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Philosophical Majoritarianism

When I was growing up, I loved Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons. One of my favorites was when they introduced a character with the name of 5. 5 explains that his father changed the family’s names to numbers in response to the growing use of numbers in society. “This is his way of protesting, huh?” he is asked. “No,” 5 explains. “This is his way of giving in.”

Faced with the inescapable reality of human bias, overconfidence, and error, I am responding the same way as 5’s father. I am giving in. I admit and accept that my judgments are fundamentally flawed and my ability to correct and even perceive my own bias is highly questionable. And like a follower of 12-step programs, after admitting my flaws and that I am powerless to correct them, I turn to a higher power. Since as discussed recently I don’t have a religious faith, my higher power is secular. It is in fact the collective wisdom of the entire human race.

I choose to adopt the view that in general, on most issues, the average opinion of humanity will be a better and less biased guide to the truth than my own judgment. I will refer to this doctrine as “philosophical majoritarianism”. “Majoritarianism” normally means the political doctrine that the majority should rule over the minority, so I am trying to distinguish my usage with the adjective “philosophical”. But for convenience, throughout this essay I will just call it “majoritarianism” with the understanding that I mean the usage defined in this paragraph.

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Naming Beliefs

Rolf Nelson points out that we don’t have good terminology to call “beliefs we would have had if we didn’t choose to be persuaded by the fact that everyone else believes differently”. It’s an important distinction because this kind of belief is arguably more helpful to know, for both majoritarians and others.

In classic group-decision experiments like “guess how many beans in the jar”, you get less accurate answers if people call out their guesses one after the other, because they are revealing their adjusted beliefs, that take into account the social consensus (perhaps without realizing it). If people write their answers down, we get Rolf’s kind of beliefs, uninfluenced by the consensus view, and those have been shown to be more accurate on average.

So Rolf’s point is very relevant about the lack of terminology. Devil’s Advocacy is about as close as I can come, but that doesn’t capture it. What do you suggest would be a good way to describe these kinds of beliefs? Once more people start making a conscious distinction between the two modes of believing, how should we talk about it?

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Conformity Questions

Follow-up to: Conformity Myths

Robin posted earlier about a NYT Magazine article on conformity. I was able to find an online copy of the scientific paper here: http://psr.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/10/1/2.

The synopsis from the NYT is not complete. Of the 12 times that people were challenged to disagree with the social consensus, the most popular choice was to agree 0 times. 25% of the subjects did this. The second most common was to agree 3 times, done by 14%. Third most common was agreeing 8 times, 11%. Only 5% went along with the crowd all 12 times.

I think it’s quite significant that 25% of subjects never went along with the crowd and stuck to their own perceptions. In total, only 32% of the answers were wrong.

I’m not sure I follow Robin’s comments on this. It seems to me that this re-interpretation of the classic experiment suggests that people are not as conformist as generally thought. That would mean that we do more than merely give lip service to celebrating independence, that culturally we are quite effective at following the ideal of independent thinking.

The key question is, what is the right thing to do here? Should one conform when presented with 8 people denying the evidence of one’s own senses? I argue that it is the right thing to do.

Now of course, if you know you’re in a psychological experiment, maybe you can’t help but be suspicious that something fishy is going on. But in general, in real life, if 8 people come in and tell you that your perceptions are completely wrong, you should take it very seriously. I imagine that in the history of the world, in the great majority of such situations, the 8 were right and the one was wrong. As an example that some may be familiar with, if a bunch of friends come in and tell you you’re drinking too much, while your perception is that you can easily handle the alcohol, you should probably listen to them.

I would suggest that conformity is the right thing to do in these situations, and to that extent I am rather dismayed that the subjects were as non-conformist as this data shows.

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Predicting the Future with Futures

Commentator Brian recently pointed to a speech by Michael Crichton which quoted a saying attributed to Mark Twain: "I’ve seen a heap of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass." As Eliezer reminded us, predictions of the future are seldom accurate and seldom remembered. And as Twain’s quote indicates, predictions tend to be over-dramatized and exaggerate the difficulties and challenges that lie ahead.

Given these problems, it is helpful to realize that in many cases we can extract information about the future from a source which can be expected to be reasonably free of bias, and in many cases provides a track record that can be used to judge its accuracy: futures markets. I won’t try here to summarize or justify the reasons why such markets can be expected to provide among the best available sources of predictions, but rather below the fold I offer some predictions on current events and situations derived from various markets.

