comment by gjm ·
2021-06-21T11:32:50.179Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Most people, most of the time, don't preface statements with "I believe". Therefore, when they do so it conveys information.
(Note: the footnote-looking annotations here have a slightly different meaning from usual; see the comment before the actual footnotes, though you'd probably immediately figure out what I'm up to even without it.)
In my case, I think the information it conveys is something like this: I am aware that the thing I'm stating is not practically-universally believed by people in the relevant reference class (which is something like "people whose opinion my interlocutor might pay some attention to"), or that I expect it not to be (e.g., because I am uncertain myself), and therefore even if the person I'm talking to generally trusts me they should probably remain somewhat uncertain unless on this point they think I'm especially trustworthy.
I think this is approximately what "I believe ..." indicates for most speakers.
Because "I believe ..." has this meaning, and because it's common practice to use it (or some similar construction) when stating something that you know isn't universally agreed, the absence of "I believe ..." also has meaning: it indicates that you consider the opinion you're stating to be one with which a reasonable and well informed person couldn't disagree. (Again, within the relevant reference class. If I'm talking to a creationist, I might say "I believe that birds are the descendants of ancient dinosaurs" or maybe something like "Biologists are pretty much 100% agreed that ...", but if I'm not then I'll just say "Birds are the descendants of ancient dinosaurs". I don't think creationists are reasonable and well-informed, but when talking to a creationist a requirement for productive discussion is that one somewhat suspend disbelief on this point. But I digress.)
Someone who just asserts things without qualifiers like "I believe", even when they know that the opinion they're stating is open to reasonable disagreement, is defecting in the social game; they are misleading their listeners (at least those who don't already know them well enough to know that they regularly do this; and perhaps even those listeners, as far as System 1 goes) by implicitly claiming that they know of no relevant disagreement on the issue.
This can backfire, if someone listening knows that there is relevant disagreement and infers that the speaker doesn't know or dismisses it wrongly. But even if it doesn't, I think it's a species of dishonesty. It may well be that people who are "bold" in this sense get ahead in life compared with those who don't, but if so I think they are doing so at the expense of the people they are misleading, whom they induce to (sometimes) make worse decisions than they otherwise would, by giving more credence to the bold person's opinions than they otherwise would.
Of course it's a small kind of deceit; it isn't necessarily consciously intended as deceit; most of the time it will do no harm. But it is, none the less, a kind of deceit, and I think it does, on balance, do harm on average, and a given "bold" person will do it again and again and again, and the harms add up.
I hope others will not take this particular bit of lsusr's advice. If they do, they will be making the world a little bit worse.
I have marked with footnote-markers the places where I used the construction in question, or considered doing so and consciously decided not to. Some comments on each:
 Acknowledges that introspection is difficult, and getting a clear idea of one's own habitual behaviour is difficult, and that I may therefore be wrong about exactly what information "I believe ..." conveys when I use it. Omitting the qualification would have encouraged readers to think that I either have done some sort of careful analysis of my own usage (which I haven't) or am unaware of the difficulties of introspection (which I'm not).
 Acknowledges that determining what "most speakers" do is difficult, especially in cases like this where it's hard even to be sure about one's own behaviour. Omitting the qualification would have encouraged readers to think that I either have done something like going through instances of "I think", "I believe", etc., in books and blogposts and the like to see how they're used (which I haven't) or am unaware of the difficulties of extrapolation (which I'm not).
 I wondered about putting something like "in my opinion" here, and actually I normally would, acknowledging that this sort of claim is potentially controversial and e.g. most likely lsusr disagrees, and moving the implied criticism of lsusr from "they endorse a practice I consider harmful" (which is true) to "they endorse a practice that they know, or ought to know, is dishonest" (which is probably not true). In this case I didn't, mostly because I thought I'd go along with lsusr's suggested policy for a moment. I would be interested to know whether lsusr felt on reading that paragraph that I was making an accusation of dishonesty or malice or something of the kind, and whether they reckon it would have felt the same way if I had softened the claim with the usual qualifier.
 Acknowledges the things that under  I noted not acknowledging. (Because despite my decision not to qualify earlier, I do think it's important to be aware that the position I'm taking is potentially controversial and possibly uncomfortable for the person I'm disagreeing with.) Omitting these qualifications would have given the false impression that I think any reasonable person would agree with me that the policy lsusr proposes amounts to dishonest exploitation of other people (I actually think it's possible that that's so, but I am aware that I haven't considered the matter in enough depth to justify making such a claim) and that I think that by proposing that policy lsusr is endorsing dishonest exploitation (which I'm pretty sure they are not doing).
 Acknowledges that this sort of thing is really difficult to assess, and that I am not claiming to have done actual calculations showing that the opinion I express here is correct, merely saying how things look to me.
 I wondered about putting something like "I think" here, but considered that it would be redundant given the qualifications already present above. I think readers here are smart enough to understand that, since I acknowledge the debatability of lots of premises on which this summation is based, I acknowledge that the summation itself is debatable. In other contexts I might have qualified this statement too.