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A Swede in Germany

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A few thoughts on the shifting of Overton windows

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The Wikipedia article on Overton windows* (fix version) claims that:

*I use a (likely, non-standard) plural: in part, to separate a shifted version of the window as a different entity from the unshifted version, which allows for easier formulations below; in part, to acknowledge that there might be multiple, separate, Overton windows and Overton-window generalizations at any given time, e.g. in different countries and at different levels of government.

The Overton window is an approach to identifying the ideas that define the spectrum of acceptability of governmental policies. Politicians can act only within the acceptable range. Shifting the Overton window involves proponents of policies outside the window persuading the public to expand the window. Proponents of current policies, or similar ones within the window, seek to convince people that policies outside it should be deemed unacceptable. According to Lehman, who coined the term, “The most common misconception is that lawmakers themselves are in the business of shifting the Overton window. That is absolutely false. Lawmakers are actually in the business of detecting where the window is, and then moving to be in accordance with it.”

A few observations on this:

  1. A limitation to the acceptability of governmental policies is short-sighted. Something very similar appears to apply to e.g. decision making in business and what opinions may be expressed/research topics may be explored in academia—indeed, it was only when writing this text that I became aware of even a suggested limitation to governmental policies. (However, in this text, I will not go into other areas where an Overton window, or some generalization thereof, might apply.)
  2. Lehman might or might not be right about lawmakers*, but this would show what sad state politics is in: Lawmakers should neither detect** nor shift*** the window, they should strive to make good decisions regardless of the window.

    *I am a bit puzzled by the specific choice of “lawmaker[s]”, as not all politicians are lawmakers and as far from all government policy is a matter of law. (Consider e.g. the POTUS and other politician within the U.S. executive branch.) A possible case can be made that not all (de facto or de jure) lawmakers are necessarily politicians, especially in non-democracies, but whether these are as bound by public opinion can be debated. For simplicity, at the risk of missing some subtlety, I will not usually differ between lawmakers and politicians.

    **Except to the degree that it can help them to free themselves from subconscious influences through an existing window.

    ***However, a deliberate attempt to widen the window might be acceptable, in order to ensure that more ideas are treated in a less prejudiced manner resp. that good decisions are possible despite the window.

    However, I strongly suspect that he is wrong—at a minimum through over-generalization and through giving many lawmakers too much credit in terms of awareness and conscious action. Beyond that minimum, attempts to achieve such shifts appear to be quite common even among lawmakers. Note, e.g., the contents of [1] and that a portion of the discussion of the Left below involves acts by lawmakers and/or politicians.

  3. The claim on “Proponents of current policies […]” seems highly dubious. The point of the Overton window, in my understanding, is that what lies outside is already widely considered unacceptable. Pushing to further this might well make sense, but what goes on in the world today seems to be much more about shifting the window in order to force out old policies and to open the doors for new. Similarly, “proponents of policies outside the window” seem less interested in expanding the window and more on shifting it.
  4. In particular, much of what the Left does amounts to attempts at shifting Overton windows (and other actions on a meta-level, say, shifting perceptions of reality). In a sane world, opinions like mine, which are based on facts, thoughts, and arguments, and (where relevant) are backed by real science (as opposed to the “the truth is what we want it to be” pseudo-science so often found today), would be considered perfectly normal and mainstream, while those expressed by the likes of Biden and those enshrined in e.g. CRT and Gender-Feminism would be recognized for the out-of-touch-with-reality extremism that they are. Courtesy of decades of continued propaganda and reality distortion, the public (mis-)perception is often the exact opposite.

    Note e.g. how hard members of the Left work on demonizing opponents and their opponents’ positions, how they push “you are evil, if you X” angles, how a cancellation is threatening those guilty of wrongspeak and thoughtcrime, how non-extremists are condemned as “extremists” while extremists are treated as heroes, how non-racists are condemned as “racists” while racists are treated as heroes, (etc.), how opinions of others are distorted, how argumentation is based on assertion and suppression of dissent, … Then there is the pushing of packages of ideas of various kinds, e.g. ESG and DIE, that would be rightfully viewed with great skepticism without massive propaganda efforts to back them.

    Certainly, the Left has been disturbingly successful at this game—and has been at it without interruption going back at least to the days Lenin (likely, much further), with later variations including Feminism, CRT, Post-Colonialism, whatnot. Look e.g. at Germany, where the mostly harmless (and in some aspects more-sensible-than-the-old-parties) AfD is constantly vilified, while the far-Left re-branded SED shares governmental power in several states, the often outright loony “Greens” are seen as a perfectly legitimate choice, and the Social-Democrats, with their long outdated ideas, have spent more time in government than out of it since I moved here in 1997. The Swedish situation is similar, and even allegedly non-Leftist parties officially subscribe to Gender-Feminist rhetoric about “Patriarchy”, poor-oppressed-women, and we-still-have-along-way-to-go-before-we-have-equality-for-women, which is not just factually incorrect but often claims disadvantages for women where they actually have advantages relative men.

    A particularly distressing example is the recent transmania,* where, over just a few years, correct use of pronouns was turned into “hate speech” and “violence”, where words like “man” and “woman” were stolen and given meanings incompatible with the real meanings (and deviations from these false meanings are condemned), etc. Also see a later item on language perversion.

    *Note that I here speak of attitudes, use of words, etc. For instance, I do not automatically have objections to someone saying that he (!) has a woman’s mind caught in a man’s body—but I do object when he tries to appropriate words like “she” and “woman” to describe himself. As to the underlying situation, I am open to the existence of very genuine such cases, but, looking at the historical record vs. recent numbers, it is extremely likely that these cases are very, very rare and that most of the current claimants are variously misinterpreting unhappiness or an identity crisis, being pushed by others into being something that they are not, posing for personal gain, mentally ill, or otherwise not true cases.

