The danger of thinking we know best

Click through for full sized version, and to see the red-button caption.

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

I often wish I could draw comics.  You can say a lot in a brief and humorous cartoon.

I think one of the dangers we always have to be on guard against is the trap of thinking that we know best, that we’ve finally figured it all out, that everyone who thinks differently than we are idiots who simply must give up their misguided ways and think like we do.  It’s an alluring trap, that we probably have all fallen into at one time or another.  It is, to some degree, human nature.

The most typical example is religious fundamentalists and extremists.  Right now, Islamic extremists are the most glaring and violent of these examples.  But there are plenty of people in other religions and cultures who share similar impulses, a desire to impose their values on others, although usually not to a violent degree.

But history has pretty conclusively shown that you don’t need religion to be blinded by ideology.  Eugenics is a pretty clear example of people who told themselves that they were being rational, that they had science on their side, and then imposed their will on others, with often horrific results.  Others include the worst aspects of the French Revolution and Communism.

People who refer to themselves as rationalists and freethinkers are not immune to the allure of this trap.  As a nonbeliever, I often find myself squirming when confronted by those whose metaphysical conclusions I share, but whose unbridled contempt toward those who disagree with us, I often find not very freethinking oriented.  And as a skeptic, I try to remember that anyone can be fooled, everyone has blind spots, including the sharpest scientific skeptics.

No matter how certain we are of our beliefs or positions, we have to remember that history is filled with people who thought differently, but who were equally certain.  Most of them were wrong, to varying degrees.  No matter how careful, how scientific or rational we think we are being, we are also probably wrong about a lot more than we’d be comfortable discovering.

Many of our errors will likely be obvious to future generations.  We can only hope that they’re less severe than the mistakes from previous generations.  But one category of people that history often judges the harshest, are those who never pause to consider their own fallibility.

None of this is to say that we don’t know a lot more today than we once did about a great many things.  Human knowledge does progress.  The trick it to remember that it will continue progressing in the future.

39 thoughts on “The danger of thinking we know best

  1. Re “Others include the worst aspects of the French Revolution and Communism.” Communism, like capitalism, is a flawed system (as are all of the others). But I think the brutality of Stalin can be blamed on Stalin more so than Communism. The excess of the French Revolution lie in the laps of those involved as I don’t think there is a rulebook for violent or peaceful revolutions. Often we conflate things that happened under an economic system with things that were political (or personal, you did not want Joe Stalin pissed off about you). The “thinking one knows best aspects” referred to happen “during the time of” and were/are only noteworthy because of the size of the impact, not because they were inherent components of the effort..


    1. The problem with that line of reasoning, is it can be said of just about anything. The Crusades weren’t Christianity’s fault, just the fault of the leaders who used it as an excuse, the Reformation wasn’t about religious denominations, but rivalries between European powers, etc. The No True Scotsman fallacy cuts many ways.

      Regarding Communism in particular, it’s admittedly a vast and diverse movement. Marx’s original Communist manifesto has arguably had influences far outside of societies that labeled themselves as Communist. But among those who did use that label, I’m not aware of any that didn’t implement their ideas with harsh authoritarianism.


      1. “The Crusades weren’t Christianity’s fault, just the fault of the leaders who used it as an excuse,..”

        Doesn’t that various “crusades” occurred under various banners lend some support to that? The problem isn’t the ideologies so much as the people who hold them.

        And, yeah, that’s actually not much of a distinction, is it. :\

        Kinda like saying, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Well, yeah, that’s true, but the guns sure make it a lot easier!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “Many of our errors will likely be obvious to future generations.”

    You’re talking more ideology here than process, but somehow your post reminded me of one of my all-time favorite quotes. It’s due to Thomas Watson, Jr, former CEO of IBM and the man who coined the famous “THINK!” sign:

    “The worst possible thing…was to lie dead in the water with any problem. Solve it, solve it quickly…If you solved it wrong, it would come back and slap you in the face, and then you could solve it right.”

