Friday, July 07, 2006


I have ave seen more than a few studies that show how people are more inclined to adopt the positions they do, not because they are supported by the best evidence, but because they are approved of by the society in which one lives.

When I was in college I learned about the famous Asch conformity experiments. Solomon Asch designed an experiment in which the subject was made to believe that he or she and others were to participate in a vision experiment. In this experiment, the subject was to report about the relative length of some lines. The other ‘subjects” were actually scripted to give a wrong answer. Asch noted that the subject, put in this type of situation, would give the same wrong answer. More importantly, the subjects often did not think that they were giving the wrong answer. Instead, they blamed the fact that the answer did not appear to be correct on such things as their own poor eyesight. In other words, the subjects learned to doubt their own senses even on something as obvious as which line was longer.

A few months ago I wrote about a study on partisanship. The study showed that partisans tend to see the flaws in their opponents, but are blind to the flaws on their own side of the fence. When told of Kerry's contradictions, Bush supporters would recognize them and hold that one ought not to be making contradictions such as those. However, Bush supporters either could not see, or would excuse, contradictions made by Bush. Kerry supporters had the same problem. In this case, the agent adopted a particular position based, not on the evidence, but on who said it and whether the speaker was "one of us" or "one of them."

A couple of days ago I saw a segment of 20/20 called “A Country Divided” that concerned the polarization of America. This segment had to deal with the way that communities are becoming increasingly uniform in their views. Some communities are becoming increasingly liberal, while others are becoming increasingly conservative. Meanwhile, the number of “moderate” communities is dwindling.

As a part of this segment, they took individuals from two Colorado communities; Boulder (liberal) and Colorado Springs (conservative), gave them a set of political issues, asked them their opinion on these issues (a scale from 'strongly disagree' to 'strongly agree') and asked them to form a consensus. Both groups started off with a significant difference of opinion. However, by the end of the day, the Colorado Springs group formed a consensus on the conservative side of these issues, while the Boulder group formed their consensus on the liberal side of these same issues.

Dissent and difference of opinion nearly disappeared (there were some exceptions). More importantly, they did not "disappear" in the direction best supported by evidence and argument. They "disappear" in the direction that social pressure to conform pushed them. Dissent and difference of opinion took the path of least resistance.


I would like to suggest that each of us has a duty to go through our set of beliefs and to ask ourselves, "Do I really hold this view on the basis of the evidence? Or have I adopted it as the path of least resistance so that I can buy acceptance in the groups that I participate in?"

Of course, each of us will then look through our opinions, see "evidence" to support every one of them, and assert, " I hold my beliefs on the basis of evidence. This conformity problem obviously afflicts others, not me.”


A better exercise might well be to look through our set of beliefs with the following mindset:

"I am human. As such, I am disposed to accept certain positions based, not on the evidence, but on the basis of a social pressure to conform. I belong to people who tend to criticize those who deny 'X', so I have decided that 'X' must be true. I have then self-selected my evidence so that I see only the evidence that supports 'X', and I have blinded myself to the evidence against 'X'. Given that these are dispositions that all humans have, and I am human, what 10 beliefs do I have that I most likely adopted as a result of social conditioning, rather than evidence?"

After identifying those 10 beliefs, the next step would be to go and actually look at the evidence for those beliefs and see if they make sense.

Evaluating Beliefs

The study on partisanship mentioned above gives us a hint as to where to start. It says that partisans do a good job of seeing the mistakes of their opponents, but a poor job of seeing the mistakes of their allies. This suggests that a useful place to go to find evidence of one’s mistakes is in the criticisms of others.

That study also suggests that we do not have a particularly compelling reason to look at articles where opponents defend their views; they will show a tendency to be blind to their own faults. However, we are going to look at criticisms of our views.

The 20/20 episode mentioned above provides another piece of advice. In another part of that same piece, it described additional research that showed that those who watch "shout TV" (cable news shows where people from opposite sides of an issue shout at each other for 5 minutes or so) decrease a person's understanding of an issue. These shows generate an emotional reaction on the part of the viewer that fixes them all the more firmly in their own view while making them less capable of understanding views that conflict with their view. In other words, they intellectually understand the issue better before they listen to the shouting match then they do by the end of the shouting match.