    Of course, the shifts often lead to even previously orthodox and accepted Leftists finding themselves outside the Overton window, e.g. because they are still Feminists instead of “Transgenderists”.

    Indeed, one might speculate that parts of the Left are deliberately trying to “over-shift” the window. The exact motivations for this are unclear to me, but it might have elements of “killing the competition”, of creating a buffer to prevent a later backlash from restoring the status quo ante, and/or to increase the rifts between the “true believers” and the “heretics”. (Note the extremely strong aspect of “us vs. them” thinking in most Leftist ideologies.) Another possibility is an attempt to push the absurd and see who does or does not remain compliant.*

    *As some have speculated concerning transmania and others concerning parts of the COVID-countermeasure era, e.g. with regard to mask wearing, often drawing on Zhao Gao’s loyalty test, which involved calling a deer a horse, noting who agreed and who disagreed, and subsequently executing those who disagreed.

  5. Moreover, the Left is very keen on narrowing windows, and has a long history of allowing less dissent and variation of thought within the Left* than the non-Left, m.m., does.

    *More accurately, maybe, within the party, sect, ideological branch, whatnot of the Left at hand. That Leftist groups, each proclaiming to be the true this-or-that, are more keen on fighting each other than the non-Left has repeatedly happened in the past, as with e.g. Communists, Nazis, and Social-Democrats in Weimar Germany, or Stalinists and Trotskyists in the USSR.

  6. While the legitimacy of Overton windows might be up for debate (cf. excursion), as might the legitimacy of manipulating them, we have a potentially tragic situation in that members of the non-Left do not spend enough time resisting shifts and, maybe more importantly, attempting shifts of their own, as many Leftist ideas are truly vile, destructive, or factually disproved. There is a battle for the metaphorical soul of the world—and the devil is winning.

    To paraphrase another Reagan-ism: Elections are won between the election days—not on them. Exactly the implied continual pushing and explaining of facts, ideas, arguments, and counter-arguments is something that, for instance, the current U.S. Republicans fail at. (Be it with an eye at Overton windows or for more general purposes.) The Democrats and other parts of the U.S. Left spend every day of the election cycle pushing their propaganda, be it in the press, in schools, in college, on entertainment TV, … The Republicans do not.

    This is a particular shame as non-Leftist ideas tend to hold up much better to scrutiny than Leftist—merely by ensuring sufficient scrutiny, things might change. Similarly, things might be much better merely by ensuring that the voters see the ideas of the Republicans* as they actually are, instead of how the Democrats* distort and misrepresent them.

    *Resp. the local equivalent.

  7. Strictly speaking outside the Left vs. non-Left issue, but dominated by the Left, we have many good examples around COVID, e.g. that previously mainstream approaches and “conventional wisdom” of the medical communities were declared anathema—and became intolerable within days or weeks. Note, in particular, how hard the push was to discredit those who dissented, those who listened to and passed on the actual science, those who dared to think for themselves, even those who merely argued for restraint and wanted more information.

    (Similar, if less extreme, remarks apply to e.g. the war in the Ukraine and global warming.)

    To quote myself in a call for a reckoning:

    There should be a reckoning already because of the evil, maliciousness, and incompetence shown by so many—but that point is secondary to preventing repetitions. There must be a reckoning so that this does not happen again!

    A very important part of this reckoning and this prevention of repetition is to give pause to the evildoers, that those who attempt to perform such shifts of the Overton window for nefarious purposes see that their actions have consequences—regardless of whether the issue at hand is medical or something else. Ditto, that those who might merely be misguided show some restraint in the knowledge that an error of judgment will not just hurt others, but might actually have consequences for the misguided, themselves.

  8. Particularly perfidious can be the area of language. In addition to the already mentioned issues around words like “man”/“woman”, “he”/“she”, note [2] and how many words/symbols/whatnot have gone from generally accepted, harmless, and/or without any particular ideological or other loading to, on the instigation of the Left, signify “hate”, “racism”, or similar; how certain heavily loaded words have been (mis-)applied to new areas/groups/whatnot, “Fascist”* being a recurring favorite and “White Supremacy” a recent trend, including the absurd condemnation of e.g. logic as “White Supremacy”; how the word “racist”, itself, is undergoing an attempt at redefinition to ensure that no-one Black can ever be racist and that all Whites automatically are;** how positive words like “equality” and “justice” are perverted to fit a Leftist agenda, which often results in the opposite according to the words’ true meaning;*** etc.

    *To the point that the Leftist definition of “Fascist” might be “someone who is too far from us ideologically, no matter his opinions or methods” and where that “far” is not very far. Note e.g. Stalin vs. the “Fascist” Trotsky or the Communists vs. the “Social-Fascist” Social-Democrats.

    **Most notably by detaching it from its true and established meaning and making it more a matter of being in power (combined with claims of pro-White/anti-Black “Systemic Racism”, which, while faulty, are believed by many of the gullible).

    ***For instance, “equality” in Leftist parlance typically implies “equality of outcome”, which is fundamentally incompatible with true equality, which is “equality of opportunity”. Similarly, Leftist “justice” typically implies “social justice”, which, in at least its current incarnation, is usually nothing more than a code phrase for “equality of outcome”, “I ‘deserve’—so give me!”, or similar—which, when implemented, often results in great injustices.

