Thursday, September 30, 2010

Epistemic Deference and Epistemic Arguments for Conservatism I

A couple of months ago, there was a very interesting debate between Jim Manzi and others on the question of whether social science knowledge was sufficiently well established to warrant radical policy innovations. Manzi argued in a widely blogged article that the methodological limitations of the social sciences – in particular, the impossibility of appropriately measuring the counterfactuals of policy interventions through, for example, randomized experiments – implied that the findings of social science should normally not outweigh settled practice and even common sense” when we are thinking about changing existing practices or institutions. His critics argued, among other things, that social science can provide evidence that overturns such settled practices, since, after all, the status quo is typically the result of power struggles, not rational discussion; why should we give it more credence than the findings of social science, which emerge from a process that at least approximates rational debate?

We might put the general point thus: Manzi thinks that, where the complexity of social reality makes full scientific knowledge all but impossible, it makes better sense to give “epistemic deference” to settled practice; his critics think that the practices of “social science” as a whole (not necessarily a single random study) often have more “epistemic authority” than settled practice. This sort of division about the locus of epistemic authority also maps into a political division between “conservative” and “non-conservative” positions, with the “conservatives” granting some settled practices or institutions the bulk of epistemic authority, while the “non-conservative” position insists that some other person or institution, usually of more recent vintage, should be given greater epistemic deference than settled practice. Is there any way of adjudicating under what conditions are these positions likely to be right?

The conservative position is typically defended by arguments about the “limits of reason.” The classic statement is in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:
We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
As Burke puts it, the comparison makes sense; individual reason (or, for that matter, the individual social science study) is highly limited in its epistemic power in comparison to settled social practice. There is typically some reasonable basis for even highly perplexing social practices; and individual reason is likely to be highly misleading in many circumstances. Individually, we suffer from so many cognitive biases and defects that it is a wonder we get up in the morning; and even highly trained experts are often wrong, even in their own fields. (I read somewhere that most peer-reviewed research is eventually overturned). 

But as an argument the comparison is flawed; the relevant comparison should not be that between settled practice and individual reason, but between settled practice and some alternative social practice (e.g., the social practice of science, with its various self-correction mechanisms), or between settled practice and some other collective judgment (e.g., the collective judgment of an assembly or a market). Moreover, the “general bank and capital of ages” is often a “depreciating asset,” as Adrian Vermeule puts it, especially insofar as later people make no contributions to it. From this point of view, Burkean concerns about the limits of individual reason cut much less deeply; the question is about the relative “epistemic power” of different social practices, institutions, or processes. 

Yet I think there is often something to these “epistemic” arguments for conservatism. In later posts, I want to try to investigate under what conditions epistemic arguments for conservatism make sense. (This blog is mostly my scratch research notes, so read at your own risk). As a starting point, I think we might divide these arguments into three kinds: selection arguments (where the epistemic power of settled social practices comes from the operation of a selection filter that is not found in alternative social practices), computational arguments (where the epistemic power of settled social practices comes from the way in which they organize expertise and information), and resilience arguments (where settled social practices are found to be preferable to alternatives because they are adapted to a wide variety of circumstances, even if not optimal for any particular one of them). (Resilience arguments are really a subtype of selection arguments, but I want to think about them separately). More on each of these later.

[update 2:35: edited a few words for clarity].


  1. Anonymous8:11 PM

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, but I think you're over-stating my position.

    In the linked blog post, I say that:

    "...a large fraction of the article (and the book) is devoted to making the case that exactly such randomized trials really are the gold standard for the kind of knowledge that is required to make reliable, non-obvious predictions that rationally outweigh settled practice and even common sense."

    You're correct that I make the point at length that it is hard to generalize from RFTs in social science, and that a series of such randomized trials is the practical, though imperfect, way to do this. In fact, I present a standard for establishing when this has been done:

    "How do we know if it is right? By running an experiment to test it—that is, by conducting still more RFTs in both kinds of communities and seeing if they bear it out. Only if they do can we stop this seemingly endless cycle of tests begetting more tests. Even then, the very high causal densities that characterize human society guarantee that no matter how refined our predictive rules become, there will always be conditionals lurking undiscovered. The relevant questions then become whether the rules as they now exist can improve practices and whether further refinements can be achieved at a cost less than the benefits that they would create."

    I'll look forward to the forthcoming posts.

    Best regards,
    Jim Manzi

  2. Thanks Jim for your response (the blogosphere is a great republic of letters!). I look forward to reading your book.