The most verboten phrase in modern English?

"I don't know."

Gracy Olmstead writes a nice post noting how reluctant people are to admit ignorance of anything in our culture.

If someone asks me if human-caused climate change is a real problem, I answer, "How would I know? I've never studied climate science." But almost everyone I talk to seems to be a climate scientist, since they all have very, very firm positions on the issue.

Or take recessions, a topic I have studied for over a decade. When asked what causes them, I answer "When I first began studying recessions, I knew exactly what caused them. But the longer I study the topic, the less clue I have."

Nevertheless, my dermatologist assures me that he knows exactly what causes them.

11 comments:

  1. Gene,

    I was just discussing this with a friend last night - it is incredible how people seem to just "know" everything. Completely irrational, of course, but it is what the average American (and I would say, the average person in the Western World) would say.

    I recall offhandedly making the claim that religion is not always bad for scientific pursuit; indeed, Catholic Europe is where science was born. Even though this person knew that I read very much before making claims like this, I was rebutted by a simple "No; it doesn't. Everyone knows this."

    The only way I have found to reply is to ask a question: "that is an interesting viewpoint. I have read and studied (give examples of x). What have you read and studied about it...?"

    Usually, they look stupefied.

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  2. Nevertheless, my dermatologist assures me that he knows exactly what causes them.

    Did you direct him to mises.org in a 2005 checkup?

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  3. Another reply could have been "Wow really? I'm a professional economist with a PhD and I'm not sure. You must know more than I do about economics."

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    1. Good, except my PhD is in political theory.

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    2. Another reply could have been "Wow really? I'm a professional economist with a PhD and I'm not sure. You must know more than I do about economics."

      In my experience this sort of tactic doesn't work (whether or not it should). People get defensive and double down on their prior opinion. You're better off asking them to explain to you their position in detail, which may reveal to them how little they actually know.

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  4. Gene; I had no idea. I thought that you received a PhD from the London School of Economics!

    This is spectacular; now, when I refer folks to this website, I can say that the author is someone with a PhD in political theory.

    This means a lot to me and other people; there are a lot of rambling blogs on the internet (some might say that mine is one, actually haha) but a PhD confers legitimacy in some way.

    Congratulations. I would like a PhD in philosophy myself, but I do not know if I will be able to get a job with it!

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    1. My master's is from LSE, but it is in philosophy, not economics.

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  5. I am not at all reluctant to say Gene Callahan is ignorant on many issues.

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    1. Bobby you crack me right up.

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  6. But seriously folks... I've noticed the same thing, Gene. Nobody at a holiday get-together would challenge a heart surgeon at dinner, but most would feel comfortable saying that an economist was full of crap.

    Of course, there are legitimate reasons for this difference in treatment...

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    1. Which kind of economist? An economist who insists his conclusions are true a priori and no facts can refute him, or some other kind?

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