So, we have no reason to go to those who specialize in this type of shouting for any type of useful information. The masters of insult will do us more harm than good. We should be looking for the opponent who expresses a sincere and honest criticism.


One area in which I think many liberals have adopted a position based on social conformity rather than the evidence is on the issue of pulling out of Iraq.

I have looked at that issue and can immediately see the huge amount of work a person would have to do in order to generate an informed opinion. I do not have the time. When my neighbor comes to me with her opinion, I can instantly see that she has even less time available than I do. Yet, she has an opinion. There is no way that her opinion could have come from a reasoned review of the available evidence. If they are not deriving their conclusions from the evidence, then where are they getting those conclusions from?

Social (liberal) pressure, perhaps?

I have not expressed any opinion on this issue in any of my posts because, honestly, I do not have the evidence available to make a decision based on the evidence. Gathering the evidence to create an informed opinion on this matter would be a full-time job, requiring me to put aside all of my other interests. I choose not to do this. I choose to remain (rationally) ignorant of the best course of action in Iraq. I will let other people do that, and I encourage my neighbors to do the same.

Response to Austin Cline

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post on “A Legislator’s Responsibilities” that Austin Cline raised some objections to. I said that a legislator’s duty is to represent his constituents. In that context I argued that a Senator is not to be condemned if he obeys his boss’s instructions and approves a flag-burning amendment because they want him to.

Cline suggested that legislators should not be so willing to turn to their constituents in determining how to vote.

Here is where Cline’s comments were correct. I do not have time to learn everything that I need to learn to have an informed opinion on how best to deal with the issue of Iraq. For me to pretend that I do, and to insist that my legislator follow my advice, would make me guilty of extreme arrogance and gross epistemic negligence, as well as the reckless endangerment of the lives that my ill-formed opinion will put at risk.

The smart thing for me to do is to find a Senator who I can trust to look over the issue in detail and then cast an informed vote on the subject. My evaluation of different candidates should be grounded, not on whether he accepts my idea on how to handle Iraq, but because I trust him to be able to form intelligent ideas once he has seen far more evidence than I will ever be able to read.

I am going to stick with my claim that a legislator has a responsibility to represent his clients. Yet, at the same time, those clients have a responsibility not to be so arrogant and intellectually reckless that they think they can dictate to the legislator how to vote on every single issue – or even most issues, for that matter.

I am also going to stick with my original claim that there is nothing wrong with a Senator or Representative saying to their constituents – if the moral transgression is slight – “I think you are wrong on this issue; but, if you want me to vote this way, then I will vote this way.”

I asked Cline what he thinks should be done with all of those letters sent to Senators. Should the Senator just ignore them? The answer, ultimately, is “yes.” Unless the letter comes from somebody who is a known expert in the field he is writing about, it is at least problematic for a Senator to be accepting advice from someone who is largely ignorant of the relevant facts.


We all need to listen to our critics – at least those who do not come at us with insults and exaggerations. Really, when it comes right down to it, our critics are going to be right more often than we would normally want to admit.

We particularly need to listen to our critics when we are talking about an idea that our allies have taken as a rallying cause. Insofar as we are a part of that community, research tells us that we will have a hard time recognizing any problem.

Just . . . listen.


Anonymous said...

Dissent and difference of opinion nearly disappeared (there were some exceptions). More importantly, they did not "disappear" in the direction best supported by evidence and argument. They "disappear" in the direction that social pressure to conform pushed them. Dissent and difference of opinion took the path of least resistance.

You said that they were told to form a consensus. I assume that they weren't told to only form a consensus on the conclusion which is necessarily the best one supported by the best evidence. In a democracy, sometimes you have to compromise on what you think is right in order to get something done.

