Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Critical Thinking About Political Opinions

If you're here, it may be because you enjoy talking about politics and related big ideas, And maybe you have experience with interesting threads suddenly devolving into nasty, pointless flame wars, If that troubles you like it troubles me, maybe you're interested in some introspection on it. As opposed to, you know, continuing to assume its the other commenter who is the 100% a-hole.

The blog Overcoming Bias has an insightful post on the idea that folks run into trouble when they voice opinions (consciously or subconsciously) to signal ability or loyalty, instead of as part of a good faith effort to estimate truth. This rings extremely true to me, since it relates to the idea of "weak-sense" versus "strong-sense" critical thinking that Richard Paul espouses, and which I studied and liked in grad school.

At the risk of running afoul of netiquette regading excepting, I am going to post the whole list, with attribution to Robin Hanson...Opinion Warning Signs:

  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 find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.
  9. You are reluctant to change your publicly stated positions in response to new info.
  10. You are reluctant to agree a rival’s claim, even if you had no prior opinion on the topic.
  11. You are reluctant to take a position that raises the status of rivals.
  12. You care more about consistency between your beliefs than about belief accuracy.
  13. You go easy on sloppy arguments by folks on “your side.”
  14. You have little interest in practical concrete implications of commonly argued topics.
  15. Your opinion doesn’t much change after talking with smart folks who know more.
  16. You are especially eager to drop names when explaining positions and arguments.
  17. You find it hard to list weak points and counter-arguments on your positions.
  18. You feel passionately about a topic, but haven’t sought out much evidence.
  19. You are reluctant to not have an opinion on commonly discussed topics.

Thoughts? Since this comes from Robin Hanson, folks who lean liberal are likely to attack it on that basis. In the interest of sidestepping that rut, this post explicitly stipulates that it is possible that he is evil or an a-hole or both, and declares that point irrelevant to the discussion of the merits of the list. In other words, this thread is not interested in what you think about Robin Hanson. Thanks.


  1. I don't know from Robin Hanson, so that's no problem.

    I pretty much agree with the list. #19 really resonated for me, only because I know so many people who seem to need to have strong opinions about things without much background knowledge. It's not that I don't have my own strong opinions, but I try to avoid getting too opinionated about things I don't know much about (though I may fail on occasion). And sometimes I don't have strong opinions on things I do know quite a bit about, only because there's not always a reason to take sides (other than wanting to argue). Sometimes there are multiple, equally good (or close enough that it doesn't much matter) ways to accomplish things, so why bicker?

    I find that on blogs people talk past each other quite a bit, often for reasons related to the patterns illustrated by the list, because it's more about winning than understanding, even if there's a lot of common ground (mostly going unrecognized). I sometimes end up mediating discussions as a sort of referee, because I don't like unnecessary conflict, which I see as a waste of time and energy. (Sometimes people just need to duke it out, which is fine, but often they don't, and are just doing it to do it, 'cause that's what they do.) I've even been my own referee, trying to tell someone I agree with them on whatever point they keep trying to argue, because they assume some list of positions I must hold based on a single position I've taken - a position not requiring those other assumed positions. (Assume the position!) That's very frustrating, especially when it's repetitive.

    Anyway, I don't see anything ideological about the list that would make me suspect an agenda one way or the other. You could probably apply it unfairly with an agenda, but that's another story.

  2. Echo WHQ above, Amen. That's a darn good list of checkpoints.

    I would add: People crave certainties in the face of an uncertain world. It's tough to get past your ingrained beliefs and accept that there are darn few certainties in life other than death. As Harlan Ellison (a marvelously opinionated madman himself) said, "There is no security this side of the grave."

    That doesn't mean there aren't beliefs worth standing up for, common humanities that should (IMHO, of course) transcend all mundane differences, things we should strive to ensure for all. There sure as hell are. We'll never agree on what all of those things are, but we can all (well, almost all) of us agree on some.