Disagreement Case Study – Balan and I

David Balan and I exchanged a few posts here over the last few weeks on paternalism, and we had a one hour debate a week ago (audio here).   David and I are similarly expert by conventional measures, so this is more disagreeing with an equal than disagreeing with a superior.  And being active contributors of Overcoming Bias, we are both well aware of many signs of bias.   David is employed by a U.S. agency much of whose policies are justified via paternalism, while I am employed in part because of an academic publication that leaned against paternalism.  So we have similar potential for self-interest biases. 

David seems to disapprove of most policies in most societies today and through history that have been justified on paternalistic grounds.  These include parents choosing kids’ careers and spouses, bans on alternative religions, political groups and sexual orientations, rules about who can practice what professions, and limits on the freedoms of women, ethnic minorities, and lower classes.  So if he could only choose in general between paternalism or not, I think David would choose not.   

But David considers the rulers of our society, our democratic majority and the opinion elites they follow, to be much better paternalists than the rulers of all those other societies.   By "our society" David means the United States and nations with similar paternalism policies.  The main evidence David cites for the superiority of our ruling class is that we are the most prosperous society in human history.

Paternalism is a disagreement between a group with power and a group without.  The group without power will not take advice from the group with power, so the group with power forces their advice.  Now I could be tempted by arguments that ask me to believe that groups with power tend in general to be correct in their paternalism.  For example, one might argue that most societies have correctly limited the choices of children, because children are objectively more irrational than adults. 

But David asks much more of me.  Since the rulers of all those other societies would be unlikely to grant our superiority as paternalists, to agree with David I must take his side in disagreeing with all those other rulers, in addition to taking his side in disagreeing with the people whose choices our paternalism limits.  And David asks me to believe the happy coincidence that even though in most of history paternalism was on net bad for the society that was the most prosperous up to then, we just happen to live in the age where the paternalism of the richest society (but only them) is finally on net good.   

Since others disagree here, I must disagree with someone.   I can agree with David to doubt most paternalism in history, but I am wary of the standard bias to favor one’s own society in evaluations.  Our wealth doesn’t seem to depend clearly enough on our paternalism for me to conclude much about our paternalism from our wealth.  I am thus reluctant to empower one side in our paternalism disputes to force its view on the other side.  So I tentatively side with those without power in all societies, including our own, and reject the claim that the powerful of our society are an unusually superior "master class." 

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  • conchis

    Robin, do you think that our society is more or less paternalistic than most of the others you are thinking of? If less, would that provide some evidence that existing paternalist practices are better than elsewhere? (If paternalist policies have a higher threshold to cross before being implemented, then we are likely to have both fewer and better ones.)

  • Bruce K Britton

    Robin, I’d like to tempt you “by arguements that ask you to believe that groups with power tend in general to be correct in their paternalism.”

    As you suggest, children are correctly subject to paternalism, but not only because they are irrational but also because they do not have the relevant domain knowledge: to do surgery or fly planes or do pharmocology or invest in hedge funds or futures options — that is, children are ignorant as well as irrational.

    And to understand warnings, you need domain knowledge as well as rationality. For example, “Warning, High Voltage Wires, Don’t Touch’ requires knowledge that enables you to read English, as well as knowledge that wires are long stringy things, knowledge that the consequence can be death and not just smudged fingers, etc.

    But those in power at certain periods of history and in certain subject matter domains do have the relevant subject matter knowledge about how to fly airplanes, do surgery, etc., and can arrange institutions that can reduce the irrationality of decisions, such as by instituting safeguards like refereed journals, blind reviews, transparent rule-making, public comment on regulations, and blogs on ways to reduce irrationality.

    So those particular groups in power can be legitimately paternalistic of children.

    But wait! Adults, as well as children, are ignorant of relevant subject matter knowledge and irrational (else why a blog on overcoming cognitive bias) . So if paternalism is legitimately applied to one group who is ignorant and irrational (i.e., children) it can also legitimately applied to the rest of the people who are ignorant, and irrational (adults).

