The Curious Joy of Being Wrong – Intellectual Humility Means Being Open to New Information and Willing to Change Your Mind

Yves here. The present pervasiveness of undue attachment to bad ideas and bad policies is the flip side os it being seen as an admission of weakness or even opening oneself to liability to admit error. IMHO it not difficult to admit you are wrong if it’s a position or viewpoint to which you are not deeply attached, which in particularly means it not being important to your professional or social status. For instance, when I started blogging, I held orthodox views on government budgets, believing they needed to be balanced over time. I since came to learn about MMT and found that isn’t correct and is in fact unhelpful for governments that issue their own currencies and don’t have terribly large trade sectors.1 However, I am embarrassed when I read old posts where I’ve fallen in with orthodox views on deficits. Regardless, it almost seems as if we have institutionalized the opposite of intellectual humility, with people in authority doubling down on demonstrably false constructs, like Covid is no worse than the flu, or the Russians are gonna run short of ammo if we can prop Ukraine up long enough.

Another useful attitude is recognizing the limits of your knowledge and even better, signaling that in discussions.

Not that I am big on New Year resolutions, and I think many and likely most readers here are intellectually flexible, but this is a category where more is probably better.

By Daryl Van Tongeren, Associate Professor of Psychology, Hope College. Originally published at VoxEU

Mark Twain apocryphally said, “I’m in favor of progress; it’s change I don’t like.” This quote pithily underscores the human tendency to desire growth while also harboring strong resistance to the hard work that comes with it. I can certainly resonate with this sentiment.

I was raised in a conservative evangelical home. Like many who grew up in a similar environment, I learned a set of religious beliefs that framed how I understood myself and the world around me. I was taught that God is loving and powerful, and God’s faithful followers are protected. I was taught that the world is fair and that God is good. The world seemed simple and predictable – and most of all, safe.

These beliefs were shattered when my brother unexpectedly passed away when I was 27 years old. His death at 34 with three young children shocked our family and community. In addition to reeling with grief, some of my deepest assumptions were challenged. Was God not good or not powerful? Why didn’t God save my brother, who was a kind and loving father and husband? And how unfair, uncaring and random is the universe?

This deep loss started a period where I questioned all of my beliefs in light of the evidence of my own experiences. Over a considerable amount of time, and thanks to an exemplary therapist, I was able to revise my worldview in a way that felt authentic. I changed my mind, about a lot things. The process sure wasn’t pleasant. It took more sleepless nights than I care to recall, but I was able to revise some of my core beliefs.

I didn’t realize it then, but this experience falls under what social science researchers call intellectual humility. And honestly, it is probably a large part of why, as a psychology professor, I am so interested in studying it. Intellectual humility has been gaining more attention, and it seems critically important for our cultural moment, when it’s more common to defend your position than change your mind.

What It Means To Be Intellectually Humble

Intellectual humility is a particular kind of humility that has to do with beliefs, ideas or worldviews. This is not only about religious beliefs; it can show up in political views, various social attitudes, areas of knowledge or expertise or any other strong convictions. It has both internal- and external-facing dimensions.

Within yourself, intellectual humility involves awareness and ownership of the limitations and biases in what you know and how you know it. It requires a willingness to revise your views in light of strong evidence.

Interpersonally, it means keeping your ego in check so you can present your ideas in a modest and respectful manner. It calls for presenting your beliefs in ways that are not defensive and admitting when you’re wrong. It involves showing that you care more about learning and preserving relationships than about being “right” or demonstrating intellectual superiority.

Another way of thinking about humility, intellectual or otherwise, is being the right size in any given situation: not too big (which is arrogance), but also not too small (which is self-deprecation).

I know a fair amount about psychology, but not much about opera. When I’m in professional settings, I can embrace the expertise that I’ve earned over the years. But when visiting the opera house with more cultured friends, I should listen and ask more questions, rather than confidently assert my highly uninformed opinion.

Four main aspects of intellectual humility include being:

  • Open-minded, avoiding dogmatism and being willing to revise your beliefs.
  • Curious, seeking new ideas, ways to expand and grow, and changing your mind to align with strong evidence.
  • Realistic, owning and admitting your flaws and limitations, seeing the world as it is rather than as you wish it to be.
  • Teachable, responding nondefensively and changing your behavior to align with new knowledge.

Intellectual humility is often hard work, especially when the stakes are high.

Starting with the admission that you, like everyone else, have cognitive biases and flaws that limit how much you know, intellectual humility might look like taking genuine interest in learning about your relative’s beliefs during a conversation at a family get-together, rather than waiting for them to finish so you can prove them wrong by sharing your – superior – opinion.

It could look like considering the merits of an alternative viewpoint on a hot-button political issue and why respectable, intelligent people might disagree with you. When you approach these challenging discussions with curiosity and humility, they become opportunities to learn and grow.

Why Intellectual Humility Is an Asset

Though I’ve been studying humility for years, I’ve not yet mastered it personally. It’s hard to swim against cultural norms that reward being right and punish mistakes. It takes constant work to develop, but psychological science has documented numerous benefits.

First, there are social, cultural and technological advances to consider. Any significant breakthrough in medicine, technology or culture has come from someone admitting they didn’t know something – and then passionately pursuing knowledge with curiosity and humility. Progress requires admitting what you don’t know and seeking to learn something new.

Relationships improve when people are intellectually humble. Research has found that intellectual humility is associated with greater tolerance toward people with whom you disagree.

For example, intellectually humble people are more accepting of people who hold differing religious and politicalviews. A central part of it is an openness to new ideas, so folks are less defensive to potentially challenging perspectives. They’re more likely to forgive, which can help repair and maintain relationships.

Finally, humility helps facilitate personal growth. Being intellectually humble allows you to have a more accurate view of yourself.

When you can admit and take ownership of your limitations, you can seek help in areas where you have room to grow, and you’re more responsive to information. When you limit yourself to only doing things the way you’ve always done them, you miss out on countless opportunities for growth, expansion and novelty – things that strike you with awe, fill you with wonder and make life worth living.

Humility can unlock authenticity and personal development.

Humility Doesn’t Mean Being a Pushover

Despite these benefits, sometimes humility gets a bad rap. People can have misconceptions about intellectual humility, so it’s important to dispel some myths.

Intellectual humility isn’t lacking conviction; you can believe something strongly until your mind is changed and you believe something else. It also isn’t being wishy-washy. You should have a high bar for what evidence you require to change your mind. It also doesn’t mean being self-deprecating or always agreeing with others. Remember, it’s being the right size, not too small.

