The Problem with Certainty

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York City, January 7, 2019. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Certainty, like dogma, is one of those things that people hate only when they disagree with what people are certain (or dogmatic) about.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Including those of you having this read to you while you white-knuckle the steering wheel trying to get to wherever you’re going for the weekend at the pace of Zeno’s arrow),

We’ve had so many good times. The volcano lancing, the sweatiest-movie-ever polls, the homage to women’s prison movies, and of course, our debate about the best necrophiliac gay-porn title to describe the Florida recount (“Hanging Chad” was my pick). I feel like Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” should be playing in the background as we flash back to scenes like the first time I walked into the National Review offices wearing my spaghetti-strainer codpiece. (Note: I’m evoking the song’s perceived meaning of wistful nostalgia from its presence in TV show finales and graduation parties, not its actual, slightly harsher meaning.) That look on Priscilla Buckley’s face!

I’m getting all verklempt because this is my penultimate “news”letter under the National Review shingle, and I don’t know what to do about it. I’m sitting in my car in a parking lot for some nature preserve out in Bethany, Delaware, smoking a cigar and trying to keep the glare of the sun both out of my eyes and off my laptop screen, which makes me a kind of sundial. It also makes me more than a bit melancholy. But as Bill Clinton said when the intern wet T-shirt contest started to drag on, I must persevere.

Certainty, True and False

I recently listened to an outstanding episode of EconTalk on the topic of certainty. It inspired me to buy Robert Burton’s book on the topic, which I’ve only been dipping into because I’m still working on George Will’s — so far, wonderful — magnum opus on conservatism. The main takeaway of Burton’s On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not is that certainty is not always what you think it is. More to the point, in your brain, certainty is a feeling. As Burton puts it:

The message at the heart of this book is that the feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction, and certainty aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us.

If you’ve never had the sensation of knowing you are right about something — a line from a movie, the year something happened, the airspeed of an unladen swallow — only to find out you were completely wrong, you are probably a very scary person who shouldn’t be trusted with large earth-moving equipment or fissile material.

I have a love–hate relationship with certainty. I often cannot stand people who inveigh against certainty as if it is a great evil. My go-to example of this is Anthony Lewis’ thumb-sucky (the thumb is silent) “Big Conclusion” of his career. He said: “Certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft.”

The first response to this, which would cause one of Harry Mudd’s android friends to implode, is “Are you certain about that?”

Certainty, like dogma, is one of those things that people hate only when they disagree with what people are certain (or dogmatic) about. Certainty about evil things is almost always evil (even when good people are mistakenly certain about it). Certainty about good things can lead to evil if applied poorly (see The Bridge on The River Kwai). But certainty is not an evil thing in itself. I am certain that slavery is bad. I am certain that torturing puppies for fun is bad. My certainty about such things doesn’t make me an enemy of decency any more than being certain that decency is generally a good thing.

When people insist certainty is bad, what they really mean is that closed-mindedness about things that should be open questions is bad. But again, even here, that’s a judgment call. As the guy from Internal Affairs says in NYPD Blue, “everything is a situation.”

Burton makes a persuasive case that Rashomon situations, where witnesses differ over the same event, aren’t just the product of different people having access to different facts or perspectives — like the blind men and the elephant. They are also a byproduct of the fact that our brains take in the same information differently depending on a host of factors. The seasoned warrior who’s lived through a dozen firefights will remember a fresh battle differently than the rookie who has never been in such a situation. The soup of hormones and emotions that the veteran has learned to control but the newbie hasn’t experienced will result in a different recording in their mental hard drives.

It’s important to note that while each of the blind men around the elephant have reason to be sure the trunk is a snake or the tail is a tree, none of that changes the fact that the elephant remains an elephant. The fact of the pachyderm doesn’t care about the feelings of the blind men (though it might be annoyed at being felt up by a bunch of dudes). The elephant’s ontology isn’t dependent on their phenomenology.

Everyone on the planet can be certain that two plus two equals five, or, for that matter, Phyllis Diller’s hat; it won’t change the fact that two plus two is four. In other words, as Agent Mulder likes to say, the truth is out there, regardless of what’s in our heads. If truth was made by feelings, planes wouldn’t fly — at least not reliably. That’s because if the science “works,” it works regardless of how we feel about it (sorry, Social Text). Moreover, scientific knowledge accumulates in roughly arithmetic fashion, but political or social knowledge only advances in fits and starts. Every generation, we have to reargue the case for democracy or civil rights, but we don’t have to start from scratch on the boiling point of water or the airspeed of that unladen swallow.

