On being skeptical (Part 2)
I left part 1 with the thought that what often confronts us is not some claim that appears counter to our scientific picture of the world as a whole, or even to some specific empirical finding (from either the sciences or the humanities, however one draws that line). Rather, the evidence for or against that claim, at least the evidence that is reasonably available to us, is just too murky for us to reach any confident conclusion if we manage to be objective, rather than running with hunches, emotional responses, personal and political loyalties, etc.
For example, many claims about economic policy are like this. We can’t all be economists, and in any event highly-esteemed economists often disagree among themselves about what policy settings will achieve widely desired outcomes such as low rates of unemployment. It is difficult to see how an average voter could possibly draw a confident conclusion on an issue like this where she does not have the expertise and it is far from obvious which supposed experts should be trusted. She might be able to see how certain steps would affect her personally, for example if she has a mortgage and so favours cuts in interest rates, but even here she might make a mistake (what if an ill-advised cut in interest rates has a series of consequential effects that ultimately have an adverse impact on her employment situation?). In any event, she is probably not well placed to make a confident judgment about the likely impacts of opposed policies on the economy as a whole, and with it the overall prosperity of her fellow citizens.
Of course, there can be some cases where a package of economic policies is clearly designed to screw over one demographic – perhaps the poorest – to the benefit of others. It appears, though, that the situation is often not so straightforward and that rival packages of economic measures often make plausible claims to achieve widely desired effects – controlling inflation, reducing national debt, creating employment, and so on. What are we supposed to do?
And yet, this is exactly the sort of policy debate that dominates elections. No wonder, perhaps, that electorates are often prepared simply to trust an incumbent government that presides over a relatively healthy economy, and to punish one that presides over a weak economy, largely ignoring arguments about how much the government’s policies have any effect at all (as opposed to being at the mercy of global developments and other factors beyond governmental control).
In this circumstance, I suppose we need to make some sort of decision, if we can, about which economic policies appear most likely to have desired effects, and, other things being equal, to vote accordingly. But if we voted solely on economic policy and management we might seldom do so with any great and justified confidence.
Surely, though, this sort of situation is almost ubiquitous!
I am not making a global and theoretical claim that we can never be confident about anything – that claim would be paradoxical in any event. This post is not a defence of, say, Pyrrhonian skepticism, though that ancient system of thought and action may have at least had a point.
My claim is a more modest one that I actually think we can be confident about: in a very wide range of situations that we encounter, we are not in a position to draw conclusions, even on matters that might be very important to us, with a confidence that we could justify objectively. This can apply to such things as how certain individuals really assess or feel about us, the guilt or otherwise of defendants in court cases that are in the news, many social and political claims expressed at a high level of generality, and much else.
Sometimes we have no satisfactory option but to bet, as it were, on our best calculation of the probabilities. In other cases, though, there may be no pressing reason to do anything but suspend judgment until such a time as more compelling evidence becomes available. The evidence need not be anything extraordinary, but it might be something that can be decisive in settling the matter. Of course, the evidence may never become available. In any event, why do we so often feel the pressure to take a stance, perhaps even a stance that is backed by strong emotions, on issues where we can’t be justifiably confident one way or the other? I sometimes wonder whether we should be more willing to suspend judgment, or to offer judgments only tentatively, on matters where we really are not in a position to be confident.
Could we, should we, say more often, if only to ourselves: “This is conceptually difficult and the evidence seems murky; I’m not sure what the truth is here.” That might not feel satisfying, and it might not win friends and admirers (fence-sitters are not popular, or so it appears to me). But might we be better off if we did more of this? It seems to me that we’d at least be more honest. What do you think? Is this proposal itself too hard to sort out, or can we make some progress with it?