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Advice to experts on humility

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Not likely to be heeded, we fear. Epidemiologist Madhukar Pai interviews philosophy prof Nathan Ballantyne, author of Knowing Our Limits:

Here’s one issue that drives a lot of my research: How should we inquire if we want to reach truth and avoid error? We are sometimes bad at figuring things out—and we don’t even figure that out. Instead, we end up overconfident or dogmatic, unable to listen to other people or learn from new ideas. What’s so interesting is that we are eager and quick to judge others’ defects, but not our own. Wisely assessing our own beliefs and intellectual capacities doesn’t come easily. How can our intellectual self-scrutiny be more serious and rigorous?

Madhukar Pai, “Pandemic Or Not, Experts Need To Be Self-Aware And Humble” at Forbes

Ballantyne is known for the concept of “epistemic trespassing,” where a scholar, convinced that his thesis explains the universe, invades other disciplines like the mad bull charging into the literary tearoom:

Ballantyne: Public intellectuals in the limelight make me a little nervous, to be honest. They’ve got impressive jobs and awards. Maybe they advise world leaders and captains of industry or appear on talk shows. But I worry some of them haven’t done serious work in their fields recently or kept on top of the rapidly expanding knowledge. They merely appear to be experts. And then they’re asked to speak on really broad issues—ones that maybe no single person or field can really be said to specialize on—and it seems nearly impossible for them to avoid trespassing, unless they just shrug their shoulders or speak in hedged terms about what might possibly be true. But modest talk doesn’t make for good sound bites or viral tweets.

I often think of this funny sentiment from an eighteenth-century French writer named Nicolas Chamfort: “If you want to avoid being a charlatan, you must flee podiums, for if you get on them, you are forced to be a charlatan or else the audience will stone you.”

Madhukar Pai, “Pandemic Or Not, Experts Need To Be Self-Aware And Humble” at Forbes

So you can be a charlatan or get stoned—or be smart and bloom where you’re planted.

See also: Protein chemist Doug Axe nails self-image problem in biology. Did Darwin make it intellectually fulfilling to be an egotist?

6 Replies to “Advice to experts on humility

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    Seems to me that the current genocide is happening because the experts who really know their field have been TOO humble and modest, letting the charlatans make all the noise. There’s something to be said for letting idiots have lots of rope, but when the idiots are using the rope to imprison and bind and gag entire nations, maybe it’s time to pull back the slack.

  2. 2
    chuckdarwin says:

    Sounds a lot like the various Fellows at the Discovery Institute. They’ve raised “epistemic trespassing” to an art form.

  3. 3
    Bob O'H says:

    I’m not sure there’s any point in giving advice to exerts on humility. They’re either too arrogant to take the advice, or don’t think of themselves as being experts on humility.

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    Folks, this is a form of the old generalists vs specialists debate. To engage in teams or communities we need enough general breadth knowledge to work together. In that context some of us may bring technical expertise to the table, some of which may be trans-disciplinary. The challenge is that community and organisation challenges are not neatly sliced and diced to fit academic department titles. So, policy must be broad, where to be broad, prudent and even possibly right is a huge challenge. That gets compounded when — as is common today (and appears beneath the surface of a sneer above) — key disciplines and institutions have been taken ideological captive to worldviews and cultural agendas. The basic answer is unpalatable to many: we need to learn and appreciate some basic philosophy. People have resented that since Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. As this indicates in brief, a little sound history will help too. Another thing that is deeply resented. KF

  5. 5
    Seversky says:

    “Epistemic trespassing” sounds like the various academic disciplines should be handing out signs reading “Keep off my turf!” to be planted in their front yards.

  6. 6
    Seversky says:

    Kairosfocus/4

    Folks, this is a form of the old generalists vs specialists debate. To engage in teams or communities we need enough general breadth knowledge to work together. In that context some of us may bring technical expertise to the table, some of which may be trans-disciplinary.

    It sounds like we need to resurrect the concept of the “nexialist” from A E van Vogt’s SF novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle.

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