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Posted by on Aug 7, 2013 in Culture, Philosophy, Skepticism | 6 comments

On being skeptical (Part 2)

I left part 1 with the thought that what often confronts us is not some claim that appears counter to our scientific picture of the world as a whole, or even to some specific empirical finding (from either the sciences or the humanities, however one draws that line). Rather, the evidence for or against that claim, at least the evidence that is reasonably available to us, is just too murky for us to reach any confident conclusion if we manage to be objective, rather than running with hunches, emotional responses, personal and political loyalties, etc.

For example, many claims about economic policy are like this. We can’t all be economists, and in any event highly-esteemed economists often disagree among themselves about what policy settings will achieve widely desired outcomes such as low rates of unemployment. It is difficult to see how an average voter could possibly draw a confident conclusion on an issue like this where she does not have the expertise and it is far from obvious which supposed experts should be trusted. She might be able to see how certain steps would affect her personally, for example if she has a mortgage and so favours cuts in interest rates, but even here she might make a mistake (what if an ill-advised cut in interest rates has a series of consequential effects that ultimately have an adverse impact on her employment situation?). In any event, she is probably not well placed to make a confident judgment about the likely impacts of opposed policies on the economy as a whole, and with it the overall prosperity of her fellow citizens.

Of course, there can be some cases where a package of economic policies is clearly designed to screw over one demographic – perhaps the poorest – to the benefit of others. It appears, though, that the situation is often not so straightforward and that rival packages of economic measures often make plausible claims to achieve widely desired effects – controlling inflation, reducing national debt, creating employment, and so on. What are we supposed to do?

And yet, this is exactly the sort of policy debate that dominates elections. No wonder, perhaps, that electorates are often prepared simply to trust an incumbent government that presides over a relatively healthy economy, and to punish one that presides over a weak economy, largely ignoring arguments about how much the government’s policies have any effect at all (as opposed to being at the mercy of global developments and other factors beyond governmental control).

In this circumstance, I suppose we need to make some sort of decision, if we can, about which economic policies appear most likely to have desired effects, and, other things being equal, to vote accordingly. But if we voted solely on economic policy and management we might seldom do so with any great and justified confidence.

Surely, though, this sort of situation is almost ubiquitous!

I am not making a global and theoretical claim that we can never be confident about anything – that claim would be paradoxical in any event. This post is not a defence of, say, Pyrrhonian skepticism, though that ancient system of thought and action may have at least had a point.

My claim is a more modest one that I actually think we can be confident about: in a very wide range of situations that we encounter, we are not in a position to draw conclusions, even on matters that might be very important to us, with a confidence that we could justify objectively. This can apply to such things as how certain individuals really assess or feel about us, the guilt or otherwise of defendants in court cases that are in the news, many social and political claims expressed at a high level of generality, and much else.

Sometimes we have no satisfactory option but to bet, as it were, on our best calculation of the probabilities. In other cases, though, there may be no pressing reason to do anything but suspend judgment until such a time as more compelling evidence becomes available. The evidence need not be anything extraordinary, but it might be something that can be decisive in settling the matter. Of course, the evidence may never become available. In any event, why do we so often feel the pressure to take a stance, perhaps even a stance that is backed by strong emotions, on issues where we can’t be justifiably confident one way or the other? I sometimes wonder whether we should be more willing to suspend judgment, or to offer judgments only tentatively, on matters where we really are not in a position to be confident.

Could we, should we, say more often, if only to ourselves: “This is conceptually difficult and the evidence seems murky; I’m not sure what the truth is here.” That might not feel satisfying, and it might not win friends and admirers (fence-sitters are not popular, or so it appears to me). But might we be better off if we did more of this? It seems to me that we’d at least be more honest. What do you think? Is this proposal itself too hard to sort out, or can we make some progress with it?

  • Thanny

    It’s actually fairly easy to get the best answer with respect to economics, which is why it’s so distressing that people don’t do it. Just see which economists are using models, rather than simply making assertions. Then look at the recent predictions of those models (like high bond interest rates, soaring inflation, etc.). The economists who have models, who have made the correct predictions, are the ones you want to pay attention to.

    The problem is that most people aren’t interested in what’s true. They’re interested in having their pre-existing ideas supported. So they’ll ignore sound advice like the above, and just go with the talking head that they already agree with, reality be damned. That applies to economics, climate change, evolution, and just about any other topic which tends to collide with what people want to believe.

  • Mm. I’d say economics (as practiced rather than theoretically) is mostly emotion/politics with relatively little science/empiricism. When the latter exists it is as you say more probabilistic than concrete. Goes with the territory, I think; rather like meteorology!

    Just to illustrate how so many people have been wrong just recently: do you recall all the doomsdaying about how America was going to crumble just before the Eurozone recession? And yet America didn’t delve into austerity and thus is now emerging from its recession whereas most of Europe is diving headlong into those regressive cutting measures and they’re only increasing their debts.

    Tangential musing fluff beyond here:

    Countless economists (from all sides of the political spectrum in America) have pointed out over the years that austerity measures lead straight into nasty politics and are counterproductive in economic slumps. One should increase one’s debts in recessions and pay back the debts (via taxes & belt-tightening) in the booms, otherwise one sees self-fulfilling credit/liquidity traps. Curiously this was once a tolerated notion in Republican policy-making in the pre-neocon era (I’m thinking of e.g. Eisenhower, Rockefeller et al. all the way up to Nixon or so; basically any mainstream GOPer pre-Reagan). It’s weird how political parties morph over time.

