Bryan Caplan  

Humility Reconsidered

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Am I misinterpeting the case for humility? Maybe the point of humility isn't better communication, but better understanding. It's hard to learn if you think you already know everything.

This sounds good. But if your goal is better understanding, your main injunction should be "Overcome bias," not "Be humble." Learning how to apply the principles of Bayesian reasoning will do a lot more for your understanding than eating daily helpings of humble pie.

Admittedly, overestimating your own abilities is one source of bias. But (a) it's far from the only source of bias, and (b) it's not clear how you should adjust your beliefs to compensate for it. After all, other people overestimate themselves too, so it doesn't make sense to naively move your beliefs closer to theirs.

In contrast, studying other sources of bias often gives you specific advice about how to get closer to the truth. For example, research on availability bias tells us to put more weight on averages and less weight on vivid anecdotes. Research on selection bias similarly tells us to put more weight on random samples and less weight on purely observational methods. If you really want to improve your understanding, telling yourself "I'm not as good as I think" isn't very helpful. It's far more productive to study specific errors and stop making them. And you'll feel better about yourself, too!


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
mjh writes:

Isn't "be humble" just a specific bias that needs to be overcome? If so, then of course asking someone to overcome all of his/her biases will produce better understanding than asking them to only overcome one of them.

Sol writes:

I'd say "be humble" is good advice precisely because it is a specific (and common) bias. "Overcome bias" is a nice sentiment, but it's terribly nebulous to apply. Humility is more specific, easy to understand and put to practical use.

Lord writes:

It isn't very humble to even assume you can overcome bias. Don't fool yourself.

Chuck writes:

I agree with Lord.

Another point is that responding to advice like

you would be more persuasive if you were more humble about your opinion

and responding along the lines of
well isn't your suggestion a tiny subset of my overall more correct viewpoint

is a good example of what he's talking about.

The bias that we find in people is unconscious, and all the fundamental unconscious bias points in the same direction: I am right.

Claiming that understanding all the particular baises allows one to overcome them through careful study is like saying, 'Once I learned the earth has magnetic poles I was able to feel them."

Chuck writes:

I mean in some ways it's like saying, "because I'm a psychiatrist, I'd know if I was delusional."

liberty writes:

I think hubris and humility are equally important. One must have enough hubris to take risks and take on the conventional view, and enough humility to realize that others have come before and considered the problem, so our own insights may not be as profound as we think.

One without the other is the problem. They are equally detrimental to the advancement of science and society when they are not properly paired together.

Unit writes:

I haven't read The Sensory Order of Hayek but apparently he proposes that our memory enters heavily into the process of interpreting reality.
I wonder what does this entail for the Overcoming Bias project. It cannot be that the better our memory is, the more biased we are???!

Troy Camplin writes:

You don't need humility if you have moderate skepticism. The key is to neither be so skeptical as to deny knowledge is possible (which gets you into the irrational loop of being certain that you can't be certain) nor be so certain of something that no amount of evidence will sway you to change your mind. What is annoying is when people who have a poor argument accuse you of being arrogant just because you do happen to know more then they do about something. More often than not, accusations of arrogance come from people who can't stand the fact that you're right, and they're wrong about something.

Chuck writes:
What is annoying is when people who have a poor argument accuse you of being arrogant just because you do happen to know more then they do about something. More often than not, accusations of arrogance come from people who can't stand the fact that you're right, and they're wrong about something.
One the one hand, true, but on the other hand persuading people is all about dealing with the fact that information and logic aren't at the heart of most (it seems to me) peoples value sets.

And that I think is a specific problem that libertarians have when trying to persuade people. (It also happens to be at the core of why I'm not libertarian any more.)

Snark writes:

I don’t understand why so many people today see humility as a weakness rather than a virtue. It was a defining characteristic of those we typically admire as the greatest that history has produced (Lincoln, MacArthur, Thorpe, Friedman, Einstein, etc.). It has been said that “humility is to inculcate natural principles in personal behavior, relationships, and other areas of human development." Without it, we can neither rule nor serve benevolently.

I believe that the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not mean by humility, doubt of his own powers. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not in them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful. – John Ruskin
Troy Camplin writes:

A truly humble man is someone who is self-confident enough that he doesn't have to show off how smart, wise, etc. he is.

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