    I’ve always been a proponent of trying things rather than spending too much time dithering and over-analyzing them. Committees, especially, can be all but useless when it comes to decisive action. (And obviously I’m one of those “forgiveness is easier than permission” types. 🙂 )


    1. I hadn’t heard that quote, but I generally agree with it. My experience is that solutions are rarely 100% right or 100% wrong. I’ve never observed that worrying about achieving the 100% right solution is productive. It’s usually not that hard to avoid the solutions that are more than 50% wrong. And a 75% right solution implemented today is superior to a 90% one implemented in six months.

      On forgiveness, for me, it depends on the situation. I find a “this is what I’m going to do; stop me if you disagree” often works fairly well, but it depends on the quality of your management. I sometimes ask forgiveness afterward, but other times, if it’s politically explosive, spend time getting everyone’s buy in.


    1. Indeed. It’s often impossible to see our own biases. I think that’s the value of having friends who will give us honest feedback. At least as long as they don’t have the same biases.


  3. Reblogged this on no sign of it and commented:
    Excellent reminder that (at least a moderate) skepticism rightfully must be applied to our own beliefs. It is exactly tolerance for the possibility that we can be wrong that opens the door to progress. ‘Certainty’ is only a narcotic for closed minds.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks ‘SAP’, well said and reminds me, though I’ve reread bits and pieces, I want to reread Robert Burton’s ‘On Being Certain’ in its entirety after I get through McGilchrist, but now I’ve gone and read the first few pages of ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’!

    “There is no isolated circuitry within the brain that can engage itself in thought free from involuntary and undetectable influences. Without this ability certainty is not a biologically justifiable state of mind.” – p141

    ‘On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not’, Burton 2009

    More recently, this was an interesting read that I’m not sure I’ve shared:

    ‘The Correlated History of Social Organization, Morality, and Religion’, David C. Lahti

    … Chapter 5 in:

    ‘The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior’, Voland and Schiefenhövel (editors) 2009

    … and thought you might enjoy(the chapter at least) – also reminds me I never finished the book – argh !?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m always amazed with what you’re able to find for free on the web. That was fascinating, thank you!

      Looking at Lahti’s stages, it makes me wonder if humanity might not be entering a new stage with the rise of secularism. Or if people thousands of years will simply see the scientific understanding of reality as simply a different version of the monotheistic reality.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “… amazed …” – me too, and after a couple of preliminary searches, I see your question leading to some interesting reading – thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ‘SAP’, are you at all familiar with “first physical principles”? I apparently am not, as I can’t evaluate paragraph 2(it’s short – there’s only 3 total) of the following, it’s from Leonid Perlovsky’s Reseasrch page on his website:

        ‘Teleology and Causality (Intelligent Design and Evolution)’

        Perlovsky’s English also sometimes causes me to pause 🙂

        Any thoughts on his claim of equivalency, regardless?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. An interesting site. Can’t say I’m familiar with “first physical principles.” That phraseology sounds suspiciously theological.

          Teleology fell out of favor in scientific discourse centuries ago, even among most religious scientists. (Galileo was one of the early scientists to ignore them.) The problem is that it adds no explanatory power above and beyond the immediate causal explanations.

          You can often come up with teleological explanations, but there’s nothing that requires them, and they have to exist in whatever space is left after the causal explanation has been determined. (Think “God of the gaps.”) They’re extra baggage that isn’t needed to explain anything. As such, they’re usually considered incompatible with Occam’s razor.

          Intelligent Design proponents will claim that they do add something, that some things can’t be explained without them. I haven’t seen a convincing example of this yet. The typical ones offered are evolutionary features like eyes. The functionality of the eye is irreducibly complex; it couldn’t have evolved without purpose, they say, without teleology. Except that there are many useful functions for transitional primitive proto-eyes, such as just detecting light.

          Perlovsky appears to have some impressive credentials. Not sure whether he’s presenting his own ideas here, but he seems to be mixing religion with his science.

          At least, that’s my take. But maybe I’m misunderstanding what he’s trying to say.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. “first physical principles” – suspiciously theological

            I don’t think so only because he refers to “fundamental physics” and “most general physical laws” as well, but that’s an assumption on my part.

            Unable to fathom Lagrangian-action, the thing that stuck out for me was his use of the phrase “as if” three times.