    Note that this claim (of superior knowledge and superior checks on irrationality doesn’t apply ‘ in general’ to those in power at all periods of history or in all present day societies, just in ones which have true relevant subject matter knowledge and institutions that truly reduce irrationality. Nor does it require a ‘master class’ of superior persons. It does require that some normal people in power have more true subject matter knowledge than others and have better checks on their irrationality. Whether that requirement is met in any existing society is an empirical matter.

  • Bruce, paternalism powers in pretty much all societies believe they have “true relevant subject matter knowledge and institutions that truly reduce irrationality.”

    Conchis, our society is not obviously less paternalistic than most.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Robin, you may be blurring a distinction within paternalism; David may feel that modern paternalism is of a different kind that old style paternalism (a lot of the old fashionned paternalism seems to be about social control, keeping people in their place; David may feel that modern paternalism isn’t).

    Conversely, David may be indeed favouring his own society, in that he would not like to live under past paternalisms, and so concludes that it was also bad for the people back then.

    Did David present any empirical reasons for thinking the current level of paternalism is ideal, apart from wealth? (one justification may be to look at happiness surveys, that show happiness increasing as old style paternalism wanes, but seems unaffected by current developments in paternalism and wealth). If David did present reasons like that, maybe you disagree on the significance or validity of that evidence.

    David indeed errs by citing wealth as a justification for paternalism, I think you can safely dispense with that argument. But did he also claim poverty in non-paternalistic societies? Or provide examples of poverty alleviated by paternalism, or caused/exacerbated by its absence? Or did he claim a sort of darwinian process: countries set out with different levels of paternalisms, some get rich, some not. Any one of these arguments (if true) is more convincing than his initial one, and he may have been thinking of them, rather than the one he actually stated.

    Saying all previous paternalisms are bad, so you don’t see why the current one is good, is a nice sounding general argument, but it is weak. It tips the issue if your beliefs against or in favour are finely balanced, but not otherwise. The fact you include it here either imply that you believe the issue to be finely balanced, or that you disagree with paternalism for stronger reasons and use this argument as a rhetorical point.

    Finally, you may be actually diagreeing about the cost/benifits of modern paternalism. The costs are reduced liberty, the benifits more varied and open to interpretation. If you and David have different values, you feeling the costs are too high, and David feeling they aren’t, you might end up talking past each other, with you predisposed to accept arguments invalidating paternalism, and David accepting those justifying it (I trust you both to be very bias-free, but you both seem to be using meta-arguments that are very prone to bias – for instance, would David accept national wealth as an argument in other contexts?)

    These are my thoughts, I hope they’re helpfull! The whole exchange between you and David on the blog has been most stimulating, I must say. Keep it up!

  • Matthew

    I must say Robin you’ve put forth a very compelling case against paternalism. Much stronger than any other I’m familiar with. And I’ve been an anti-paternalist for 10 years now. . .

  • Matthew

    I notice something troubling about this controversy.

    Those who were pro-paternalist before the debate and OB posts and comments haven’t changed their minds. Indeed they are seeing more evidence that confirms their pro-paternalist beliefs.

    Those who were anti-paternalist before the debate (myself and Robin, for example) haven’t changed our minds either. We are seeing more evidence confirming our anti-paternalist beliefs.

    This is on a blog dedicated to discovering and overcoming bias.

    This leads me to the intuition that my hunch is correct — man is the rationalizing animal, not the rational animal. Here is an example of how that process plays itself out in political controversies.

    What to do? A deep humility towards ones own position, and the position of ones peer and cultural group seems more than warranted. And a deep recognition of the commonality of the pitfalls that beset all of us in our search for reality might help avoid hubris and the unconsciousness it brings.

    Is there anyone whose belief was changed by the debate and exchange of ideas?

  • Matthew, if we have both already considered the issue a lot over many years, interacting with many other people, should one really expect us to change much due to one more short encounter?

    Stuart, I do think that the issue is subtle, and so we many not be able to do much better than weak arguments.

  • Robin, what downsides of your policy do you openly acknowledge? What downsides of his policy does Balan openly acknowledge?

    “Acknowledge” means that you not only openly admit of the consequences but also openly admit of their undesirability; “people who smoke cigarettes deserve to get hurt” doesn’t count as acknowledging.

