobody who uses that word (when not talking about the agenda for a meeting) is trying to improve their *own* point of view.

Andrew September 26, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Bill,

What you are talking about describes how certain economists came to the completely wrong conclusions about the information that markets convey and the policies they implemented (e.g. mark-to-market). It’s not the market’s fault. The market never claimed to be infallible. You take the good idea that ‘the market is usually close,’ and then tweak it a bit to ‘the market is always exactly right’ and then force people to rely on the market’s ‘opinion’ as fact, and voila, you suddenly no longer have a market.

None of this of course implies that politicians or their experts would be better.

Slocum September 26, 2010 at 1:00 pm

#6 seems more about status than loyalty. Middle-of-the-distribution opinions (or at least middle-of-the-distribution predictions) are more likely to be correct–but they are, by their nature, unremarkable, so experts resist expressing them. The status boost for experts comes from presciently (e.g. luckily or semi-randomly) staking out tail-of-the-distribution positions and having events prove him right.

joan September 26, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Both 7 and 8 bother me, “taking a position of high uncertainty about who is right” should make any rational person uncomfortable and one of the reasons we “care far more about current nearby events than similar distant or past/future events” is that we are much more likely to know who is right if the events are nearby and current.

Philo September 26, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Not all of these are well taken. “5. You are less interested in a topic when you don’t foresee being able to talk about it.” Communication is valuable and enjoyable. The fact that you would be unable to discuss a certain topic with others *should* decrease your interest in it; that is perfectly reasonable. (Agreeing with Jack, above.) “8. You care far more about current nearby events than similar distant or past/future events.” But this simply describes any practically-minded person–i.e., all of us. (Agreeing with Tyler Fan and Joan, above.) “11. You are reluctant to agree a rival’s claim, even if you had no prior opinion on the topic.” Simple inductive inference makes us reluctant to accept what is asserted by a person who is known to be unreliable or wrongheaded.

JeffL September 26, 2010 at 1:53 pm

First, amazing post! What I love about it is that it digs into a topic I’ve been interested in for a while: how to distinguish, technically, an impassioned ideologue from someone who honestly is concerned with understanding reality. So many people lack an impassioned vision of the world, that it makes an impassioned ideologue seem like they care and are “informed.” However, as each of your points demonstrate, there are key differences between honestly caring about getting to the bottom of something, and simply wanting to appear intelligent or wanting to ruminate on a topic merely to make oneself feel good.

Second, I would add a critical line: “You appear to be extremely passionate about a topic, but you have spent no time reviewing empirical evidence about the matter.” [I can't tell you how many people seem to be "fired up" about a topic, and with a modicum of digging, it turns out that they have done nothing to review any empirical evidence on what's known about the matter. Most, if they have done anything, have gotten "information" from talking heads on TV]

Nathan September 26, 2010 at 2:24 pm

12. You don’t admit that is is just where you are on issue X right now; that you had a different opinion in the past and may have a different opinion in the future.

Jonah Thomas September 26, 2010 at 4:02 pm

@Bill.

“In some cases, internal opinion markets contain very good data, particularly from those whose opinions and information are typically excluded from consideration within organizations. A good example is an internal bidding market Charlie Plott developed at Caltech in which workers would bet on the success of a printer and the likelihood of the group meeting a sales goal. Everyone bet, including the guy in shipping who had private knowledge that these dorks would never get it out on time because there were bottlenecks in his department.”

So, without internal markets nobody would pay attetion to the guy in shipping. WITH internal markets, the guy in shipping gets to make money off the guys who ignore him. Also, he gets a vested interest in making sure the bottlenecks in his department are not widened, to keep him from losing his bet.

I once went to a trade fair where some IBM guys were hawking their special internal wiki. It had a special feature — all postings were anonymous. They said this resulted in frank information exchange — people said things they would never say if it could be tracked to them. I wondered whether perhaps what happened was that the guys who built the wiki simply didn’t get the FROM: field working in time, and they were using that as a selling point. But there was a strong chance they were serious.

Information markets are fine provided people use them honestly intending to indirectly transfer information that they don’t know how to transfer directly. Or when they want to make money without intending information transfer. When they let the money influence them, it contaminates the information transfer and vice versa.

When it isn’t a significant amount of money, but the result of announcing the result is significant, then someone can spend money to bias that result.

When it is a significant amount of money then someone can bias the result to make his money. If he has secret information, he wants to keep his info secret and win.

When it all balances out, two or more sides will try to spend money to influence the result, but they bid up the price until they can no longer afford to do so, without making it harder for others to add their opinions. Meanwhile, people with secret information will bid their secret opinions without any fear it will give hints that might somehow change the result.

The whole thing is basicly implausible, and yet people with a particular ideology tend to assume it has to work.

Bill September 26, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Jonah,

I basically agree with you for the reasons that you mentioned: “Information markets are fine provided people use them honestly intending to indirectly transfer information that they don’t know how to transfer directly. Or when they want to make money without intending information transfer. When they let the money influence them, it contaminates the information transfer and vice versa.” They do have value, but, for the reaons you mentioned, clearly one has to be aware of their limitations or how they can be exploited.

And, when it gets to opinion, it can get even worse because some people are influenced by what they perceive to be the opinions others hold and whether they want to be on a bandwagon (even though the bandwagon may be as strong as a little red flyer wagon).

Cialdini’s book, Influence, lists ways you are influenced, and thus you can be aware of how you may be influence by others so as not to lose objectivity. Another good book is GoupThink by an author, whose name I can’t recall, who studied failures of decisionmaking, and how opinion was formed, in large organizations.

Tom September 26, 2010 at 7:50 pm

“How about: You feel comfortable attacking the positions of others in the absence of having formed a well-articulated position on the relevant topic.”

Sometimes (often) people have very poorly formed opinions on a subject. It is easy, though I don’t know too much about the subject, to attack the argument because it lacks the essentials of a good argument.

Steve Sailer September 26, 2010 at 9:01 pm

It’s unrealistic to imagine that wholly disinterested people will go through all the hard work of coming up with a rational opinion on a subject, nor is realistic to assume that people will suddenly change their minds 180 degrees.

Instead, what works best is when people who hold a thesis engage the best arguments of people who hold the antithesis, and therefore generate a synthesis to be the winner.

finzent September 27, 2010 at 3:40 am

#1 seems too broad. Isn’t it perfectly valid to be unenthusiastic about some seemingly uncontroversial opinions until you learn that some people don’t agree? In such cases, the disagreement may be the cause for the enthusiasm, but the concern is still about the truth of the matter.

Ron September 27, 2010 at 10:47 am

This list is an attempt to signal Robin Hanson’s ability to find truth, but ends up being a signal of Robin Hanson’s ability to attribute signaling to all human actions, and inability to distinguish between merely not-truth motives, and actively loyal or able motives.

a big jerk September 27, 2010 at 11:48 am

You are unable to acknowledge a good point made by Steve Sailer without first denouncing him (surprisingly common).

matt September 28, 2010 at 12:32 pm

you make an arbitrary list of opinion warnings.

C September 29, 2010 at 12:30 am

Tyler’s one point is far superior than all of Hanson’s combined. This is more intended as praise for Tyler than criticism of Hanson, though most of Hanson’s points are technically speaking non-sensical.

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