Bad Certainty

Where I agree with the critics of certainty is that certainty can be dangerous. Other than anger, few things define a mob more than the collective feeling of certainty. Like a flood, it swamps decency and bursts through the levee of the law.

Even in science, certainty closes off avenues of inquiry, which is why the phrase “settled science” is a font of mischief and closed-mindedness. But science has procedures to test certainty. In a sense, the most important discoveries in science aren’t the first ones, but the second ones — when the results are replicated by someone else, often by someone else who wants to disprove the first.

This points to why I have become so entrenched in my Hayekianism. Hayek understood the problems with certainty intimately. Technocrats, planners, and leaders of mobs are certain that they know the truth and try to impose it on the rest of us. For Hayek, the market is a process of discovery, as is tradition. No individual person can possibly know all the variables that go into a price. Competition lets actors discover the price of something. It’s not technically science, but it works in a similar way. Every certainty is tested by players in the game and in the process productivity and innovation are made possible. Traditions form through trial and error creating social tools that solve problems. Sometimes those traditions outlive their utility like, perhaps, Chesterton’s fence. But the first key to deciding why a tradition should go is to first understand why it emerged in the first place.

The Perils of Social Justice

Vox’s Dylan Matthews has an interesting article on how Raj Chetty, a popular and serious economist now at Harvard, wants to change the way we teach economics.  He’s taking dead aim at Harvard economist Greg Mankiw’s introductory text book and course (EC 10), which in Matthew’s telling are benchmarks of traditional (capitalist) economic theory.

Reading through Mankiw’s introductory textbook, one gets a sense that economics is the study of supply and demand. Reading through the syllabus for Chetty’s Economics 1152, one gets a very different sense of the field. The economics he describes is, essentially, a kind of applied statistics, an attempt to use quantitative data to answer social questions. 

Later, Matthews writes:

[Chetty’s] class attempts to be clear about what economics can, and cannot, tell students about public policy. If Ec 10 tells students that minimum wages are inefficient, that taxes harm growth, that free trade lifts all boats, and so on, Ec 1152 tries to draw a sharp distinction between empirical fact and moral values. 

I’m not dismissive about all this. It’s obvious from the piece that there’s a lot of interesting and even important stuff going on here by serious economists. But the clear upshot, from both Matthews and Chetty is that economists should be taught first and foremost as a tool of social justice.

The way economics is taught is “very different from the sciences, where as a kid you have a sense, it may not be very precise, but that people try to cure cancer,” Chetty says. Matthews adds: “He wants to give students a sense of the kind of economics that cures: that cures inequality, that identifies and fixes bad schools.”

Matthews says this “shift could change economics itself, by attracting a new breed of students who are intrigued by the field’s new empiricism, not put off by its mathiness and high theory.” He adds: “It could make economics departments more diverse, and more open to new perspectives from women and students of color.”

Among the many remarkable things going on here is the notion that this is a remotely new idea. For much of the 20th century, progressives argued, pushed, and cajoled for precisely this interpretation of economics as a tool for social justice (whether they used the term or not). This was the worldview of John Dewey and the progressive intellectuals who believed they were smarter than the markets. This is why many looked with envy at countries like the Soviet Union. Stuart Chase, who would become one of the most prominent New Deal intellectuals, visited the Soviet Union in 1927 and expressed his envy of the great experiment unfolding. In America, “hungry stockbrokers” make all the decisions, while in the Soviet Union, it was economists and social engineers (then not a pejorative term) “informed by battalions of statistics” with “no further incentive than the burning zeal to create a new heaven and a new earth which flames in the breast of every good Communist” were using numbers to impose their certainty from above.

No, I’m not saying Chetty, Matthews, or any of these people are Communists, but as Russ Roberts is quoted in the article:

“Numbers don’t speak on their own,” he warned. “There are too many of them. We need some kind of theory to help us decide which numbers [to] listen to. Inevitably, our biases and incentives influence which numbers we think speak the loudest.”

