Imagine I show up at your doorstep, look you in the eyes and speak: “Tell me, I’m curious, what do you think about Brexit?”
By all appearances, I’m attempting to unearth your beliefs. I’m interested in what you take to be true, or perhaps in your opinion about what to do. And, on the surface, my reason for doing so seems to be that I’m in the middle of figuring out what to think or do myself.
Well, maybe, yes, sometimes.
But on most occasions, I’ve found, humans have a different motivation for probing opinions.
Not that kind of information
The reason is simple.
Nine times out of ten, people already made up their minds. And they aren’t looking for an update (don’t flatter yourself). It’s not that kind of information they’re after.
So what is the purpose of testing the waters of your beliefs?
When people ask your opinion about something the real subject of inquiry is you, rather than the something. They’re not refining their mental model of whatever topic the conversation pretends to be about, but of your personality.
“What’s your way of talking about Brexit? Are you for or against? Are you with us or not?”
Turns out there’s a surprising story behind why today more than ever, your opinion reveals who you are rather than what you think.
The role of trust in knowledge has never been bigger
To summarize, what you say enables others to make an inference about your character and tribal affiliations. That is why they take an interest in the sounds coming out of your mouth.
Now, let’s exit our thought-experiment and move one step higher — to what an opinion is and does.
In his book The Great Endarkenment, philosopher Elijah Millgram points out how our age is one of hyperspecialization. Today, in almost every domain of life, we cannot but rely on long chains of experts, whose claims and suitability we (non-specialists) can’t assess.
First, think about peripheral areas. When does the sound of an engine ticking over indicate that something’s wrong with one of the cylinders? When does a dark spot on an x-ray indicate cancer?
Cases like this seem unproblematic: one point of having experts is that we can reliably defer to them in such highly specialized niche issues.
The problem is that today, everything is a niche. It’s not just car engines and x-rays most of us don’t understand. Many central topics are beyond us too.
Most of us don’t know how the economy works, how climate works, how our computer works, what AI is, how our brain works. Neither can we pretend to have accurate models of what explains major events such as the Arab spring, Trump’s election and the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 — of, in other words, how the world works.
If the quality of our conclusions is proportional to the models in our heads, we should have low confidence in our opinions.
As a result, trust (in more informed folk) has never been more important for having any informed views at all.
So far, we’ve looked at why odds are we’re not properly equipped to assess why things work, and events happen, as they do. We depend on authorities.
This is already pretty bad. But it gets worse. If we hardly know what’s true, we probably aren’t very knowledgeable about what is true about what we should do either.
Hyperspecialization has generated tons of knowledge. A sad side effect of that explosion of complexity is that, even in decisions we make about main issues that matter a lot to us, we’re not equipped to assess our choice alternatives.
Three examples to illustrate:
- Helping those less fortunate than yourself is (let’s assume) typically a matter of making a donation to a charitable organization. As it turns out, you have to be intimately familiar with the workings of NGOs to have any idea whether your contribution is likely to make things better or worse — and sometimes, a further layer of anthropological expertise is needed to ﬁgure those workings and their upshots out.
- Everyone knows how to vote, and the issues and allegiances on which they express their opinions are vigorously debated. But only specialists understand how voting works in our political system. And only experts understand how that public debate is managed. And of course no matter how vivid the voters’ opinions are, generally their correctness turns on specialized knowledge that almost no voters will possess or understand.
- Is the US-China trade war the main cause of the slower economic growth, as that Princeton economist claims? Or are restrictive climate-change-related regulations to blame, as this dude with a Harvard degree says?
Paradoxically, the collective growth of knowledge is undermining individual autonomy.
That’s not good
So let’s think about this more.
To recap, as the pool of information grows — and, more importantly, as the repertoire of skills needed to access and deploy different parts of that pool grows as well — the shared body of knowledge is divided up into much narrower domains, consigned to the expertise of specialists. For many cases like the examples above, we don’t have the technical knowhow dive into the data and assemble an informed opinion ourselves.
Not so, it might seem, for the expert on whom we’re relying. Which is why the role of trust in knowledge has never been bigger.