  • Matthew C

    Matthew, if we have both already considered the issue a lot over many years, interacting with many other people, should one really expect us to change much due to one more short encounter?

    No, in fact the likelyhood is that you will both become more entrenched in your beliefs over the years. That’s what the fMRI study is showing in the context of political beliefs.

    Here are some choice excerpts, emphasis added by me:

    “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.”

    . . .

    Once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions — essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted — not only did circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but subjects got a blast of activation in circuits involved in reward — similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix, Westen explains.

    “None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” says Westen. “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.”

    During the study, the partisans were given 18 sets of stimuli, six each regarding President George W. Bush, his challenger, Senator John Kerry, and politically neutral male control figures such as actor Tom Hanks. For each set of stimuli, partisans first read a statement from the target (Bush or Kerry). The first statement was followed by a second statement that documented a clear contradiction between the target’s words and deeds, generally suggesting that the candidate was dishonest or pandering.

    Next, partisans were asked to consider the discrepancy, and then to rate the extent to which the person’s words and deeds were contradictory. Finally, they were presented with an exculpatory statement that might explain away the apparent contradiction, and asked to reconsider and again rate the extent to which the target’s words and deeds were contradictory.

    Behavioral data showed a pattern of emotionally biased reasoning: partisans denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate that they had no difficulty detecting in the opposing candidate. Importantly, in both their behavioral and neural responses, Republicans and Democrats did not differ in the way they responded to contradictions for the neutral control targets, such as Hanks, but Democrats responded to Kerry as Republicans responded to Bush.

    While reasoning about apparent contradictions for their own candidate, partisans showed activations throughout the orbital frontal cortex, indicating emotional processing and presumably emotion regulation strategies. There also were activations in areas of the brain associated with the experience of unpleasant emotions, the processing of emotion and conflict, and judgments of forgiveness and moral accountability.

    Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning (as well as conscious efforts to suppress emotion). The finding suggests that the emotion-driven processes that lead to biased judgments likely occur outside of awareness, and are distinct from normal reasoning processes when emotion is not so heavily engaged, says Westen.

    Usually one thinks in terms of being a “self” who “thinks thoughts”. Despite some severe problems with that conceptual model, seldom is it considered where those thoughts actually come from, and how much the content of those thoughts might be affected by previous conditioning. I think the metaphor of unconsciously “twirling of the cognitive kaleidoscope” to meet one’s confirmation biases which are then “massively reinforced” is a great description. Unfortunately, not a description of a process likely to lead to a consensus truth. . .

  • Bruce K Britton

    Robin, Yes, other societies have believed they had ‘true relevant subject matter knowledge and institutions that truly reduce irrationality.’

    But surely it is an empirical matter whether a particular society has those things in a particular area. There is good evidence to consider on whether we do have such knowledge and institutions in each area in which we are paternalizing. Do we have that knowledge about surgery, flying planes, etc?

    Are you saying there is no such empirical information, or are you unwilling to consider such evidence and make a decision on whether any society actually possesses true knowledge and effective institutions in a particular area?

    if so, aren’t you entrenching yourself in radical relativism (stage 5 in W.B. Perry’s model of intellectual development in the college years): ‘It’s all a matter of opinion?”

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Is there anyone whose belief was changed by the debate and exchange of ideas?

    Yes, me. Not dramatically, but I have moved from a pro-paternalist position to a more agnostic one.

    (But this may be just an admission that there are powerful arguments on either side, and that I feel unqualified to decide)

  • Matthew C, that is a bit too long for a comment.

    Eliezer, if you listen to the debate I think you will see that we both acknowledged that real harms result from either policy. People choose things that hurt them on the one hand, and people are prevented from choosing things that benefit them on the other hand. The issue is weighing these various consequences.

    Bruce, of course I am willing to consider evidence; I’m not just very optimistic about how easy that is here.

  • Matthew C

    You’re quite correct Robin, it was too long for a comment. My apologies.

    Nonetheless, I would love to hear a response to my assertion that following a controversy over a long period of time is very likely to lead to further entrenchment of pre-existing beliefs, rather than an impartial Bayesian re-evaluation of the data. My reading of the literature and my personal experiences lead to this assertion.