The numbers are the elephant. As Tom Sowell noted on my podcast recently, numbers can mislead if you don’t know the why behind them. For instance, consider the black poverty rate. Sowell notes in his Discrimination and Disparities that “despite the high poverty rate among black Americans in general, the poverty rate among black married couples has been less than 10 percent every year since 1994.” He asks, “Do racists care whether someone black is married or unmarried?”

Scientists describe how things behave with a high level of confidence because behavior can be observed, chronicled, tested, etc. Scientists are far more humble about questions of “why.”

Among my problems with the logic of social justice is that its practitioners start from the answer and then look for the right questions to fit it. They start from the conclusion that women make less, on average, than men because of sexism, and then they design questions that confirm the conclusion. Inequality is bad because shut up, it just is. Inequality exists because capitalism is cruel and bigoted at its heart.

The world should be a better place than this. And if it’s not, the reasons are an indictment of the system, not the free choices made by individuals or the political choices made by enemies of the market. Capitalism is always to blame because there’s some perfect alternative just waiting around the bend to replace it.

For instance, the Washington Post recently ran an article on the sh**show — often literally speaking — that is San Francisco. That once-wonderful city has been run not just by Democrats, but very liberal Democrats for decades. The mayor is a Democrat. The most powerful politician in America, Nancy Pelosi, represents it. The governor is a Democrat — from San Francisco. The state legislature has a supermajority of Democrats. And, the people themselves are overwhelmingly Democrats. And the reason San Francisco is a hot mess is, apparently, capitalism.

“This is unregulated capitalism, unbridled capitalism, capitalism run amok. There are no guardrails,” says Salesforce founder and chairman Marc Benioff, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who in a TV interview branded his city “a train wreck.” 

The New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo should be praised for this piece, which makes up somewhat for his recent liquidate-the-billionaires column: “America’s Cities Are Unlivable: Blame Wealthy Liberals.” I may have quibbles here and there, but at least Manjoo doesn’t start with the answer — capitalism bad — before asking the right questions. Capitalism doesn’t create insidious zoning laws and the like, humans do. Yes, capitalism makes some people rich enough that they can manipulate local politicians for their own ends. But again, the blame for the policies rests not in capitalism but in the human actors restricting capitalism for their own ends.

Anyway, my kid wants to go get lunch and go to the beach now so I’m going to wrap up. I’m not certain about a lot of things, but I’m certain that’s more important right now.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: The Fair Jessica is leaving town for a week when I get back, which means there will be a lot of quality time — and quality video — of me and the beasts over the next week. If you’re feeling stressed, might I recommend watching a minute plus of Dingo-scritching. It’s very Zen. Followers of the canine duo are fond of noting how different the two are. It’s not quite a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. It’s more a little bit backwoods fighter and a little bit goofy aristocrat. But I do wish more of each would rub off on the other more. I wish Zoë cared less about getting into scrapes with other dogs and just pursued harmless passions as Pippa does (and no, trying to kill bunnies doesn’t count). Likewise, I wish Pippa stood up for herself a bit more. In recent weeks, Pippa’s let herself get mugged by Samson, a sweet lab (I know that’s a little redundant). I’m told that after one egregious robbery, Pippa did give Samson a piece of her mind. But I don’t think Sam was chastened. I did laugh when I saw that both Zoë and Pippa were like “What’s wrong with this guy?”

Anyway, I gotta go. But in case you were worried, Pippa is very skeptical of Bernie Sanders.


Last week’s G-File

The last-ever Game of Thrones GLoP

My last-ever Game of Thrones take

How Roe v. Wade warped the abortion debate

This week’s first Remnant, on Generational Warfare

The silliness of the generational conflagration

This week’s second Remnant, on Iran

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Sushi stories

Mascot struggles

Sea sketches

Lord of the Rings > Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones > Game of Thrones

Brushes with Mengele

Romania from above

Monks bring back old beer recipe

Rats take over NYC

A wild story

Alligator on alligator action

Hiding from cats

Astronaut farts

Who among us…

Herbal remedies

Mail hype

Scary robot

Deep-sea lantern fish have a weird way of seeing colors

Bacteria can be created with manmade genomes

YouTube now has a summer camp

Mixed race children in the Third Reich

Medieval kings regulated the fish market

Dunkin’ Donuts’ new nail polish line

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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