Theory on framework issues

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Belief-opinion confusion results in common political pathologies. Since beliefs are averaged opinions, the latter are less stable, uniform, and moderate than beliefs. Opinion formation, when properly detached from outcome determination, is a kind of intellectual game, albeit one having a vital societal function. Opinions merit argumentative intensity without practical enthusiasm; but in politics most adherents can’t distinguish belief from opinion and promote their opinions with belief-appropriate confidence. Fervent promotion of opinion is termed fanaticism; when less fervent, opinionation.

Another attitudinal pathology resulting from treating opinion as belief is hasty closure. Beliefs, formed by consensus, are more robust and stable than opinions, since averages change more gradually than individuals do. But when they confuse belief and opinion, adherents think their opinions ought to be as robust and sure as their beliefs. If interested in and well informed about a topic, they’re embarrassed by any inability to form a stable and confident opinion, and they’re denounced for any political fickleness, although variability is the nature of rational opinions, which, as deliberative tools, shouldn’t be held tightly.

Other pathologies result from the reverse confusion, illustrated by Solomon Asch’s influential conformity experiment: mistaking belief for opinion. Asch asked subjects to choose the longer of two lines, but unknown to the real subjects, the other ones were Asch’s confederates (“stooges”), who followed a script to report that the obviously shorter line was longer. Many subjects conformed their judgments to the stooges.'

The experiment’s standard interpretation holds that subjects were psychologically driven to conform. We're indeed sheep if scared to dissent about a line’s length because we fear a group of strangers will ostracize us! The conventional interpretation is contested by a few social psychologists: in my terms, subjects suffered from belief-opinion confusion. Asch’s ambiguous instructions confused his subjects, who misunderstood the length-estimation task as requesting they form a belief about relative length. Subjects weren't irrational when they discounted their own perceptions (read opinions), contradicted by epistemically equal stooges. The hypothesis is testable: tell subjects to report their perceptions of relative length, rather than eliciting their all-considered beliefs.

Subjects who nevertheless continue to report their beliefs, not opinions, would, then, be social conformists, forming their opinions as if beliefs, the reverse of fanatics, who form beliefs as if opinions. Conformists don’t necessarily go far wrong in their beliefs (fanatics do), but they’re useless deliberators, compulsively moderate equivocators, whose fear of error, suitable for outcome-determining beliefs, governs how they form deliberation-enhancing opinions, which are functionally eliminated when adherents apply unsuited belief-forming methods.

Confusion between belief and opinion is also what makes Aumann’s agreement theorem counter-intuitive. The theorem concerns beliefs, but students tacitly apply it, instead, to opinion.

Next Essay: Explaining deliberation

Monday, March 7, 2011


Belief, relying on the opinions of epistemic superiors and equals, is the rational basis for controlling outcome, but effective deliberators must express their opinions, as in the 1957 movie "Twelve Angry Men." A single holdout—without claim to epistemic superiority—stood firm and averted an innocent defendant's conviction. In rational-belief formation, agents discount their own opinions following their overwhelming rejection by epistemic equals. For rational belief, the dissenter should assign no greater weight to his own opinion than to other jurors'; but had he based his position on rational belief, the jury would have convicted wrongly. Under the (false) assumption that deliberation is based on belief, the independent juror would have been irrational in his stubborn defense of personal opinion. That's wrong: jurors are supposed to be independent. Jury instructions, though not philosophically explicit, imply that jurors should form independent opinions, influenced only by other jurors' arguments, not the belief-constituting average opinion of epistemic equals. The other eleven jurors, who decidedly were not paragons of rationality, adopted group-average opinion to form, irrationally, a bloc against the dissenter.

Opinions and beliefs serve separate valid roles. Whereas belief is the rational basis for outcome control, opinion is the substantial basis for deliberation, which contests opinions to adjust belief. Deliberation flourishes when independent contributions foster the debate driving it.

Scientific and philosophical debates resemble jury deliberations. Although rational belief is a weighted average of all the experts' beliefs, to reach beliefs least prone to error each scientist involved must first serve as an independent "measuring instrument," only later submitting to an ultimate computation of a group average. Philosophers' attitudes are typified by Hume's when he skeptically rejected causality, opining that no future expectancies are justified, and causality is mere habitual association. Yet, he admittedly disregarded his philosophical conclusions in practical matters. Hypocrisy? No, Hume was properly distinguishing his belief that causality is objective from his opinion that it's illusion. Hume advanced philosophy by cultivating his independent opinion, which, like all good philosophers, he tried to conform to his reasoning, but he disbelieved his skepticism.

Philosophers and scientists distinguish the research program they pursue from the tenets they believe, but political disagreement is different. In an election-based system expressing deeply opposed interests, political advocacy simultaneously serves deliberative and outcome-controlling functions, because democratic debate serves to both answer and decide political questions. Democratic debate is premised on deliberation, while democratic process is premised on outcome control, and when a single venue simultaneously serves both functions, the deliberative function suffers. If the other jurors continued stating beliefs rather than forming opinions, the dissenting juror's deliberative efforts would have been futile, but outcome control is more robust. Whereas deliberation is stymied when some jurors substitute the drive to control the outcome for the desire to find the truth, outcome control is facilitated when others distractedly pursue other goals.

While beliefs rather than opinions guide political debate, when their deliberation is obstructed the intended beliefs never progress beyond opinion. The pathologies of belief and opinion, the subject of the next essay, derive from this political concoction and its thorough confusion of belief and opinion.

Next posting: Pathologies of belief-opinion confusion.

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Joshua Tree, California 92252-2141, United States
SUPPLIER OF LEGAL THEORIES. Attorneys' ghostwriter of legal briefs and motion papers, serving all U.S. jurisdictions. Former Appellate/Law & Motion Attorney at large Los Angeles law firm; J.D. (University of Denver); American Jurisprudence Award in Contract Law; Ph.D. (Psychology); B.A. (The Johns Hopkins University). E-MAIL: Phone: 760.974.9279 Some other legal-brief writers research thoroughly and analyze penetratingly, but I bring another two merits. The first is succinctness. I spurn the unreadable verbosity and stupefying impertinence of ordinary briefs to perform feats of concision and uphold strict relevance to the issues. The second is high polish, achieved by allotting more time to each project than competitors afford. Succinct style and polished language — manifested in my legal-writing blog, Disputed Issues — reverse the common limitations besetting brief writers: lack of skill for concision and lack of time for perfection.