Arnold Kling  

A Quote I Will Use Often

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Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.
That is from Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, p. 201. The chapter is called "The illusion of understanding."

I am toying with the following formulation for explaining the significance of ignorance: the policy wonk's perspective is that he can see everything clearly, from the big picture to the little details; my perspective is that I am groping blindly through a world that is too complex for me to understand.

Also, I am in the process of re-reading the Converse issue of Critical Review, which I first blogged about five years ago. In Jeffrey Friedman's essay, he raises the issue of how Rush Limbaugh and Paul Krugman could each be sure that he is right.

I think one can model this metaphorically as the outcome of a hill-climbing algorithm where you can get stuck at a local maximum. I will explain this below the fold.

A hill-climbing algorithm is a way to solve for the maximum of a function. Imagine that you were plopped down in the middle of some topographically varied terrain and were trying to find the highest mountain peak. Using a hill-climbing algorithm, you would send out small probes in all directions and move in the direction where altitude is increasing. Then repeat, until you get to a point where altitude is declining in every direction.

If there is only one peak in the terrain, this method will find it. But if there are many hills, it is also possible to get stuck at the top of a small hill and never find the peak of the highest mountain.

Think of Limbaugh and Krugman as being stuck on their own hills. Based on where they started, and the paths that their experiences took them, each is at a point where he cannot see any way to improve his understanding of the world by changing his mind. Even though their views are incompatible.

The way to improve a hill-climbing algorithm is to send out distant probes as well as nearby probes. I am not sure how to apply that in this context. Yes, "try to understand the other person's point of view" is a help. But I don't think it does the job.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Jonathan Bechtel writes:

Excellent post.

The discrepancy between local/global maxima, and all the idiosyncratic ways it presents itself, is an under-discussed topic.

About 2500 years ago, the Greeks--yes the same ones in the news these days--discovered the scientific method. Many well educated people--economists in particular--still fail to understand how it applies to our understanding of reality.
It is true that even the wisest scientist is standing on la little mole-hill in trying to make sense of his surroundings, however that understanding is as universal as they come. Any other view, outside of that particular science is most likely erroneous.
There is of course the other form of understanding, namely Art: artistic understanding may or may not be related to reality; and no one can have the privilege of being correct, or incorrect.

gamut writes:

Great analogy, but a better way to look at it is as local minima, not maxima. Bias is, in this context, the work function for clearing neighbouring local maxima. This is a problem often encountered when building neural networks -- self-derived nets often put themselves into minima, and have to be nudged to leave them.

The formation of political camps, then, is the finding of a particular set of experiences or inferences that, when taken together, create a minimum that is hard to leave without expending more effort than the average person is willing to expend.

My fear is that someone will try to formalize this concept into a set of equations -- a symptom of his falling into the 'great scientism minimum'; in company with a majority of the academic profession.

Becky Hargrove writes:

If students had greater choice in their study materials from a young age, perhaps they would be more inclined to strive for a bigger picture. It does not help when various factions of society fight over what a student is "allowed" to learn, which disinclines further learning.

Jaap writes:

This one is even more useful:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
Thank you Upton Sinclair!

GIVCOM writes:

What is it about a turn of phrase that makes us adopt another's formulation for an old and common idea? You might hire a modern academics to formulate the idea, and I might cite Sextus or Aenesidemus, maybe Mark Twain, or Arthur Leff, or how about Wikipedia?

Instead of just stating the thing plainly, are we trying to lever sources that we think will (i) make us seem learned and (ii) sound authoritative to our audience? Maybe we're loyal to the articulation that pulled the idea to the foreground, an object distinct from the hurly burly background of unformulated common sense.

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