Monday, November 12, 2007

Intellectual Honesty

I'm deeply skeptical of people who are absolutely, positively convinced that they're right. If you're intellectually honest, then you've got to admit that there's a possibility that you're wrong; that there exists (at least in theory) some collection of evidence that would make you change your opinion.

For example, I believe that all life on earth evolved naturally from primitive organisms. It's possible I'm wrong, and if (for example) an advanced race of aliens landed on the White House lawn and then showed us how they genetically engineered the first tribe of Homo Sapiens then I'd have to reassess my opinion on where humans came from.

I also distrust people with an "us" versus "them" mentality, where "we" must be right and "they" are misguided or stupid or just plain stubborn and wrong. Reasonable people can be completely rational and still disagree about important issues, because they might start with different values or assumptions.

For example, I'm mostly a libertarian. I believe it is morally wrong to force people to do things that they don't want to do, if they're not harming (or threatening to harm) other people.

You might be more utilitarian, and believe that it's OK to force people to do things that they don't want to do as long as doing so is for the greater good of society as a whole. You're not unreasonable, or stupid, or stubborn, or misguided-- you're just starting with different assumptions than I am.

So, what collection of evidence would make me change my mostly-libertarian assumptions? Certainly if Socialist societies had higher productivity or innovation or health or wealth or happiness than Capitalist societies I might change my mind. But they don't.

I'm very interested in behavioral economics; maybe we are hard-wired in ways that cause us to make bad decisions on our own, and maybe our collective "hive mind" can do a better job of making the world a better place. Maybe. If you see any solid, data-driven pieces of evidence supporting that hypothesis, please send them my way!

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