How To Doubt

Doubting conventional wisdom seems pretty central to my style and central issues. So I took some time to ponder the general issue of doubt. Here’s what I came up with.

The relation between confident and doubtful states of belief is like that between the three corners of a triangle and the points within the area of the triangle. Even though there are far more area points than corner points, area points are more similar to each other, in a distance sense. In the same way, there are far more states of doubt than confidence, yet states of doubt are more similar to each other, in that they lead to similar decisions.

What can you do about serious skepticism, i.e., the possibility that you might be quite mistaken on a great many of your beliefs? For this, you might want to consider which of your beliefs are the most reliable, in order to try to lean more on those beliefs when fixing the rest of your beliefs. But note that this suggests there is no general answer to what to do about doubt – the answer must depend on what you think are actually your most reliable beliefs.

When seeking your most reliable beliefs, to help fix other beliefs, you might be tempted to just consider simple beliefs like “George is my friend” or “carrots are orange.” But you may do better to rely on your less often stated beliefs that it is quite unlikely for a great many of your “independently” generated beliefs to all be mistaken.

That is, our most potent beliefs for dealing with doubt are often our beliefs about the correlations between errors in other beliefs. This is because having low error correlations can imply that related averages and aggregates are very reliable. For example, if there is little correlation in the errors your eyes make under different conditions in judging brightness, then you need only see the same light source under many conditions to get a reliable estimate of its brightness.

Since beliefs about low error correlations can support such strong beliefs on aggregates, in practice doubt about one’s beliefs often focuses on doubts about the correlations in one’s belief errors. If we guess that a certain set of errors have low correlation, but worry that they might really have a high correlation, it is doubts about such hidden correlations that threaten to infect many other beliefs.

So then what do we actually worry about, when we worry that our belief errors might be correlated? It seems to me that we mainly worry about two sources of correlated error:

  • Hidden psychological tendencies: We worry that our mind are built in such a way as to give related errors on what appear to be unrelated topics. Our minds might, for example, be biased toward high estimates of our ability, for many kinds of unrelated abilities.
  • Hidden social coordination: We worry that our social groups coordinate so as to give related errors from what appear to be unrelated social sources. Sources that share a common ideology might, for example, make similar errors on diverse topics.

Most academic consideration of radical skepticism happens in philosophy. But the above analysis suggests that if you were serious about actually doubting, instead of just discussing doubt, you’d want to study psychology and social sciences, especially hidden psychological biases and social coordination. Getting a grip on these subjects might position you well to actually consider the possibility that you might in fact be quite mistaken about a great deal.

Of course once you do understand psych and socsci, there is no guarantee that such understanding enables you to, on your own, powerfully address your doubts.  If fact, you may end up agreeing with me that our best approach is for would-be doubters to coordinate to support new institutions that better reward correction of error, especially correlated error.  I refer of course to prediction markets.

In sum: States of doubt are diverse, yet lead to similar decisions, relative to states of confidence. To productively doubt, you’ll want to identify beliefs in which you have greater confidence. When your belief errors have low correlation, you can have quite high confidence in certain aggregate beliefs. So doubts about belief error correlations are central to real skepticism. Since most doubts about correlations seem to arise from concerns about hidden mental tendencies and social coordination, a serious doubter will give those topics the most attention. And an ambitious doubter might join me in supporting something like prediction markets.

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  • http://www.freedomofink.com Ray

    I’m one of your serious doubters, but I don’t completely follow you on the “supporting a prediction market.”

    Are you trying to put something together, or are you simply bringing up prediction markets in general?

  • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

    Some philosophers believe in the coherence theory of truth. It looks like you’re developing the incoherence theory of truth. That may be an improvement on the coherence theory.

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  • Robert Koslover

    ” I refer of course to prediction markets.”
    Um, yes… “of course” you do. 🙂

  • Robert Koslover

    Newsflash: These topics soon to appear in Overcoming Bias:
    1. Doubt vs confidence — how foragers and farmers differ!
    2. Self-doubt as a form of signaling (and/or for attracting mates).
    3. Betting against the signaling of false-doubts in prediction markets.
    Heh. All in jest, my friend. Keep up the good work.

  • Robert Koslover

    And one more..:
    4: Are doubts about signaling “near” or “far”?

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

    Ray, I speak more in general, though am eager to support particular projects.

    Robert, I’m not usually included in lists of econ, phil, psych, physics, futurist, etc. bloggers, because my topics range too widely to fit clearly in any one such group. But you and others seem to complain if I repeat common themes on my blog.

    • Robert Koslover

      I’m not complaining — I’m just enjoying myself by teasing you. It seems to be human nature, even (or perhaps especially?) among deep thinkers like you, to maximize the application of previously-established tools/ways/models of thinking to new questions. re: Maslow’s hammer

  • http://fudco.com/chip Chip Morningstar

    Are you really sure this whole doubt thing is such a good idea?

  • http://www.freedomofink.com Ray

    I’m in favor of predictive markets, broadly speaking but I have to admit I haven’t looked that deeply into the topic. A few years ago I worked briefly as a financial advisor with one of the big firms, and wound up helping several people in day trading after I left the firm. Long story short my keenest interest in finance was the behavior of the market from the socsci/psych perspective. All of that made me amenable to the idea of predictive markets in general.

    On serious doubting, I think such an approach to life requires a deep desire to be genuinely wise. A search for wisdom sounds a little melodramatic, but true wisdom takes a path of humility, and that requires the ability to step back, and ask some questions that only the “doubters” will bother asking.

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  • michael

    when in doubt, there is no doubt.

  • http://thomascolthurst.livejournal.com/ Thomas Colthurst

    It seems to me that philosophers mostly study questions where averaging is not a viable strategy for reducing error; this might account for their relative lack of interest in correlations between errors.

    But on the other hand, surely major philosophical errors can also cause correlations? If, for example, I believe that I can predict the future by looking at animal entrails, then averaging isn’t going to help me recover (at least about statements about the future).

  • http://kazart.blogspot.com Mike Wengler

    I just realized that stock markets and bond markets are prediction markets. I realize they are not the broadly general prediction markets, but since stocks and bonds are investments, not consumables, the decision to buy a stock or bond is always a prediction that it will pay off worth the price.

    I realize this is a trivial point, but if I just realized it, perhaps some others reading this will benefit from seeing it written down here.