The Case for Epistemic Humility

…is summed up very nicely by Zack Beauchamp here.

People like to impute the absolute worst (stupidity, amorality, etc.) to those who are on the opposite “camp” in the argument by mere fact of disagreement. Every one of their mistakes is magnified by this psychological effect, to the point that the mere fact of being on their side is grounds for dismissal of their views.  The problem is as present in debates about military intervention, the issue I was highlighting, as it is on abortion, health care, Israel, Drew Westen’s argument about Obama, and so on. McRaney’s blog highlights a number of different cognitive biases beyond the one discussed in the above excerpt that exacerbate our blind spots about our own opinions. The only real checks are to consciously try to engage fairly with opposing arguments and to relentlessly critique our own assumptions. This an argument not for epistemic relativism (people are, in fact, wrong sometimes!), but for humility. We very well could be wrong on the issues about which we are most certain, so we should welcome dissent rather than try to run dissenters out of polite opinion. Even if they’ve been wrong before.

Or this excellent piece by Stephen Williamson critiquing Paul Krugman (with respect for Krugman who has written many excellent pieces himself):

Here’s the heart of Krugman’s argument:

“…there are simple policy actions that could quickly end this depression now, there were simple policy actions that could have quickly ended depressions past. The problem is that now and then policy makers tend not to take these actions — which is why some of us write books.”

A simple and quick solution is at hand. Easy. To buy this argument, you have to think that Krugman is really really smart, and the remainder of the human race is really really stupid. There are plenty of economists – with and without Nobel prizes – who don’t think the solutions are easy.

Or Tyler Cowen’s far too common concept of mood affiliation.

Or an (modified) excerpt from one of my own FB comments about voting.

Yes, someone is going to be president, but when we informally campaign to our friends it is often on “the issues.” My argument is that we shouldn’t be so sure of those views. Vote on whatever grounds you want, but if you’re going into the poll adamant that you really know about macroeconomic policy, for instance, and that Romney is much better than Obama in that area, or vice versa, you’re sadly mistaken.  We have neither the knowledge, experience, nor the time to adequately understand most of the issues on the agenda in any meaningful detail. At most we read analysis in the NY Times and think we know something. Around the corner, of course, is an article in a different (or even the same) paper that disagrees in part or in whole with the one we cling to as truth from God. We disavow it, of course, because if it disagrees with our views it must, by definition, be flawed in some way.

In the academic literature differences of opinion most often come down to reasonable disagreements over method, or data, or interpretation. I don’t see why the general public, who by comparison are relatively uninformed, so often express such hubris that the opposition are nothing but idiots when professional analysts are far more reserved.


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