Researchers are working hard to validate reliable ways to cultivate intellectual humility. I’m part of a team that is overseeing a set of projects designed to test different interventions to develop intellectual humility.

Some scholars are examining different ways to engage in discussions, and some are exploring the role of enhancing listening. Others are testing educational programs, and still others are looking at whether different kinds of feedback and exposure to diverse social networks might boost intellectual humility.

Prior work in this area suggests that humility can be cultivated, so we’re excited to see what emerges as the most promising avenues from this new endeavor.

There was one other thing that religion taught me that was slightly askew. I was told that too much learning could be ruinous; after all, you wouldn’t want to learn so much that you might lose your faith.

But in my experience, what I learned through loss may have salvaged a version of my faith that I can genuinely endorse and feels authentic to my experiences. The sooner we can open our minds and stop resisting change, the sooner we’ll find the freedom offered by humility.


1 In macroeconomic policy, yours truly has two additional quibbles. One is that so-called mainstream economics loves to draw analogies between households and governments, and Wall Street analysts tend to think in terms of businesses and bankruptcy risk. But if we are to compare to the private sector….why are governments viewed only on a cash flow basis? Why is there no attempt to differentiate between spending that is current period spending (salaries for soldiers) versus investments (funding education, building/fixing infrastructure)?

That gets to the second and closely related topic, that different types of spending have very different GDP impacts. None other than Larry Summers argued that spending on infrastructure when the economy was not at full capacity would generate as much as $3 in GDP growth for every $1 spent. Yet there is almost no discussion of the productivity of various types of expenditures. Can’t offend vested interests!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. caucus99percenter

    > current period spending (salaries for soldiers) versus investments (funding education, building/fixing infrastructure)

    China / the CPC seems to have zero difficulty making this distinction, and back in the Eisenhower era neither did the U.S. (interstate highways, California public university system, post-Sputnik education betterment panic, …).

    What changed? The Sixties followed by Powell-memo backlash, leading to worship of “markets” and shareholder value?

    1. CA

      ” ‘Why is there no attempt to differentiate between spending that is current period spending (salaries for soldiers) versus investments (funding education, building/fixing infrastructure)?’

      “China / the CPC seems to have zero difficulty making this distinction, and back in the Eisenhower era neither did the U.S.”,134,534,158,111,&s=NID_NGDP,&sy=2000&ey=2022&ssm=0&scsm=1&scc=0&ssd=1&ssc=0&sic=0&sort=country&ds=.&br=1

      October 15, 2023

      Total Investment as a percent of Gross Domestic Product for China, Euro Area, India, Japan and United States, 2000-2022


      China ( 43.5)
      Euro Area ( 24.2)
      India ( 31.0)
      Japan ( 26.7)
      United States ( 21.6)

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      My point is even if the US computationally can parse investment out, it treats all spending as the same and does not attempt to create a balance sheet and income statement.

      1. CA

        “My point is even if the US computationally can parse investment out, it treats all spending as the same…”

        I had to read this a few times, but I understand now and realize the importance. Robert Solow’s insight was that technology advance was the prime driver of economic growth but what technology advance entails seems less understood now than say 50 and more years ago:

        November, 2003

        The Most Technologically Progressive Decade of the Century
        By Alexander J. Field

  2. Ignacio

    Intellectual humility is an asset, Van Tongeren writes. True IMO. If your main aim is to be right at all times psychologists, at least some of them, consider it a obsessive behaviour that only worsens with time in some cases.

    Reasons behind that I have read: Pride or excessive/misguided self-esteem might be one. Self-deception is another one. Some psychologists say that the obsessive need to be right hides deep vulnerabilities or insecurity.

    The world may collapse, the arguments of ‘neocons’ loose weight and all the evidence goes against their assumptions (Russia collapsing on sanctions, Ukraine conquering Crimea, overall superiority of the “West” on everything etc.) yet they double down. These are immature people with little ability to realise when a fight is worth taking, with everybody loosing on the way. Obsessive, paranoid… and they are ruling us. Worse, it is impossible to argue with them because they have to be always right (with few exemptions). Yet, they should be challenged forcefully because they are damaging everyone.

    1. The Rev Kev

      ‘Worse, it is impossible to argue with them because they have to be always right’

      I am not sure that that is the whole truth. I think that it is a matter of they always have to “win”. Winning is actually a part of their identity and a good resume is proof that they are winners. On a personal level they have to win any argument and on an international level they always have to win against their opponents – or perceive to have won. So at the top of this game you have countries like Russia, China and Iran who, much to their frustration, refuse to fold up and submit. And they do not handle losing well but will double down on their actions or commit outrageous acts to try to get a win.

      1. Randall Flagg

        The thing that gets me is how many people die in their bull headedness to be right. Do they ever ask themselves that? I assume they don’t care. They don’t have to live with the consequences. They just move on to the next Think Tank, the next Lobbying position, the next Professorship, never to be called out on the death and destruction to innocents they have wrought upon this Earth. And if they are, it’s ehh with a shrug of the shoulders. Or in Madeline Albright’s view, it’s worth it.

      2. James P McFadden

        I assume this was tongue in cheek. I am amazed at the arrogance of Americans—especially our elite neocon national security managers whose mindset is outlined in “Roots of War”

      3. hk

        More than their identity, I suspect. Their selling point, so to speak, is that people should follow them because they are always right. If they aren’t always right and people need to evaluate things for themselves rather than blindly follow, what should they be doing?

    2. digi_owl

      There is also that by being wrong one open oneself to being shamed and ridiculed.

      For all the “enlightenment”, much of the world still work on “excommunication” lines.

      1. anahuna

        Actually, I often find that admitting being wrong disarms criticism. First, instead of assuming a defensive posture, you reveal yourself as fallible. That appeals to a sense of common humanity (in people who still retain those feelings). It also deprives critics of a potential weapon and ultimately enhances your credibility.

        Beyond all these more or less practical or tactical considerations, freeing yourself from attachment to opinions just feels good. That’s my experience, anyway, for what it’s worth.

    3. Samuel Conner

      > if your main aim is to be right at all times

      I think a lot depends on why one wants to be right at all times.

      If one’s core motive in “being right” is related to “status”, that will, I suspect, tend to be associated with inflexibility. Acknowledging one’s errors, or even the possibility that one is susceptible to error, may feel like a step down with respect to one’s peers.

      If one’s core motive in “being right” is to avoid mistakes, that would tend to correlate with curiosity about whether one may already be mistaken and would be well-served by changing one’s thinking. The objective cost of actually being wrong may be significantly higher than the social cost of admitting that one is wrong (though perhaps in some or even many contexts, the reverse is true.).


