Re: Confidence: A Basic Politics Puzzle

Robin Hanson (
Tue, 18 Feb 1997 16:52:11 -0800 (PST)

I asked:
> Why do people seem so damn confident of their political opinions?

Eric Watt Forste replied:
>People are much more willing to use epistemic caution in debates where
>they aren't afraid that they have a lot to lose, if they lose. The only
>time I ever feel even *close* to the sensation that I am arguing for my
>life is when I'm in political arguments. I've worn handcuffs, ...
>People do not argue calmly when they are arguing about the rights and
>responsibilities of the person who is holding a gun to their head, and
>that seems pretty straightforward to me.

Calm vs. excitement is not the same as caution vs. confidence. Why
should being excited make you feel confident? Any why would/does
confidence help you win arguments?

>Ah, yes. Another answer to Robin's question is that our society is
>permeated with the Dogma of Democracy, and the Dogma of Democracy
>is that any randomly chosen citizen's opinion about a political
>issue is exactly as valuable and likely to be "true" as anyone
>else's opinion of that issue.

This seems to just restate the puzzle, rather than explaining it.

Ken Kittlitz replied:
>... because politics (of some form) is inextricably linked with the
>social structures to which they belong. That is, they perceive
>politics having much more of a direct impact on their lives than
>physics theories or formulae do, and hence feel they are in a better
>position to comment on political issues.

People believe that cars and planes have a direct impact on their
lives, but view have much confidence in their opinions on what makes
these safe/efficient etc.

>Another explanation might be that people figure that social/political
>studies aren't really "science", in that the researchers are often
>prevented by ethics (and law) from setting up the tightly-controlled
>experimental conditions available to some other sciences.

People are largely willing to defer to pychotherapists regarding the
treatment of the mentall ill. They also defer to geographers and
astronomers, who can hardly control experimental conditions.

Lee Daniel Crocker replies:
>Physicists and programmers can readily point to simple, repeatable
>experiments that conclusively demonstrate their principles.

Programmers? Most people believe all sorts of crap that computer
salespeople tell them, even though repeatable experiments often
demonstrate the opposite. The vast majority of programmer claims out
there are of the form "We can write software to do X in Y months",
which are rarely repeatably experimented on.

>Finally, political ideas often rest on normative foundations, so
>people with different norms will not agree, regardless of how much
>deduction one does from them. ...
>Individual liberty and responsibility are axiomatic values for me.

Most policy specialists acknowledge that in fact most political policy
questions end up turning much more on questions of fact than on
fundamental normative disagreements. Very few take your
moral-axiomatic approach to politics. I think the same response
applies to E. Shaun Russell's reply:

>People must know where they stand in life --know what limits and
>freedoms they accurately possess. In application to libertarianism,
>those who are at least in accord with the politic have no desire for
>limitations in life. ...
>I am confident of my political opinions because I am
>confident in myself --the broadest horizons are within oneself, and though
>the stakes are high, it boils down to another question of faith or
>freedom...and I'll take the latter, thanks.

Sounds like you have faith in freedom to me.

Robin D. Hanson