Excursion on legitimate* Overton windows:
Interesting questions include whether there are ideas that are truly illegitimate and, if so, whether Overton windows that exclude such ideas (and no others) can be considered legitimate. These are tricky questions and I will not attempt an answer for now. I will state, however: (a) There are ideas that I, myself, find abhorrent and that puzzle me when they occur in someone else. (b) It can be hard to determine, especially in advance, what ideas are “wrong” in some deeper sense and what merely feel “wrong” because of newness, unexpectedness, contrariness to established norms, or similar. (c) Many ideas are factually wrong, but even here some care must be taken, as even e.g. a near scientific consensus can on rare occasions be overturned. Moreover, factual incorrectness does not imply e.g. a moral wrong. (d) Even ideas that are factually wrong, abhorrent, whatnot might have value within a thought experiment or some similar setting, and it is all too easy to forbid thought experiments together with more practical applications. (e) If some Overton windows are justly considered legitimate, chances are that others will follow with less justification. (f) I reject the notion that ideas (areas of research, whatnot) should be banned because we might not like what we find or because others might come to different conclusions than we did.

*In the sense of their existence being something worthy; as opposed to their existence having been empirically observed.

Excursion on the effects of censorship and echo chambers:
In my long dealings with censorship (cf. especially many older texts), I have had an implicit main focus on how censorship prevents others from seeing the arguments and counter-arguments of “the other side”, how it enables liars to get away with their lies and how it prevents truth-seekers from forming their own opinions, etc. With hindsight, the effect on Overton windows might be even more important—if the masses only ever see one side of an issue, then this can shift and/or narrow the Overton window regarding that issue. The same applies to echo chambers, both in that they can arise more easily in the presence of censorship and in that they can shift Overton windows.


Written by michaeleriksson

November 27, 2022 at 7:40 am

Politicians dictating opinions to the people / evil circle of opinions

with 2 comments

In a functioning representative democracy, the representatives are elected through convincing the voters of their suitability, be it in terms of competence, of compatibility of opinions, preferences, priorities, whatnot, or of some other factors. Once elected, they, to some degree, act to execute the will of the people; to some degree, act to make decisions on behalf of the people.*

*In a bigger picture than this text, one of the main problems is an over-emphasis on the latter at the cost of the former. However, neither here, nor in general, is this the sole problem. A more important issue might be a shift from “on behalf of” to “for”.

Looking at opinions (preferences, priorities, whatnot), however, there is usually a very negative and outright perfidious loop, contrary to the democratic ideal: Those in power can (and very often do) abuse that power to manipulate the opinions of the voters. This gives them and their opinions an immense advantage over those not in power and can lead to undeserved reelections. Moreover, it can lead to a more fundamental change of society than if power was restricted to the more immediate tasks of ruling and making laws, e.g. in that Overton windows are shifted (cf. an upcoming text) and that the population is indoctrinated to hold certain opinions.

To some part, this is virtually unavoidable, as those in power gain more publicity and have more (literal or metaphorical) platforms to speak from. However, other mechanisms include direct or indirect control of schools, teaching, news media,* etc.; use of tax-payers’ money to spread propaganda; and various party-support mechanisms** of dubious value.

*If in doubt, because journalists and publishers might see unofficial benefits (or absence of disadvantages) from being cooperative. However, there are also issues like owned and/or controlled media. My native Sweden, e.g. had a TV-monopoly vested in SVT until around 1990 (cf. excursion), and SVT is still the most important Swedish TV company, carried by unfair tax support and ultimately, directly or indirectly, government controlled. The situation in Germany is very similar. Outright censorship is still an issue in many countries. Etc.

**The sufficiently established (not just ruling) parties have given themselves a sweet deal in many countries, where they receive tax-payers’ money to help run their parties, engage in propaganda, etc. This with the motivation that it would be “good for democracy” or similar. In reality, it often causes a lock-in effect that gives the established parties an advantage relative newcomers and smaller parties. (Also note an upcoming text series on insiders vs. outsiders, guilds, and the like.)

To look at some such propaganda that I have seen with my own eyes, I note e.g. a semi-recent attempt by the German government to, extremely contrafactually, claim that Germany is a Rechtsstaat; attempts by the City of Cologne to spread misandrist men-beat-women (but not the other way around) claims (cf. [1], [2]); various “X has no place for Y”*; variations of “immigrants are welcome”;** variations of “you must vote”;*** and, of course, any amount of COVID-related bullshit.**** (Similarly, attempts to steer behavior in various forms are common, e.g. in that “unwanted” choices are taxed more heavily and “wanted” ones are given subsidies: the government tells the citizens what to do, instead of the citizens the government.)

*Where X is some location and Y typically one of “hate”, “racism”, and “intolerance”—often extremely hypocritically, as these typically stem from Leftists and as hate, racism, and, above all, intolerance are extremely common on the Left. Indeed, the “X has no place for Y” is very often a manifestation of exactly intolerance, often of exactly hate, and sometimes of exactly racism.

**Here there are at least two problems, both of which apply even from the point of view of someone positive to immigrants/immigration: Firstly, that the politicians (or, worse, civil servants) behind the message presume to make a statement for the community as a whole. Secondly, that the message is not primarily directed at immigrants, but at the people, to indoctrinate the people into a pro-immigration attitude. (Or, worse, to alienate those negative towards immigration, to further sow discord, and to gain possibilities of later attacking these critics for, e.g., radicalization.) Of course, it also entirely misses the point of how many immigrants might be accepted in during what time frame, under what circumstances, and what type of immigrant is welcome (e.g. in terms of want-to-work-hard-and-earn-money vs. want-to-receive-social-aid). A blanket “welcome” simply does not make sense.

