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You Never Know

July 17th, 2013 - 7:46 pm

The ancient Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus taught his students that skepticism relieved two terrible diseases that afflicted mankind:  anxiety and dogmatism.  But it’s hard for most of us to live with systematic uncertainty.  Only great spirits, those blessed with courage and good humor, can fully embrace it.  Yet it is central to human creativity, and its value is only recognized at moments when the old consensus is falling to pieces, and the world’s direction is unknowable.

Most “knowledge” nowadays  is contained in virtual boxes, sorted by specialties:  economics, sociology, literature, statistics, anthropology, psychology. They are all formalized in university departments, and they aren’t flourishing.  Au contraire, they are imploding.  Look at all the economic theories that burned in the bonfires of the global crash starting in the fall of 2008.  Look at the seemingly endless revisions to atomic theory, which apparently needs anti-matter to account for the behavior of matter.  Psychological models are discarded with regularity, and now, all of a sudden, we’re told that salt is good for us!

So it’s not surprising to find a revival of skepticism.  My Italian friend, Giuliano da Empoli, has written a wonderful little book called Against the Specialists; the Revenge of Humanism. It nicely lays out the case against stultifying certainty and praises humanistic skepticism.  He argues elegantly that the recognition that we’re going to be wrong much or even most of the time, combined with an unrestrained search for understanding and possible solutions to our many woes, stimulates creativity.

It’s entirely appropriate for such thoughts to come from a citizen of Florence, since Renaissance humanism was part of an epic revolt against (Aristotelian) certainty.  The great souls of the Renaissance famously ranged across diverse areas of knowledge.  Leonardo and Machiavelli, for example, worked together on military/engineering schemes to divert the flow of the Arno River around Pisa, to besiege the city.

Giuliano, and several other keen-eyed thinkers, see signs of a possible humanistic renaissance today.  There are plenty of examples of such creative intellects.  One of my favorites is Albert Hirschman — polyglot, wandering Jew, economist, warrior, historian, philosopher and punster — who died last year, aged 97.  An encomium to him described Hirschman as a “developmental economist,” which is like calling Leonardo a dyslexic cartographer.  His skeptical credentials are totally in order.  He formed a club called the 4W Club:  for Where We Went Wrong.  And then there’s Daniel Kahneman, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in Economics…who never attended a lecture on the subject.  He delights in the realization that error abounds, and he’s written a delightful book to explain how error is built in to the human mind.  “After a crisis we tell ourselves we understand why it happened and maintain the illusion that the world is understandable. In fact, we should accept the world is incomprehensible much of the time.”

Look at the world today, and think how unpredictable so much of it has been.  Even a few months ago, nobody was predicting the events in Egypt.  Three years ago, nobody could imagine what has happened in Syria.  And during the battle there, the deep thinkers have  swung back and forth on “who’s going to win?”  The truth is that we don’t know, and we cannot know, since a lot of what happens is the result of chance, or irrational passions, or unexpected natural events.  Have you read The Black Swan?  Its subtitle is “the impact of the highly improbable.”

This is intended to be a therapeutic blog post.  Embrace skepticism, don’t be so sure.  Most of the time we’re going to get it wrong, and we should expect that.  Avoid the pundits, they don’t have a very good track record, and they’re generally reluctant to recognize error, let alone rethink the mental traps into which they fell en route to their latest blunder.

Remember there’s a reason why the Wall Street Journal editors throw darts at the stock page.  The stocks they hit generally do as well as, or better than, those selected by the highest-paid financial advisers.

The world of tomorrow is being shaped by human decisions, not by vast impersonal forces, and those humans don’t know what they are going to decide.  How can we?  If you’re making policy, it’s best to reason from first principles, both moral and technical, and to watch for the first sign that you’ve got it wrong.  When you spot it, change the policy as fast as you can, and keep it up until you find something that seems to work.

Every now and then you’ll have an easy call, like fighting evils like fascism or communism.  Even there, you may have noticed, policy makers have often had a very tough time getting it right and fighting evil.

Then console yourself with thoughts like Churchill’s on America:  Americans invariably do the right thing, after exhausting the other alternatives.

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All Comments   (35)
All Comments   (35)
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"Thinking Fast and Slow"
Thanks for the link. I'm enjoying the book.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Interesting piece, some truth in it. Well, maybe not 'truth' because we don't know for sure what that is, but...the last sentence is troubling. It will require removing the Obama Administration from power. That is, enough evidence (not really disprovable) exists about the nature of the Admin that non-impeachment/non-resignation suggests that Americans no longer 'get it right.'

And while I enjoy your intellect and spirit, it will also be helpful if you acknowledge that you have gotten it wrong on Iran, Michael.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The really tough issue for humans is to not become too emotionally attached to a theory that attempts to explain observations and predict future results. One way to view the problem is to think of weather forecasting. Weather forecasts used to be so bad that they were frequently the subject of comedy. However, with increased computing power, more information, and better weather models, weather forecasting is now good enough to plan important parts of one's day like what clothes to wear and when to shop to avoid precipitation. Still, nobody would be shocked and offended if the weather model is wrong and rain misses your location. An imperfect weather forecast is significantly more useful than no forecast at all. On the other hand, nobody honest would view our current knowledge of weather as settled fact.