    Great to hear that. The ability to change our beliefs to conform to argument and evidence is a critical contributor to progress. I happen to agree with Robin about paternalism, and indeed my own beliefs became firmer after reading his well-argued statement.

    I do think the “meta” question here is even more relevant to OB than this specific controversy. Is it likely that groups of people who participate in a controversy holding a particular positions but also curiosity and a desire to find the truth will converge on the correct answer in a Bayesian manner, or is it more likely that their existing positions will generally become entrenched through unconscious confirmation bias? What will facilitate truth-finding and help avoid the “twirling of the cognitive kaleidoscope” to rationalize our existing positions?

  • TGGP

    The word “paternalism” itself suggests an analogy with parents, and Bruce explicitly made that comparison. I question the similarities between parents and what would be called “paternalistic policies”. Parents have far fewer children to manage than policymakers have citizens, and they also personally know their children personally. Parents are genetically hard-wired to look after the fitness of their children (though when it conflicts with their own they may go to such extremes as infanticide). Modern governments appeared too recently to have had much effect on evolution and even if they did I don’t see a similar mechanism emerging that would align the interests of policy-makers and their subjects as that of parents are with their children. Finally, paternalism is limited by the age of the children. When they become adults they may leave the home and possibly have their own children to be paternalist over. A much smaller proportion of citizens emigrate from the United States, and when they do it is only to become subjects of another polity.

  • Robin wrote: “But David asks much more of me. Since the rulers of all those other societies would be unlikely to grant our superiority as paternalists, to agree with David I must take his side in disagreeing with all those other rulers, in addition to taking his side in disagreeing with the people whose choices our paternalism limits.”

    Many of the people whose choices our paternalism limits favor paternalism. Since we are in a democracy, aren’t you disagreeing with the majority of the electorate who support politicians who favor some paternalism (a pretty large electoral majority it seems, perhaps exceeding 98%?)

    Also, I’m not sure whether your position is that paternalism now is a net bad? Do you think it would be better on balance if all paternalism were eliminated from the US, including the paternalism of parents over small children? Or are you advocating some more moderate position?

  • Nick, yes, each paternalistic policy in a democracy is likely supported by a majority of citizens. But I think that is less because the majority wants to limit themselves, and more because they want to limit the minority. For example Bryan Caplan tells me “71% of people who have used illegal drugs (of any kind) favor legalization of marijuana. 76% who have not used favor prohibition.” I think those who want weed to stay illegal mainly want to stop other people from using it.

    I agree there are always ambiguities when we imagine large aggregate policy changes. One possible change I’m sympathetic to is stopping all government paternalism. Another is stopping all paternalism for kids age ten and older.

  • Robin, even if it is true that most supporters of paternalism want to limit others rather than themselves, we still need to think about whether or not this means that they disagree with your view.

    Suppose (as seems plausible) that a vast majority of the electorate would assent to the proposition “Having some paternalistic policies is on balance better for the US and its citizens than having no paternalistic policies.” If you dissent from this proposition, there appears to be a disagreement (one in which you are siding with a small minority, and Balan with the majority).

  • Robin, will you agree with me that before the Civil War the U.S. was the least paternalistic large country to have existed in the last millenium? That before FDR the U.S. was significantly less paternalistic than most?

  • Nacim Bouchtia

    I am eagerly awaiting Mr Balan’s response.

  • Following up on Nick’s comment, suppose we say that paternalism is probably a good idea when it represents the majority forcing its views on the minority, and a bad idea when it is vice versa. This would be on the principle that larger groups are likely to be less biased, by the law of averages.

    Historically, most forms of paternalism represented a powerful minority imposing rules on a powerless majority. Hence we should oppose such paternalism.

    But today, as Nick points out, with democratic governments, paternalism arguably represents the majority imposing its will on the minority. This gives us an objective basis for distinguishing the paternalism of today from most of the oppressive forms of paternalism which have existed in the past, and in some other cultures. Paternalism today is more likely to eliminate bias than to impose the biases of a ruling minority. Hence we can support paternalism in today’s Western style democracies. (And perhaps in selected other cultures, if they meet this criterion.)

