Petrified minds

In the Derbyshire village of Matlock Bath, there is a petrifying well. For centuries, it’s attracted tourists eager to witness its powers of crystallisation. Throw an object into the well and eventually a bloated crystalline facsimile will emerge. Of course, it makes no difference if the original object was flexible: the facsimile will always be hard and unbending. Furthermore, it’s only a facsimile of surface features – neither internal details nor any internal supporting structure are reproduced.

In my last article, I looked at the Enlightenment’s entreaty to question authority and think for yourself, an essential step in the development of modern science. Unfortunately, as science became ever more inaccessible, the layperson had to rely on authority once again.

Gradually, as the domain of authority grew, it began to infest and corrupt areas where it was eminently possible to think for oneself. “Argument from authority”, so discredited in Enlightenment thought, staged a dramatic comeback, and with it, the regressive notion that anyone who disagrees with the prevailing orthodoxy isn’t just wrong, they’re also morally degenerate.

Is there any value in beliefs that are immune to revision?

I located the source of this malignancy in specialisation. But it seems there may be another factor at work. A recent paper by Ståhl, Sormunen, and Mäkinen examined the relationship between internet usage and rigidity of belief. Their conclusion: “…the more beginning undergraduate students rely on internet-based information, the more they are inclined to epistemic beliefs where knowledge is regarded as certain, unchanging, unambiguous and as being handed down by some authority.” Perhaps the internet engenders the petrified mind.

But is authority really such a bad thing? We can’t be experts in everything.

Well, a belief system based on epistemic self-reliance – “think for yourself” – tends to inculcate flexibility and provide some kind of bulwark against the mal-intentioned and the incompetent. However, a belief system based on authority tends to inculcate intolerance and anger. In the words of Bertrand Russell: “If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do.”

An authority-centred epistemology also makes people easy to manipulate, and even paves the way towards political authoritarianism.

Ok, but is there a way to spot beliefs and opinions based solely on authority? Just the opinions of people that don’t agree with us, right?

Well, before we condemn other people’s beliefs, we’d better examine our own. Here’s an interesting exercise. Pick one of the vexatious issues of the day – there are many to choose from: Brexit, the pandemic, lockdown policy, anthropogenic climate change; any issue about which you have strong beliefs.

Next, try to formulate one of your convictions into a clear proposition. For example: “Brexit has seriously damaged the UK’s economy” or
“Lockdowns did more harm than good” or
“If fossil fuels aren’t immediately banned, we will see climate catastrophe.”

Now, here’s the important bit: what would it take to change your mind? What new information would have to emerge to make you reconsider?

If there’s no conceivable information that could change your mind – apart of course from your chosen authority instructing you to do so – then your opinion is probably based on the unexamined words of others. You’ve just swallowed someone else’s opinion whole.

Is there any value in beliefs that are immune to revision?

I don’t think there is.

Does any of this relate to economics… the alleged subject of this column? Well, it was an issue in economics that led me into these deep waters. During a discussion about the failure of governments and monetary authorities to forecast inflation, constant reference was made to economic models. As you know, the models’ predictions were woefully inadequate. That’s not necessarily a cardinal sin. Error is how we learn.

However, when I asked about the assumptions embedded within the models, there was an embarrassed silence. Eventually, it was admitted that although they knew how to use models, they didn’t understand how the models had been constructed. Like the driver of a modern computerised car, they knew how to use it to get from A to B, but should it break down, they’d be left high and dry.

The models had taken on the mantle of authority. The results were acted upon but not questioned.

The acceptance of argument from authority as the principal epistemic tool is very dangerous. To question is always legitimate. The authoritarian mind loathes questions and always attempts to close down debate.

Don’t be intimidated, ask your questions. The authoritarian mind is a dry and barren place. It abhors any kind of deviation; any kind of experimentation. And without experimentation we are condemned to sterility, economically, technologically, and artistically.

Peter Lawlor was the Chief Economist at the German Stock Exchange and continues to advise senior politicians and Wall St institutions. These are strictly his own views

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August / September 2023, Columns, Economy, On The Money

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