***Higher numbers of voters help the elected politicians to project legitimacy; and, as uncertain voters are more easily manipulated, higher numbers of voters can give the better manipulator an advantage and/or offset the disadvantage that the party with the weaker arguments has.

****I note with interest that many of these examples, picked of the top of my head, are of a reality-distorting kind, rather than a plainer and more direct propaganda. (For instance, if Germany was a Rechtsstaat, politicians would look better; for instance, if “X has no place for Y”, the implication is that Y is problem in X, and specifically a Rightwing problem, that needs to be addressed, which is hardly ever the case.) I am not certain whether this is a coincidence or whether it reflects something larger. The “something larger” would be plausible, in as far as pushing a too specific and obvious agenda could backfire. (Consider a “Vote Biden!” campaign immediately pushed by, and in the name of, the U.S. government as an extreme example.) It also plays in well with that text on shifting Overton windows.

Excursion on other issues:
This abuse of power is not the only issue that can sabotage a democracy. A notable other example is that a too party-centric system can reduce the importance of the individual’s characteristics to his chances of being elected. In e.g. Sweden, the primary choice for voters is “What party?”, and what individuals are elected through that choice is largely determined by the parties, forcing the voters to take the bad with the good.

Excursion on Swedish TV:
I did some reading on Swedish Wikipedia to gain some more specific information on the level of government control. This was not very successful due to a mixture of vagueness, changes over time, and the complication that the de jure situation does not necessarily determine the de facto situation. Some notes from [3] on the monopoly situation, however: SVT (predecessor) broadcasts began in 1956 with a first channel. A second was added in 1969, and these remained the only legally watchable (!*) channels until the mid-1980s (excepting TV from neighboring countries, for those close enough to the border). A third, independent, Swedish-language program was launched per satellite in 1987—and the ruling Social-Democrats tried to kill access by (unsuccessful) attempts to ban (!) satellite dishes. A first terrestrial competitor arrived only in the early 1990s.

*I do not vouch for the correctness of Wikipedia, but the formulation used (“de enda kanaler som tittarna kunde se i Sverige enligt svensk lag”) could imply not just that there were only two channels available, but that viewers were only allowed to watch these two channels—by law.

This is a long-standing backlog entry, which is worthy of a more in-depth treatment. I find myself wishing to reference it in the aforementioned text on shifting Overton windows, however, and have decided to get it out of the way, even at the price of a shortened treatment.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 27, 2022 at 1:31 am

Agnostic scepticism

with 5 comments

Earlier today, I encountered a text by Peter Hitchens, which includes the claims:

Not since the wild frenzy after the death of Princess Diana have I ever met such a wave of ignorant sentiment. Nobody knows anything about Ukraine. Everyone has ferocious opinions about it.

The other night I shocked a distinguished Oxford academic by informing her that the lovely, angelic, saintly, perfect Ukrainians had blocked off the water supply to Crimea in 2014.

She was rightly shocked by this nasty, uncivilised act of spite, but it was far more shocking that this highly educated person did not know this important fact.

This fits well with my own increasing approach of (what I think of as) “agnostic scepticism”—that I (a) avoid taking positions on issues where I am too poorly informed, (b) do not believe claims by others without independent own verification.* (I have often spoken about “not having done the leg-work”.) The recurring reader will, e.g., have seen me complain about the high degree of ignorance and/or deliberate distortion in claims made by politicians, journalists,** and teachers, and about how I am no longer willing to base my opinions on what they claim—not even when the claim is “scientific consensus is X”. Maybe, scientific consensus is X; maybe, it is not. The key issue, that I only have their word for what the scientific consensus might be, remains. (To which must be added that even a genuine scientific consensus often eventually proves wrong in detail, and sometimes even in the big picture.) A mere claim-to-be-taken-entirely-at-trust of “scientific consensus says Martians exist” is no better than the claim-to-be-taken-entirely-at-trust of “Martians exist”. To this might be added some further considerations, like the risk that a correct opinion held for a poor reason can be worse than the wrong opinion held for a good reason—let alone worse than a more agnostic take.***

*Which is not to say that everything must be independently verified. It is perfectly acceptable to mentally file “Hitchens claims X, but I have not verified it”. The problem arises when “X” is filed with neither reservations nor verifications. Given the right circumstances, even a “Mr. Y claims X and, while I have not verified that specific claim, previous exposure makes me consider Mr. Y highly competent and trustworthy on the topic of X.” is acceptable. (But should remain a rare exception. The same confidence should not be extended e.g. because “Mr. Y is my teacher”, “Dr. Y has a Ph.D. in this field”, or “Ms. Y is a famous young singer/actress/model/activist/philanthropist”.)

**I note that I have very long been very sceptical towards journalists and journalism based on the often grotesque incompetence on display. (Journalists should be well-informed, objective, strong critical thinkers, and good writers—and, more often than not, fail on two or more of these counts. If the mode is four failures, I would be unsurprised.) What has changed over the last few years, based on gross misreporting on e.g. PC-issues and, later, COVID, is that I no longer see mere incompetence and mere “unconscious bias” as enough to explain their reality distortions. (My view of teachers have undergone a somewhat similar transformation, if not as strong. That politicians lie borders on a “Duh!”.)

***I am too lazy to search for links to older texts right now, but I have written on similar topics repeatedly in the past.

As a specific case, I have switched my original standpoint on global warming from “does exist and is anthropogenic” to “I do not know,* because I have not done the leg-work”. The original standpoint was caused by a too unquestioning acceptance of what e.g. the papers claimed; my current is much sounder.