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Media Bias

A recent comment here by Brian expressed amusement at a citation of CBS news. Indeed, if you talk to a lay person about bias, one of the first examples that will come up is bias in the news media. A recent Zogby poll confirms widespread belief in the existence of such bias:

The vast majority of American voters believe media bias is alive and well – 83% of likely voters said the media is biased in one direction or another, while just 11% believe the media doesn’t take political sides…

I had a preconception that most people perceive bias as a function of difference from their own beliefs. Conservatives complain about liberal bias, while liberals complain about conservative bias. However the Zogby poll revealed that things are not as symmetrical as I had assumed:

While 97% of Republicans surveyed said the media are liberal, two-thirds of political independents feel the same, but fewer than one in four independents (23%) said they saw a conservative bias. Democrats, while much more likely to perceive a conservative bias than other groups, were not nearly as sure the media was against them as were the Republicans. While Republicans were unified in their perception of a left-wing media, just two-thirds of Democrats were certain the media skewed right – and 17% said the bias favored the left.

Overall, 64% perceived a liberal bias compared to 28% who see conservative bias.

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Beware of Information Porn

I hope this title doesn’t get the blog blacklisted. I assure you it is perfectly "SFW"!

I’m using "information porn" in a certain way based on an entertaining and informative Bloomberg article about investment firm Dimensional Fund Advisors. The article discusses DFA’s warnings about "investment porn", by which they mean articles that tout some new company or investment as the next big thing. DFA are followers of the Efficient Market Hypothesis, and one of their directors is economist Eugene Fama, a pioneer of the EMH. DFA were among the first fund families to create index funds and promote "passive investing", a sharp departure from traditional active investing, where fund managers try to cleverly pick stocks and other investments that have exceptional value. DFA is almost fanatical about their philosophy and really puts investment advisors through the wringer before allowing them to sell DFA funds. I suppose this can be seen as an example of the EMH applied to marketing; if you have a high value product, the market will figure it out and so you can afford to be picky about your customers. That seems to be their philosophy, anyway, and they’ve been quite successful at it.

Investment porn is therefore material which is exciting and makes you think you’re getting inside information, an inside track and a chance to do well in the markets ahead of everyone else. But it’s basically public information, so you’re deluding yourself if you think this kind of data is really going to give you an advantage.

I’m generalizing this to information porn, which can play a similar misleading role in more general areas of controversy where you are trying to come up with an unbiased view of the truth. Information porn in this sense is data which will supposedly lead you to the truth, often by promoting or arguing for a certain position. But as with the investment porn case, the data is fundamentally public and available to everyone. Once again, you are fooling yourself if you think that relying on this data is going to give you an advantage over the consensus opinion, because that opinion will already have taken this data into account.

This obviously ties into the Majoritarian view, and I want to thank commenter ChrisA for pointing out the connection between Philosophical Majoritarianism and the EMH. From this perspective, arguments and data which support a controversial position are much like pornography, and should be viewed with similar skepticism. (Or consumed with similar eagerness, depending on taste.)

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Disagreement Case Study 1

Robin asked a series of questions regarding case studies of disagreement. He didn’t get any public responses so I thought I would offer one experience I had.

I’ll try to answer his questions with regard to a topic where I have had a long-standing disagreement with a pretty smart guy, who undoubtedly knows more about that topic than I do. However his opinion, while shared with a vocal minority, is far outside the scientific mainstream belief. He now works as a professional advocate for his position, traveling all over the world giving talks, so he has very strong reasons to be biased, but we disagreed even before he took this job.

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Finding the Truth in Controversies

One of the problems that interests me is how best to learn the truth in controversial matters. There seem to be several approaches that different people use, but which I see as problematic.

One is to simply go along with what your peers believe. This provides obvious social benefits but for people here who are interested in "overcoming bias" it requires some justification. One can in fact make a case that the majority view is often right based on the Wisdom of Crowds. However there are also many situations in which the majority view is clearly incorrect. And given that we are talking about controversial issues, the populace is often split somewhat evenly on the matter, so the force of the follow-the-crowd argument is reduced.

Another is to try to study the issue and become familiar with the arguments pro and con in some depth, and then to use your own judgment to determine the truth – basically, thinking for yourself. I know many very smart people who do this. However there is often considerable variance in the results of this process, and I have observed that the outcome is often predictable just from the known biases of the individual, such as his ideological orientation.

Oversimplifying, I’d say that ordinary people use the first method, and smart people use the second method, but neither strikes me as very reliable on topics of controversy.

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The Wisdom of Crowds

James Surowiecki’s 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds offers a somewhat contrarian view of what is typically seen as a widespread bias: the human tendency to follow the crowd and go along with what the majority says is true. Surowiecki argues that in many cases, this is actually a reasonable thing to do, as crowds and groups are often much smarter and more accurate than even their smartest members.

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