The Argument For Epistemic Humility

Aug 24 2011 @ 12:32pm

by Zack Beauchamp

David McRaney summarizes some sobering research:

In a political debate you feel like the other side just doesn’t get your point of view, and if they could only see things with your clarity, they would understand and fall naturally in line with what you believe. They must not understand, because if they did they wouldn’t think the things they think. By contrast, you believe you totally get their point of view and you reject it. You see it in all its detail and understand it for what it is – stupid. You don’t need to hear them elaborate. So, each side believes they understand the other side better than the other side understands both their opponents and themselves.

McRaney's research suggests we ought be humble about our conclusions – it's totally fine to have opinions and express them vehemently (I wouldn't be geting into the blogging game if I didn't think that), but it's a different thing entirely to assume that because you think you're right, there's literally zero chance the other side could be. I was trying to make this point about arguments-from-credibility yesterday, but did so in such an epically inartful way that several readers and E.D. Kain took it as claiming Libya war critics had lost their credibility. That, as some of E.D.'s commenters explained much more clearly than I did,  was the opposite of the intended point.

People like to impute the absolute worst (stupidity, amorality, etc.) to those who are on the opposite "camp" in the argument by mere fact of disagreement. Every one of their mistakes is magnified by this psychological effect, to the point that the mere fact of being on their side is grounds for dismissal of their views.  The problem is as present in debates about military intervention, the issue I was highlighting, as it is on abortion, health care, Israel, Drew Westen's argument about Obama, and so on. McRaney's blog highlights a number of different cognitive biases beyond the one discussed in the above excerpt that exacerbate our blind spots about our own opinions. The only real checks are to consciously try to engage fairly with opposing arguments and to relentlessly critique our own assumptions. This an argument not for epistemic relativism (people are, in fact, wrong sometimes!), but for humility. We very well could be wrong on the issues about which we are most certain, so we should welcome dissent rather than try to run dissenters out of polite opinion. Even if they've been wrong before.