Opinion Warning Signs

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. You are reluctant to take a position that raises the status of rivals.
  13. You care more about consistency between your beliefs than about belief accuracy.
  14. You go easy on sloppy arguments by folks on “your side.”
  15. You have little interest in practical concrete implications of commonly argued topics.
  16. Your opinion doesn’t much change after talking with smart folks who know more.
  17. You are especially eager to drop names when explaining positions and arguments.
  18. You find it hard to list weak points and counter-arguments on your positions.
  19. You feel passionately about a topic, but haven’t sought out much evidence.
  20. You are reluctant to not have an opinion on commonly discussed topics.
  21. More?

Of course you may want your opinions to mainly signal loyalty and ability.

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  • stubydoo

    13. When you argue and your opponent successfully shoots down your premises, you hold on to the same conclusion and start thinking up new new premises for it on the fly.

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      stuby, that may not indicate loyalty signaling but potentially just an inability to admit one is wrong. Also not a good thing, but not necessarily in the category that Robin is talking about.

    • wat

      @stubby, rejecting someone’s argument based on bad premises, is the ‘bad reasons’ fallacy (google it). A conclusion can still be true with bad premises.

      • dan

        @wat: You mean, I think, that it is fallacious to deny the truth of a conclusion based solely on the badness of the argument advanced in its favor. One ought to reject arguments in virtue of their having, as you say, “bad premises.”

      • wat

        @dan, no, conclusions are subsets of arguments. That’s what an argument is, premises + conclusion. Structurally, if a conclusion is true, then the entire argument is always true, even with bad reasoning. If the reasoning is bad, the most you can say is, “the argument’s reasons are not true.” The only time you could reject arguments wholesale by nature of unsoundness is if both the premises are untrue, and it is structurally invalid.

        Also, is does not imply ought.

  • Grant

    Signaling ability with some of these methods is dangerous, sure, because there is usually some connection between it and correspondence truth values, but loyalty seems of a different piece. It is a value on its own, one that is, especially in unimportant situations, genuinely more valuable than the correspondence between an opinion and reality. It is even possible that in some well-placed instances, loyalty is more important than the accuracy of any possible opinion. Suppose we only take the thinnest possible claim, there still doesn’t seem to be any reason to group “signaling ability” and “signaling loyalty” as a related pair. Any insight into this choice?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I just added items 12,13,14, from Tyler’s post & comments.

  • bellisaurius

    I can see where most of them are good advice for introspection on how sincere one is to oneself on a given issue, but what would be the ways of reading the internal tea leaves within those of us who like to debate and play devil’s advocate? I often feel like I’ve found myself wondering what my actual position was after a decent discussion.

    Some people might call that kind of mental flexibility a wonderful thing, but it can be nice to go once in a while “Here’s where I stand,” and only have a couple of qualifications to my statement. I always feel like people think I’m being disingenuous.

  • RR

    You believe that maxims/commandments/ideas are best articulated in round figures like 10, 20 or 15.

  • Steve

    “Signs that your opinions function more to signal loyalty and ability than to estimate truth”

    I don’t understand what this means. Ability of whom? Maybe I had to have been following the blog for a while.

    • Anno

      Maybe, this link helps to clarify: http://is.gd/fuudX

      • G

        Steve, I’m lost on the term “ability” also.

        Anno, how is that supposed to clarify? Is ability

  • w

    An inability to admit one is wrong arises, in large part, from a desire to signal ability.

  • Hyena

    15. You drop names into brief, well-structured opinions.

  • Tom Adams

    You cannot enumerate the weak points in your postition. The assumptions that may be false. The faulty derivations of one point from another.

  • http://younghipandconservative.blogspot.com/ Michael

    You are unable to faithfully summarize the opposing view.

    • Scott Burson

      I think this is an important one that pulls together many of the threads represented by the other items. If you can’t say what the opposing view is in a way that someone who holds that view will agree with, you really haven’t taken the time to understand the debate.

      • Dan L

        But doesn’t this hold true only if the person you are discussing this with is perfectly intelligent and logical? It is possible that the person who holds the opposing view is holding it due to irrationality or ignorance of the true facts. How would you know which of you is being irrational or ignorant?