To be fair, I didn't see the program and so don't know what the particular issues were. I am also not disagreeing that people will tend to adopt positions on the basis of social pressure rather than evidence and reason. The evidence for that is overwhelming.

I'm simply saying that the context of being told to form a consensus changes matters such that the same criticisms don't necessarily apply. If you and I were put in a room and told that we needed to form a consensus on something, and it became clear that I wouldn't convince you of something I was sure was right, then I'd focus my efforts are arriving at some compromise position - even one I didn't personally agree with 100%. That isn't an example of adopting a belief on the basis of social pressure.

I would also say that a failure to do this is one of the problems today. Regardless of how convinced one is of one's position, in a democracy it's necessary to allow that others may disagree for sincere reasons and have just as much of a legitimate claim to their position as you do to yours. In a democracy, you can't always get your way 100% and have to compromise.

Cline suggested that legislators should not be so willing to turn to their constituents in determining how to vote.

I must not have been clear, because that isn't my position at all and I'm not sure where I suggested it. I wrote: "I think that executing the wishes of the voters is *one* of the things which they are supposed to do - but it's not the *only* thing they are supposed to do and the wishes of the voters is not the only or always the most important thing to take into account when voting on legislation."

This does not imply to me that legislators should not be so willing to turn to voters in determining how to vote on an issue, but rather than this shouldn't be the only thing a legislator does when determining how to vote — in fact, it may not even be the most important thing in some cases. Moreover, I focused in particular on Senators as having more of an obligation than other legislators when taking more than just the current will of the people into account.

I asked Cline what he thinks should be done with all of those letters sent to Senators. Should the Senator just ignore them? The answer, ultimately, is “yes.”

I assume you mean "would ask," because I haven't received any questions. Despite arguing for the idea that Senators have more than just an obligation to represent the will of the people, I disagree with you here. I don't think that a Senator should ignore those letters. Of course, I also don't think that a Senator should base any decisions solely on which side has the most letters defending it.

For one thing, a Senator needs to know what constituents think - especially if the Senator takes an unpopular position. She has to know how to present things back home, after all. She might also learn something from the letters - even a non-expert can offer insight at times. Finally, and most importantly, not every issue is a simple matter of dueling experts. Politics is a human affair, not a type of engineering, and the human issues need to be factored in. Those issues can be communicated in those letters - for example, how real people are struggling with gas prices, taxes, the ban on gay marriage, etc. A Senator who doesn't take into account how things are affecting her constituents isn't doing her job.

I am going to stick with my claim that a legislator has a responsibility to represent his clients.

Did anyone ever dispute this? Has anyone ever said that legislators have no responsibility like this? My position is that there are responsibilities beyond it - responsibilities which may lead to voting against their constituents' wishes, even in cases where the "moral transgression" is arguably slight. Of course, you say "clients" and I'm assuming that you intend that to refer only to "constituents." It need not - one might say that "clients" could include their home state and even the nation. Senators do, after all, take an oath to uphold the Constitution, not to uphold whatever their constituents favor at any given moment.

mathyoo said...

Something important to consider when looking at the responsibility of our elected representatives is the difficulty of determining exactly what their constituents want. Do they go by letters/emails/phone calls received? How do they know that those are representative of their constituents and not just the extreme points of view of a few people? How do they know that those communications represent the whole of their constituency and not just a small group? Having been involved in several advocacy groups, I can tell you that the vast majority of people are just too busy or apathetic to get involved in politics, and most of the communication received by an elected official comes from those who are most emotional about an issue.

Part of the responsibility of an elected representative is not just to vote based on the majority wishes of his constituency, but also to protect them from their own emotionalism and to represent ALL members of their constituency. For example, a representative of a district with a majority of people who want to ban gay marriage may also have a significant gay population in his/her district. Should that representative vote to ban gay marriage, or should they vote to protect the rights of a significant minority of their constuency?

Austin also has a good point about our represenatives having a duty to uphold the legal document they're bound by-in the case of a Senator, the US Constitution, or in the case of a City Councilman, the laws/ordinances of the city.