Bryan Caplan  

A Certain Misperception

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On Facebook, I just posed the following question:

Bryan Caplan is less certain about most things than others believe him to be.  What's the source of the misperception?
My starting hypothesis: People confuse bluntness with certainty.

If you question the premise, remember: A betting man like me can't afford to be certain about much!

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

I've had people assume the same thing about me... or at least express surprise to learn that I am less committed to something than they had thought I was.

When you're naturally not as certain about things, you tend to be very speculative - you entertain ideas that other people have no reason to entertain.

I think a lot of people read that in precisely the opposite way that they should. It doesn't matter if you're "blunt" necessarily. You may not be blunt at all. Some people just can't conceive of thinking so speculatively unless you actually believe it. Entertaining speculative ideas seems so pointless to those who are certain that they can't rationalize why you would do such a thing unless you actually bought into it.

Adam writes:

I think you hit it on the head--bluntness is often equated with confidence. Moreover, if you bluntly take a position that people consider to be more extreme than the norm, I get the feeling confidence is perceived that much more.

Doc Merlin writes:

I agree with Adam, taking positions far outside what is seen as normal for public expression is a sign of certainty, because most people lose a lot of utility from perceived public ridicule.

Loof writes:

I perceive starting from a biased conclusion that’s blunt (i.e. selfishness), not an impartial hypothesis that’s not certain. Perhaps I've a misperception.

fmb writes:

a) Do you care? If so, you might consider modifying the way you communicate. Perhaps just state "p=.631" from time to time, like TC.

b) Maybe each individual view does not appear unusually confident, but the consistency of your collection of views (particularly the consistency of the difference from typical views) suggests great confidence in certain personal axioms.

c) Perhaps people assume (wrongly) "I'm usually fairly certain, but if I were as smart as BC I'd be much more certain".

Doc Merlin writes:

I agree with Adam, taking positions far outside what is seen as normal for public expression is a sign of certainty, because most people lose a lot of utility from perceived public ridicule.

Marcus writes:

Maybe it's because you don't express uncertainty.

Ask yourself this, how would a reader recognize the difference between when you express an idea you're certain about as opposed to one you are not?

Maybe you like to take ideas an run with them and see where they go. But if all you express is the argument you're running with without expressing you just want to see where it goes, I don't know how I, as a reader, would distinguish you from a guy who was completely confident in the argument.

Tom West writes:

Doc Merlin nailed it. It's what Bryan chooses to express opinions about that makes people assume that he's certain.

For most people, living with the general disapproval that many of those opinions generate would be a fate worse than death. Thus, they would assume that, given the cost (to them) would be so high, they'd only take the position if they knew absolutely they were right, and most probably not even then.

While Bryan is pretty much immune to that social pressure (which doesn't even have to be expressed - just the thought of disapproval is enough to keep most of us on the straight and narrow), it's no surprise that most people can't really grok the idea that he really doesn't notice or care, and assume that the discomfort of disapproval must be balanced by an awesome certainty of being right.

Andrew Maier writes:

Tom West is right about Doc Merlin's being right about Adam's being right.. Anyone else who thinks Blazing Saddles is awesome can feel free to chime in.

On a serious note, I agree more with Marcus; when I take up a speculative line of reasoning, I usually express it in concrete terms. "If X is like this, then Y should follow." The reason I don't entertain beliefs like that with deep certainty is precisely the reason I speculate about them: I don't have good knowledge about whether X is indeed in a condition such that Y should follow. If I did know that, I wouldn't muse about it to people; I'd just know it and only bring it up if it came up in conversation. However, I'll muse freely about something that I'm uncertain about with anyone, using terms that appear to be certain argument when they're anything but.

Marcus writes:

I disagree with 'extreme position' argument. I can take an extreme position on a subject and yet convey my uncertainty about the position.

Again, I ask, how do you think a reader should distinguish your certain positions from your uncertain positions?

I'm far too lazy to actually go back and read through your old posts.

eccdogg writes:

I think it is your writing style, you tend to formulate a strong case for the argument you are making without focusing on its weak points.

To the reader it appears that you do not veiw the argument to have any weak points which would lead you to uncertainty.

I know this style is somewhat intentional as you have also written that you don't think economist should focus so much on the side issues that may weaken the general point and also you have spoken approvingly of using ridicule expose the bad ideas of others.

None of this is intended to be a criticism. I like your style and find it refreshing. I want to hear the best case for your ideas, If I want to hear other points of view I can look in the comments and responses on other blogs.

chipotle writes:


Your answer to your own question is spot-on, but it's not the WHOLE truth.

Your bluntness does come across as certainty. And many people find that off-putting because a fool is "often in error but never in doubt."

More subtle is the emotional cue (the "vibe") that you seem to be giving off.

The whole bluntness=certainty thing, even though it is only a mistaken perception the reader's part, seems to say "I don't think my intellectual adversaries are very smart." Now, nothing you say actually says that and I know you don't believe it, but people often think they're hearing things that weren't said.

The bottom line is that you should keep the bluntness but make your "p-value" more explicit.

The reason for this is that your ideas are good and important and it would be nice if they weren't preëmptively written off by a certain other smart people.

Philo writes:

Following up on Daniel Kuehn:

"When you're naturally not as certain about things, you tend to be very speculative--you entertain ideas that other people have no reason to entertain." That suggests this scenario: you are by nature an especially nervous, doubtful, painstaking, self-critical thinker, so you strain to think of neglected possibilities (which more complacent, confident people don't bother to do)--to which you attribute a non-zero, though perhaps small, probability, leaving less room for confidence about what you regard as the most likely alternative. But another possibility is that you are more intelligent or imaginative than others, so you (without any extra *effort*) see possibilities that others ignore--to which you attribute a non-zero, though perhaps small, probability (etc.).

Which is the more important factor in producing uncertainty (about matters on which one has *some opinion*): high IQ or a nervous personality?

Stanford writes:

People get surprised when I say that most of what I say I don't believe. However, it's usually the best argument I can think of.

We are just lawyers trying to litigate to the truth.

Ted Craig writes:

Your arrogant tone.

Bob Murphy writes:

Bryan, how can you be sure people think that about you?

A.B. writes:

I've had this problem for a long time. People will ask me a question, such as do you think X, and I will answer yes, because I think it looks very slightly more likely than not X. However, I generally say it in a tone which indicates uber-confidence.

Pros: fantastic skill when you want to display confidence (job interviews, etc)
Cons: terrible humane skill when people start thinking you're full of it

I recently started correcting that impression by stating explicitly my confidence level with my answer (no, not in a nerdy quantitative way, something along the line of: "but this is just an uninformed guess", etc etc)

George X writes:

Bryan providing a confidence level (whether of the form p=.25 or something more qualitative) might solve the certainty problem. But it would make others less likely to engage with his ideas, which then wouldn't get a good going-over. Yes, according to Sturgeon, 90% of Bryan's ideas are crud, but 90% of the ideas they would displace are crud, too. And if Bryan's way down at the 88% crud level, then promoting discussion of his ideas is a good thing.

As Linus Pauling said, "The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas."

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