The Problem With Being Unsure

Felix Salmon writes about Helen Thomas having to quit her job after she said some nasty stuff on camera

Thomas gave voice to an opinion which she then, almost immediately, retracted; no one, in the subsequent debate, defended the substance of her remarks. She was wrong; everybody, including Thomas, agrees on that point, and no real harm was done to anyone but Thomas when the video of her remarks surfaced.

But if you turn out to be wrong, even temporarily, even only once, on a hot-button issue, that’s enough for effective excommunication from polite society. That, to me, is chilling: I’d much rather live in a world where people should be able to change their minds and should be allowed to be wrong on occasion. For surely we are all wrong, much more often than we like to think.

He then points to something Tyler Cowen said on

Take whatever your political beliefs happen to be. Obviously the view you hold you think is most likely to be true, but I think you should give that something like 60-40, whereas in reality most people will give it 95 to 5 or 99 to 1 in terms of probability that it is correct. Or if you ask people what is the chance this view of yours is wrong, very few people are willing to assign it any number at all. Or if you ask people who believe in God or are atheists, what’s the chance you’re wrong – I’ve asked atheists what’s the chance you’re wrong and they’ll say something like a trillion to one, and that to me is absurd, that even if you think all of the strongest arguments for atheism are correct, your estimate that atheism is in fact the correct point of view shouldn’t be that high, maybe you know 90-10 or 95 to 5, at most. So that maybe is my most absurd view. Most things are much more up for grabs than we like to say they are.

I took away different things from these. if there is anything worse than being wrong it is being doubtful. Is this cultural? Or is it just human?

Rationally, Helen Thomas quitting is sort of wrong. She has an opinion which may be reprehensible to many of us, but it is still an opinion. She did not commit a crime. She probably even has an argument for why she is morally correct in holding that opinion. In any case, she recanted. In spite of that, why is it that Helen Thomas has to quit but this racist state senator doesn’t have to?

Expressing an opinion makes you belong to a certain group who hold the same opinion. The strength of that group – in size and the power of its members – and that of the group that holds opposing views – often determines whether you are right or wrong. Which completely explains why in today’s America anti-semitism can get you punished instantly, but racist remarks can be a cold, calculated play for fringe votes.

Politics and big business drive culture, especially, what is acceptable for public figures and celebrities. Investors will punish a CEO for being wrong (Prudential CEO, Tidjane Thiam) or being in the wrong place at the wrong time and then saying the wrong thing (“I want my life back” – Tony Hayward, BP CEO). But if there is one thing worse than being wrong, it is to be unsure of your beliefs.

Tyler Cowen would like people to be rational and admit that their opinions could have a higher probability of being wrong. But do people really want their leaders to not believe that they are 100% correct?

Imagine if President Obama were selling HCR by saying that “I am 100% certain that this bill will pull millions of uninsured into a life of dignity but only 60% sure that it will reduce our spending on healthcare in the long-term.” Which is pretty much the odds the most optimistic economist might give you.

People don’t even like their leaders to change their opinions. We call it flip-flopping. We not only want our leaders to be certain, we want them to have been certain about the issue at hand, since they gained consciousness. It also helps if their parents had the same stand on said issue.

This is not a development that is recent. Replying to a criticism during the Great Depression of having changed his position on monetary policy, John Keynes was pressured enough to burst out:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

I believe that this is a universal phenomenon. Human beings desire strong leaders – fearless and without doubt. Leadership, therefore becomes typed with certitude which becomes a desirable trait even for non-leaders. Which is perhaps unfortunate. With a 70% probability, that is.

1 Comment

  1. Krishna says:

    Well, it all happens in where they still mouth "Land of the Free" at the drop of a hat…Interesting…!

    What about the bill of rights? Right to opinion would still mean right to hold an absurd, totally irrational and entirely wrong opinion ; and Freedom of speech and expression goes to support their keenness to shed all inhibitions before airing them before public and in broad daylight… Had she not voiced her opinion, would it mean that she'd been a conformist…? Pathetic… Not just Founding Fathers, even Machiavelli would turn in his grave after having said "It is better to be bold than too circumspect, because fortune is of a sex which likes not a tardy wooer and repulses all who are not ardent…"


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