We just don’t know. It’s a sign of advanced intelligence to be able to say ‘I don’t know’ in the face of uncertainty, my boy. Too many conclusions are drawn on the basis of insufficient evidence. Professor Snipe, Behind The Locked Door
There isn’t enough doubt in America today, enough uncertainty. We are once again going through a Yeats moment where “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The Nobel physicist Richard Feynman wrote a book that continues to inform me year after year. In the book, Feynman offers a few “tricks of the trade in trying to judge an idea.” I’ll quote him in some detail as this applies to our current situation.
The first one [trick] has to do with whether a man knows what he is talking about, whether what he says has some basis or not. And my trick that I use is very easy. If you ask him intelligent questions—that is, penetrating, interested, honest, frank, direct questions on the subject, and no trick questions—then he quickly gets stuck. It is like a child asking naive questions. If you ask naive but relevant questions, then almost immediately the person doesn’t know the answer, if he is an honest man. It is important to appreciate that. And I think that I can illustrate one unscientific aspect of the world which would be probably very much better if it were more scientific. It has to do with politics. Suppose two politicians are running for president, and one goes through the farm section and is asked, “What are you going to do about the farm question?” And he knows right away—bang, bang, bang. Now he goes to the next campaigner who comes through. “What are you going to do about the farm problem?” “Well, I don’t know. I used to be a general, and I don’t know anything about farming. But it seems to me it must be a very difficult problem, because for twelve, fifteen, twenty years people have been struggling with it, and people say that they know how to solve the farm problem. And it must be a hard problem. So the way that I intend to solve the farm problem is to gather around me a lot of people who know something about it, to look at all the experience that we have had with this problem before, to take a certain amount of time at it, and then to come to some conclusion in a reasonable way about it. Now, I can’t tell you ahead of time what conclusion, but I can give you some of the principles I’ll try to use—not to make things difficult for individual farmers, if there are any special problems we will have to have some way to take care of them,” etc., etc., etc. Now such a man would never get anywhere in this country, I think. It’s never been tried, anyway. This is in the attitude of mind of the populace, that they have to have an answer and that a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around. Richard Feynman, The Meaning Of It All
Okay. Doubt is good according to Feynman. So why are we so short on doubt and uncertainty? One reason is confirmation bias, we gravitate toward information and examples that confirm our existing opinions and avoid those that conflict. Social media is the ubiquitous example today. To his credit, Charles Darwin was aware of the corroding impact of confirmation bias and developed a formal system to counteract it in his own thinking. His approach works in such diverse fields as politics and finance.
Charles Darwin used to say that whenever he ran into something that contradicted a conclusion he cherished, he was obliged to write the new finding down within 30 minutes. Otherwise his mind would work to reject the discordant information, much as the body rejects transplants. Man’s natural inclination is to cling to his beliefs, particularly if they are reinforced by recent experience–a flaw in our makeup that bears on what happens during secular bull markets and extended periods of stagnation. How Warren Buffett Avoids Getting Trapped By Confirmation Bias, Roger Dooley, FORBES
If you are serious about delving into a study of How We Know What Isn’t So there is a book with that title by Thomas Gilovich that you could read. Or, if you aren’t the reading type, you can find an excellent review of the book with lots of information at Robert Bogue’s nifty blog HERE.
The answers to the age old questions—is there truth, what is it, and how can we find it —continue to elude us. Finding the answers takes a lot of work. It may not even be possible. Lately it occurs to me that we may not be up for it. But let’s not be too humble. The philosopher Walter Kaufmann created a new word, humbition, to describe one of his four cardinal virtues. It represents a combination of humility and ambition. Such a combination would serve us well today in our dopamine infused atmosphere where LIKES outweigh LINKS, where APHORISMS replace BOOKS and where REALITY TV stands in for SERIOUS DISCUSSION.
Were I to use an aphorism to describe the point I am getting at, I would choose this one from Nietzsche not because it is cute but because it leads beyond itself into serious introspection.
A very popular error- having the courage of one’s own convictions; rather, it is a matter of having the courage for an attack upon one’s own convictions. Friedrich Nietzsche, Frammenti postumi 1887-1888
Let’s return to Richard Feynman:
What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say today to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but also all those things that we have found out up to today that they didn’t know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But I think that in admitting this we have probably found the open channel. Richard Feynman, The Meaning of it All
The open channel is what Feynman strives for. No one has all the answers. We build knowledge incrementally over time and sometimes in discrete jumps when everything changes all at once.
Life is not a continuous function of time, it’s a patchwork of discontinuities that we stitch together one by one. From Behind The Locked Door
Doubt and uncertainty are your friends. Don’t shortchange them for a pile of delusions no matter how good they make you feel and how highly they are stacked. Does this mean we cannot have strong opinions? Of course not but they should be informed opinions debated by worthy opponents and subject to revision in the same way Darwin revised his opinions when he was presented with new facts.
FOR FURTHER READING
Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist
Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So: Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life
Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong – Adventures in the Margin of Error
Vikram Mansharamani, Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence