I have argued that mainline economics teaches us to have humility. I often quote Hayek saying: "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."
But the other day I was watching this now rather old TED talk by Kathryn Schulz -- which I found both interesting and frustrating. Interesting because I agree with her that when we believe we have the truth, we too often go through the argumentative phases of dividing up those who disagree with us into: (a) ignorant, (b) idiots, (c) evil. And this has serious problems associated with it for actual engagement and mutual learning. Though as an economic teacher, I do find less troublesome the ignorance assumption as I believe a large part of our job as educators is the eradication of economic ignorance (and the task is not an easy one).
On the other hand, I also found Schulz's discussion frustrating because she is just so confident that she knows that nobody knows anything with certainty. She is certain about that claim, and thus, I would say, completely lacking in humility in making her point about our ignorance. I know she is engaged in 'edutainment' and the act of selling her book to a high powered audience with short attention spans. But to me, at least, her style borders at the edge of "snarkiness" and "smarminess", and that isn't productive to actual intellectual engagement either.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith argued against arrogance in the affairs of men:
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.
But I wonder if there is also a different form of arrogance in the affairs of men that is also a reflection of conceit --- that of the embrace of an all knowing nihilism. I know that you know that we all know that we know nothing, and anyone who pretends to think otherwise should be ridiculed. So since nobody knows anything for certain, then my knowledge (and that of my friends) is equally as valuable on any pressing topic as anyone elses.
On the one hand, following Smith we are taught to question authority and to think twice about expert knowledge in the affairs of men. On the other hand, we are taught that there is no authority, and nobody's opinion should be valued more than any one elses in public discourse. I don't view those statements and intellectual sentiments as expressing the same idea. The Smithian perspective leads to a focus on how we cope with our ignorance through various institutional remedies (e.g., the contestation of ideas within the scientific community) . The Schulzian perspective as I interpret it leads to a focus on embracing our ignorance and flattening the knowledge structures in society.
What do you think?
BTW, I am more than willing that I could in fact be wrong; very wrong indeed!