We don’t go: “Which theory do I think is more correct according to my model of the world?” We go: “Do I trust the woman from FOX or the article from Vox?”
So in an age of hyperspecialization, making up your mind has changed into making a decision about which expert to rely on.
That’s one implication.
Blind trust: you don’t understand what you believe
Now, the truly bad news.
You can’t decide to trust authorities, as opposed to trusting them blindly, until you ﬁrst ﬁgure out what, for you, will count as a good reason to trust someone.
The second issue, then, is that neither are we able to assess the quality of the expert’s descriptions, assessments, and instructions. To ascertain who the right experts are, you have to be that sort of expert yourself. If you’re not, it’s virtually impossible to follow and evaluate their arguments and trains of thoughts.
To seep how deep this goes, consider this rhetorical question Milgram poses:
If you are to be thinking for yourself, then if you have to rely on authorities, you must be able to manage some form of quality control. In the ﬁrst place, you have to identify and vet the authorities on whom you rely to have an intelligent view as to whether they are the right authorities. But if you are not yourself a ____, how do you know which ____ to believe?
Let’s return to our examples.
- It will take me >100 hours of study to understand how the public debate is managed, how voting is designed, how voter cognition works. I’d also need to be able to assess the alternatives. Only then will I be able to form an autonomous opinion on whether it’s time to overhaul voting.
- I can’t even begin to ponder what I’d need to know about NGOs and politics and ethics and anthropology and logistics to decide who (according to me) is probably right in the debate about the efficacy of various forms of philanthropy (and, consequently, what’s the best way to help).
- And I don’t even understand the words economists use. So how can I assess which expert explanation — the Harvard or the Princeton one in our little fictional example — of why I could suddenly afford fewer beers after what these people call “the great financial crisis of 2008” is true?
While we rely on experts more and more to have opinions and make choices in even the most essential areas of life, we can’t ourselves make an informed judgment about which experts are trustworthy.
Even when you accept you have to rely on authorities to have any informed opinion at all, you still can’t tell for yourself whether your views about what the world is like or your decisions about what to do make sense. You hardly understand the arguments involved. The merits of your opinion, whatever you believe about almost any topic — climate change, the financial crisis, the housing market, the health care system, philanthropy, education, and so on — are opaque to you.
So all that’s left is blind trust.
Are we undoing the Enlightenment?
All this means that what an opinion is and what it does are both fundamentally changing.
Milgram even argues that the think-for-yourself ideals of the Enlightenment are no longer attainable. The Enlightenment focus on independent thought has produced such an immense body of knowledge that informed, autonomous reasoning is becoming impossible: “The very victory of the Enlightenment has been its undoing.”
That’s bad shit, I’ll write about it another day. For now, let’s close by considering how this relates to what your (probably uninformed) opinion says about you.
While we have come a long way indeed, Milgram’s remark about autonomous reasoning shows the way.
As we’ve seen, in choosing which experts to rely on we can’t assess their statements in terms of truth and falsity.
Hence we rely on other indicators that to us signal that someone is worthy of our endorsement.
If it’s not ‘I’ve-also-looked-into-the-data-and-concluded-this-expert-is-probably-right’, then what criterion do we use for deciding to trust thought leader A rather than B?
We take someone to be reliable, not because we understand what he says and think it matches the facts, but because “people like us” support people like him.
- The politician I voted for subscribes to theory X about voting and referenda. He’s one of us. I suppose he’ll know. I believe this too now.
- The guy from Princeton is a Trump-supporter so I bet he’s right/wrong. So the one from Harvard must be right/wrong.
- My friends all do Effective Altruism so I guess that’s best.
We simply don’t care enough to invest the huge amounts of time required to think for ourselves about most topics. Most of our beliefs are based on our relationships with other people anyway. And thus, in an age of hyperspecialization, it makes sense to assign greater credibility to a specialist because you know you share a political affiliation with her.
Which is why expressions of opinions allow character assessments: it doesn’t show us what you think. It shows us what kind of people you trust.
In an age where thinking for yourself has become harder than ever, the question “What do you think?” is changing into “What side are you on?”
There’s more to that
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