The new issue of RegionFocus, published by the Richmond Fed contains an interview with Steven Landsburg, one of my favorite economists. In this quote, he explains his habit of drawing counterintuitive conclusions from widely accepted basic principles:
Counterintuitive examples do run the risk of just causing some people to shut down. But I like them because, first of all, they’re fun. We laugh at jokes because they’re counterintuitive. They appeal to the sense of playfulness in us. So, partly, it filters the audience. The people who are just not willing to listen to something counterintuitive are probably the people who are not going to learn anything anyway. It brings in the sort of people who have more open minds.
Beyond that, when you are forced to a really counterintuitive conclusion, from what appeared to be completely noncontroversial principles, that’s when you’ve learned something. I mean, if all we ever learned were things we sort of knew anyway, then we wouldn’t really be learning. The fact that a set of noncontroversial principles leads to a very surprising conclusion causes you to become aware that those principles are much more powerful than you thought they were. It causes you to confront your prejudices, causes you to open your mind up and be willing to see the world in a somewhat wider way, and makes you more open to the idea that you might be wrong about other things. It helps you understand that there might be a lot of things that are worth rethinking that you didn’t have exactly right the first time around.
The world would be a better place if more people, economists or not, shared Landsburg’s intellectual humility and open mind. Read the whole interview here (PDF). Landsburg’s blog is also worth reading.