      I have read that physicists find experiments that confirm current theoretical understandings to be boring. There is a kind of affirmation that “our theory works and is confirmed again” and perhaps a measure of subjective pleasure that this is so, but there is nothing new in that. If your vocation is “understanding the world” and you enjoy the process of growing in understanding, there is something dissatisfying in arriving at a final answer. What is really exciting is when an experimental result suggests that “there is more to be discovered; the current theoretical framework is missing something significant.” Of course, that also means that “there is more work to be done”, which is nice from the standpoint of job security.

      I strongly affirm the observation that holding one’s ideas with a somewhat loose grip correlates with greater patience with divergent views in others. For me, it’s “I once thought that way and I have a sense of what it is like ‘from the inside’. I can be as patient with people who still think that way as I would want to be treated if roles were reversed.”

      It can be frustrating, of course, particularly when significant real-world outcomes are at stake (as in the perennial push for Federal austerity).

      1. New_Okie

        I agree, there is definitely a social dimension to our unwillingness to reexamine closely held beliefs. In addition to the pride-based motivation you mention, I think there is also a strong belonging-related motive that may be as much or more at play for some topics (ie the belief in Russiagate by many liberals or buy-in to the corporate pseudo-religion by people working in many silicon valley firms).

        As Upton Sinclair said “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

        Or as Kurt Vonnegut wrote “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or emnity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express emnity.”

        In any case, I hope we come to value humility more. Arrogance never ends well for anyone.

    4. Carolinian

      To a psychologist hammer all communication looks like a personality syndrome nail? Maybe those neocons are just lying to further goals that have nothing to do with “intellectual” or facts or being right.

      And the same goes for our politics. People making absurd assertions like Trump=Hitler are manipulating rather than communicating. Our entire society these days runs on the sales pitch and so the real problem is not humility or the lack thereof but honesty and the lack thereof. I’d say the problem is too much humility. Lies must be challenged and exposed.

    5. LawnDart

      If one is “right,” then compromise is not only not logical, but is a sign of weakness– to compromise then is to fail.

      To my observations, among our ruling caste and their PMC, there is much deference but little humility, except in the sense of submission. In a way, they are prisoners within towers of their own design.

    6. Adam Eran

      This bit of wisdom is certainly anticipated by religion: “Why do you pick the mote out of your neighbor’s eye and ignore the beam in your own?”

  3. Mark Gisleson

    Admitting that you’re wrong about religion is a good starting point for intellectual humility. For me, the tenth anniversary of the Six Day War was very clarifying, as was the ass-kicking Jimmy Carter gave Ted Kennedy, Reagan’s popularity and all that followed.

    Humility is a word I don’t use much, but I get its usage here. I’ve always thought of it as just being selfless. Politics should be about the issues and the country’s direction but neoliberal politics seems to be mostly about who gets the corner office.

    If your politics are all about you and not about us, you’re probably an elected official.

    1. undercurrent

      When I first read your comment, that part about ‘neoliberal politics,’ I have to say that I read it as: but neoliberal politics seems to be about who gets the coroners office. Kinda weird. But keeping in mind the title of the post, I will admit that I’ve experienced a great joy in being wrong, and sort of right, all at the same time. Happy New Year!

      1. Adam Eran

        “neoliberal politics seems to be about who gets the coroners office”


        My friends and I always say something like this about people in a hurry: “He must have a dental appointment” (hurrying to have a painful experience)

  4. James E Keenan

    “I am embarrassed when I read old posts where I’ve fallen in with orthodox views on deficits.”

    Would you be willing to post a URL to the NC post where you had your “Aha!” moment about orthodox-vs-MMT views on deficits? It would make interesting reading and help me in my teaching on the subject.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Best to let sleeping dogs bury their own dead. As a girl once told me ‘I don’t mind being wrong. I just hate being proven wrong.’

    2. Bsn

      Though there are sometimes “aha” moments as in “I never thought I’d like eggplant”, with a complicated and rich concept, the “ahas” can take a long time. Personally. I’ve been a life long left wing Dem but since about Bernie’s time, I’ve slowly found myself on the edge of being a Repub. Before I fell off that cliff however, I’ve come to see how those two parties are puppets, controlled from above. I was well aware, even in the 70s of a drug running, MAFIA driven USA, but hadn’t realized the depth that the US population was falling for all of this drivel.

  5. LawnDart

    What is the cost of being wrong?

    That depends, for sure, varying in degrees between “oops,” “oh well…” and “Oh S#!T!!!”

    To me, genuine confidence is a treasure which is earned, whereas projected confidence often seems overbearing, like gaudy window-dressing: one is sensed and the other, endured. A high-degree of confidence differs greatly from certainty, and my own certainties have certainly failed me before, on occasion, sometimes by my having mistaken another’s aura of confidence for competence. In retrospect, some of these failures could have been avoided– had I been more attuned to humility, or lack thereof.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    1. Samuel Conner

      > genuine confidence is a treasure which is earned

      I have a similar sense of things, though the terms in which I think about it are more along the lines of trying to understand “what is actually true”, and holding most firmly to the (relatively few) things that I am most confident are actually true.

      The also leads me to a stronger attachment to verifiable descriptive data than to the theories which attempt to account for the data. MMT is an example — it’s not so much a “theory” (in spite of its name) as a precise description. In (christian) religion, one can treasure the data — the ancient texts and the stories they contain — while regarding with curiosity but also a measure of skepticism the theoretical frameworks (the ‘theologies’) that have been erected on that foundation.

  6. Aurelien

    As the article hints, humility, like much else, starts at home. Before we criticise the arrogance of others, we should ask ourselves a few pertinent questions. Am I fond of sounding off on subjects I know nothing about to hear the sound of my own voice? Am I tempted to say something witty but irrelevant just to take part in the discussion? How willing am I to learn from experiences? How willing am I to learn from the experiences of others? Can I listen calmly and politely to someone expressing a position I disagree with? Could I then summarise their position in a way they would accept? And most of all, how prepared am I to admit, or even contemplate, that I might be wrong?

    I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things over the last fifty-odd years, usually because of personal experience, but also because I’ve been presented with arguments I couldn’t rebut, or rebuttals of arguments that I couldn’t ignore. The result of all that is that I feel more confident in my views than I did half a century ago.
    But I could be wrong, of course.

