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Independent opinions?

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Democratic decision-making is often defended on grounds of the ‘wisdom of crowds’: decisions are more likely to be correct if they are based on many independent opinions, so a typical argument in social epistemology. But what does it mean to have independent opinions? Opinions can be probabilistically dependent (threatening the ‘wisdom of crowds’) even if individuals form their opinion in causal isolation from each other. We distinguish four probabilistic notions of opinion independence. Which of them holds depends on how individuals are causally affected by environmental factors such as commonly perceived evidence. In a general theorem, we identify causal conditions guaranteeing each kind of opinion independence. These results have implications for whether and how ‘wisdom of crowds’ arguments are possible, and how truth-conducive institutions can be designed.

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