Tyler Cowen on how to be a good agnostic

Given the radical uncertainty of the more distant future, we can’t know how to achieve preferred goals with any kind of certainty over longer time horizons. Our attachment to particular means should therefore be highly tentative, highly uncertain, and radically contingent.

Our specific policy views, though we may rationally believe them to be the best available, will stand only a slight chance of being correct. They ought to stand the highest chance of being correct of all available views, but this chance will not be very high in absolute terms. Compare the choice of one’s politics to betting on the team most favored to win the World Series at the beginning of the season. That team does indeed have the best chance of winning, but most of the time it does not end up being the champion. Most of the time our sports predictions are wrong, even if we are good forecasters on average. So it is with politics and policy.

Our attitudes toward others should therefore be accordingly tolerant. Imagine that your chance of being right is three percent, and your corresponding chance of being wrong is ninety-seven percent. Each opposing view, however, has only a two percent chance of being right, which of course is a bit less than your own chance of being right. Yet there are many such opposing views, so even if yours is the best, you’re probably still wrong. Now imagine that your wrongness will lead to a slower rate of economic growth, a poorer future, and perhaps even the premature end of civilization (not enough science to fend off that asteroid!). That means your political views, though they are the best ones out there, will have grave negative consequences with probability .98 (one minus two percent, the latter being the chance that you are right on the details of the means-end relationships). In this setting, how confident should you really be about the details of your political beliefs? How firm should your dogmatism be about means-ends relationships? Probably not very; better to adopt a tolerant demeanor and really mean it.

As a general rule, we should not pat ourselves on the back and feel that we are on the correct side of an issue. We should choose the course that is most likely to be correct, keeping in mind that at the end of the day we are still more likely to be wrong than right. Our particular views, in politics and elsewhere, should be no more certain than our assessments of which team will win the World Series. With this attitude political posturing loses much of its fun, and indeed it ought to be viewed as disreputable or perhaps even as a sign of our own overconfident and delusional nature.

Stubborn Attachments, Chapter 6—Must uncertainty paralyze us?

November 10, 2021