    I might add BTW that this represents a pretty big change in my previously held views on paternalism, which were quite libertarian in nature. While this particular debate has not particularly influenced my position, the general principles discussed in this forum have played a large role.

  • Hal, the kind of “bias” that is reduced by the law of averages is totally different from cognitive bias of the type we discuss here. Technically, in fact, what is reduced by the law of large numbers is variance. Variance is error that is reduced by getting lots of samples; bias is error that sticks around no matter how many samples you get.

  • Eliezer, to the extent that different people have different biases, wouldn’t you expect them to cancel out as we move to larger group sizes? What do you think of the general principle that larger groups would on average be less biased than smaller ones?

  • Hal, to the extent that people have different biases randomly distributed around a mean, I would expect larger group sizes – and they could be quite small group sizes, on the order of 10,000 say – to reduce in variance to that mean. The mean can still be biased, that is, far from the correct answer. For example, people’s beliefs about the Emperor of China’s height are Gaussian-distributed around 220 centimeters with a standard deviation of 10 centimeters, but the correct answer is 200 centimeters. Now, for technical reasons, the expectation of squared error does decrease as you poll more and more Chinese, but the expectation doesn’t go to zero. For example, a guess of 210 has a squared error of 100, while a guess of 230 has a squared error of 900, so if you have a 50/50 chance of making only one of these guesses – polling a single Chinese – your average squared error will be 900 + 100 / 2 = 500. However, if you poll both of them and average their guesses together to 220, the squared error will be 400, which is lower.

    On the other hand, if you were working with expected error instead of expected squared error, no amount of averaging would make a difference. The standard formulation of “bias-variance decomposition” assumes squared error, and it lets you neatly partition the portion of squared error that comes from variance – individual differences – and bias – error that comes from the individual average still being wrong.

    So, if you’re squaring the errors that people make, then you’re guaranteed to reduce the average squared error by polling more people. But if you’re not squaring the errors, it doesn’t make a difference.

    For different biases to cancel out in the intuitive sense, not just the technical sense of squared error and bias-variance decomposition, the different biases would have to be on different sides of the correct answer.

  • Matt C, your claim is of course true in many case; the question is which cases.

    Richard, I am not a history expert, and so can’t confirm your claim.

    Nick, the fact that the vast majority support some paternalism seems like the fact that the vast majority would support an absolute dictator, if only they could pick the individual to be the dictator.

    Hal, most paternalism in most societies has been supported by a substantial majority of that society. Consider rules against gays or divorce, against alternative religions, or rules in Islamic societies today. Consider racial slavery in the U.S., justified by saying blacks couldn’t take care of themselves. Even rules limiting women were supported by enough women to get majority support.

  • Okay, then I think I would have to support those kinds of paternalistic policies as well. Given the uncertainty that exists on the best way to live, and the pervasiveness of individual bias, if the majority of society strongly believes in certain practices then that would be good enough grounds in most cases to accept those beliefs as our best guide to what is correct. If everyone believes in following Sharia, Islamic law, then I should be very hesitant to put my skepticism above everyone else’s opinion.

    Again, this is based on the principle that in general, the majority is more likely to be right than the minority, and the individual. I am still mulling over Eliezer’s comments to try to understand how mean squared error fits into this picture.

  • Hal, a problem is that these societies disagree with each other about their paternalisms. If each society believed that each other society was right in their paternalisms, then you could agree with them all at once. But when they each claim that other societies had it wrong, you can’t agree with them all at once.

  • Hal, I think you’re following your ideas off a cliff. The average person tries to do better-than-average, so if you only try to be as good as the average person, you’ll do worse than average because you aren’t striving as hard as the average person.

  • Robin, that is a good point about mutually inconsistent paternalism. But suppose we accept the general principle that more minds are wiser than fewer. Then it still might be reasonable to support local paternalism even though each locality has different practices. As Eliezer describes, this should reduce mean squared error, right?

    The ideal situation would then be a global worldwide democracy. No surprise there, I’m sure most people in our culture would agree with this goal, and many in other cultures as well. It is safe to assume that such a democracy would practice paternalism, since it is widely supported among the public. Would you support paternalism under such a government?

