Certainty

I have really been enjoying listed to Peter Attia‘s podcast The Drive. The guests are typically at the top of their fields, with both academic and practical experience in the topic they are discussion with Attia. For example someone who is well published, with a PhD in nutrition science, and also held weight lifting records discussing the interplay of nutrition and training. This guest, and nearly all the other guests rarely make any absolute statements. The guests often caveat their observations. They offer tentative conclusion, often indicating gaps that they hope studies will drill into sometime in the future. The uncertainty and caveats are a signal to me that the person has a nuanced understanding of a topic. They are an expert. Not someone who thinks they know a topic but are actually clueless.

The other thing I have enjoyed with several of Attia’s guests is that they are offering a perspective which is slightly out of step with commonly accepted positions of the general professional community. I think this is because professional communities can operate a bit like echo chambers. Once a belief or perspective gets established, it’s difficult to displace, even when the is data which contracts the belief. In the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn described how fields go through periodic paradigm shifts. I think Attia often select people who work will ultimately lead to such a shift. They aren’t crazy, out on the fringe folks, but rather people who have been insiders who are rethinking what was “accepted” as scientific fact.

I find the dialog I hear on Attia’s podcast quite different from the increasingly polarized “discussions” I hear on many podcasts, in social media, and in person. I am not just talking about politics. I see the same sort of thing when people are discussing diets, system architectures, training programs, or child raising. Often I see people making bold, absolute claims. They will often cite others who hold the same position. They are so sure of themselves. 

In the past other people’s certainty would catch my attention. If their position was different from mine it would make me pause and ask the question “What have I missed?”. I would engage and ask questions.

I have started to process these statements quite differently. When I hear people making absolute statements I will tread more carefully and possibly disengage. I have concluded that when people make such strong claims, it is a sure sign of the Dunning Kruger Effect. DKE a cognitive bias by which people with lower expertise have a tendency to over estimate their expertise. [A nice article about DKE by Mark Manson]

When I am just starting to learn a new topic I know I am ignorant. As I gain some knowledge my confidence grows. Often within a few months, certainly within a year I am convinced that I have got a strong grip on the content. I know I was a poster child for DKE in my twenties. Below are just two examples of this. After several decades of life I hope I am no longer so suseptable, but I can’t be certain.

After studying cognitive science for a few months I challenged one of my professors because he was advocating a position that my “common sense” and “study” concluded was too simple to product meaningful results. In those days he couldn’t “prove” his approach, computing was much less powerful. Today GPT-3 suggests he might have had a pointđŸ™‚

I read a book called Green Letters about a year into my Christian faith. The first chapter was called “Time” and explored how it took time for people to develop. It had the following text:

We might consider some familiar names of believers whom God obviously brought to maturity and used for His glory — such as Pierson, Chapman, Tauler, Moody, Goforth, Mueller, Taylor, Watt, Trumbull, Meyer, Murray, Havergal, Guyon, Mabie, Gordon, Hyde, Mantle, McCheyne, McConkey, Deck, Paxson, Stoney, Saphir, Carmichael, and Hopkins. The average for these was fifteen years after they entered their life work before they began to know the Lord Jesus as their Life, and ceased trying to work for Him and began allowing Him to be their All in all and do His work through them.

I thought about all that I had accomplished in my first year as a new Christian. In my mind I was pretty advanced. I had surged past several of my peers. I was sure that I wasn’t too far behind these heavy-weights. Surely it was possible to hit the sort of maturity Stanford talked about in just a few years. 15 seemed excessive.

Thankfully, I was raised to practice continual learning. I would continue to drive myself to learn and master a field. As time proceeded I ran into more and more situations where I discover I missed something. My strong positions needed caveats. Rather than looking for evidence that confirms my beliefs, I start looking for exceptions to my perspective. This is called the scientific method. Constructing experiments which can falsify our beliefs. Several times I had to abandon a position and start over.

These days you will rarely hear me make absolute statements. I am all too aware of my limitations. I have learn at least a bit of humility. I hold most of my positions less firmly. There are some which I still have absolute confidence in, but the number of these is quite small. I have come to understand that there are limits to what I can be certain of, and am careful not to go too far. I have written a bit about this in my post about truth.

Back to my “friends” who loudly make absolute statement. Their certainty is a sign to me that they really don’t have a clue. I also suspect they are have taken up residence in an echo chamber where everyone else has the same perspective. It’s nearly impossible for people in this position to rethink their position since there is such strong peer pressure to conform.

Rather than arguing I will ask a simple question. “Is there any information or evidence that would make you question your position?” If they can’t come up with anything I will typically try to disengage. If they can identify something, there is room for an interesting interchange.

2 Comments

  1. I have also noticed that folks with strong expertise in one area seem to think it carries over into other areas. I call this “the “D in Ph.D. = Deity” effect. I’ve had authors tell me that they know more about grammar than I do (I’m a technical editor with decades of experience). Of course, occasionally they are right on a point. I do not know everything. Or the author who told me that I was wrong about my explanation of a chemical nomenclature point. But the explanation was taken directly, word for word from the IUPAC Nomenclature book (IUPAC is the official authority on chemical nomenclature, among other things). I like to say that folks should try to be at least 50% as skeptical of their own position as they are of other peoples positions.

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