Thursday, November 03, 2005

More on False Neutrals

I've talked about false neutrals before in this post

Here's another example. I was watching this news item on tv, that was talking about the possibility that Australia could have a very big dependence upon China within 20 years time. One of the opinions on this implied that since there is a lot of uncertainty in predicting such things, it was a fairer assumption to think this wouldn't be the case. It's a false neutral because it's assuming, without any justification, that the present state -- a smaller dependence on China -- is more likely in the future than the predicted state.

I think that part of what's going on with false neutrals is this. Rather than considering each of the possibilities on their own merits, we're framing the things in terms of the prediction. This is an example of structure capturing - evaluating things from the pov of the current 'subject' of our thoughts. And then from this framing, we're conceptualising it as a zero-sum game. In a zero sum game on entity's gains are the other's losses. Wikipedia describes it as "a situation in which a participant's gain (or loss) is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the other participant(s)".

In the context of the false neutrals situation, the gains and losses translate to certainties and uncertainties. If the prediction is uncertain, then, we reason, this must mean the alternative, the status-quo, must be more certain.

Why would we conceptualise it in this way? Well, I suspect that zero-sums are a pretty general heuristic that our brains apply. I'm not going to try and think of other examples right now, but I do think it is fairly commonly used. I can see why it might be useful to assume that a zero-sum applies, in the absence of any better understanding of a situation.

Another way to think about false neutrals is in terms of how conservative a claim is. I don't mean conservative in the political sense, but in terms of how speculative the claim is. A false neutral is something we falsely think is the most conservative option.

On this basis, here are some other sorts of false neutrals. (apologies for the following being fairly abstract, because it's not illustrated with examples, but unfortunately I don't have time at the moment to try to think up examples).

We tend to think that the most conservative standpoint is the one that is closest to the "known facts".

We also tend to think that the viewpoint left over, when we shoot down some speculative claim, is the more conservative.

Both of these beliefs false. Of course, sometimes the most conservative standpoint is the one closest to the facts, or the alternative to some speculation, but these beliefs are false as general rules.

Why? Because they do not involve considering the actual nature of the supposedly conservative claim, as is required to see how conservative it actually is. In the first case, we may have good reason to belief that the currently "known facts" are very incomplete, and we may know that they are unlikely to be representative of the true picture. That is, we may know that the current picture is likely to be a quirk of our current state of affairs.

In the case of shooting down a speculative standpoint, the alternative to that standpoint may itself be quite speculative. It's quite often the case that the alternative is something that is widely held, and thus is considered 'quite reasonable', but is in fact very speculative and unjustified.

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