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My Bias against Certainty

My Bias against Certainty

    Advocates – for anything – generally present their arguments as absolutes, in the form of “This is 100% right and the alternative is 100% wrong.” That might make sense for some topics, but does it ever make sense for a complicated issue, such as economics?

    Economist Paul Krugman is a good example. He’s smarter than I am, about economics in particular and probably most other things as well. But I get suspicious of his certainty when, for example, he advocates for increasing government spending in the short term as a way to boost employment now and reign in the deficit later.

    I understand the argument, but is it 100% likely to be the best approach, or is it more of a 75% situation? He presents his case with a certainty that feels like 100%. And perhaps it is. I’m not qualified to judge it.

    Whether he believes his proposed economic path to be 100% better than the practical alternatives, or 75%, our culture somewhat demands that it be presented as 100%. That’s what advocacy is all about. If you believe one path has the best odds, you’re somewhat ethically required to make the strongest argument you can.

    Full stop: I don’t want to discuss the best economic policy here. No one reading this blog will change his or her opinion on that topic. I’m more interested in what sort of argument is most persuasive. Would you be more persuaded by an argument that said one economic approach is 100% likely to be better or an argument that the odds are more like 75%?

    Personally, I find lower odds more credible and therefore more persuasive. When I see economic plans presented as certainties, it feels like a political position as opposed to something closer to common sense or science.

    I have a personal bias that only idiots have certainty about complicated issues. (The exception would be skeptics who don’t believe in magic, religious or otherwise. I give them a pass for being 100% certain.) So when Krugman, who is brilliant, displays certainty on the economy – with his Nobel Prize and all – my brain automatically conflates him with idiots, and it weakens his argument.

    So I wonder if it’s just me. When you hear an argument about a complex issue presented as a certainty, do you reflexively downgrade its value? Or does the certainty mixed with a credible source make it more persuasive to you?

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