    1. Carolinian

      But on a blog like this one the humility enforcer is that reply button. That’s why IMHumbleO the comment section and maintenance of same is one of NC’s greatest assets. You get to state your opinion and then you have to defend it.

      Some of us have served on juries and the rationale of bringing non expert citizens together to decide on guilt or innocence is that there is a kind of wisdom of crowds even as small as 12. By making it about voting and consensus no one personality gets to dominate–at least in theory.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Though less successful than I might hope, I will sometimes express opinions about things I know little about in the hope that someone will correct me so I can find out what is what, and what others think and why. This is similar to a discussion stimulation technique a philosophy professor I had for an introductory course used to provoke discussion in his class. He would sometimes express an opinion deliberately constructed to provoke a response from particular members of the class that he hoped might speak out more.

      Though less successful than I might hope, this approach is often more successful than simply admitting ignorance and requesting further information. By admitting ignorance, I believe many people feel there is no need to inform me since as Mr. Natural says: “If you don’t know what ditty-wah-ditty means by now it’s too late for me to tell you.”

      In recent times, I am reluctant to express opinions anywhere except on this website. Too few of my friends and relations have any concept or appreciation for the ancient arts of advocacy and argument in pursuit of ‘truth’ — a fuller understanding of what you and others truly believe or ‘know’ along with the warrants for those beliefs or ‘knowledge’.

  7. SocalJimObjects

    Definitely required reading for the divine powers above as well. Sacrificing one’s son in the hope that human beings will see the errors of their ways is definitely a HUGE mistake and miscalculation (Covid and all the other messes just seem trivial by comparison), and that’s just one example. Alas, the divine powers too have continued to double down on their bet with the world’s population reaching 8 billion plus while the threat of climate change and human extinction loom large in the background. “All in, what me worry?”

    1. Samuel Conner

      > definitely a HUGE mistake

      unless it actually worked. It’s possible to read the New Testament gospel narratives as the story of a prophet who foresaw a looming national calamity (the coming war with Rome) and tried to persuade his people to turn aside from the path to that war. When they refused, he stirred up enthusiasm for himself as a kingly deliverer and then allowed himself to be captured and executed by the occupying power. This demoralized the militant faction and preserved peace for a generation.

      This is of course not a popular reading, as it makes the story about “them, back then” rather than about “us, now.”

      Of course, it’s probably completely wrong. I do find it an intriguing idea.

  8. Starry Gordon

    I am more embarrassed by being right than being wrong. Given the ubiquity and universality of human ignorance, it is not hard to be wrong, and we can feel at one with the great majority of our fellow humans. But back in earlier days, I often wrote articles and stories that were miracles of wit, erudition, and insight, and publishing them even on a backwater like USENET was like pouring them all down a rathole. Poor rats, to receive such a deluge! Later in life I burned with shame when I read what I written and thought and willfully thrown away, the effort and waste of my certainty. Bless ignorance and error. If not for being wrong, none of us (being the results of ancient genetic errors) would be here; or rather, we’d be inconsequential little molecules who were always exactly right, to dumb to even be bored.

  9. PlutoniumKun

    I think one of the few bright spots in modern discourse is that there is a fringe of thinkers on both left and right (and even one or two in the middle) who are open to listening to each other, at least on certain topics (such as wokism). I wonder where we’d be without some podcasters like Joe Rogan, who are willing to let people talk and explain. He may not be particularly bright himself (at least not in conventional intellectual terms), but he shows the value of letting people speak and explain, and occasionally ask intelligent questions without seeking to dominate the discussion or ‘win’ any arguments. Similarly with Chris Williamson. Maybe it helps if you are built like the proverbial brick **house so you don’t physically fear the people you are with.

    A couple of weeks ago I met up with a group of old friends, almost all of the lefty/green variety, and as usual after a few beers we ended up discussing/arguing about the state of the world. I couldn’t help noticing that the ones with a more formal educated background (two being academics) were far more dogmatic and unwilling to concede anything than those from the university of life, if you want to call it that. I do think that aside from personality issues, our educational system does, despite so much gesturing about free thinking, encourage a very dogmatic view of the world, where arguments are really only allowed within a very narrow frame. You can almost see their eyes glaze over (or rise to the heavens) when you try to introduce ideas that are not firmly within the Guardian/NYT/Times worldview if that is their background (I find that those in the ‘respectable’ outlier belief systems like academic Marxism or Libertarianism can be similarly unwilling to open up their minds).

    1. Ignacio

      Yesterday I watched and enjoyed an old film that goes exactly on the same line as your argument on academics vs real life people. The Talk of the Town (George Stevens,1942) with Cary Grant, a lovely Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman. There the argument is about law and order. I love the non dramatic approach of the film.

      1. Cas

        I’ve watched that film a couple of times, quite enjoyable (having dreamboat actors Ronald Coleman and Cary Grant didn’t hurt its watchability).Today films that tackle social issues or philosophies tend to be documentaries.

    2. Carolinian

      were far more dogmatic and unwilling to concede anything than those from the university of life

      There ya go. I don’t recall having too many intellectually humble professors. But surely this dogmatism problem has gotten worse since my day. Now even the students are demanding a “safe space” from opposing opinions.

      1. Bsn

        Yes …. were far more dogmatic and unwilling to concede anything than those from the university of life.
        In that case, which happens a lot if you hang out with “intellectuals”, they can easily drift on a subject to defray a specific point as they try to re-frame the argument. A common trick is to deny a fact by changing and moving the discussion to an overarching principle. I’ve found one has to stick to a specific fact unless it can be show to be incorrect. If the debater is unwilling to accept that specific fact (with humility) further discussion becomes useless.

        1. Carolinian

          Well I’m hardly an expert on the subject and may have a jaded view from sources like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

          One of my favorite podcasts is BBC In Our Time where university professors come on to jaw about their favorite topic–whatever that may be. No backbiting there and sometimes it’s so so interesting and sometimes it’s extremely interesting. But these are doubtless the cream of the professor crop.

  10. LAS

    In “The Evolution of Physics” by Einstein and Infeld, the authors say in essence that the “system” consists of our assumptions about reality. “Nevertheless, we can well imagine that another system, based on different assumptions, might work just as well … Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison.”

    For me, this is an example of scientific humility.

    1. Phil R

      I’ve seen that description before and it is thought provoking. I think one issue is that there is an underlying reality (the actual watch mechanism) and the picture is a theoretical model. If one could open the watch one could then compare the theoretical (or academic) model (the picture) with reality (the actual mechanism). I think that often in academia the model becomes the reality and the academics become wedded to their model/theory and become dogmatic in their belief in the reality of their model.When presented with reality (the mechanism) they declare that the mechanism is wrong and their model is correct.

