How Do You Know?

July 14, 2010

It’s a great mystery why bloggers make posts that are just a series of long quotes. Does anyone actually read such posts? I sure don’t. I’ve got better things to do, and especially while I’m flipping through my google reader, I don’t have time to be slowed down by a ton of involved reading. That said, you should read this post I’m about to make! It’s really great and has lots of quotes that are as worthwhile as they are long.

Seriously though, what you should do, if you have about an hour and 51 pieces of paper or an iPad, is download Jeffrey Friedman’s article “Popper, Weber, and Hayek: The Epistemology and Politics of Ignorance” and read it. Truth be told, it is long, but I found it a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

The theme is something I talk about a lot, namely that the world is so complicated that you need to impose some kind of theoretic discipline on yourself if you want to have an even partial understanding of what the hell is going on. It’s about recognizing the limits of the human ability to understand the world, and the necessity of using models, myths, and fables to assist the mind’s understanding.

It’s this kind of thinking that leads me to say that religion has benefits that atheists don’t at all grasp, because atheists think that theism is primarily a factual assertion about the existence of a supernatural entity that created the universe.

Also, this essay reflects my own position on why Hayek is such a big stinkin’ deal. Read the essay. Or pause, take a breath, settle in a little bit, and read these quotes:

v :

We need to control our theorizing through experimentation only because, and to the extent that, we cannot know, a priori, how accurate our theories are. We need to produce theories, in turn, only because, and to the extent that, the world is too complex to be self-evident to us. Experiments test the applicability of theories; theories direct our attention to certain “facts” among the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of phenomena in the world.


Once our political opinions seem to us to be self-evident reflections of the facts, it becomes mysterious (to us) why anyone would hold different opinions than we do. As Lippmann ([1922] 1997, 82–83) puts it,

“He who denies my version of the facts is to me perverse, alien, dangerous. How shall I account for him? The opponent has always to be explained, and the last explanation that we ever look for is that he sees a different set of facts. Such an explanation we avoid, because it saps the very foundation of our own assurance that we have seen life steadily and seen it whole. . . .

So where two factions see vividly each its own aspect, and contrive their own explanations of what they see, it is almost impossible for them to credit each other with honesty. If the pattern fits their experience at a crucial point, they no longer look upon it as an interpretation. They look upon it as “reality.” ”

Someone who does not share my interpretation of (obvious) “reality,” Lippmann ([1922] 1997, 83) continues,

“presents himself as the man who says, evil be thou my good. He is an annoyance who does not fit into the scheme of things. Nevertheless he interferes. And since that scheme is based in our minds on incontrovertible fact fortified by irresistible logic, some place has to be found for him in the scheme. Rarely in politics . . . is a place made for him by the simple admission that he has looked upon the same reality and seen another aspect of it. That would shake the whole scheme. . . .”

“Out of the opposition,” therefore, “we make villains and conspiracies.”

If we allowed that those who disagree with us just see the facts differently, we would have to conclude that either they, or we, must be mistaken about the facts. That would undermine the obviousness of the reality that we find solidly anchored in “self-evident truths.”We sidestep the disconcerting possibility that we may be mistaken about these truths by attributing not a mistaken understanding of the facts, but bad motives, to our political opponents. It is far easier to reassure oneself about the purity of one’s own motives than about the infallibility of one’s own perceptions, so people persistently tend to see a world that is in fact so complicated that its interpretation generates honest disagreement as, instead, so simple that only evil people could disagree with them—malevolent people who deliberately ignore the obvious truth.


If one wants to observe the uncontrolled, Frankenstein-like march of preconceived notions through the political world, unchecked by falsification, the best place to look is the behavior of ideologues. Indeed, Converse’s most disturbing and under-remarked finding is that the relatively well informed compensate in dogmatism for their greater knowledgeability. Ideologies appear to be the most effective lenses for making sense of politics, since their scope lets one screen in more information than can someone using a simpler heuristic. The ideologue almost always knows what to think, while the nature-of-the-times voter (for instance) does not. But screening in information that confirms one’s ideological preconceptions means screening out information that does not. The first type of screening enables the ideologue to be better informed than the nature-of-the-times voter. But the second type of screening ensures that the ideologue’s fact-rich grasp of the world is biased and rigid, and indeed that many of the things he “knows for a fact” are untrue. The ideologue rarely has “nonattitudes.” But Converse points out that the attitudes the ideologue has are heavily “constrained”—by ideology, not reality.


“Whatever his theoretical beliefs may be,” Hayek (1944a, 44) wrote, when the economist:

“has to deal with the proposals of laymen the chance is that in nine out of ten cases his answer will have to be that their various ends are incompatible and that they will have to choose between them and to sacrifice some ambitions which they cherish. . . . The economist’s task is precisely to detect such incompatibilities . . . and the result is that he will always have the ungrateful task of pointing out the costs. That’s what he’s there for and it is a task from which he must never shirk, however unpopular or disliked it may make him.”



“consists essentially in the demonstration of inconsistencies in a kind of ordinary reasoning which everybody employs and the validity of which no one would ever doubt were it applied to simple cases where it can easily be understood. The difficulty really arises from the fact that the same kind of reasoning from familiar and undoubted facts, which even those who are most scornful of theoretical reasoning cannot avoid applying to simple cases, becomes suspect and calls for empirical confirmation [which, in a complex world, Hayek did not think could be supplied] as soon as it is applied to somewhat more complicated phenomena where it cannot be followed without some effort, or even special training. (Ibid., 24–25, emph. added.)”

And finally:


In his intellectual biography of Hayek, Bruce Caldwell (2004, 328) asks, “What is it about economics that so provokes the distrust of so many noneconomists?” Consider by way of an answer a not-untypical question about economic theory asked by Geraldo Rivera on Fox News Channel on September 24, 2005 (and not answered, except through agitated non sequiturs, by Rivera’s interlocutor, business reporter Neil Cavuto).To paraphrase:

“I know that the price of gas may go up because of Hurricane Katrina. Supply and demand, that’s how capitalism works. But are the oil companies taking advantage of the situation to jack ’em up even higher? That’s not capitalism, it’s grand larceny.”

Rivera assumes, apparently, that oil companies can make people buy their products at any price the companies choose. But if so, then even without the “excuse” offered by Hurricane Katrina, nothing but the threat of legislation could stop the companies from committing grand larceny all the time (cf. Caplan 2005). Rivera is trying to reason counterfactually, but competition among oil companies, including the ability of one company to undercut another’s arbitrarily high prices, seems to be invisible in the laboratory of his mind, as does the ability of consumers to conserve on gasoline-powered transportation when its price goes up.


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