In politics and economics I think we get too emotionally attached to models forecasting future results. For example, the Laffer Curve is very likely correct at very high levels of taxation. I feel comfortable in predicting that humans will find ways to avoid paying income taxes at higher rates in California and revenue will be "unexpectedly" low. I'm less certain that lowering the long-term capital tax rate from 20% to 15% would cause enough economic growth to not cause a loss of revenue even though I prefer the lower tax rate. The experience of the Reagan tax cuts from insanely high rates to moderate rates doesn't automatically apply to further cuts in the moderate percentage range.

Two useful tools for detecting misinformation are 1) listening for the speech pattern of people trying to hard to sell something and 2) always being skeptical of relative numbers without units. People trying too hard to persuade are basically trying to compensate for a weak position by forcing a decision now. They know they will lose if you continue to look for something better. If you respond to their pressure with icewater in the veins non-emotional non-commitment, they will eventually expose their position.

The most common way to use statistics to misinform is to express a result as a percentage and then shift the denominator midway through the argument. Politicians and salesmen do this frequently. Fight back by demanding hard numbers with units. For example, inflation-adjusted dollars instead of percentage increase.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'm so tired of hearing about the black swans, over on belmont club we've long since developed the concept of the dayglo orange swan, the nonstandard event you see coming from a mile away.

Skepticism and empiricism and all that are all fine but so is knowledge, and you have to stand somewhere. All that can be summarized without so much abstractness as - stop being such a sucker.

It's not always easy to do, but it's at least an easy principle to understand.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If we did not know some things at least provisionally, there could be no ameliorative action. Ledeen is mixing up dogmatism with empiricism and science. See http://clarespark.com/2010/11/21/through-a-glass-darkly/. This article is antidemocratic and counter-Enlightenment. Leaves ordinary people without any tools to detect who is lying to them. And destroys the rule of law that depends on facts.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
A lot of people mix up cynicism with skepticism. In fact, cynicism is a form naiveté that assumes people are never better than oneself, and never do anything from decent motives.

It doesn't help that good people make bad drama; take the movie Apollo 13, for example - almost everything negative in there was false.

Assuming people - politicians included are always acting from base motives is as naïve as assuming the opposite.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Bunk. I predicted what would happen in Egypt the moment Mubarak was overthrown. One: we would have an Islamist state, or two, a military dictatorship. Egypt would look either like Iran or Turkey depending on who got the reigns of power.

Skepticism is a good thing if it leads you to the truth, but once you know the answer, skepticism handicaps you.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I knew Egypt wouldn't be good whatever happened. Nothing going on in the Middle East will end well. not in the foreseeable future. It's all going to get uglier before it gets better I think.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Exhibit A. All the more remarkable because of what actually did happen.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
So true...some things are predictable...Anyone here REALLY think they wouldnt use the Zimmerman trial for political purposes?

Notice I didnt say "verdict" because they are doing exactly what they'd be doing regardless of the outcome...

Some things you just KNOW are inevitable.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Congressional dems have publically embraced Obama’s level of certitude about the efficacy of Big Government—a level much higher than their own base-line belief—and it is a level Republicans have never embraced and never will. For their display of commonsense Republican are branded as obstructionist. But at least they have the sense to know what they don’t know. Not so with O and his minions.

Obamacare has always been about forcing Republicans into embracing a VAT. But the likely economic costs to the country and the likely political cost of doing so have made them stand their ground. If Obamacare is not paid for with a VAT—the only way it can be paid for—the uninsured part of the population—including illegals—are supposed to take their ire out on Republicans. But the only certainty here is that these people never have and never will vote Republican to any significant degree.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Obamacare is about destroying the private insurance industry and hoping that by them the people will have forgotten that Obamacare caused it so that they demand the government take over all health care in a single payer system for all. It's a Trojan horse is what it is. Any new taxes that must be passed to attempt to pay for it are just a bonus.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Orwell admonishes us to beware of the "smelly little orthodoxies". Ledeen encourages us to embrace skepticism and the liberation of the spirit that comes with humanist thought. Bravo to them both!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, forget Aquarius, this is the Age of Systemic Uncertainty. What matters in straightforward words: All the assumptions you grew up with are now trash, and the future is up for grabs.

Which is hardly news. Those most buttressed against reality -- self-important drones in the academy, 'men of letters' and truly awful wimmin, usually -- will be the last to figure it out. Less charitably, show me an academic 'specialist in his field' from the social sciences and I'll show you a raving nutjob with a strong sense of entitlement who has trouble with his shoelaces.

Poor old Joe the plumber, trashed by a self-described 'keen-eyed thinker' and wannabee polyglot. It’s entirely appropriate for such thoughts [skepticism, for crissakes] to come from a citizen of Florence, since Renaissance humanism was part of an epic revolt against (Aristotelian) certainty. . Heavens, tell me that's a parody from the Onion, or a gold-medal candidate for Pseuds Corner in the satirical mag PrivateEye! Sad to say, Joe is way ahead of all you precious halfwits, and he thinks, works and trusts in the idioms of the Anthem of the Working Man.

In the present case, let us ask the Muse, are you about to offer your services '[to work] together on military/engineering schemes' to divert the Potomac, the scruffy man's Arno?
Or, as Brits are known to say from time to time, do you just feel like a good wank?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"...show me an academic 'specialist in his field' from the social sciences and I'll show you a raving nutjob with a strong sense of entitlement who has trouble with his shoelaces."

And crappy relationships with his children.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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