      1. LifelongLib

        What Einstein is saying though is that we can never access that underlying reality directly, so the various theories/models are all we will ever have to work with.

        1. Phil R

          Thanks for the response. I understand that and it’s certainly true about concepts such as relativity or quantum physics. But there are many things “closer to home” as it were, where the underlying reality may not be directly accessible given current conditions but may be accessible with future developments. I know this is not a well thought-out response but then I’m not an academic.

          I guess the point I’m trying to make is “never say never.” some people become so wedded to their models and theories that they become defensive and attack people with newer ideas and better data. This is the opposite of intellectual humility.

          Remember Plank’s Principle: A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it …

          Or the more pithy science advances one death at a time.

          1. LifelongLib

            Yeah, I saw a retired professor on YouTube who said that when he was starting out there were astronomers who still believed in the steady-state theory. They had offices and would come to campus every day, they just didn’t have any students. It must have been tough having their lifes’ work discarded like that. Although I guess that even being wrong they were part of the process of scientific development.

            1. Phil R

              same thing with geology and plate tectonic theory. Described by Alfred Wegener in the early 1900’s, argued about for 50 years, then generally accepted in (or around) the 1960’s and now covered in elementary school science classes.

    2. Adam Eran

      Einstein’s description is a century or so after Immanuel Kant distinguished “phenomena” (what’s perceived) from “noumena” (what is impossible to perceive, but still can exist). See The Critique of Pure Reason…particularly toward the end when he demonstrates you can’t prove the existence of (the noumenal) God . Kant proves God exists three different ways, then disproves God’s existence three different ways.

      And more than a millennium before that Jesus said “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Father.” … i.e. there’s a divine narrative on which we all depend, ultimately, and can only approximate in human terms.

      Humility has deep roots!

  11. Socal Rhino

    I started to write about extreme epistemological skepticism and contingent assumptions but it’s already been said more succinctly:

    Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly, man got to ask himself why why why.
    Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land, man got to tell himself he understands.

  12. Skk

    I was brought up to think ‘stick to your guns’ as a virtue, and by education in mathematical True or False propositions, very binary. And it hurt to be wrong so one avoided that including by denial.
    The first change was early career management training in flexibility, meaning change your behavior to suit the other person’s personality/behavior as a means towards persuading them. ‘Games people play’.

    A big change came 25 years ago when I returned to a career in statistics and really grokked seeing the world, even the world of propositions as a set of probabilities, Bayesian theory of Probabilities at that. Especially about updating the probabilities as more samples, more evidence comes in. And also where you dont know what the theoretical distribution is even, or its variance is infinite.

    That really really changed me in seeing theories, outcomes from ‘MUST be so” to always less or more Bayesian probable.
    Together with learning of decision making under uncertainty I’ve lived a life of considerably less angst. More correct ? Who knows, but I’m comfortable with saying Did my best knowing what I knew at the time the decision had to be made.

  13. Michael Maratsos

    I find the author’s general account to be worthwhile. Something that saddens me, though, is how he needed a tragedy in his own family (his brother’s death) to see that the universe is not the fair, loving-to-the-worthy place he thought. Isn’t the world full of instances of how terrible things happen to people apparently for no justified reason? Apparently for the author and people like him, until the tragedy happened to someone he personally knew to be worthy, all those other tragedies didn’t count, probably because a person could assume those other people weren’t “worthy,” or somehow just don’t matter very much as human beings. I think this is an unhappy thing, for what I hope are obvious reasons. I feel the same about people who feel they were rescued from a bad situation by God, who shows how wonderful He is by doing so. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that apparently lots of other people haven’t been rescued, or they think that only what happens to them matters. Again, this seems like a bad thing to me. I recall an incident in the 1980’s where a truckload of would-be immigrants was left in the desert. When it was found, one man was still alive, the others all dead. He said “I prayed and I prayed,” apparently the usual “God loved me, I’m special” response. But then he said “But I guess the other guys were praying, too” which to me meant this person was something different and remarkable.

  14. KLG

    A lot to think about here!

    Christopher Lasch, who remains a guide to me almost 30 years after his much-too-early death, wrote that an “opinion” not based on the truth so far as that can be determined, is more than worthless; it is dangerous (paraphrase). We are surrounded by many such noisy and noisome “ideas.”

    An faux-intellectual begins with himself or herself and proceeds into the world while mostly writing and speaking to end the discussion rather than to begin the discussion. An intellectual scholar does exactly the opposite and is therefore worth your attention. The formal level of so-called education of this person is totally irrelevant.

    One should choose teachers well. Mine in biochemistry, anthropology, and history were very insistent at asking “Why do you say/believe that?” They would even accept “wild-ass guess based on my experience or intuition” as a provisional answer. My various teachers who were also coaches and mentors also reminded me that I had nothing to worry about until they stopped yelling at me. Not off topic, but students at all levels today are not very good at handling questions or challenges, which may get a teacher in trouble with the “authorities” for being “hostile.” I suppose this could simply be “These kids these days!” That complaint goes back to Socrates, but something is qualitatively different in my experience, possibly due to their inability to concentrate for more than 10 minutes without looking for a YouTube escape hatch? Perhaps Neil Postman was right, and we have finally amused ourselves to death.

    The thinking Left and thinking Right are often so close on fundamentals of polity and society that all they have to do to see one another is turn their heads. They are also willing to listen. This applies to no dues-paying member of the Professional Managerial Class (PMC), leftish or rightish, or any living national politician.

    Thank you for the discussion! Now, back to work.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Students in my day … a time before the dinosaurs … students were reluctant to engage in argument in a philosophy class section lead by a TA. Everyone only wanted to know what right answer they needed to regurgitate on their exam or in the essays the class required. The fixation on exams — getting the right answer and raising their GPAs — focused the minds of too many of my classmates. The same Taylorist factory view of education my post-war educated father portrayed and decried in his illustrations for his college yearbook had only become worse. My own kids were stewed in that toxic environment in their elementary and high school educations in a way I never had to endure. Both my children left high school with a hatred for school, and neither went on to college in spite of my ex-wife’s near madness demanding that they obtain advanced college degrees or they would be nothing.

