CAUTION: Epistemic Humility Ahead

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For the last four years I have taught the capstone course of the International Baccalaureate Program, Theory of Knowledge. To be surrounded by amazingly talented and incredibly intelligent young people on a daily basis has fostered so much personal and professional growth, most especially in my own epistemic humility. On any given day I am bound to be asked questions that will be met with what what appears to be an uncommon answer in today’s day and age: “I don’t know.”

Since the COVID-19 global pandemic began, armchair infectious disease specialists, backyard barbecue virologists, and yard sale epidemiologists have come crawling out of the web’s woodwork. Apparently all it takes is reading a few articles about herd immunity to become a self-proclaimed expert on the subject, and then SHOUTING DOWN opponents in all caps to demonstrate why one’s opinion is more valid than the other’s.

Here’s a tip: don’t have an opinion on something that is well outside one’s “circle of competence”. But if an opinion must be held and declared, perhaps put an asterisk on it if there is no expertise to back it up.

Over the last four months, I’ve read about 25 books. All of them have taught me one thing: I am far more ignorant than knowledgeable. Like Socrates, the longer I live the more confident I become in my ignorance–my intellectual humility–not my knowledge. Considering the nature of the pandemic and the pronouncements I continue to see on social media and the web, here are two incredibly powerful pieces of knowledge that can help any person cultivate epistemic humility.

Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets is an excellent read on decision-making when all the pertinent information is unavailable. The key takeaway I will share is this:  human beings are evolutionally hardwired to believe what we hear. As Duke states it, we cannot afford a “false negative,” so for thousands of years when we heard a rustle in the bushes we looked, believing a predator was behind us. Most of the time we get “false positives”, just as our ancestors figured out it was wind-rustling the reeds and not the feared saber-toothed tiger.

But now think about what that fact means in relation to how crazy coronavirus conspiracies are spread by word of mouth before becoming manifest on the internet and proliferating wildly from there.

Not. Good.

The other book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile (the author himself recommends this as a standalone, but I would encourage all to read the entire Incerto series). One of his most interesting ideas is akin the logical fallacy known as argument ad ignorantiam, but much better sounding when Taleb pronounces “the mother of all mistakes: mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence.” Although he is specifically discussing iatrogenics in this context, we can see it in the flawed thinking of others. For instance, consider COVID naysayers in the world who claim the virus is a hoax because no one they know (absence of evidence) has gotten sick from it, equating this as “proof” (evidence of absence) for why the coronavirus is not real.

When taken together, these two ideas should make us very cautious to claim to know anything about what is going on with the pandemic. Annie Duke specifically offers a wonderful technique about how to challenge one’s own beliefs, which often go unstated: “Wanna bet?” When our family and friends casually say this phrase after we make a claim, it typically unnerves us and makes us think about how we came to believe what we said aloud in the first place. This mental pause is enough to make us reassess the belief and perhaps give it a quantitative ranking; the lower the percentage, the less likely the person is to be certain the belief is correct–and certainty is a massive cognitive challenge in and of itself (the “I’m Not Sure” above is a nod to Duke herself).

So when you hear our elected leaders or even next-door neighbors claim that they will send their child to school despite the coronavirus, “knowing” that transmission rates are low among kids because they’ve read an article or two, ask them (if possible): “Wanna bet?” (the central question that drives inquiry in Theory of Knowledge is “How do you know?”) When thinking about whether or not to send Florida’s children to a brick and mortar setting, parents must make the ultimate bet because the wager is the lives of their children or their own lives if the kids bring the virus home to them.

I’m not willing to make or take that bet. Are you?

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Do you think it is safe to return to schools based on this data?

In the end, what we claim to “know”–especially regarding all things related to the coronavirus–should be suspect and constantly re-evaluated, both in light of new findings and an awareness of our inability to truly understand them beyond the literacy required to read the words on the page. Every single one of us is far more ignorant than knowledgable about what is happening, and perhaps that epistemic humility will have us all saying my favorite three words a whole lot more…

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P.S. – If you are even remotely curious about Nassim Taleb, please read this wonderful recent profile from The New Yorker. He is the ultimate contrarian and made me realize that I am far more conservative/risk-averse than I ever imagined possible. Back in late January, he and a few other mathematicians were growing concerned about the coronavirus outbreak in China, and published a paper in a journal effectively stating that we should shut down the country, begin social-distancing, minimize movement, and wear masks to slow/stop the transmission and save our economy. As he now laments, “we could have spent pennies and now we’ve spent trillions.” Like me, he is no fan of all this debt, which we will ultimately have to pay for now that the “skin in the game” of corporations has been transferred from Wall Street to Main Street.

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