Epistemology: Evolution of Opinion (Part 1)
Imagine any argument wherein people are clustered into generally binary opinions of Yes/No, Agree/Disagree, Support/Condemn.
“Is abortion murder?”, “Is Coke better than Pepsi?”, “Should sentient robots/animals have rights on par with humans?”, or whatever else.
For simplicity, let’s use “Do mosquitoes deserve to die?” as our stand-in.
Innate biological instincts aside, let’s assume that everyone starts life at an intermediate position of “I don’t know/No opinion one way or another”, and eventually gravitates towards “Yes” for this question. This is represented below as moving from a value of 0 to +1:
You may have guessed that we’re looking at fledgling sinusoidal waves, and you’d be correct for this over-simplified example, but let’s not jump ahead just yet.
From here let’s present three unique trajectories of progression representing increases in experience and further information:
A) Opinion stays constant (further info hasn’t changed their opinion)
B) Opinion is neutralized (further info has restored uncertainty)
C) Opinion is flipped (further info has resulted in the opposite opinion)
These three pathways represent a whole spectrum of possible changes in which an opinion seems to gravitate towards one of three nodes. Either a extremity node representing total partiality towards one of the binary opinions, or alternatively, the central node representing no strong opinions (or a multiple strong opinions resulting in net uncertainty). Whether an individual is drawn towards the central node due to objective impartiality, apathy, and/or increasingly nuances views is not something we can distinguish without further information.
There’s a lot more to say regarding the actual progression of an given graph, but as you can imagine, reality is far more complicated. Opinions aren’t truly binary, they wobble up and down and sideways in messy lines. Nonetheless, by deconstructing these basic ideas, it gives us a foundation to prognosticate about far more complex scenarios. Towards the end, I might even attempt to illustrate all the possible complexities in real-world analysis.
Let’s briefly switch gears towards a singular pathway of progression, but now displacing individuals at different points on the graph. After all, we’re not all born at the same time, nor do we all acquire knowledge at the same rate.
It’ll start getting a bit more complex now, but let’s charge ahead.
The above line represents common path of progression for a given topic. While most people do have their own pathways as stated before, certain popular topics have the typical generic pathways as a result of the natural acquisition of popular knowledge in a typically prescribed order.
A&E and B&D are sets of individuals that have strongly positive opinion about the topic and no strong opinion about the topic, respectively. C is a lone individual that has a strong negative opinion about the topic.
Using “Do mosquitoes deserve to die?” as a filler, here’s a brief overview of the opinion path with simplified arguments:
A: Mosquitoes deserve to die. They are good-for-nothing blood-sucking pests. Kill them with fire.
B: I don’t know if mosquitoes deserve to die. They are pests, but perhaps provide some sort of role in the food chain.
C: Mosquitoes don’t deserve to die. There will be unknown consequences of eliminating living things from the ecosystem. It is too dangerous. We have no idea what their role is, what other animals they support, and what populations they keep in check. (Alternatively a moral argument like “Who are we to decide the fate of another species?”)
D: I don’t know if mosquitoes deserve to die. While they are part of the food chain, and eliminating them could have unintended consequences, they are also major disease vectors. I would not support the growth of mosquito habitats, but I’m not ready to support elimination strategies.
E: Mosquitoes deserve to die. They are major reservoirs for infectious diseases in many animals, they are the primary causes for the spread of Malaria, and countless mortal diseases in developing countries, and whatever negative environmental consequences they may have would be far outweighed by the net benefit to humanity.
Let’s bring back that graph once more:
What I want to highlight here are the relationships and dynamics existing between each of these coupled sets, in addition to non-coupled sets like C&D and D&E, whom are adjacent to each other but constitute different opinion positions.
First, let’s examine the sets:
These are the only two individuals sharing strong opinions to side positively (on a consequential level) with mosquitoes deserving death. In addition they are also the two individuals further from each other in the progression.
The key difference is that the intention, nuance, and depth is night and day between A and E. Whereas A might see E as a fellow supporter of the mosquito-cide, E’s view of A is a bit more complex.
In certain logical arenas (particularly politically charged ones), A might be seen as a liability for E. Would E be comfortable being grouped with A? perhaps not.
