[EM] Voting on matters of pure fact

Anthony Simmons asimmons at krl.org
Tue Apr 24 20:52:52 PDT 2001

>> From: Blake Cretney
>> Subject: Re: [EM] Voting on matters of pure fact

[Response buried in the quotes.  Sorry, the quotes form a
unified whole, and resist trimming.]

>> Here's another interesting situation.  Lets say you lock a group of
>> people in a room, and present two proposals to them.  You ask each
>> person to quantify how much each proposal benefits him or her
>> personally.  They all vote sincerely.  Maybe they're really honest.
>> If the voters choose based on enlightened self-interest, the total
>> benefit for each proposal tells us which maximizes social utility for
>> the group.  This is what I refer to as a subjective election.  The
>> purpose of the election is for each person to reveal how beneficial a
>> proposal is to him or herself, so that we can maximize social utility.

>> Now, let's consider another group of locked away voters.  Their job is
>> to determine the best proposal, not for themselves, but for the first
>> group.  Presumably, this is the proposal that won the election for the
>> first group.  Unfortunately, the second group doesn't have access to
>> the first group's ballots.  They have to guess, based on what they
>> know about the other group, and the proposals.  They are guessing
>> about external reality, not revealing the usefulness of the proposals
>> to themselves.  This is what I call an objective election.

>> The same is true, even if the first group never actually vote.  The
>> second group can still guess how the vote would have gone, if the
>> first group had voted.  This is the best result for the first group.

>> This example is similar to representative democracy.  The first group,
>> is the population as a whole.  The second group, is their legislature.
>>  The subjective vote by the population as a whole is only
>> hypothetical.

This is why I think it's very slippery, in terms of
meaningfulness, to consider the notion of voting on matters
of fact.  The example above can be telescoped into the
following two cases:

   1.  The first group votes on which proposition they

   2.  Instead of a second group being introduced, the first
       group votes on which proposition they think is best
       for themselves.

One is described as a choice of action, the second as a
matter of fact.  But are (1) and (2) the same vote?  Is "best
for themselves" defined to be "whatever they prefer"?
Frankly, whole thing sounds far too encumbered by semantics
to be capable of satisfying resolution.

>> On Fri, 20 Apr 2001 14:31:56
>> Anthony Simmons <asimmons at krl.org> wrote:

>> > But to the extent that there is a social decision to abide by
>> > an election outcome in any meaningful sense, doesn't there
>> > have to be a consequent action of some sort?  Even if the
>> > question being voted on is nothing more than the "sense of
>> > Congress" clause of HB1189, which only expresses an opinion",
>> > the whole point of that is to influence.

>> True, but lets say we decide that the best method for
>> matters of pure fact is method X.  Now, we have a vote on
>> a policy to carry out.  This decision is based on a number
>> of facts.  In this case, I would expect that the best
>> method for the pure facts would be the same as the best
>> for the decision vote, since people will be voting the
>> same way, and we want the same result.

It's a good possibility, though I can think of plenty of
examples in which people do not vote at all rationally.  We
like to assume that voting is a pure economic behavior, but
perhaps it is also a form of mob behavior.

>> > Here's a nifty complication:  If we were to vote on a matter
>> > of objective fact, what would we really be voting on?  On
>> > whether a particular fact happens to be true?  Or whether we
>> > should take a particular action -- officially announcing that
>> > a fact is true.  These aren't necessarily the same thing.  In
>> > the latter case, I may have reasons other than objective fact
>> > for voting the way I do.  I'm sure if we thought hard enough,
>> > we could come up with a hypothetical situation in which, for
>> > example, legislators might vote to modify the science
>> > curriculum in Kansas for reasons not entirely confined to
>> > science in Kansas.  Hypothetically.  In such a case, social
>> > utility determines perceived fact.

>> Creationists often argue that acceptance of Darwinism
>> inevitably leads to social breakdown, and mass murder.
>> This belief is logically independent of belief in
>> Darwinism itself, so someone could accept Darwinism, but
>> still not want it taught, for fear of catastrophic
>> results.  I think Voltaire once remarked that there is no
>> God, but don't tell the help, or they'll steal the
>> silverware.

During some creationism hubbub or other, I saw a high-school
kid making a comment during the venerable man-on-the-street
shot.  He said he didn't believe in evolution because he
didn't like the idea of humans being animals.  In other
words, his belief was based on volition, rather than the
other way around.

This is typical.  As much as we would like to believe that
there is a tight connection between knowledge and choice, and
that belief determines choice, it is often the case that
choice determines belief.

Given the muddiness of this particular stream, I'm reluctant
to even try to sort out the implications.

>> But the vote on curriculum is still based on some
>> objective issues. Either Darwinism leads to crime, or it
>> doesn't.  So, just because the school board base their
>> decision on something other than the truth of what is
>> being taught, doesn't mean that they aren't basing it on
>> beliefs about reality.

Oh, there's no doubt that there are perceived facts in there
somewhere.  But, as salesmen know, facts can sometimes be
nothing but an objectified wish, as exemplified by the adage
"I'll see it when I believe it."

>> > It's an interesting question -- is it meaningful to vote on a
>> > pure matter of objective fact?  Whatever the answer to that
>> > question, I think a more practical question is:  does it
>> > affect the choice of election method.

>> That's a good question.  It seems to me that people who
>> base their reasoning on the consideration of subjective
>> questions tend to favour methods for approximating average
>> ratings, and vice versa.

>> To take a very simple example, consider a group of people
>> deciding between two options.  If you see this as a
>> subjective election, where each person rates the options
>> based on personal benefit, then the majority opinion
>> shouldn't necessarily win.  On the other hand, if they are
>> voting on a statement of fact, then it doesn't seem that a
>> minority opinion would be more likely to be correct,
>> simply because it is more strongly held.  So, if you see
>> an election as primarily a determination of fact, rather
>> than a revelation of personal utility, this seems to argue
>> more in favour of probabilistic arguments and
>> majoritarianism.

Perhaps.  But there are also questions of certainty.  There
is no obvious correlation between how certain a person is and
how likely he/she/it is to be correct.  Using the example
from way back near the top, if we vote on a matter of fact,
are we voting on the fact, or on whether it should be adopted
as an official fact?

Bottom line, I think our models of volition and knowledge are
simplified in order for us to be able to consider questions
like voting at all.  If we had to actually take into account
the way Homo sapiens does that sapiens business, the
murkiness would be devastating.

I've come up with reasons to be wary of what you've said, and
I'm sure it would be just as easy to find reasons to be wary
of the opposite.  Doesn't mean I necessarily disagree, but I
do think a whole lot of wariness is in order.  Mathematics
and existential philosophy do not mix well.

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