  • Robin says “the fact that the vast majority support some paternalism seems like the fact that the vast majority would support an absolute dictator, if only they could pick the individual to be the dictator.”

    I don’t think these alleged facts are alike. Almost all of the citizens support paternalism; almost all oppose dictatorship.

    The vast majority would support having themselves thrown off a tall building, if only they could magically sprout wings at the crucial moment and fly off into the sunset. This does not imply that the vast majority support having themselves thrown off tall buildings.

  • Hal, not if the temptation to regulate is inherently biased in its execution – then you can reduce total error by reducing regulation.

    (Statistical arguments shouldn’t really ought to be invoked here. Why use squared error instead of error? It’s the wrong grounds for the argument.)

  • Nick, I meant that while most people may support some paternalism, they don’t necessarily support the same paternalism policies. A similar example would be that most people support cutting “waste” in government spending, as long as it isn’t the “waste” they personally benefit from.

    Hal, to use a simple average of opinion as the best estimate, you’d have to assume similar error rates. This is subject worth more thought.

  • Robin, (a) many particular paternalistic policies enjoy majority support, yet you seem to oppose these policies; (b) even if no particular paternalistic policy enjoyed majority support, we can still look at the fact that most people believe it’s better to accept the actual system of paternalistic policies, and the way it may be tweaked over time, than to eliminate it wholesale; whereas you seem to hold the opposite view.

    I’m not here directly questioning those views, but I’m questioning your apparent claim in your post, where you seem to be justifying your disagreement with Balan by suggesting that you are agreeing with the majoriy while Balan’s views are those of a minority.

    I’m not sure how you mean to apply the waste-cutting example to the present case. In the analogy, is waste-cutting=paternalism? So most people are in favor of waste-cutting and in favor of paternalism, even though for most people there are also some specific instances of waste-cutting and some specific instances of paternalism that they oppose, although different instances for different people. If so, the analogy would be that Balan argues for paternalism and for waste-cutting, while you are arguing against paternalism and against waste-cutting? But are you really againt cutting waste in government? And would you really think you were in the majority in holding that view?

    Btw, if we’re going to make a disagreement case study of this debate between you and Balan, it would be useful also to hear Balan’s side of the story.

  • Matthew C

    Btw, if we’re going to make a disagreement case study of this debate between you and Balan, it would be useful also to hear Balan’s side of the story.

    Right here, Nick.

  • Nick, the waste-cutting analogy clearly failed to be clear; I’ll just drop it.

    Each society’s paternalism policies are usually supported by a majority there. And if societies tended to support the paternalism in other socities, then the majorities of all the societies would together be a very strong majority, which one should think twice or twenty times before opposing.

    But, as I explained to Hal, the majority in our society also opposes most of the paternalisms in other societies now and in the past. If other societies also disagree with each other, then it is not clear there is a majority you can agree with. My guess, thought it is only a guess, is that the minorities in each society that oppose paternalism agree with each other more across societies; they’d like all the minorities everywhere to be left alone.

  • That reminds me of my justification for not being religious: the majority of people in the world are not Christian, the majority of people in the world are not Muslim, the majority of people in the world are not Hindu, the majority of people in the world are not Buddhist, etc…

    So I can’t pick any religion without being in a minority! I’m not sure the conclusion really follows though. Something I’m still working on.

  • Nick Bostrom

    Robin, do you think that Balan can claim to agree with the vast bulk of contemporary Western opinion (and extending quite far beyond that since many other societies might see the paternalism we have now in our society as doing on balance more good than bad – I’m not sure whether most contemporary Muslims, Chinese, Africans, etc. would think that mandatory schooling, seat belts, not selling alcohol to minors, and the rest of it are a net bad for Americans). Does your disagreement with him hinge on your (a) placing a much greater weight than he does on the opinions of people who are dead, and (b) assuming that those dead people would believe that present paternalism is on balance bad?

  • Nick, it isn’t clear to me how wide a range of “western” paternalism David embraces. Germans allow legal prostitution, for example. Is Germany “western”, and are laws against prostitution part of the “western” set? I suspect I do place more weight on dead people than he does, and/or have different opinions about what they would believe about us.