      I disagree with the popular notion that our young are taxed by an “inability to concentrate for more than 10 minutes without looking for a YouTube escape” or to paraphrase my favorite character in a television mini-series — the young are cursed with an attention span less than that of a goldfish. I believe the young have been trained to be so powerfully focused on GPA, certification, and ‘success’ that they lose interest in anything that does not help them find the ‘right’ answer to what will be on the exam. As for the inability to

      The inability of students to handle questions or challenges was a problem when I was in school. But my own children learned in high school that questions or challenges to what they said only meant that they had not repeated the ‘right’ answer back, the answer that would get points on the exam. By the time students like my children arrive at college they are completely unprepared to deal with questions or challenges — especially the kind of questions or challenges I believe you intend — challenges and questioning of the ‘right’ answer and why a student should think the ‘right’ answer is ‘right’.

      I believe interdisciplinary discussions, which I believe are vital to imagination and creativity in Science, are especially fraught by the decay of tolerance and an ability to think beyond the teachings of a particular discipline. Creativity and Invention spring from broad knowledge shared and crossing beliefs to arrive at remarkable analogies, the possible impossibilities.

      1. JBird4049

        Consider how like a police-state and cult our society has become. There are increasing dangers to not giving the approved answers with censorship now being normal, free speech disparaged, with many people ready to drop their relatives, friends, co-workers, and classmates for actual wrongthink.

        It is not as bad as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and its satellite states, Indonesia under Suharto, Mao’s China, or any of the many, many dictatorships and oligarchies that the United States imposed on other countries. Nobody is (yet) being disappeared into the night and the fog. However, it is starting to be like during the Red Scare of the 1950s, and I can imagine it getting as severe as the Creel Committee and the Palmer Raids from 1916 into the 1920s.

        People who have never been encouraged to do their own thoughts and have to have perfect records to get into the right schools to network for those disappearing good jobs should be given some slack for being the terrified drones that society made them into. Anyone who has paid any attention and thought knows that as soon as mid 2024 to at best 2032, it is going to get real. And nobody knows what is going to happen politically. If they say they do, they are kidding themselves.

        If all this is true, just how does one encourage fearless learning and debate as well as accepting the value of being wrong? If anyone has some suggestions, I could use them next time I discuss things with my fellow classmates.

  15. GramSci

    I’m especially saddened by all the adults who have ceased to believe in Santa Claus, but who still cling to monotheism.

    Such belief has deep roots in individual primate dominance, as Yves observed above: Man creating God in his image, an the apotheosis of narcissism. But it’s also primate group dominance: a troop of baboons eagerly joining a crusade, with savvy leaders convincing the most gullible and least dominant to kill and die for some rumored Saintly Cause.

    Why can so few find the intellectual humility to openly accept that God is dead? How can so few convince so many that such humility is arrogance?

    1. JBird4049

      >>>Why can so few find the intellectual humility to openly accept that God is dead? How can so few convince so many that such humility is arrogance?

      There many who use God as a crutch, or worse as an excuse, but I am not sure that one can be sure that God is dead when proving or disproving His existence is hard enough.

    2. Adam Eran

      The “Great Commandments” (also translate-able as the Great Proclamations”) go like this: Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. In this is all the law and the prophets.

      First, Readers’ Digest could not more succinctly sum up the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (= law + prophets).

      And notice: If you do not love yourself, it’s unlikely you’ll love your neighbor. This is an observation, not a prescription for behavior.

      And what if the other part of the “Commandments” is observation too? You know, that the thing to which you give your wholehearted devotion is your god!

      So…from this point of view there are no atheists, only people who do not understand that the object of their devotion amounts to a god. Hindus prescribe “one-pointedness” of consciousness which sounds very much like the Great Proclamation’s first part, too.

      Incidentally, the initial commandments in the ten commandments ask people to give their devotion to the genuine article, not a symbol for it.

      This ancient, religious stuff isn’t the product of primitives. It’s just an observation about how humanity works in old language, understandable at the time. All the debates about what God wants are based on pretty sound principles for mental health too. (See “Supernormal Stimuli” for example)

      Anyway, it’s a shame that some very healthy Biblical advice to be empathetic, loving, compassionate, etc. has been twisted to serve the interest of wedge issues (gays, abortion). Rev. Barber calls this “theological malpractice.”

  16. Es s Ce tera

    I remember when, back in the day, someone had to write a relationship guide for dating philosophy majors because the vast majority of non-philosophy types considered IH a form of aggression and hostility. It needed to be clarified that “argument” in the context of someone studying philosophy was not wilful conflict but more like curiosity about and iterative exploration of ideas and conceptual space. That philosophy types are naturally skeptical, a consquence of dedication to truth, and will tend to follow deductive reasoning to wherever it might lead. A kind of advisory for navigating the relationship.

    It kind of reminds me of some forms of autism, actually, in that social givens or assumeds are not understood, or not accepted without question or at least explanation. So IH, nurtured, pursued or otherwise, can run kablam and kablooey into the seeming immovable walls of social mores, the unquestioned, and unjustified and unwarranted beliefs which are more prevalent.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I remember philosophy majors from my day a little differently than you have described — especially the Marxists [and, at that time, less vocal Libertarians]. I recall how discussions in the ‘open-to-the-interested’ student council concerning a proposed convenience store near campus, tended to devolve into lengthy discussions about Capitalism and in-fights between Marxist factions pushing their pet theories. The practical consequence was a complete failure of student input to affect the way the convenience store impacted the student community … assuming anyone cared what students thought about their environment.

      What you describe though, “argument” as “iterative exploration of ideas and conceptual space” is one thing I miss most about college. Such belief and practice of what I would term “advocacy” too seldom occurred or occurs — but college remains the only place where I have most often found it. I entered college too late to experience the kind of “advocacy” in the Sciences that once graced — at least in my impressions and those other more knowledgeable than I expressed — about the environment in the old Bell Labs. Ideas are for meant for play and imagination and their growth.
      [IH? Intellectual Humility?]

      1. ChrisPacific

        I got it occasionally in grad school. Critical thinking is like a muscle in that it needs to be exercised regularly to stay in shape. Argument is how we do that, and a lot of the people who gravitate toward an academic environment enjoy that kind of activity and will seek it out if they’re not getting enough. I suspect this is one reason they can be perceived as provocative at times (or actually are provocative in some cases).

        It was very common in my grad school for groups of us to start an involved argument about something and let it play out over lunch, for example. Often it would be a low stakes topic (which are easier since people aren’t usually emotionally invested) and sometimes an area in our specialty field. Sometimes it would be a bigger topic, like something political. Those were the hardest, since people tend to fall into old patterns and engage in rhetorical tricks, and it’s easy to stop listening (in which case it devolves into competitive speechifying). The patterns and discursive modes that we’d established in the low stakes conversations, and a general baseline level of mutual respect, both helped greatly with those.

