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Have you read 'The Relativity of Wrong' by Isaac Asimov? http://hermiene.net/essays-trans/relativity_of_wrong.html Schulz pretty much takes the same position of the English lit major that Asimov critiques in his essay:

"My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.
However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so."

Unfortunately the term "Know" is experiential not operational, and as such it is a 'trick' question on the order of "colors" or "love" - experiential. The term "know" is just like the verb 'to be' and the word 'truth', which are used as analogies, the construction of which almost no one comprehends, and the properties of which few can articulate. they are 'functions' (names) the contents of which we frequently USE but rarely if ever know how to construct. And a normative description tells us nothing other than that one knows how to use analogies, but is ignorant of properties and causation.

So I would ask her what she means by Know, because I bet she cannot say. :) And I am even more confident that she cannot state the meaning of truth in operational rather than experiential terms.

In the context of the above Ted Talk, to say we know something is to say it is true. To say it is true is to say we testify that it is true. To testify it is true is to say we possess the knowledge sufficient to construct it, demonstrate it, and act on it. If we are not able to construct it we cannot demonstrate we have the knowledge to make at ruth claim. If we cannot demonstrate it then we cannot say it is correspondent with reality. If we are not willing to act upon it, then we are engaged in either self deception, deception of others, or both. That is the only test of knowing. (Taleb calls this 'skin in the game' but he's morally loading everything he writes now.)

To say that we know the most parsimonious statement of any theory is impossible outside of a tautology since the network of concepts it rests upon is always subject to revision into a more parsimonious theory.

I think that if you can construct an operational proof of any theory, then you possess all the possible knowledge to make a truth claim under the most rigorous epistemological constraints extant. Conversely if you cannot demonstrate a constructive proof you cannot make a truth claim, only an hypothesis.

I think that in the construction of general rules, the utility and necessity of arbitrary precision creates the illusion of predictive failure rather than the maximum utility of a general rule. And that statements that we cannot produce a MORE parsimonious theory at greater precision is a fallacious criticism. That something can be better does not mean it isn't true. (This fallacy is rampant in criticisms of economics.)

I think that the evidence supports the conjecture that if one can construct an operational proof of a theory that has been show to be correspondent, internally consistent, and falsifiable and subject to tests of falsification, that all further enhancements to the theory will involve increases in precision and parsimony, rather than refutation. (I am still trying to test this but I think it's correct.)

I think authority means absolutely nothing, other than narrowing your chance of error from random to non random. However, in most complex predictions (economics in particular) it does not seem that authorities are increasingly predictive but just the opposite, due to normal cognitive biases that we are unable to escape from given the disconnect between our intuitionistic and rational systems of cognition. We have too many studies now that show that experts are worse than non experts due to cognitive bias. Experts tend to be scholarly (possess broad understanding of a domain, but they are not necessarily more predictive than those with less understanding of a domain.)

I think and that a theory is not authoritative if it is still subject to unanswered peer criticism - at least at the same level of precision the theory was constructed to address. To repeat, an operationally constructed theory, at an arbitrarily chosen standard of precision, that retains its descriptive and predictive power, can be testified to be true, even if a more precise and parsimonious theory is still possible. Moreover, since all theories are subject to this criterial, therefore that is the standard of truth - all else is imaginary.

I think that consensus on any theory achieving the status of law, means the same thing as obeying a norm: the best possible that we know of as a general rule. Your testimony and dependence upon such a law in your arguments like depending upon a moral or ethical rule is unassailable as a truth claim. Since no greater claim can be made at present.

If we know enough to act, then we can. If we know enough to testify then we can. Beyond that we cannot claim to know, other than that perfect parsimony may be achievable at some point in both economics and physics, but at present we have not determined the most parsimonious statements with the greatest explanatory power, and we appear to be quite far off in both disciplines.

Curt Doolittle
The Propertarian Institute
Kiev.

Way too dense, and written too quickly for this forum. :) But its your answer.

We should have humility as you state, because truth claims are bound by ethical constraints.

Local knowledge =/= no knowledge. A dentist would be confused to be told nothing is certain so why bother floss.

I doubt that she would say that physicists don't know anything for certain. When people insist on radical ignorance it's almost always with regard to the social sciences. It's an attitude very similar to Marx's polylogism.

Usually the point of claiming radical ignorance is to defend an unpopular position, for if a position is popular the defender fall back on consensus. Claiming that everyone is ignorant allows one to say "my opinion is as good as yours" when it really isn't.

But we don't have to insist on certainty. We can always just say that based on current evidence and sound logic, ours is the best theory. But somehow I don't think she would like that any better.

Roger is right (as is Asimov); knowledge in the physical sciences is testable on a scale that does not compare with the social sciences. The guys who went to the moon, and came back, definitely knew something.

I have to say, though; I love the coinage "all-knowing nihilism."

Expertise (authority) should be recognised and usually provided greater weight in 'knowing' something. And rightly so.

However, experts and authorities commonly speak on topics over which they have no more expertise or authority than most other educated and informed people. It's a common trap where 'we' through the media, online blog followers, etc hope to find the 'right' answer from 'our' favourite thought leader.

The salaried 'columnist' is probably the best example I can think of for this problem. And the popular economics columnists at the NY times (and equivalents around the world) are a case in point.

How to resolve?

I think those who know enough to know that an argument is rubbish, should say so - in a polite and well reasoned form.

And those who profess thought leadership should do so without absolutism, in the absence of the absolute. And given the nature of most doctorates and research pieces, this should apply to the vast bulk of contemporary issues.

But who knows?

The humility in that Hayek quote, and that in your words mainline economics teaches us, might be of a different kind than the uncertainty of our knowledge itself.

The humility in Hayek and Smith is a humility toward the way the world (our culture) works , and to not be a perfectionist about that world. That humility (an ethical stance as earlier commenters pointed out) contains knowledge, and I think both Hayek and Smith were pretty convinced it did so. It was knowledge and humility gained from an intimate study of our culture (and earlier attempts to change it). It was not so much an epistemic humility.

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