Thursday, March 26, 2009

Trust Uncertainty

Another entry in the "Uncertainty/Complexity" category...

In a New York Times Op-Ed today, Nicholas Kristof talks about the danger of trusting experts. Part of the problem, he writes, is that experts, at least the ones we hear from in the media, tend to be sure of themselves:
The expert on experts is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.


Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.
Someone once taught me that I should be suspicious of clean answers to messy questions - it usually proves that the person isn't really addressing the whole question. How can you take a wildly complex issue ("When does life begin?" "What does God want from us?" "What's the right reaction to the current economic crisis?" "Who makes the best Pizza in Tampa?*) and expect it have a single, perfect answer? That's just not how the world works: complex issues need complex answers.

I don't know if Tetlock included religious leaders in his study of experts, but I think that a good guideline for anyone looking for religious guidance is: Doubt someone who knows; trust someone who wonders.

* Actually, this one is easy. Best New York Pizza on Dale Mabry. I think.

1 comment:

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