  17. Eclair

    ” … why are governments viewed only on a cash flow basis …”

    Ack, this made me remember the fund accounting courses I took. Because non-profits (government, charities, etc., ) do not track ‘profits and losses,’ but do demand ‘accountability.’ (Or so they say. There must be 50 ways to hide money in different funds!)) Fortunately, I have forgotten most of what I learned.

    But, in order to differentiate between current and ‘investment’ spending, i.e., not showing the latter as current year expenditures, there would have to be a raft of accountants working for years to develop a new system for the federal government. So, sheer inertia condemns us to to the current system. Back to liking progress, but change is sooooo messy!

  18. Anonymous 2

    I used to frequent a Benedictine Abbey. As those who know about such places will understand, the pursuit of humility was central to the monks’ way of life. It is of course a life-long struggle, as pride is always lurking around inside us trying to get back on top. By and large, they managed (this being a healthy community) to be humble men. To my mind, the signs of their humility were noticeable.

    They tended to be likable, gentle men, quiet, not given to making great assertions. Good listeners (the first word of the Rule of St Benedict is ‘listen’). Very slow to utter any type of condemnatory remark of people. Yes, of course they subscribed to Christian beliefs but not in a strident fashion. In reply to Gramsci’s remarks above, they would probably have said, with a smile, that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

    Realism was often apparent (though perhaps not universally displayed). So, if they had a talent, such as being musical, they did not deny it, but neither did they seek to oversell themselves. Were they all saints? Certainly not, but there were some very fine men among them as well as some who fell far short.

    So, yes, humility is a great virtue (pride of course being its opposite). IMO everyone should pursue it – but be warned: it is not easy.

  19. Vicky Cookies

    I have a high respect for people who were raised religious, and who came to challenge those beliefs on their own in adulthood. It takes resolve and strength to question the only firm ground you’ve known, spiritually and philosophically. When I was beginning to educate myself, after having been a closed-minded and rather arrogant young person, I came to truly enjoy finding myself wrong, to shake an unexamined foundational belief; philosophy was great for this. I’ll echo the reflection of anahuna above that “freeing yourself from attachment to opinions just feels good.”

  20. Susan the other

    Thinking about the process of government – I “believe” it is possible to be conservative only if it scales both up and down. Conservatism is good if it is flexible. DNA is very conservative but it finds a way to evolve and maintain simultaneously. And it does so for existential reasons. Congress could take a lesson. Having an adamant political platform which is defined by an arbitrary budget is counterproductive at both ends. It’s almost as is money precludes spending. Amusing. So, no wonder we get frustrated trying to think through it. We can only find the path by walking it. No?

  21. Dick Swenson

    I am a terrible book reviewer. I can read a book and think ‘wow, she’s right! why didn’t I think of that?’ yet find it almost impossible to summarize my thinking in order to relate what it is that makes me think that way.

    I can ask others why they think the way they do and discover that they don’t know, but when pointing out inconsistencies in their thinking are then told told ‘well I just feel that Agent Orange is telling my story’ and begin to wonder, do any of us really understand our own thinking?

    What is prompting the recognition of this behaviour? It is a marvelous book, Mistakes were made (but not byme) by Tavris and Aronson. Let me quote from the back cover. “When we make mistakes, cling to outdated attitudes, or mistreat other(s)… we must calmthe cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth….(W)e create fictions that absolve us of responsibilities, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral and right.” That is, we seem incapable of admitting that we are or could be wrong. Only others can be so stupid and incapable of seeing their problems.

    We can observe that important and well paid (executives, academics, politicians, scientists, generals, etc.) all screw up and yet never suffer or ever admit that their pride led them to inflict so much pain. Think of Macnamara and how long it took him to write a mea culpa.

    We are taught early in life to never admit to a mistake. That is a fundamental lesson in most early education. Being correct gets an A or Gold Star, while admitting an error simply enables us to learn what went wrong and provides us with an opportunity to learn how to fix it. Try, try, try again doesn’t seem to be a virtue Once again pride rears its head.

    Please excuse any typos; I’m a rotten typist.

    1. caucus99percenter

      As reported by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker, Henry Kissinger ridiculed McNamara for expressing feelings of remorse re Vietnam and was proud of his own lack of same:

      [Kissinger] did an extraordinary thing. He began to cry. But no, not real tears. Before my eyes, Henry Kissinger was acting. “Boohoo, boohoo,” Kissinger said, pretending to cry and rub his eyes. “He’s still beating his breast, right? Still feeling guilty.” He spoke in a mocking, singsong voice and patted his heart for emphasis.   (paywalled original)

  22. JonnyJames

    Great piece, psychology is not my field, but this makes sense.

    I also used to believe in orthodox, neoclassical economic theory. I am embarrassed as well to think that, although I did question certain aspects of the theory, but went along with the program anyway. Getting a good grade in econ courses required regurgitating neoclassical theory, so one tends to go along. The psycho-social pressure to get along and go with the flow seems to be huge.

    I also used to believe in two-party, mainstream US political discourse, but no longer as we have lots of evidence that the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy. I was naive, and WANTED to believe what I was told because the alternative was emotionally disturbing (minimizing cognitive dissonance?, living in denial?)

    Of course, (maybe more so) even highly educated people fall victim to ideological biases, induced and reinforced by a lifetime of indoctrination, mass media misinformation, formal education, very narrowly-framed political discourse etc. I’ve had conversations with friends and colleagues who just become angry and emotional when basic, independently verifiable facts are pointed out. This emotional reaction betrays the lack of rational counter argument it would seem. The concept of “cognitive dissonance” comes to mind.

    Perhaps Economics and Politics departments at universities would be better placed as sub-fields of social psychology etc.

    Removing ego and de-coupling content with a person is a great point. To avoid this as an educator, I used to tell students. “Please don’t believe anything I say, do your own research. If you find out information that contradicts the content of the texts or lectures, let’s talk about it and I welcome your arguments. As long as the arguments are based on credible sources and facts” (of course that is an issue in itself). Human objectivity is not possible, but we can at least try to come close

  23. Eric

    “An executive is someone who can make quick decisions and is sometimes right.”
    Open minded, or not? The time factor is seldom luxurious, but humility can be instantaneous…

  24. LifelongLib

    The world is a vast place. Our experiences of it (both personal and intellectual) may be so drastically different that it’s surprising how much agreement we actually arrive at. Assuming that if someone is smart, well-informed, and thinking for themselves they’ll necessarily agree with my take on things is a kind of arrogance.

