Arnold Kling  

Proportionate Belief

Class Consciousness... Neuroeconomics...

In this essay, I argue that

what I call the Law of Proportionate Belief...states that one should believe in a certain proposition or policy prescription in proportion to the arguments for that position.

...What I most despair of is finding a politician who follows the Law of Proportionate Belief. Even a Senator Kerry, who appears to see both sides of many issues, ends up speaking arrogantly ("I'm gonna give you health care.") Anyone with humility seems to be selected against in the world of politics.

For Discussion. How strongly should one believe in the Law of Proportionate Belief?

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The author at California Medicine Man in a related article titled Epistemology and Intellectual Honesty writes:
    EconLog's Arnold Kling wrote a column that raises some epistemological questions that are near and dear to me. While not directly related to medicine, they do cut at the heart of how we come to know the things we know. [Tracked on May 18, 2005 10:47 AM]
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Bob Dobalina writes:

Anyone with humility seems to be selected against in the world of politics.


Randy writes:


I think your law presupposes that there is a truth out there somewhere, with evidence for and against. It seems to me that policy very seldom involves truth, and breaks down almost universally to interest. When I listen to a politician, policy analyst, etc., I am searching for their interest, and comparing it to what I believe is in my interest. Arguments from the extreme don't make sense from a fact perspective, but they make perfect sense from an interest perspective. Its just a good idea not to confuse the two when deciding on one's own best interest.

El Presidente writes:


Truer words were never spoken (written). People vote for candidates who promise solutions as opposed to candidates who speak truth. Kerry had a tough job. He knew the complexity of the issues and tried to play the soundbite game on the advice of others. He does better in print than on television. Too bad people don't read much.

A serious threat to our system of government is the promise of actions that fall outside the prerogative of an elected office. For example, the L.A. mayoral race includes debate on education; a VERY important issue governed by a separate and independent school board. Both candidates are touting their record and making promises that they can’t keep no matter how badly they want to. Urgency shouldn't always trump accuracy, but in politics it usually does.

Politics aside, this is sort of a Zen thing. How strongly should you believe in believing, or in disbelieving? It's a question of threshold. What level of evidence is required for you to make the leap between knowledge and action? Knowledge is always incomplete and rightly a complement to belief. Both are required for deliberate action. I imagine prescribing a standard is fraught with hazard because it could reasonably vary.

Fortune cookie says, “Knowledge is only as certain as you believe it to be and only as actionable as you choose to make it.”

Tom Kaminski writes:

There is much to be said on behalf of "proportionate belief," but it can't really be turned into a general rule. "Proportionate belief" assumes a positivistic view of knowledge--that is, important questions can be answered by scientific analysis. It is(for lack of a better term) an ideological position. In some of the cases that Arnold mentions in his essay (e.g., gay marriage), the response to the issue is based on some other ideological assumption (in this case, either religious disapproval or the liberal doctrine of "rights") that is more important to the individual than the sifting of evidence. Many people believe that the truly important questions--e.g., the purpose or value of life, or the basis for moral judgments--can never be answered by positive analysis. As a result, insofar as an issue touches on a person's deepest beliefs, that person cannot accept proportionate belief. And we should never lose sight of the limits of objectivity. Those with a libertarian bias will tend to trust the evidence that confirms their view and to have problems even recognizing the evidence that contradicts it. This of course is where humility comes in. In sum, Arnold wants to raise his worldview (and largely mine as well) to the status of an "ought"; but the Marxists and the liberals and the religious conservatives and the vegetarians all want to do the same. TK

Mark Horn writes:

I agree with Tom Kaminski's analysis, but would add that there are questions that have (for the most part) been answered with science, which have only done so in violation of the Law of Proportionate belief.

For example, Coppernicus and Galileo suffered mightily as a result of their arrogant and disproportionate belief that the earth wasn't the center of the universe. But today, the vast majority of us agree that the earth travels around the sun, and that the sun also isn't the center of the universe. Which proportion should be applied to this question: the proportion of believers from Copernicus and Galileo's time or the proportion of believers today?

I like the Law of Proportionate Belief, and I like humility as general rules. But violation of them does not necessarily make the violator wrong.

Carodozo Bozo writes:
Arnie Kriegbaum writes:

Proportionally to its own validity.

Choctaw writes:

The Law of Proportionate Belief is an excellent personal standard. However, it won't mobilize the troops to fight. Action requires a degree of certainty and if you can make it moral, so much the better. That's why both the left and right wrap their marching orders in certain, moral terms. For example, a few years ago people talked about smoking increasing your chances of getting cancer. That didn't scare anyone. So they changed it to a count of the # of people smoking kills daily. Then it became a moral issue.

I'm reminded of a newspaper editorial I read that had been published in the 1890s. The editor warned readers that politicians know that citizens don't pay attention to politics except during times of crises. So when faced with periods of calm, politicians will invent crises. The same goes for the media, environmentalists, and other crusaders.

Lex Spoon writes:

There are objective statements. Yes, someimportant questions don't have objective answers, such as the meaning of life, but even there I notice that people have a natural tendency to drift towards beliefs that give them objectively measurable wealth. e.g., It is mostly men who believe that women should be second-class citizens.

Don't lose sight of questions that are objective and where evidence counts. Will cutting taxes cause GDP growth? Does a BMI in the "overweight" category cause any particular medical problem? Does the earth's temperature rise faster or slower than the greenhouse effect alone would predict? Can gay couples be good parents in terms of raising children that are: functional in society, well educated, healthy, ...

There are many objective questions that are important to policy. In fact, I'd really like these decisions to be made in a more business-like approach: lay out the options, lay out the best scientific predicitions for each option, and then choose based on what our values are.

The social security debate ought to be on values issue like: how much risk do we pressure retired people to have in return for how much average improvement? Should gov't-paid retirement income be proportional to individual life earnings, like now, or should it be the same for everyone in order to protect people who lost their jobs? How early should people be able to go onto retirement benefits -- shouldn't it increase somewhat as lifespan increases? How much? And should it be based on an individual's health, or (like now) on a fixed age limit?

Instead, I see battles over questions that are objective, that do have a certain amount of evidence on each side and that everyone on the planet is going to agree with regardless of what they wanted to happen. How much of the SS deficit can be paid for in the long term by increasing various taxes to various degrees? What is the expected return of indexed funds over the long term? What is the expected effect on GDP growth if people start investing in indexed funds en masse ?

As a principle, people should follow the law of proportional belief absolutely -- SO LONG AS it's a falsifiable statement to begin with.

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