Wednesday, June 9, 2010

My Advice? Don't Listen to My Advice

How should I know whether the climate is warming due to human activity?

Or what specific measures would best resurrect today’s sour economy? Or whether the Supreme Court’s latest decision is the correct one? Or whether vaccines cause autism? Or whether escalating, or scaling down, is the right way to go in Afghanistan? Or whether the Israeli or Palestinian version of the story is the right one?

There are people with Ph.D.s working on all these questions. So how could I have the hubris even to have an opinion on such matters?

Let’s face it. I’m just not informed enough about most of the many important issues of our day to be entitled to an opinion. And even where I am reasonably informed, I’m just not smart enough to be confident of any opinion. The issues – the data, the variables, the formulae -- are far more complex than my own brain is smart.

About the only thing I am confident about is that I ought not be very confident about anything.

All this is obvious to me. But here’s what’s scary.

I myself have a Ph.D. Admittedly not a very relevant one; it’s in philosophy. But my degree means that at least someone thought me capable, at least to some degree, of grasping difficult things, of making and evaluating rational arguments. I also think my I. Q., not to mention my SAT scores, puts me somewhere around the 97th percentile in such matters. (Though how should I know if these are meaningful measures of anything?) I even got to portray not just a genius, but The Genius, on the David Letterman show a few years back. I may not be an Einstein, but I’m not exactly the dimmest bulb on the planet either.

So if I’m not entitled to an opinion on today’s issues, then who, exactly, is?

Well, there are those 3% of the population above me on the scales – those smarty-pants. And quite a few of them even have Ph.D.s., even relevant Ph.D.s.

There’s just one problem.

These brainiacs never seem to agree amongst themselves on any of the important issues. Just about every side of every issue has its experts, its authors, its talking heads. Here am I, regularly following the news, reading the columnists and blogs, occasionally even making my way through long articles in the monthlies. The first guy makes what seems like a pretty compelling case; the next lady makes an equally compelling case for the opposite conclusion.

And I’m supposed to sort it all out, to figure out which side to sign onto? Me, with my measly Ph.D., outrageous test scores, and celebrity Genius career?

Lately I’ve realized that what I tend to respond to isn’t the actual force of the competing arguments I’m hearing so much as the degree of confidence each talking head projects. Yet even the great Isaac Newton – as much an Einstein as Einstein himself – recognized that his own achievements were comparable to finding a smoother pebble than ordinary “whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” And if this groundbreaking thinker saw that the universe was far more complex than even his brain was smart, then just where do these cocky 3-percenters get off projecting so much confidence in their opinions?

About the only other thing I am confident about is that no one ought to be very confident about anything.

The big problem, of course, is what I’m supposed to do with this confidence (or lack thereof).

I think I need to consult an expert.


  1. And of course, everyone is (or at least should be) confronted with this dilemma. I think the solution is to acknowledge the irrationality of many of our opinion-forming techniques and distill the ethics which underlie them. If those ethics make sense to us upon some degree of reflection, then we can have some moderate confidence in the opinions that stem from them.

    Another issue in opinion-forming is trust. If you trust everyone who is confident in their opinions, you're in major danger of some cognitive dissonance. What I do is find writers who I trust and then use their opinions to craft my own.

    I agree that there's probably no way to justifiably achieve total confidence in opinions, but we can pretend, for the purpose of persuading others to do what we think is probably right. And as I recall, you do a pretty convincing job affecting confidence.

  2. 一個人的價值,應該看他貢獻了什麼,而不是他取得了什麼....................................................

  3. and what is a damned und even relevant Ph.D.s.?

    a ph D in amphetamines design

    or in tutorial arts ?