Category Archives: Certainty

Healthy Attitudes of Inquiry

From p. 6 of Vlad Tarko’s 2017 book Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography:

Good social scientists are like tourists who have yet to familiarize with the local rules or a little bit like children, asking funny questions about what everyone else just takes for granted.

This is a much healthier attitude of inquiry than the capital-C certainty many analysts have in their answers to social problems.

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Sarah Bakewell – How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Sarah Bakewell – How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Despite the title, this delightful volume is no self-help book. It is mostly a biography of Montaigne, the 16th century Frenchman who invented the modern essay, which means “to try” or “to attempt”.

The very word captures Montaigne’s basic humility. He did not intend his essays to be definitive, or the last word on the subject. His writing style and his philosophy were thoughtful, gentle, playful, scattershot, introspective, and curious. Montaigne conspicuously lacked certainty and dogmatism, which occasionally got him in trouble. Above all else, he seemed to value peace and quiet, and seemed to view his time as Bordeaux’s mayor as a burden, not an honor. Readers who know me personally can understand why Montaigne has long been one of my favorite thinkers.

Bakewell expertly captures his spirit. Rather than a straight biography, she mimics Montaigne’s literary approach in the Essays. She tells the story of both Montaigne and his writings in bits and pieces, going on frequent tangents while staying mindful of larger themes, such as humility and taking joy in little things.

Forecasters in Proper Context

Whether it’s the local weatherman getting it wrong, or especially some economic shaman predicting the stock market’s next swing, forecasters have a record that doesn’t always outperform chance. This poor record has been known since at least Roman times, as Deirdre McCloskey notes on p. 265 of her 2000 book How to Be Human, Though an Economist:

The early Latin poet Ennius sneered at forecasters “who don’t know the path for themselves yet show the way for others.”

Or, as the philosopher Yogi Berra put it, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Debunking Cognitive Biases

My former professor Bryan Caplan stars in a series of short videos about four cognitive biases that explain why voters systematically vote for bad policies. You can read about them in detail in his 2007 book Myth of the Rational Voter, or you can watch these videos:

Make-Work Bias

Pessimistic Bias

Anti-Market Bias

Anti-Foreign Bias

A Lesson in Humility

An important bit of wisdom from p. 25 of Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly:

There are about one million trained economists on the planet, and not one of them could accurately predict the timing of the 2008 financial crisis (with the exception of Nouriel Roubini and Nassim Taleb), let alone how the collapse would play out, from the real estate bubble bursting to credit swaps collapsing, right through to the full-blown economic crunch. Never has a group of experts failed so spectacularly. The story from the medical world is much the same: Up until 1900 it was discernibly wiser for patients to avoid doctor’s visits; too often the “treatment” only worsened the illness, due to poor hygiene and folk practices such as bloodletting.

The lesson to be learned is a familiar one: beware the rule of experts. No matter how clever you are, be a student of society. Don’t try to be its savior. That is well beyond any one person.

Certainty with a Capital C

One criticism I face fairly often is the assertion that I must be dishonest — I must be cherry-picking my evidence, or something — because the way I describe it, I’m always right while the people who disagree with me are always wrong. And not just wrong, they’re often knaves or fools. How likely is that?

But may I suggest, respectfully, that there’s another possibility? Maybe I actually am right, and maybe the other side actually does contain a remarkable number of knaves and fools.

Paul Krugman

Evidence of a closed mind. Always such a sad thing to see.

Words for the Wise

“But he was primarily an artist and therefore knew that in nature the intermediary colors predominate and an absolute white and an absolute black are rarely found.”

Hendrik WillemVan Loon, describing Desiderius ErasmusThe Praise of Folly.

Wise words for Republicans, Democrats, good-government types, anarchists, and all the other ideologies that suffer from too much Certainty.