Friday, January 27, 2017

A Reasonable Degree of Confidence

Bertrand Russel said that "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts." Sure. But that doesn't mean the wiser people can't be confident the fools are fools ... and wrong.

When we say that tariffs are a bad idea, it isn't for lack of real world experience. We've seen what happens with tariffs. There may not be clear certainty on what exactly would be the ideal economics policy mix for any point of time. That doesn't mean there's any lack of clarity that adopting tariffs would be the path of fools and/or fanatics. We know enough about economics to recognize the gaps in our knowledge; but also to know what's reasonably certain. And it is reasonably certain that proposing tariffs betrays an entirely simplistic failure to understand much about economics, one might call it having a grade-school understanding of economics. Not even up to the level of Econ 101, where a whole different set of simplistic misunderstandings thrive.

When climate scientists say that anthropogenic climate change is a thing. A real thing. In the really, real world. That it's happening. Do they have doubts? Sort of. They clearly have doubts about exactly where on the range of projections the actual course of temperatures will plot in future graphs of the past. But they have a high degree of certainty that it can reasonably be expected to be within a certain range. They understand the gaps in their knowledge, the variables that could cause various differences within the projected ranges. But they also know enough to know that the people who reject the whole set of ranges just don't know what they're talking about. To wit, that they're fools.

When those with experience like Madeleine Albright say that being anti-immigrant isn't consistent with the best interest of that nation, it's with an understanding of the challenges involved. But it's also from knowing that those who would coarsely implement a blanket closing of the door from an entire country don't have a good grasp of the known repercussions. Immigration experts may be all too aware of the gaps in their capacity to achieve perfection with immigration policies and screening methods, but they're also aware that simplistically just barring the door to all comers would -- quite clearly -- be far worse than accepting the imperfections of our best available procedures that keep the door open.

There's profound difference between being uncertain as to what's perfect and being less than certain as to what's clearly wrong. Wiser people are full of doubts as to what's perfect. But wiser people tend to be quite certain that the fools' plans are at least worse and often flat out entirely wrong. There's another term for having "alternative facts"; it's called being wrong (or outright lying, in the case of those who know better).

We need to stop letting that which is clearly wrong go as if it were merely a difference of opinion rather than a flat out failure to have sufficient grasp of the subject.

Even with recognition of what we do not know, we can be fairly certain of that.

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