            “impressive credentials” – yes, and then some!

            “presenting his own ideas” – for the most part, I think, judging from the number of references to his own work in:

            ‘The Cognitive Function of Emotions of Spiritually Sublime’

            I was thinking in terms of Hawking/Mlodinow’s(remember ‘thunk’?) “model-dependent realism” on a personal level(Shermer called it “belief-dependent realism” in ‘The Believing Brain’), but I’ve got to go reread ‘The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults’, Kelemen/Rosset 2009 first 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I think this is where I left off before Kelemen interrupted:

            For instance, a wedding anniversary – I would think that (for most of us, most of the time) a teleological model would enjoy an distinct advantage over a causal narrative of neurotransmitters and hormones in celebrating the occasion with the intent of
            maintaining/increasing emotional bonds.

            It’s tempting to see as a useful fiction, but if so I’d have to emphasize the useful over the fiction and note that our lives – our personal histories and self-identities, even the present moment – can be seen as more fictional than not, but that seems to be where we live.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. I think you’re touching on the old emergentism vs reductionist debate.

            When we start talking about social phenomena, I do think it is coherent to speaks of their purpose, since we’re speaking of the actions of humans, who certainly seem to have purposes. Yes, humans are part of nature, and the “ultimate” cause of their actions are natural ones, but it’s usually not unproductive to look at social phenomena that way. It’s far more productive to think of human needs and drives, with perhaps an occasional dive into biology.

            Is it fiction? Only in the sense that all emergent phenomena are. (I’m using “emergent” in the weak epistemic sense, not the strong ontological one.) Sociology could be considered a fiction because it arises from mass psychology; psychology a fiction because it arises from biology; biology from chemistry; chemistry from particle physics, etc. “Ultimately” there are only fermions and bosons, and perhaps not even those; it may all be emergent, so calling higher levels of emergence “fiction” presupposes that there is a “less fictitious” layer somewhere. If there is, it’s at a very low and unhelpful layer, and it may not even be there.

            In the end, we only have concepts that are productive are not productive. I’m personally fine with calling the productive ones “real,” but I’ll admit it’s a matter of philosophy.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. “I think you’re touching on …” – that could be. One of Perlovsky’s claims is that “dynamic logic” resolves the reductionism “problem” – Section VIII (which I didn’t grasp completely) in ‘The Cognitive Function of Emotions of Spiritually Sublime’.

            Sorry, I didn’t mean to step in a big pile of ph-ph-phil-philo … (you know, the “P”-word!)

            Hmm, seriously, I’m rusty and appreciate your patience/indulgence and the education, thanks. Maybe “fiction” isn’t quite the word, with the negative connotation – “construct” is closer(I think). I may just be trying to connect too many dots – reached a “cognitive threshold” 🙂


          5. Oh, no worries at all. You’re helping me revisit my thoughts on all this. You used “fiction” but the word often used is “illusion”, which implicitly asserts a mistaken understanding of reality. For more value neutral terms, I do like “construct”, also “model” or even “theory” (although the last has admittedly acquired a speculative connotation in common discourse).

            On Section VIII, after reading it, my doubts about Perlovsky are seriously increasing. Maybe he’s just talking way above my head, but his writing is starting to feel like Deepak Chopra’s obfuscations. He’s throwing around buzzwords in a way that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I’m tempted to use the phrase “word salad”. I suspect you not grasping it might be because it’s not graspable.

            Liked by 1 person

          6. “… it’s not graspable.” – I don’t know, that’s something I hadn’t considered given that there were some significant ideas(Gödel and Kant for starters) presented that I’m simply not familiar with.

            Connor Wood was familiar saying that he applies systems theory to neurology and at the time had his ‘Neural Networks and Intellect: Using Model-Based Concepts’ waiting to be read. All I know of him comes from his site and Wikipage. Connor did comment that it seemed fitting for him to be publishing in the ‘Frontiers’ journal, hinting that his thinking might be considered somewhat “out there” by some, but that this wasn’t unusual for systems theorists.