    Of course, that’s not say America won’t be in the gutter in short order! International economies seem too impenetrably intertwined to be sure about. Heck, even megawatt-tier supercomputers are incapable of sussing out the complexities of the (imperfect) models fed to them…

    Also, America’s “recovery” isn’t anything like morally or ethically upstanding. As I understand it, the Fed basically bought up the crap assets of the financial elite to slowly deleverage them via inflation. First financiers fleeced the American public with crappy mortgage incentives and credit “opportunities”, then when they traded that packaged debt so much that nobody could tell what it was worth anymore they got their government buddies at DC to buy it all from them. Essentially the plebs got hit twice: first by financiers and then by their own government. This has happened numerous times in recorded history (society-wide deleveraging of some wealthy minority’s heinously-unscrupulous assets, I mean).

    I am somewhat worried about the Eurozone. The current situation seems awfully 1930s-esque, and we all know which big party in that area was the only staunchly anti-austerity group in the running (not totally dissimilar from some of the nastier bits of our Tea Party contingent). As Joan Robinson once grudgingly noted, “Hitler had already found how to cure unemployment before Keynes had finished explaining why it occurred.”

    Oh how we forget! Why not try it a second time, just because we can? It’ll turn out just fine in this new century, right? Ugh. We humans are such strange creatures.

  • Scott Barnwell

    Hi Russell,

    re: “… why do we so often feel the pressure to take a stance, perhaps even a stance that is backed by strong emotions, on issues where we can’t be justifiably confident one way or the other? I sometimes wonder whether we should be more willing to suspend judgment, or to offer judgments only tentatively, on matters where we really are not in a position to be confident.

    Could we, should we, say more often, if only to ourselves: “This is conceptually difficult and the evidence seems murky; I’m not sure what the truth is here.” That might not feel satisfying, and it might not win friends and admirers (fence-sitters are not popular, or so it appears to me). But might we be better off if we did more of this? It seems to me that we’d at least be more honest. What do you think? Is this proposal itself too hard to sort out, or can we make some progress with it?”

    I’d like to say I feel 100% that we’d be better off with this attitude, which is okay, I guess, since it’s labeled a “feeling.” I actually find it quite satisfying holding provisional, honest views, though I suspect that most would not. Being a big fan of the ancient Chinese “philosopher” Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), I can’t help myself. If you were interested, a great book to read is Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi: http://www.sunypress.edu/p-2330-essays-on-skepticism-relativism.aspx

    Nie Que asked Wang Ni, “Do you know what all things agree in calling right?”
    “How would I know that?” said Wang Ni.
    “Do you know that you don’t know it?”
    “How would I know that?”
    “Then do things know nothing?”
    “How would I know that? However, suppose I try saying something. What way do I have of knowing that if I say I know something I don’t really not know it? Or what way do I have of knowing that if I say I don’t know something I don’t really in fact know it?…” ~ the Zhuangzi, chapter 2

  • RussellBlackford

    I don’t know much about the Zhuangzi – I find it hard enough trying to remember how to pronounce it – but that’s interesting. It’s actually on my to-do list somewhere to find out more about it (and the Chinese tradition more generally).
    The problem, though, with various forms of global epistemic skepticism and relativism is that they rapidly take on this paradoxical quality. My claim is a much less radical and empirical one – that we can actually say with confidence that situations are very often murky and that we won’t be able to reach a conclusion where confidence is justified based on the information reasonably available to us. I don’t know where the Zhuangzi ultimately takes this, but the Pyrrhonian skeptics took their skepticism to an extent that I would not want to follow. I suppose it’s a matter, for me, of living under conditions of very widespread ambiguity and uncertainty, but it’s certainly not that I think our general epistemic situation is hopeless.

  • Russell,

    Well, I hope you do find some time to find out more about the Chinese tradition. I find it very stimulating. You probably know people who can recommend reading material, but if not then I can always give you some recommendations (I’ve always chosen scholarly works on early China, and keep very up-to-date). It’s pronounced “juang-dzuh,” btw.

    The ancient “Daoists” were certainly fond of paradox (as was later Zen Buddhism). The point in many instances is simply to shake our confidence both conventional wisdom and our own ways of discriminating the world. Zhuangzi’s suggestion is that a calm, tranquil mind is the best starting point and that our intuition (spirit) can be honed so that, (whether TRUE or not) our decisions, actions, etc. fit the current circumstances.

  • RussellBlackford

    Thanks, Scott. I actually do know a little bit about Chinese philosophy – and, yes, I do kinda know how “Zhuangzi” is pronounced, which is why I said I find it hard to remember to do so (as the English transcription doesn’t look much like how you say it).

    Philosophy is quite an ocean to explore, and I doubt that anyone can explore it all one lifetime. However, the ancient Chinese philosophical traditions are actually quite popular at the university I’m attached to. I’ve heard some interesting seminar papers about it in recent times.

    I find ancient Pyrrhonian skepticism quite fascinating, though I’d like to get deeper into it, and I doubt that I’d propose any of us go so far in our skepticism – and particularly in the related passivism – as Pyrrho and his followers apparently proposed.