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

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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.