  25. Randall Flagg

    Thinking more about this post and how it may pertain to the leaders of various nations, was it Vladimir Putin just a few weeks ago at the beginning of a 4 hour press conference, remark how he realized he was naive in trusting the “West”?
    One of many hits if googled.
    I wonder what that says about the type of leader (and person),he is for his nation.
    As a US citizen, I wonder if we’ll ever hear any of our “ leaders” to publicly admit flaws in their own thinking in dealing with other nations. At least while in office. It’s pretty safe to admit mistakes when you’re not on the “front lines” anymore.
    I may be too simplistic in my comment to convey what I really mean here.
    Thank you for a terrific post though, and comments! Certainly provides a lot to think about, starting with the person I see in the mirror.

  26. funemployed

    I like this post, but I think it’s a bit misleading to think of intellectual humility exclusively as a personality characteristic rather than a behavior that manifests itself in contexts. Most of the PMC are competent, often very much more than averagely so, at performing intellectual humility in certain contexts, and I honestly think it is often sincere. I’ve also met some legitimately true religious believers that were politically more open minded than anyone in the beltway re: for example, foreign policy.

    I feel this is really about self/social-awareness at a deeper level, maybe an understanding of self in context and less than immediate consequences, but I can’t quite pin it down.

  27. Alice X

    Via Michigan’s Electronic Library I found this book at Hope College (a Christian institution):

    Carolyn Woods Eisenberg

    Drawing the line – The American decision to divide Germany, 1944-1949

    In it she lays out the US complicity in creating the Cold War. A worthwhile read, speaking of rejiggering one’s information spectrum.

    Oh, and faith is belief in something that cannot be proven, which would invoke considerable intellectual humility, one might suppose.

    1. alfred venison

      Hi Alice X : Was it you who recommended “A Line in the Sand” here not too long ago? If so, thanks, I enjoyed reading that one, and I’m looking forward to this one too. -cheers, a.v.

      1. Alice X

        Thank you, it was me. There are so many books, so little time to keep track of the perverse mischief in this world.

  28. Paul Simmons

    I have a new favorite maxim, though I am pretty sure it has been said before:
    “Certitude is the domain of fools.”

  29. Lost in Africa

    From my personal experience, i used to be a died in the wool, Laissez Faire capitalist. The market knows best, Hayek is a god, blah, blah, blah. And then I found this NC, and with it Michael Hudson and a plethora of alternative views. Thank you NC for the reboot. (Sorry Yves, you cannot take all the credit, I tried reading Hayak once, and only once. Anything that obtuse really has no point).

    I do agree that it is more about winning than being right. We have a tendency to confuse arguement with debate? The latter requires that one listens to an opposing viewpoint, has reasoned, logical arguements that support ones side and a williingness to accept the result. Is debating taught in schools anymore? I know it was in my day…

    1. caucus99percenter

      This writer says that high schoolers no longer have to stick to the rules and the resolution topic, but are indeed more likely to win if they move the entire exercise onto social-justice territory, challenging the structure of the activity itself and the framing of the debate competition as white supremacist, misogynist, etc.

      His premise: that this shift away from earlier, traditional practices surrounding the idea of respectful debate actually presaged the shift to no-holds-barred culture-war polarization in society at large.

      1. GramSci

        I can’t judge the aesthetics of the linked utube performance, but ca. 196my high school debate partner and I adopted a similar approach when we drew the negative side of “Proposed: that the United States nationalize health care.” Snotty kids that we were, we argued that would put the U.S. “on the road to socialism”. Case closed. LMAO, we actually won one debate.

        I kinda get how debating the U.S. position vis-a-vis China — while ignoring the past 500 years spent enslaving Africa — would irk our friends of the black persuasion.

  30. Ingolf Eide

    Good topic.

    I don’t recall where I first came across this saying (beyond it being from a market trader) but ever since it’s been a favourite:

    “Strong convictions, loosely held.”

    1. Phil R

      I think the following quote attributed to Mark Twain (but may be from someone else) is also relevant, especially for the idea of intellectual humility:

      “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

  31. Guy Liston

    I’ve been wrong about a whole hell of a lot in my life of 68years which I freely admit. No doubt, I will be wrong a whole hell of a lot more. Will I regret that, yes, I’m sure, but I’m more than willing to admit that as smart as I think I am, I can be pretty dumb sometimes, but on the other hand, I’ve been pretty smart as well. Thankfully, I’m not my country’s government which seems to be wrong almost always, Mike Liston

  32. DFWCom

    I didn’t find this particularly interesting then read to the bottom of the comments – more and more interesting as I went on. NC comments are probably best in class. They invariably expand an idea vs turn it into a brawl.

    In my case (of course, it’s hard to observe the observer) it’s not about right or wrong it’s about finding flaws, which I find delightful. But then I was trained as a physicist. It’s like finding the piece in the puzzle that doesn’t fit, a special insight, something new, bright, and shiny.

    Gleefully pointing it out seems so much fun until you find you may have insulted someone. Power cliques are especially dangerous. People are social animals and love hierarchies, especially when they confer status. Pointing out that your local councillor is inconsistent and a bit full of herself is not a winning strategy.

    And some one should mention Edward Lorenz of chaos fame. As a mathematician and meteorologist he stumbled on the astounding fact that completely deterministic equations can wander around in solution space and never come to an answer. So we stopped trying to predict the weather beyond about two weeks. Much of life is like this, it cannot be predicted. Steve Keen has shown the same for macroeconomics, although economists and pundits are miles away from admitting they can’t make predictions. Comparing the relative humilities of meteorology and economics might be instructive.

    Which takes us to control. It’s all very well to not be able to predict the future but we still want to control it. But what levers to pull and what buttons to push? It turns out this is called systems dynamics and is all about change without much progress. It’s about loops – feedback loops – positive and negative with time constants and lags. What goes around comes around but never in the way you imagined.

    Systems dynamics has become an indispensable tool in science and engineering but, again, not in economics. Its first use was ‘Limits to Growth’ in 1972, which was vilified for being either too complex or too simple but in any case poking at the ‘right’ idea that free markets (whatever they may be) will always, predictably return to full-prosperity equilibrium. Poke that ‘truth’ at your peril as the authors of Limits to Growth found out. It still is not acceptable to talk about it 50 years later. No doubt economics as a religion needs to spend some time on the analyst’s couch or be injected with humility serum or something?

    Being right turns out to be accidental at best. There is a lot to be humble about.

Comments are closed.