        For instance, if I described the policies which those who are in favor of teaching both evolution and intelligent design support, I’m sure most supporters would not agree that this is their view. However I believe I am describing the policy position accurately and they are not.

  • komponisto

    3. Realizing that a topic is important and neglected doesn’t make you much interested.

    A bit uncharitably phrased — perhaps even a contradiction, since “realizing that a topic is important” is arguably synonymous with “becoming interested”; the topics one is interested in are those that one goes around claiming are important.

    The folks you’re talking about would more likely say “realizing that a topic is neglected and interesting to some doesn’t convince us it’s actually important”.

    18.You find it hard to list weak points and counter-arguments on your positions.

    This could also be a sign that there are no (good) counterarguments.

  • anon

    Nice topic. I think the best one would be sort of like #7 but more broad: “On issues that cannot be proven one way or the other, you assign (or talk/behave as though you are assigning) zero probability to the possibility that your view might be wrong.”

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    I like the list, but I think number 1 is a very weak sign. It doesn’t seem to be very compatible with number 3 either. Most of the time you won’t be enthusiastic about subject until you’re aware that there’s something to be interested about, and often that means that you become aware that there are differing opinions. If no one disagrees about it, there’s really not much to be interested in. Besides, the definition of “opinion” practically implies that the subject of the opinion is up for debate.

    • Mdh

      I am interested in plenty of things I’ve never had an argument over. Trains for example. And now I will get to argue with people who are now only interested in trains because the gov’t is about to spend money on them. Their issue is the money, but they will argue trains to show loyalty. It wasn’t interesting to many people before the money was involved, but it was to me.

  • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

    >You care more about consistency between your beliefs than about belief accuracy.

    You should care nearly as much about consistency, because if beliefs are inconsistent they cannot all be true; inconsistency is a sign that you need to examine your beliefs again.

    >You are especially eager to drop names when explaining positions and arguments.

    You accuse your opponent of “name dropping” when he provides references.

    • Jonas

      I don’t agree. I suggest different believes can be true even though they are not consistent relative to each other. If there is no universal-language-system like Wittgenstein proposed in the tractatus, it is possible to have true believes that have an inconsistent relationship.

      • Neal

        Whether or not their is a universal language system is not relevant to whether different beliefs are logically consistent. Language is not logic.

    • Jordan

      Totally on board with this. If A and B are contradictory, then AT LEAST 1 OF {A, B} IS WRONG; the alternative is that AT LEAST ZERO OF {A, B} IS WRONG. When you’re trying to be as sensitive to inaccuracy as possible, inconsistency seems to be the fastest possible way to root out a mistake, and so should be tested for frequently.

      Otherwise, you end up with thinking that believing the sky (on a clear, sunny day) to be both blue and pudding is more accurate than believing the sky to be gray. I would disagree.

  • Neal

    Whoops, I fail language. Sorry. That should be, “Whether or not THERE is a universal … .”

    • Jonas

      Ok, I see your point. There is a connection between language and logic, but language is not logic.

      But then I have a question concerning these preliminary metasurvey results: http://is.gd/fuCTD

      How many different and contradictory ideas and memories can a person hold up simultaneously without creating any irritating system errors?

      • Neal

        I’d submit that it’s perfectly possible for people to be hypocrites. The real question is whether we police ourselves for hypocrisy: do we care about consistency or do we want to signal confidence/loyalty/ability? :)

  • Jonas

    Just googled a bit and found this interesting article: “Logic and language are not the same thing” (http://is.gd/fuFdm)

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I would request that commenters avoid using url-shorteners.

    I care more about near than far events. Discounting is a rational thing to do. What counts as “far more” is hard to pin down.

  • Charlie

    unwillingness to admit you don’t know enough about a topic to have an opinion

    • albatross

      This is a huge warning flag for opinion-as-signaling, to me. Basically, it translates out to “You’re holding an opinion for no good reason.”

      Perhaps a good way to rephrase this, related to 10, 16, and 19: You can’t say what sort of evidence would cause your opinion to change.

      That is, if you say you’re convinced that vaccines cause spontaneous combustion, you should at least be willing to say what kind of evidence (massive vaccination programs with no cases of spontaneous combustion reported) would change your belief.