*Note the very major difference between “I do not know” and “I disagree”. It is very possible that I will return to my old standpoint at some point in the future—but, if so, for a much better reason.

As another case, I have deliberately chosen not to take sides in the underlying issues of the Russia–Ukraine situation (not limited to the war). In light of the conflicting claims from the two camps (and mutual attempts at censorship), I am not saying that Putin (Zelensky, Biden, …) is or is not to blame, that Russia is losing badly or winning comfortably, etc. For the time being, I take the position that I do not know—and I will revise that position only if and when I gain a better understanding.

But what of all the others, who are so cocksure? Well, for starters, there are plenty of sayings, aphorisms, and famous quotes to the effect that the cocksure tend to be wrong, while those who are right tend to be uncertain. Looking more in detail, the Russia–Ukraine situation, with, as Hitchens complains, “the wholly one-sided nature of public opinion”, seems to be a matter of weak critical thinkers blindly swallowing a certain narrative*—just like many have or still do with regard to global warming, COVID, and various Leftist talking points. (Let us face it: the vast majority of the population has not bothered to actually gain even remotely the level of knowledge and understanding to hold a justifiable opinion on any of these issues, be if pro or contra.)

*And this narrative is (again!) not defended against counter-narratives or criticism by factual arguments—but by attempts to prevent dissenters from being heard. The more-or-less first reaction of the West? Shutdown access to all Russian news-media.

And here I must disagree with Hitchens: It is not “far more shocking” that this woman did not know about a blocked off water supply. Indeed, I did not either—and, for that matter, I will not take his word for it being true. (I would not be the slightest surprised, if he is correct, in light of other readings on the situation, but he too could be wrong or, even, lying.) No, the problem is that she appears* to have expressed a strong and unnuanced opinion while being poorly informed.

*Note that some interpretation of the original text is needed here, that I only have Hitchens’s claim to go by, and that I do not even know that she exists.

Exactly this type of behavior has led to no end of issues, including poor politicians being elected and poor policies followed, organizations favoring (often destructive or dishonest*) causes raking in millions in donations, etc.

*Note e.g. recent renewed controversies around BLM.

In particular, I have repeatedly heard young voters be told that “it does not matter whether you pick the right party, the main thing is that you vote at all (but please vote for us)”; I have many times heard politicians complain about citizens not voting, often framed in terms of “not doing their civic duty” or “being lazy”, with no regard for the possibility that someone might not have a firm opinion or, more importantly, might not find any of the current parties/candidates acceptable; I have on some few occasions heard the claim that the main thing would be to have an opinion, and an opinion about everything, as if agnosticism would be a bad thing.

The saner approach is the exact opposite: Vote only when you are certain that you can justify your vote based on a solid knowledge and understanding.* Form** opinions only when your knowledge and understanding allows it. Etc.

*Which is neither to say that this must amount to support of the one (it might equally be a “lesser evil” choice or opposition to the other), nor that the details of e.g. each and every candidate must be known (a heuristic based on a sound knowledge from a more general case might be enough, e.g. the sound knowledge that Republicans are currently vastly preferable to the Democrats, combined with candidate X being a Republican, candidate X not being a RINO and having no major marks against him, and candidate Y being a Democrat).

**Some degree of opinion formation is automatic and unavoidable. This is acceptable, as long as the opinion is considered tentative, no big decisions or statements are made based on it, and the opinion is revised with an open mind as need arises. Feel free to dislike Putin for the time being and in the privacy of your own head, but do not condemn him in public, donate money to the Ukraine, or urge for a referendum to have your country declare war on Russia—unless you already have done the required research.

Excursion on Michael Crichton and scientific consensus:
Taking a break before proof-reading, I went to another browser tab and found another text with considerable overlap with the above. Among other things, it has a quote by Michael Crichton that is highly relevant to my own statements about scientific consensus above:*

*Or, in the spirit of agnostic scepticism, it claims to quote Michael Crichton. I have no particular reason to doubt the claim, but, no, I have not verified it myself.

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

I would not go that far (at least not assuming that we see the same concept behind the word “consensus”), but I agree in as far as the sentiment is e.g. “consensus does not determine what is true, only what is currently thought to be true”, “a claim of consensus must not be invoked to proclaim dissenting positions false”, or “politicians can make laws based on consensus, but physicists have to take the natural laws as they are”. (Indeed, consensus, especially scientific consensus, is often used as the ultimate argument to authority, as a means to end a debate without having to bother with factual arguments, counter-arguments, critique, and pesky facts.)

Excursion on future stringency:
Above, I have pointed out several cases where assumptions about e.g. sources apply. This is for the purpose of illustration and I will be more relaxed in other texts—without implying a lesser degree of scepticism.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 23, 2022 at 2:09 am

Superficial opinions / EU

with one comment

To complement a recent text on naive beliefs, a few words on how my own opinions on the EU have changed. (Also in light of the recent UK general election, and its character as an almost-referendum on Brexit.)

The question of the EU first entered my own life in a major manner with the early 1990s Swedish debates on EU membership, culminating in a referendum in 1994.

At the time, I was extremely positive, seeing advantages like fewer trade obstacles, likelihood of higher growth, easier migration*, a lesser risk of war, …

*And the ease of my own later migration to Germany is a result of the Swedish and German memberships.

