TCS Daily


The Law of Proportionate Belief

By Arnold Kling - May 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Liz has said that there is not a shred of evidence for the biological factor, that the evidence against there being an advantage for males in intrinsic aptitude is so overwhelming that it is hard for me to see how one can make a case at this point on the other side, and that it seems to me as conclusive as any finding I know of in science.

...I've taken many controversial positions over the years, and...I think I am right on all of them. But I don't think that in any of them I would say there is not a shred of evidence for the other side, even if I think that the evidence favors one side... And as for saying that a position is as conclusive as any finding in science -- well, we're talking about social science here! This statement would imply that the extreme nurture position on gender differences is more conclusive than, say the evidence that the sun is at the center of the solar system, for the laws of thermodynamics, for the theory of evolution, for plate tectonics, and so on.
-- Steven Pinker

 

In a debate between two psychologists about what is signified by the shortage of women in top-flight university departments of math and certain sciences, Steven Pinker expressed shock at the strength of the beliefs of his adversary, Elizabeth Spelke. It appears that Ms. Spelke violated what I call the Law of Proportionate Belief.

 

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. The Law is a core ideological principle with me. I have problems with anyone -- liberal, conservative, libertarian, or otherwise -- who violates the Law.

 

Consider the issue of gay marriage. I do not find the arguments either for or against gay marriage to be overwhelming. If I were forced to choose a position, I would favor allowing gay marriage, because my best guess is that two gays who choose to marry are not causing harm to anyone else.

 

However, there are some people who will argue that allowing gay marriage would be one of the worst travesties possible. And there are some people who will argue that not allowing gay marriage would be one of the worst travesties possible. My opinion is that both of those strong positions violate the Law of Proportionate Belief.

 

Humility vs. Arrogance

 

Another term for violating the Law of Proportionate Belief is "arrogance." Conversely, following the Law can be viewed as "humility."

 

One indication that someone is violating the Law is when that individual has taken such a strong position that there is no graceful way to back down. For example, it seems to me that there is no graceful way for someone like Michael Moore or Ted Rall to back down from their positions in support of the Iraqi insurgency. And yet it is at least conceivable that the vast majority of Iraqi people will come to appreciate their elected government and come to hate the insurgents.

 

I used to think that studying economics helped promote humility. However, that may have been an accident. I now realize that the economists who made the strongest impression on me when I was younger -- Bernard Saffran, Alan Blinder, and Robert Solow -- all happened to be humble. But other economists are rather arrogant. Paul Krugman can hardly bring himself to compose a paragraph without violating my Law.

 

I am not sure how religion correlates with humility and arrogance. It seems to me that there is at least some element of humility in the doctrines of all major religions. Judaism says that we must be humble before God. Christianity says that we are all sinners. Islam literally says that we should "submit to God." And yet religion is often a major source of arrogance. Religious fanatics are among the worst violaters of the Law of Proportionate Belief.

 

On economic issues, the Left comes across to me as more arrogant than the Right. I think it takes a certain amount of arrogance to advocate government solutions. Thomas Sowell describes this correlation well in The Vision of the Anointed.

 

On social issues, I tend to regard trying to impose your views on everyone else as arrogant. Neither the Left nor the Right has a monopoly on arrogance in that regard.

 

Libertarians can be arrogant, too. Some libertarians view the entire war on terrorism as bogus. While I believe that good arguments can be made against many of the strategies and tactics that the Bush Administration has followed, I cannot think of anything so egregious that it justifies the vehemence of some of the libertarian screeds on the subject. In my view, the libertarians are violating the Law of Proportionate Belief.

 

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. As a result, an election typically ends up for me being like the 1997 World Series between the Marlins and the Indians, when I had no particular rooting interest for or against either team.

 

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