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  • James

    How is #8 anything but absurd? If your house burns down tonight, don’t you care far more about that than about houses that burned down in the Great Fire of London? Doesn’t everyone do this, all the time? In fact, I would argue that #8 is a “sign that you are a human being”.

  • James

    Similarly, isn’t #7 also known as “prudence”?

    A direct analogy to #7 would be, I think, “you don’t enjoy risk for risk’s sake”.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      “You are uncomfortable taking a position of high uncertainty about who is right.”
      How is that prudent? Adopting a position of high certainty seems less prudent.

      • James

        I assumed that in either case the assessment is well founded.
        In one case you take a well-founded position of high certainty about something. In the other you take a well-founded position of high uncertainty about the same thing. Because you know that others are apt to hold you to your position, and penalize you for being wrong, you don’t want to take the more uncertain position.

    • http://www.chiliahedron.com Relsqui

      I think you misunderstood about positions of certainty. It’s not “of the certain and the uncertain position, you should be willing to accept the uncertain position.” It’s “You should be able to take the position of being uncertain which of two valid-seeming sides is correct.”

      • James

        The statement is that if it makes you “uncomfortable” it may be more about signaling loyalty and ability than seeking truth. You may be able to take that position, but still feel unfomfortable about it. If your opinion has consequences, you might be uncomfortable with that risk. Less risk causes less discomfort.

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  • Gil

    Is it surprising that “debates” on topics are really debates at all? A true debate is looking at a topic from different angles to move towards a solution. “Debates” whether on radio, TV, Internet blogs, etc., are mere flame wars – people stick tenaciously to their views and try to shoot down their opponents’ (presumed wrong) stances?

    • Anonymous

      How can you demonstrate that as an objective definition? I’d argue a debate is where two or more parties take opposing views and argue the points for them (possibly conceding if they think they are wrong or have lost the argument), whereas looking at a topic from different angles to move toward a solution is brainstorming.

  • http://sebastianmarshall.com Sebastian Marshall

    Gosh, I’d like to contribute one, but I think you covered a lot of the major ones. This list was amazingly fantastic – a very good reference to show someone who is starting to learn about signaling and arguments.

  • http://sebastianmarshall.com Sebastian Marshall

    Ah, I do have one. This is related to #11 and #12, but a little bit different.

    “You find yourself excerpting a single small part of a work to criticize, while not acknowledging potential merits of the larger body of work.”

    Something like that – for instance, someone lists five points, four of which are rock solid and one of which is shaky, and a person criticizes the shaky point without acknowledging the other four at all.

  • http://kim.oyhus.no Kim Øyhus

    I guess this list will become a popular poster after a while.

  • Ulysses Berman

    This is a pretty good list, much of which served as the motivation for my developing and deploying an argument diagramming site, Honest Argument. (Note that the site is up, but currently on hiatus.)

    I do have a couple of nits to pick, but I suspect that they are primarily due to inadequate definitions of the terms ‘rival’ and ‘those who disagree with you’.

    9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.

    The average Joe on the street/in a bar/at a Tea Party gathering almost never has a deep understanding of any contentious, widely argued issue. Nor do they have the ability to amass, analyze and integrate the necessary information into a coherent framework of understanding, let alone the motivation to do so. In this sense, then, it is both accurate and legitimate to conclude that they are indeed stupid, and probably insincere.

    Note that holding this position will significantly degrade your already limited ability to persuade these individuals. But it’s still accurate and legitimate to call them stupid and/or insincere.

    Following on from this,

    11. You are reluctant to agree a rival’s claim, even if you had no prior opinion on the topic.

    If the rival is known to be ‘stupid and insincere’ following arguments on different topics, an automatic suspicion of future claims is both a useful heuristic, and probably the correct course of action.

    Also, although you struck it,

    8. You care far more about current nearby events than similar distant or past/future events.

    If you consider ‘nearby’ in a temporal, rather than geographic, context you get at an essential hypocrisy in partisans – they either argue that something is okay because their opponent did it too, or they will argue both sides, but in different contexts. (E.g. the same people that argue privatization of government services because the private sector can do it cheaper, also argued that a public option for health insurance was unfair because private insurance companies couldn’t compete with the federal government’s low administrative costs.)