In my opinion formation there were (at least) two weaknesses: I was too unaware of disadvantages and, too some degree, I was influenced by “the party-line”, in that the party I supported was strongly positive and that I might not have reflected enough over potential down-sides.*

*An issue that I have observed at a fairly large scale among others, including absurdities like Leftists simultaneously claiming the correctness of Gender-Feminism and Evolution, despite these being largely incompatible, on the basis that these are both “should believe” ideas in some circles. (I am, obviously, pro Evolution and anti Gender-Feminism, having actually looked into these topics with a critical mindset.)

As time has gone by, I have seen a number of problems. Some are of an almost unavoidable nature, unless the EU is to be a half-measure, as with e.g. the extra layers of government that risk to further reduce the independence of the individual, increase costs and bureaucracy, etc., or with the risk that certain political ideas can become more “monopolistic”, reducing the possibility of escaping a “bad” country through migration, because all other near-by countries are equally “bad”.* Others are pure implementation errors, like the excessive redistribution of money from wealthier to less wealthy countries within the EU.**

*Among many examples of potential bad legislation that reduces civic rights in favor of the government or increases copyright durations unduly. Of course, such legislation can equally be made in the “good” direction, but the risks outweigh the chance of benefits in my eyes, and the reduced option of escape remains. What, e.g., if the insane Swedish sex laws were exported to the entire EU at some point? More generally, I have only over time become aware of how ridiculously much of what politicians decide is nonsensical or harmful; and while I have long been in favor of small government, possibly even some version of a Nachtwächterstaat, my realization of the harm that big and/or over-involved governments cause has grown year by year.

**This is unfair, distorts the free markets, creates inappropriate incentives for less wealthy countries to join, and causes resentment in the wealthier (including as a Brexit contributor). Moreover, the money flows often depend on e.g. negotiation skill and the strength of the negotiation position, rather than uniform and objective criteria.

I am still in favor of the EU (and Swedish/German membership), because the overall advantages seem to outweigh the overall disadvantages, but my opinion is far more nuanced than e.g. in 1994 when I, at age 19, voted “yes”. Moreover, I do not rule out that the Brexit will bring a net-benefit to Europe and the citizens of the EU through ensuring a greater degree of diversity of policy and development. (But I suspect that it will still turn out to be bad for the UK and its population and/or the EU when viewed as a state.)

I would also say that there are many implementation errors in the current EU, e.g. the aforementioned re-distribution of wealth between countries, and that many* of the benefits of the EU could be reached by other means. For instance, freer trade and easier border passage could be achieved without the EU (to a large degree, this even amounts to removing artificial obstacles imposed by the individual states); for instance, a high degree of uniformity of e.g. product regulations could be achieved by voluntary means, be it by states or businesses. In this line, I am willing to at least consider suggestions like that an earlier level of integration within the EU was better than the current level.

*By no means all, unless a similarly “heavy” solution as the EU still results. For instance, every or almost every aspect of the EU could be replicated by separate agreements and organizations, but then we would have the same results with a likely greatly increased complexity and overhead. (Possibly, with some degree of eclecticism available for the member states, but this would then reduce the advantages from compatibility improvements.) A particularly interesting example is the use of a common currency: entirely separate countries could use the same currency, but this would lead to great complications (including a risk that some become highly dependent on the monetary policies of others without having any say) and might require the parallel use of a country-internal currency (e.g. Krona in Sweden) with an international (e.g. the Euro as a new creation or D-Mark or Dollar as “imports”).

Excursion on absolutes:
A common problem in political debates, especially from the Left, is the assumption (or deliberate mis-representation) that things are uniformly and absolutely good or bad. The EU is an extremely good example of how things, on the contrary, tend to have positive and negative sides, both strengths and weaknesses, etc.; and of how important it is to have a nuanced understanding. Similarly, if a little of something is good, it does not follow that more of the same thing is even better.

Excursion on the weak-argumentation meta-argument:
Another contributor to my early opinions was the usually weak argumentation of the Swedish anti-EU factions. They might or might not have raised similar concerns that I do above (this was a long time ago and my memory is vague), but the brunt of the argumentation that has remained in my memory was unconvincing and lead me to apply the meta-argument that if someone relies heavily on weak arguments, chances* are that there are no strong arguments. This especially as the main proponents of “no”, e.g. the former Communist party, had a long track record of weak arguments.

*This is not foolproof, e.g. because strong potential arguments might simply be unknown.

One of the most often repeated was roughly “once we are members of the EU, we can never get out again, so we should wait” or “[…] not join at all” (depending on the speaker). A fatal flaw of this argument is, witness the Brexit, that it does appear possible to leave—and the argument was proved largely dishonest by the reactions of the same groups a few years after Sweden had joined, when the trend had turned and the opinion temporarily was against the EU: “We must hold a new referendum to reflect the new will of the people so that we can leave as soon as possible!” If we look at the “wait” version of the original argument, there is some point to it, in that a better decision can made with more information, but (a) this would apply at any given time, implying that one could argue “wait” perpetually, (b) a further wait comes at a cost of missed opportunities, e.g. in that the advantages do no apply during the waiting period, that a longer wait could lead to a worse negotiating position*, and similar. (The “not join at all” version is entirely absurd, because this would preclude any activity with a real or merely claimed permanency.)

*Notably, because the EU grows and the relative size of population, economy, and proportions of import/export of the applicant changes accordingly.

Other weak arguments included “The EU is silly! Look at their banana-shape regulations!”*, “Brussels will decide over our heads and Stockholm will lose power”**, and, in a wider sense, the claim that we should hold the referendum first and negotiate later, which seems more like a delaying tactic or a deterrent tactic than anything else: If someone comes to the negotiating table set to buy, he has little room to negotiate, making the order idiotic. At the same time, those voting will be unable to make an informed choice (again making the order idiotic) and … be more likely to say “no”, just in case. (The ostensible reason was to save the costs of the negotiations, if I recall correctly.)

