On Being Wrong: Estimating Our Beliefs

Fol­low­ing the forced retire­ment of Helen Thomas fol­low­ing her con­tro­ver­sial com­ments on Israel and Palestine, Felix Sal­mon dis­cusses how being wrong–and more import­antly, the will­ing­ness to be wrong–is an admir­able trait that should be applauded.

In dis­cuss­ing this, Sal­mon points to a con­ver­sa­tion between Tyler Cowen and Wil Wilkin­son, where Cowen pro­poses:

Take whatever your polit­ic­al beliefs hap­pen to be. Obvi­ously the view you hold you think is most likely to be true, but I think you should give that some­thing like 60–40, where­as in real­ity most people will give it 95 to 5 or 99 to 1 in terms of prob­ab­il­ity that it is cor­rect. Or if you ask people what is the chance this view of yours is wrong, very few people are will­ing to assign it any num­ber at all. Or if you ask people who believe in God or are athe­ists, what’s the chance you’re wrong – I’ve asked athe­ists what’s the chance you’re wrong and they’ll say some­thing like a tril­lion to one, and that to me is absurd, that even if you think all of the strongest argu­ments for athe­ism are cor­rect, your estim­ate that athe­ism is in fact the cor­rect point of view shouldn’t be that high, maybe you know 90–10 or 95 to 5, at most.

Sal­mon con­tin­ues:

I try hard to believe […] that many if not most of my opin­ions are wrong (although of course I have no idea which they are), and that many of the most inter­est­ing and use­ful things I write come out of my being wrong rather than being right. This is not, as Wilkin­son noted to Cowen, an easy intel­lec­tu­al stance to hold: he calls it “a weird viol­a­tion of the actu­al com­pu­ta­tion­al con­straints of the human mind”.

via The Browser