Knowledge is Dangerous

Blake's The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clo...

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Consider that in earlier days, people thought eating fat made you fat, boys secretly desired to have sex with their mothers, and that people learned solely through operant conditioning. Consider that today, people with education degrees tend to emphasize credentialism even though they are in the best position to understand how wrong this is, or most macroeconomists think that when unemployment is high the government should spend ever more money regardless of how it is spent; experts are less wise than laypersons in their very own fields.

When you know a lot of facts you can rationalize your opinions very well, but it does not converge ones beliefs onto better theories, more so the bigger the theory. Consider how psychologists are not happier than average, political scientists never seem attractive politicians, economists are generally not good economics advisers .

When William Blake noted that To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize alone is a distinction of merit, I am sympathetic. People are bad at generalizing in general. Humans are pretty good at picking up social cues, sensing when their dog is hungry, but the more abstract the worse it gets. Our wet neural nets simply weren’t optimized for this kind of thing, which is why common sense among experts is less frequent than what one thinks greater learning should bring. We are often led astray by theories that tend to tell comforting stories, or that contain bad analogies, faulty extrapolations, or omitted variables biases. We can’t avoid generalizing at some level, just as we can’t look at data and see anything without some kind of theory. But its a useful generalization that when your source is an academic theory, caveat emptor.

via Falkenblog: Risk and Return: Knowledge is Dangerous.

Oh dear. But don’t generalize!


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