*As opposed to e.g. “We fear that a membership in the EU will lead to an excess of new regulations with too little tangible benefit.”; an acknowledgment that regulations could have a purpose was usually lacking.

**While this is a possibility, it matters comparatively little to a rational citizen whether politicians decide over his head in Brussels or in Stockholm. The additional layers of politicians (cf. above) is a different matter—there are now more groups of politicians that can decide things over his head.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2019 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Other aspects of opinion than right and wrong

with 11 comments

I have long been convinced that being right is not the only aspect of opinion that matters: We also have to consider factors like why a certain opinion is held, whether it is “epistemologically sound”, and how willing someone is to reevaluate and (potentially) change it.* For instance, I have repeatedly observed that it is more rewarding to discuss something with someone who has the wrong opinion for a good reason, than with someone who has the right opinion for a poor reason. For instance, the main difference between a good scientist and a poor or non-scientist is not the level of education and experience, but how well they respectively fare in these regards.

*However, people who do poorly in these regards are disproportionately likely to also be (and remain) wrong.

In this, I have largely been driven by my observations of many PC and/or Leftist debaters, takes on religion, various superstitions, etc. People in the relevant groups often score very low on all these criteria: They do not only believe in something which is dubious or even outright and provably wrong—they also hold their beliefs for poor reasons, ignore evidence to the contrary, and refuse to change their opinions no matter what. However, I can also see strong parallels with how my own approach has changed as I went from child to teenager to adult, as well as how my recollections of other children and teenagers stack up to (at least some) adults.*

*Unfortunately, these comparisons usually involve different individuals as representatives for different ages, rather than a longitudinal comparison of the same individuals as they grow older.

Contrast e.g. someone who believes that Evolution is true based on an understanding of the proposed mechanisms, an exposure to fossil records, some knowledge of cladistics, … with someone who believes it “because my school book said so”. Or contrast this again with something truly mindless: “many Republicans are Creationists; I am a Democrat; ergo, I must believe in Evolution”. (This attitude, sadly, does not seem to be as rare as one would hope.) They all have an opinion considered correct by the overwhelming majority of scientists (and me)—but they do so for so different reasons that the one version of the same opinion cannot be considered equal to the other. Notably, it would take a very major change of influence to corrupt the opinion of the first; while the second could be turned merely by having had another book in the curriculum.

If we look at the “why”, which is my main target for this post, I have observed at least four main* categories over the years. In order of descending worthiness**:

*Subdividing these further is possible, but not worthwhile for my current purposes.

**Note that e.g. the question whether an opinion is correct lies in another dimension. It is quite possible to score low here and still have the (factually) right opinion; it is quite possible to score high and still have the wrong opinion.

  1. Opinions that are formed based on own thinking, analysis, observation, experimentation, …

    This typically includes e.g. the activities of many* scientists and philosophers, both professional and amateur.

    *There is no automatism, however: A good scientist should deal with this or the following item, depending on the details of the situation. Regrettably, not all scientists are good; regrettably, a disturbing portion of social scientists fall into the two last categories…

  2. Opinions that are formed through applying critical thinking to claims and reasoning by others.

    (In reality, there will almost always be some overlap with the first item. However, the first item is more likely to deal with using the ideas of others as input for own thoughts; the second with adopting (or not) the ideas of others, after own verification. The first, obviously, contains other aspects with no relation to the second.)

  3. Opinions that are uncritically taken over from a source of authority.

    Such authorities include parents, teachers, celebrities, (real or supposed) experts, books, …

    Note that the difference to the preceding item does not stem from the source (although some sources are better than others)—the main difference is the degree of own thinking and whatnot that is put into the process.

  4. Opinions that are held for reasons like peer pressure, loyalty, a wish to fit in, …

    This includes variations like “I must have the same opinions as my spouse”, “my class-mates all listen to band X; I must do so too”, “I must keep my opinions in line with my party/church/Oprah/…”, and “I must keep my opinions PC”.

    (A related case is those who merely pretend to have a certain opinions, be it for the above reasons or for fear of repercussions, e.g. being sent to a Soviet work-camp or being ostracized. However, this discussion deals with the circumstances around the actual opinions.)

In terms of “epistemological soundness”, in turn, we have to look at questions like whether plausible and logically correct reasoning has been used, whether the conclusions match the known or believed* facts, etc. Cf. the typical differentiation between “knowing” something and merely being “right”.** (I refrain from making a more explicit list, because this area is much more of a continuum.)

*There is no shame in drawing reasonable-but-not-matching-reality conclusions from incorrect premises, if those premises are correspondingly plausible. For instance, Newtonian mechanics is flawed, due to not considering relativistic effects—but it would have been unreasonable to require Newton to address this issue, considering the state of knowledge and the experimental verifiability, within what was measurable at the time, of his mechanics.

**An interesting example in my own history is my first watching of “The Phantom Menace”: I knew that princess Leia was (to be) the daughter of Anakin, I knew that Padme claimed to be sent by queen Amidala, and I just heard the very young Anakin inquire whether Padme was an angel. Factoring in the recurring theme of a prince/princess/king/whatnot pretending to be a commoner, I immediately predicted that a) Padme was actually Amidala, herself, b) she was Leia’s mother. I was highly self-congratulatory as both predictions turned out to be true—and highly annoyed to, later on, find that my reasoning still flew apart on a faulty premise: Leia was not a princess due to her mother’s title, but due to her later adopted parents’.