            The pre-print version presented ‘Section VI – Scientific Differentiation and Religious Synthesis’ first, which for me kind of set the stage for the rest of the paper. It seemed weird and kind of random “jumping” into ‘The Neural Mechanisms of Object Perception’. I’ll have to look over the published version for any more significant differences.

            Liked by 1 person

          7. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on it (whenever, it is a bit lengthy) and would say more but I don’t want to in any way bias your reading any further. Your Chopra comment led me to reread Sect 8 with new eyes, as it were – thanks!

            Liked by 1 person

  5. First you leave suspiciously Ayn Rand-like comments on my blog, then you argue that it’s better not to impose one’s personal beliefs on others. Soon you’ll be taking a libertarian position, and arguing that people should be allowed autonomy over their own lives 😉


    1. Sir, those are low blows with the Rand comparisons 🙂

      Actually, I think many of Ayn Rand’s premises are fine. Where she leaves me behind is at the “therefore be an asshole to everyone” step.

      But in general, I’m a civil libertarian. My main beef with those who label themselves “libertarians” (at least in the US) is that most of them only seem to be concerned with encroachments on liberty from the government. They often don’t seem to care about encroachments from corporations, religions, or just societal prejudices in general. They also seem to value their particular version of liberty more than the real suffering of real people.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, the “be an asshole thing” doesn’t do it for me either. Better not to be an asshole as far as possible, methinks.

        We don’t have libertarians as such in the UK, so take everything I say with a pinch of salt. As for political parties of all flavours, “be an asshole” is their first rule of thumb.


        1. I read somewhere that the term “liberal” in Europe is often used similarly to “libertarian” in the US, although the mapping is uneven at best.

          That reminds me that I have to admit to being a little confused by UK parties. The Tories I think I understand; the name Conservatives covers it. But the distinction between Labour and the Liberal Democrats puzzles me. I fully realize that’s probably because I’m reflexively attempting to map it to American politics, which itself is probably hopelessly bizarre to the rest of the world.


          1. The Liberal Party in Britain was once truly liberal, but is now mostly just left-leaning and interventionist, perhaps rather like your Democrats.
            The Conservatives (aka Tories) are rather like your Republicans, but without any religious component. They generally campaign on a platform of lower public spending and lower taxes.
            The Labour Party is positioned to the left of the Liberals. They generally campaign on a platform of higher public spending and higher taxes.
            Moving even further to the left are the Scottish and Welsh Nationalist parties and the Green Party. They would generally seek to extend state control and ownership over much of the economy.
            And then there’s the ultra-conservative UKIP (UK Independence Party) which campaigns for Britain to leave the European Union and close our borders to immigration.

            Others may give you a different analysis of course.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. If anyone ever solves the problem of self-knowledge, the world will be a very different place. It’s so frustrating to have to wait until our mistakes are observed by others. Then again, if we became suddenly aware just how we were erring, the guilt would probably overwhelm us. Maybe our “blind spots” are a defense mechanism designed to allow us the ease of righteousness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember someone on NPR once saying that often the most realistic people were clinically depressed. Most people, to some degree or another, have to have blind spots about their own failings to function effectively. I found that an interesting, if somewhat disturbing, insight.


  7. “As a nonbeliever, I often find myself squirming when confronted by those whose metaphysical conclusions I share, but whose unbridled contempt toward those who disagree with us, I often find not very freethinking oriented. And as a skeptic, I try to remember that anyone can be fooled, everyone has blind spots, including the sharpest scientific skeptics.”

    And this is what I like about you. You’re not only intelligent, but thoughtful and respectful of others even in disagreement.

    Skeptics with contempt for opposing views give me that same feeling. It’s one thing to disagree with someone, another to use nasty language and dismiss them. I’ve found way too often that while I may disagree with some idea on the whole, there’s still something there that I hadn’t thought about before, something which might render my own view either more nuanced or even thrown into question. Perhaps this clash takes my opinion in an entirely new direction.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for your kind words, and very well said. Phil Plait made a good point a few years ago. Skepticism is a hard sell at the best of times. For most of us, it was an intellectual journey that took time. Attempting to sell it by calling people idiots, because they haven’t made that journey yet, is about as irrational as it gets.

      Liked by 2 people

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