Tag Archives: owning

The Grapes of Fallibilism

BEN: “I’m promoting a culture of skepticism. That’s what I’m doing. Hey, just take a look at what you believe and what you think about stuff, and stab it in the throat. And if it lives, we’re good.”

AARON: “Stabbing it in the throat… you had me until then.”

BEN: “I’m kind of an all-or-nothing guy.”

AARON: “Yeah! ‘Go big or go home. No fear.’  I think you can always be wrong. Always. You never ever know. Like I act like I know all the time, but if you have a good solid point, I will listen to you and I might change my mind because of it. I think more people need to do that. More people need to realize that, even though you may be totally committed to this idea or ideology, and you might have so much invested in it, you can always be wrong. You don’t know 100% anything…”

-Ben Parsons and Aaron Mason, episode 66 of The Grapes of Rad

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Degree of Difficulty

“The formal study of complex systems is really, really hard.”

David Colander

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Intellectual Humility

I think there’s an important connection between intellectual honesty and humility. A simple goal of the classes I teach is to get us all to recognize what counts as good evidence and what counts as bad evidence for a claim. In general, I see students get better at this throughout the semester. But this doesn’t guarantee that we’ll care about the difference once we figure it out.

Getting us to care is my real goal. We should care about good evidence. We should care about evidence and arguments because they get us closer to the truth. When we judge an argument to be overall good, THE POWER OF LOGIC COMPELS US to believe the conclusion. If we are presented with decent evidence for some claim, but still stubbornly disagree with this claim for no strong reason, we are just being irrational. Worse, we’re effectively saying that the truth doesn’t matter to us.

This means we should be open-minded. We should be willing to challenge ourselves, and let new evidence change our current beliefs.  We should be open to the possibility that we’ve currently gotten something wrong. This is how comedian Todd Glass puts it:

Here are the first two paragraphs of an interesting article on this:

Last week, I jokingly asked a health club acquaintance whether he would change his mind about his choice for president if presented with sufficient facts that contradicted his present beliefs. He responded with utter confidence. “Absolutely not,” he said. “No new facts will change my mind because I know that these facts are correct.”

I was floored. In his brief rebuttal, he blindly demonstrated overconfidence in his own ideas and the inability to consider how new facts might alter a presently cherished opinion. Worse, he seemed unaware of how irrational his response might appear to others. It’s clear, I thought, that carefully constructed arguments and presentation of irrefutable evidence will not change this man’s mind.

Ironically, having extreme confidence in oneself is often a sign of ignorance. In many cases, such stubborn certainty is unwarranted.

Certainty Is a Sign of Ignorance

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No Faking: Praising Ignorance (2)

Recognizing the difference between ignorance and stupidity is a big step toward seeing that there is a positive side to ignorance. Stupidity is rightly seen as a bad thing. Ignorance, though, isn’t the same as stupidity, and so might not be such a bad thing.

Still, in most of our minds there is a natural connection between ignorance and stupidity. This is why many of us are embarrassed to be caught not knowing something.  Few of us want to hear someone laugh and say, “What do you mean you’ve never heard of  _______?!? HOW DUMB ARE YOU?”  So, instead of admitting our ignorance about something, we often pretend that we do know about it, and hope no one discovers our secret.

Faking it is very common.  To avoid looking bad, we pretend we know more than we really do.  Norm MacDonald admits to faking it:

While faking it is both natural and understandable, I believe it’s bad for several reasons.  Mainly, of course, it’s dishonest.  Owning up to our ignorance is simply more genuine.  But faking it is more intellectually damaging than other forms of dishonesty.  In a few upcoming posts, I’ll explain these other reasons to avoid faking it.

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