The willingness to change an opinion, finally, is largely another continuum between those who are willing to make constant adjustments* and those who refuse to change an opinion, no matter what. An additional complication is that a deeply ingrained opinion can take years to change, and that a willingness to be open to changes can need a long cultivation. (I have a longer, half-finished post on related topics that has been lying around a few months. I will try to complete it soon.) The issue can be generalized to how dissenting opinions are treated: Not everyone is content with merely having an opinion set in stone—many go further and actively attack/censor/slander/… those who do not agree with that opinion.

*Strictly speaking, a further division might be needed into why an opinion is changed, and my first draft actually spoke of “in light of new evidence and arguments”. At a later stage, I removed this, seeing that there can be people who are willing to change their opinions, but do so for poor reasons. Whether the openness to change and any given realized change is a good thing, well, that depends on the other points of discussion above. (For instance, in the Evolution example above, switching opinion due to a new school book claiming something different from the old is a poor reason; doing so because it also provides a better analysis or more evidence than the first book is a better reason; doing so after considerable own analysis of known facts and pro and contra arguments is a good reason.)

As an aside, there are other aspects than can be interesting in other contexts, e.g. the degree to which someone actually understands the implications of a given fact (as opposed to merely being aware of the fact it self).

Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2018 at 9:38 pm

Opinion and the wish to be well-behaved (brav sein)

with 5 comments

Preamble: The “be well-behaved” of the title is an approximate translation of the German “brav sein”. As this translation does not quite catch the concept I try to pin-point, a brief explanation: “Brav sein” is a phrase usually applied to children or pets, either as an imperative (“Sei brav!”–“Behave yourself!”/“Be nice!”) or a complimentary description (“Ein braves Kind.”–“A well-behaved child.”), in many ways being the opposite of the out-dated English “wicked child”. The child who is “brav” is rewarded; the one who is not is punished. While the decision about what is “brav” is often highly arbitrary, an implication of morality is still often involved (but “brav” and “moral” are not the same)—and the implication of approval or disapproval from the “powers that be” (adults/humans) is central. Somewhat similar concepts are reflected in the English cognates “bravo” and (in one meaning) “brave”.

Looking back at my own teenager years, I see an occasional tendency of wanting to have the “brav” opinion—not an opinion that had convinced me through facts and arguments, but one that was the “enlightened” opinion to have, the one that was “expected” of those who were not barbarians. (Causing the odd moment of cognitive dissonance, because the “brav” opinion and the facts often clashed—nowadays, I have learned to go where the facts and arguments point.) Over the years, I have seen many signs that this kind of thinking applies to a very significant part of even the adult population—and almost all teenagers and children. Paradoxically, there are some signs that those of above-average intelligence are actually more easily snared than the below average. (Possibly, through often being more conformant in school and being used to seeing “brav” behaviour rewarded, or because they have a greater exposure to “brav” ideas, e.g. through newspapers.)

The politically correct are possibly the example. This manifests e.g. in not merely abandoning old prejudice but to actually err in the other direction, or in the belief that the world conforms to what it “should” be, that we do live in “the best of worlds”. Conversely, when someone questions the “truth”, even with scientific support, he is denounced as “wicked” (respectively, “racist”, “sexist”, whatnot). Consider e.g the events around Lawrence Summers.

Political parties and ideologies (in general) often have some component of this “brav sein”; however, rarely to the extreme degree that the politically correct do. An important case is the leftist use of “progressive” (likely in a deliberately play on this principle) to make their own opinions seem “brav”—despite often being consider regressive, anti-progress, and anti-enlightenment by their opponents. Other words that often appear to be used with a similar intent include “democratic”, “American” (in the US), and “freedom [something-or-other]”. Besides, who would willingly declare himself to be part of the “immoral minority”?

Religion is similar: It is “brav” to do or to abstain from this-or-that. The imposition of belief and behaviour does not follow merely from arguments or through threats of hell-fire, but also from the general attitude that some things are more “brav” than others.

Some book authors, including e.g. Daniel Goleman, provide yet other examples. For instance, the concept of “Cultural Creatives”w (official pagee) is a first rate illustration:

Some people have a certain set of opinions and are rewarded by being allowed to call themselves “Cultural Creative”—a very progressive and enlightened sounding title. More than that, they are now among the “50 Million People [who] Are Changing the World”, with the possibility to advance to being a “Core Cultural Creative”. Interestingly, looking at the list of opinions presented on the Wikipedia page, a very sizable part of the population of any western country would qualify as “Cultural Creative”—often for having opinions that have no real connection with each other, nor have anything to do with either culture or creativity. (I could count myself as one too, with only ten matching opinions being needed; however, there is little doubt that I am in a different camp from what the authors would want.) Indeed, I would even voice the suspicion that the originators of the concept deliberately attempt to gather in as many people as possible by the Forer effectw (“Hey, I am Cultural Creative! Yay me!”) and then to guide them to the “right” opinions in other areas (“I want to be a good Cultural Creative! Now, what should I believe?”), thereby overriding reason.

One Michael Hardy makes a comment on the talk page of the Wikipedia article that well catches both my own impression of “Cultural Creatives” and (with the last sentence) much of what I try to say in the larger context of this post:

But if you scan down the list of things that alleged “Cultural Creatives” are interested in, it looks as if they’re just people who want to follow popular trends. That’s the common thread. And the book congratulates them on their superiority, so they look down on their less trendy neighbors and feel warm fuzzies about how much better they are than those other people.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 9, 2011 at 2:47 pm