    Finally, never discount the willingness of hacks to foresake their ‘principles’ for remuneration.

    • James Hunt

      You — the purveyor of an Argument Website! — succumb to the very weakness you are trying to argue against. Unbelievably, you slander “the average Joe… at a Tea Party gathering” as generally stupid and insincere and, therefore, his/her argument is worthy of dismissal.

      Would you agree that the Tea Party movement is, at its core, about economic issues — anger/concern over the Administration’s and Congress’ policies that are believed by the movement to be damaging to current and future economic progress?

      Would you also agree that an outsized number of Tea Party “Joes” identify themselves as Republicans? According to Gallup, 83% of supporters are Republican or lean Republican, 4% who are pure independent (don’t lean to either party) and 13% who are Democratic or lean Democratic. (Source: http://pollingmatters.gallup.com/2010/04/more-on-tea-party-movement.html)

      If we can agree to begin there, try this argument on for size: According to polling on economic issues by the Pew Research foundation (no right-wing organization), Republicans were found to be more knowledgeable than Independents who were more knowledgeable than Democrats.

      How’s that for your average Joe? But it certainly is easier to dismiss their arguments because they must be “stupid and insincere.”

      What a wonderful illustration of item no. 9. You should try a bit harder to “overcome your biases.”

      JWH
      Delaware

      Source: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1179/economic-news-iq-quiz

      • Jon

        Did you just make the fallacy of assuming that Republican Tea Party members are a proper representative sample of all Republicans being represented in that study?

  • Chris T

    You care more about consistency between your beliefs than about belief accuracy.

    To me, inconsistency between two of my beliefs means that one or more are inaccurate. If I hold two mutually exclusive beliefs, one (or both) must be wrong.

  • Chris T

    Another: You are unable to formulate your argument using any other value system apart from your own.

    Ideologues will generally restate their argument repeatedly using their own value system even after it becomes apparent that their opponent does not share it.

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  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Signs that your opinions function more to signal loyalty and ability than to estimate truth:

    This project goes wrong right from the outset in assuming that these are somehow opposed. It’s much more fruitful to realize that truth and signalling and loyalty are inextricably entwined with each other. Read some Latour. Think about it: scientists are human like everyone else, and the process of science is necessarily going to involve politics like anything else, and thus also the underlying phenomena that make up politics like signalling and loyalty.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Can’t truth and loyalty be orthogonal? Then it is not inherently the case that they be opposed, but practically speaking we often confront tradeoffs in which one could do more of one or the other.

      • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

        Mm. The point is that truth is inescapably a social product. What you believe and what groups you are loyal to tend to go together, one determining the other. It’s particularly evident here and in neighboring precincts, where libertarians and singulatarians and rationalists and suchlike try to turn their beliefs into clubs or movements (and vice-versa). But it goes on everywhere.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Yes, what we believe is correlated with what groups we are members of, but joining a group does not make many points of dispute true or false! If you had said “belief is a social product”, that would be more plausible although I still see plenty of scope for belief with Robinson Crusoe.

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  • Tribsantos

    Great post. Lists can be very eloquent, apparently. Congratulations on crossing out number 8 – which I really think didn’t belong – showing you do not follow number 10…

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  • http://quicksilber.blogspot.com/ Ken SIlber

    I agree #8 did not belong, especially when so many partisan arguments deploy distant examples, invoking Founding Fathers, FDR, Munich, Scopes Monkey Trial, whatever, not always relevantly.

  • http://twitter.com/afoolswisdom sark

    9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.

    Does that include thinking those who disagree with you are sincere and intelligent, but biased? Or ignorant?

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  • http://lint.sefsar.com Youssef Sarhan`

    I just read each point, and none of this is me. I must be the most opinionate and objective person in the world. Perhaps this is why I am a designer.

    • http://lint.sefsar.com Youssef Sarhan`

      Basically, I am strongly opinionated about the objective facts of a situation.

  • t

    great list. typo in 19 tho. at should be a.

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  • Rob

    “9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.” … or mentally ill, or “off their meds”. See for example crooksandliars.com.

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