I'M OFTEN WRONG
By: Justin Shelby
I was having a discussion with Michael about beliefs, and I realized that I should write something detailing my own beliefs, specifically focusing on how those beliefs have changed. This is an important exercise. If your beliefs rarely change, it means that you aren’t learning. I like to have a fairly major belief change every six months or so. If I go longer than that, I begin to worry about my mental state.
When I entered college, I believed that the state had the right to tax and control its citizens. Today, I believe that the state is more or less illegitimate.
Then, I believed strongly in the Judeo-Christian God. Today, I describe myself as an agnostic atheist.
Then, I believed that the essences of things existed. Today, I believe that only forms exist and that essences do not (i.e. there is no such thing as a “chair”, just things we sit on and call “chairs”. There is no such thing as “marriage”, only groupings of behaviors that we call “marriage”, etc.)
Then, I believed that the best way to prove something true was to accumulate evidence in support of it. Today, I believe that the best way to prove something true is to attempt to show that it is false, and fail repeatedly in the attempt. I also no longer believe that it is possible to prove that something is true – all “knowledge” is conjectural.
Then, I believed that the media was fundamentally honest. Today, I believe that the media is fundamentally deceptive and manipulative.
Then, I believed that all or most cultures were equal. Today, I believe that some cultures are better than others (sort of, read on)[i].
Then, I believed that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified on the basis of military necessity. Today, I believe that they were unnecessary acts of barbarism used to intimidate the Russians.
Then, I believed that women in the West were paid 70% of what men were paid for the same work. Today, I believe that pay equality has been achieved.
Then, I thought that feminism was about advocating the equality of women. Today, I think that feminism is primarily about advocating for the supremacy of women.
I used to believe that morality was objective. Today, I do not.
I used to believe in the fundamental goodness of the welfare state. Today, I do not.
I used to be for the abolishment of the American electoral college. Today, I believe it is essential to the unity of the United States.
I used to be for the direct election of senators, now I believe that the direct election of senators was a mistake.
The list goes on.
Some of these beliefs shifted because of what I learned on the authority of others. For example, my opinion on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed because of what I learned from the memoirs of General MacArthur and other American leaders of the second World War. It was overwhelmingly their opinion that such a bombing was unnecessary to compel Japanese surrender. My opinion didn’t shift because I reexamined the reasons for and against the bombing; I have accepted MacArthur’s judgments as a substitute for my own. Effectively, I have judged MacArthur rather than judging the issue itself. This manner of belief change is appropriate where I lack the expertise and/or information to make sound judgments, but it is also a more insecure change than other changes, since third party sources can be deceptive and are hard to vet.
Other beliefs have shifted because I myself was competent to directly investigate something and, having investigated, found that my prior beliefs did not comport with the evidence. This kind of change is much more secure. For example, while working at NORC, I ran U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers on earnings through my own stats program. I found that there was absolutely no justification for the common claim that women make less money than men for the same work. Women do make less money, principally because they work fewer hours and in different jobs. When you control for hours worked, job type, and everything else, they earn the same. I also replicated the error that caused the spurious claim – it has to do with the definition of full time, which includes all workers who work more than 35 hours a week. Women, on aggregate, work fewer hours than men but are equally classed as “full time” workers, which makes it an apples and oranges comparison. This kind of investigation is very important for issues that are contemporary and when experts exist on two or more sides. Nothing but personal insight and rigorous, reproducible analysis is sufficient in these cases. If you can’t do the analysis, you really have no business having an opinion.
Still other beliefs have shifted because such a shift was necessary to maintain consistency: you cannot believe that the state is illegitimate and also support taxation. The illegitimacy of one entails the illegitimacy of the other. There are more impressionistic confluences as well – the reality of a God can be adduced, by various routes (both logical and, in the case of Christianity, scriptural), to support belief in the State. And so when my belief in God took a mortal blow, my belief in the State was itself weakened. When you combine that influence with the adoption of a new kind of epistemology – one more based on reason than revelation, I believe – abandoning the State as a legitimate concept became necessary and almost automatic.
None of these changes in belief were, to my knowledge, arbitrary. All were motivated by evaluations or re-evaluations of evidence, logic, or authority. A consequence of this is that I can tell you, for anything that I care about strongly enough to take a position on, what would have to be true to make me abandon that belief. This is absolutely essential for intellectual soundness and health. Nothing is less impressive or more depressing than meeting someone who has strong opinions on something but is incapable of telling you what would have to be true for them to change their minds. Such an inability is the sign either of a stunted mind, a religious zealot, or a person who you don’t need to take seriously as a thinker. This is because learning entails belief change. Even in subjects where I have substantial background and experience, say, Greek and Latin or Roman History, I am continually learning and updating my beliefs.
As a final point – I am not reluctant to change my beliefs. The wonderful thing about having a conversation under these auspices is that debate is rarely necessary. I can tell someone who wants to convince me exactly what they need to demonstrate in order to do so. If they can, I will thank them, because I don’t ever want to have beliefs out of step with reason and evidence. It’s interesting that this has the somewhat paradoxical effect of making me seem more argumentative and stubborn than I actually am. As soon as I recognize an error I switch my position, and I almost never dig into a position unless I’m quite convinced of it. This means that, whenever I do decide to fight for a view, the conversation can get rather intense. Intense conversations are more memorable than immediate concessions, and so less well remembered. If I fought as hard when I was wrong as when I was right, and then conceded, I’m sure that I would very quickly develop a reputation as a fair-minded and judicious person. Instead, I am punished for my virtues. Alas.
I will periodically update and republish this list. As much for your information as my sanity.
I often come off as an absolutist. In some ways, I am. But, empirically, I have a changed my mind many times and am likely to do so many times in the future.
[i]One of the changes that I underwent late in college was a shift away from the belief in objective ethics. I would like ethics to be objective, but I am, by necessity, a moral skeptic. I do not believe that we have any justification making normative moral claims. This means that I do not believe that it is possible to prove objective morality one way or another. This has a rather queer consequence, for those who know me. When you cheat on a test or do something else that, in common speech, would be described as morally wrong, I don’t condemn it or process it in that way. I don’t believe that it is possible for me to say with any justification that something is morally wrong. Instead, I find it aesthetically disgusting. Aesthetics is self-evident to the person who experiences it. It needs no other justification. Beauty and ugliness are very often self-evident. So, when I think about teachers refusing to write reclets or someone ghost writing your essays, I get the same feeling as when I think about eating worms or fucking my mother (if I ever thought about such things). The primary feeling I get isn’t righteous indignation; it’s nausea. Another upshot of this is that, strictly speaking, I don’t believe I have any justification to say that one culture is better than another. What I can do is assert my aesthetic preferences, convince people to adopt my aesthetics, and attempt to create a world that is beautiful in my eyes. It’s a fun wrinkle. When you read a lot of what I write, it would be easy to think that I am a sort of cultural chauvinist. But I wouldn’t even assert that I’m right in any ultimate sense. I think merely that my preferences are mine and valid for me. I don’t start from the dubious proposition that my preferences are right; I start from the indisputably true proposition that I find their results beautiful and that it is in my best interest to spread their adoption so that me and mine can live in a more beautiful world. I invite everyone to contemplate and adopt their own aesthetic preferences. May the best man win.