Moreover, it’s entirely possible that E has a stronger affinity for D, B, and potentially even C, than for A. Reason being that E has the benefit of looking back at the very path that they might have taken, whereas A is blind to what lies in front. In that way, A feels affinity for E because of the consequence, not the path taken there.
For all we know, A could potentially be someone who, with additional information, progresses to C’s position, if not surpasses E. There isn’t enough information present to speculate one way or another. However, it is a good time to point towards this lovely XKCD. The uninformed are just the yet-to-be informed.
These are the only two individuals sharing effectively neutral positions (on a consequential level) in regards to mosquitoes deserving death. If you notice I did not comment on the strength of their opinions. I find that it is a common misconception that neutrality or uncertainty is tantamount to weak or impassioned ideological positions.
On the contrary, someone like D may have stronger feelings about the overall topic at hand than those individuals at the extremes. The real difference is that B and D have mixed, subtraction, thoughts as opposed to harmonious, additive, thoughts. Therefore we cannot judge the magnitude of opinion of these individuals, for it could be any combination of conflicting weak arguments or conflicting strong arguments. Really, that goes for every position on the binary spectrum, but I digress.
The other important thing of note between B and D is that, when in realtime, they typically don’t know whether additional information would push them towards a favorable or unfavorable opinion. That said, have come from a more extreme view, it would not be uncommon for these individuals to expect to encounter further information which continues their current trajectory.
In this way, individuals at any point in the continuum, but more so those who are closer to net neutrality, can be inherently cognizant of their own possible evolution of opinion without thinking of it on an epistemological level.
Now let’s briefly take a look at non-pair sets:
B-A and D-C:
The adjacent sets of B-A and D-C have many things in common. Primarily, a net neutral individual who has the benefit of hindsight to look upon someone who is in a position of extremity they they themselves were once at.
How might B look at A? or D look at C? Ultimately this comes down to personality types and how these individuals look upon acquisition of knowledge, but here are some possible emotions: pity, hope, understanding, frustration, sadness, anger, anticipation, or a multitude of other possible feelings. We could equally speculate on how A looks upon B, and how C looks upon D.
Moving on, there is one key difference between the position of B and the position of D. While B has the hindsight of knowing what it is light to have an extreme position such as A, they have not personally experienced an opinion position like C, and so have limited ability to intellectually place themselves in the shoes of the opposite extreme. Whereas when looking at D, this individual has the experience of have opinion positions ranging from extremely favorable to extremely unfavorable. It would not be a stretch to imagine that the way that D looks upon positions like C, and even A, are with much more nuance than an individual like B is potentially capable of.
The E-A set is the only example of similar extremity positions of opinion, but at different points along a standardized acquisition of knowledge. This, I believe, is the most fascinating set to look at because it really highlights the way that polarized ideological group dynamics may operate on large scales.
For example: If I were to place myself in the position of E, for a large number of topics, I don’t believe I would not have a very favorable view of an A individual.
As E, A-individuals can either be seen as incidental ideological allies, or detriments to the argument as E sees it. Thinking in terms of information, would E prefer to have low information proponents, or higher information opponents such as C?
Even on a strategic level, it is a legitimate risk calculation as to whether the support of low information proponents is worth the diluting of the field of debate.
Consider the topic of vaccination. Having low information proponents who may not have any grasp of germ theory would still have the potential to yield the social momentum needed to establish herd immunity. Not everyone needs to be learned in order to contribute to population immunity.
Likewise, on the topic of climate change, you don’t need to understand scientific properties of heat exchange and hydrology to know that a seemingly insignificant numerical rise in ocean temperature can have tremendous effects on the distribution of heat around the world.
That said, what you gain from low information proponents in the form of social capital comes with a price.
If I were a C individual, the individuals least likely to make me reconsider my position are those at point A. Why? Because I know what they know, and I also know why what they know is not the whole story, or false entirely. As a C individual, I may not know as much as D and E, but from where I stand, A individuals’ opinion positions rest on weak foundations and limited information.
If I were a C, geographically and socially surrounded by a lot of As, I would have very little reason to challenge my opinion position, or even have the opportunity to be forcefully confronted by conflicting information.
More on that another time.
Thanks for reading.
These are just the kind of odd things I think about in my spare time. Feel free to hit me up with your thoughts regarding anything above :)