Politics and Epistemic Confidence

Most people, in normal circumstances, get epistemic confidence right.  Once we have reached a certain level of maturity, we generally feel confident about the things we know and less confident the less we know.  There are things that can get in the way of our epistemic confidence, like harassment, but we usually know what we know and know what we don’t know.  However, when it comes to politics, it seems that most people’s epistemic confidence is much greater than it has any business being.

There’s no need to get technical to make the point. Most adults have a great deal of epistemic confidence when it comes to basic arithmetic, but very little epistemic confidence when it comes to biochemistry.  When someone asks, “What’s 2+3,” we don’t hesitate because we know the answer is five.  But when someone asks, “Does fluoride strengthen teeth,” we may say, “Yes,” but we usually qualify it with an, “According to my dentist,” or, “That’s what it says on the toothpaste tube.”  Those qualifications are because we have far less epistemic confidence about how fluoride interacts with teeth than we do about 2+3.   Another way to see it is through our actions.  When we do things with a high level of epistemic confidence, we just do them.  When we need something done, but we have a low level of epistemic confidence, we call an expert.  When my car needs gas, I go to the station and fill it with gas.  I am confident that I know how to pay for the gas and operate the pump.  But, when my car needs new brakes, I call a mechanic.  It’s possible that I could follow a tutorial and install my own brakes, but I lack confidence that I would do it correctly, so I call an expert.

As I said before, politics is different.  It is rare that people say, “I don’t know,” when asked a political question.  People who are against fracking are sure that fracking is wrong, they have a very high degree of epistemic confidence.  Never mind that most of those people are not geologists, chemists or engineers.  People who are for drug legalization are sure that it is right, never mind the fact that most of them are not doctors, sociologists or police officers.  It is almost like our confidence goes up when we are choosing the person to make decisions rather than making the decisions directly.

We even have a very high level of epistemic confidence when all of the available evidence is telling us we should not be confident.  Let’s look at drone warfare as an example.  What do we actually know about it?  Realistically, unless someone in the government with a pretty high clearance level is reading this, very little.  We know what drones are, we know they are piloted remotely and can kill people without putting our soldiers in danger.  We see the stories on the news about the kills, sometimes the successful ones and sometimes the mistakes.  That’s about it, though.  From that very flimsy evidence we develop feelings.  For some of us, the mistakes stand out and we feel like drone warfare is wrong.  For others, we see the successes and feel like drone warfare is worthwhile.  Then, when it becomes political, when we have to choose the people who will make the decisions, we know we must work to elect people who agree with our feelings about drone warfare.  We know who to elect with such epistemic confidence that we usually are not even open to the fact that the other side may be right.

If we dig a bit deeper, and do so honestly, it should undermine our confidence.  My feeling is that drone warfare is wrong.  The mistakes seem like too high a price to pay for the successes.  That’s one of the things that helped sway me towards Obama over McCain in 2008.  McCain has been a consistent military advocate his entire career.  Obama, on the other hand, talked about disarmament and closing Guantanamo and bringing troops home.  He even won the Nobel Peace Prize before having a chance to do anything.  It was based solely on his ideas.  Then, Obama took office and started seeing classified intelligence about terrorist activities, military capabilities and a whole bunch of other things.  After seeing these things, he not only continued the previous administration’s use of drone warfare, he escalated it.  Now, it could be argued that Obama was lying.  Maybe he was never into the idea of peace, it was just a cynical ploy to get votes.  That doesn’t seem likely, though.  He was running against McCain, not some dove that drove him left on military matters.  He could have been very centrist and non committal and he still would have been well to the left of McCain.  Instead, he wanted to talk about his ideas for the military.  If that is true, then the more likely reason for Obama’s use of drone warfare is that there is something in those classified military briefings that shows drone warfare to be the correct course of action.

Getting back to epistemic confidence, it certainly looks like I am wrong to be confident in my knowledge of drone warfare.  I have very little evidence to use in forming my opinion and people with much more information disagree with me.  That’s not to say that I am necessarily wrong, just that I should not have a lot of confidence in my opinion.  It’s not just drone warfare, either.  What do most of us really know about economics, education, diplomacy, law, urban development, medicine and the myriad other things that politicians deal with every day?  All of us are epistemologically limited.  I’d be happy (and confident) to talk policy about insurance and anti-money laundering efforts (It’s what I do at my job every day.), but I’d be pretty lost when the subject turns to public health or military strategy.  To think otherwise is either naïve or cocky.

And this is the real point.  When we start thinking about politics, most of us seem to become naïve or cocky.  We suffer from epistemic hubris.  Plato taught us that wisdom is knowing how little we know.  And Sophocles taught us that nothing good ever comes from hubris.  I’m not saying we should stop having opinions or stop judging politicians.  I’m saying that we need to be honest with ourselves about what we know and what we can know.  We need to be open to the possibility that our feelings are wrong, even the deeply held feelings.  And we need to start judging the politicians on the things we are actually qualified to judge them on.  But, that’s going to wait for my next post.


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