A simple and powerful idea that everyone needs to know

Laboratory section, Japan Baptist Hospital, Kyoto, 1955

WARNING: Daft piece of terminology coming up, but don’t be put off! It’s called The pessimistic meta-induction from the history of science  from Kathryn Schulz‘ essay of the same title. I read it in a book called ‘This Will Make You Smarter‘ (I thought I could do with the help, OK?)

Here’s what it means in plain English:

Because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today’s theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. Politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child rearing, education: No matter the domain of life, one generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods that we might as well have a pessimistic meta-induction from the history of everything.

It’s powerful and incredibly obvious when you think about it. We find it easy to look at the past and shake our heads at how wrong we used to be about taking other humans as slaves, drilling holes in the skull to cure disease, tulip bubbles, and burning people as witches. The list is endless and we wish that we knew then what we know now in order that we might have avoided the awful consequences of our naivety.

So why do senior leaders in politics and business have such strong courage of their convictions, as if they believe we’ve finally reached the apex of human understanding where we have nailed what’s right and what’s true? They act as though there’s no possibility of their ideas being completely disproved – not just being wrong, but held to be massively damaging by future generations.

If the world understood this concept it would be incredible humbling and perhaps frightening as we face up to how pathetic we will look through the lens of history. But the world would also be filled with more possibility and hope. Things can be so much better than they are today. Perhaps leaders would become more open to ideas which seem radical today, but which may become mainstream in the future. At the very least, just asking the question ‘What will seem laughable tomorrow about what we are doing today?’ would be extremely powerful.

Umair Haque talks about this same concept in The New Capitalist Manifesto. Today our economic system is mostly based to a large extent on the ideas of two men. Adam Smith believed that in the pursuit of profit, an ‘invisible hand’ would deliver positive benefits for society through the provision of useful goods and services. John Maynard Keynes believed that it was the sole duty of a company to pursue profit, and that markets will self-regulate and end up with the best outcomes. However the financial collapse of 2008, and other mega-trends like impending climate crisis are thoroughly proving these theories insufficient and harmful.

Is this really the best we can do? Do we expect to have the same economic systems in place in 100, 200 or 300 years time? Surely things will look almost unrecognisable that far into the future, and our current ways will seem hopelessly naive and flawed. But we don’t see our leaders facing up to this, and the challenge of discovering what better systems will come next.

The first step is to recognise that the way things are today is going to be proved to be almost entirely wrong. Then with this shift in attitude we can move away from fixed ideology and dogma and become open to what the future might look like, including both small and radical ideas. If we do this then we stand a much better chance of avoiding catastrophe and reaching a better future, faster.

5 thoughts on “A simple and powerful idea that everyone needs to know

  1. “The first step is to recognise that the way things are today is going to be proved to be almost entirely wrong.”

    It is almost guaranteeably the case that some things are “going to be proved to be almost wrong” but all things? I don’t think so, we’re not currently either that stupid or naive.

    It’s certainly the case that we must avoid fixed ideologies and the interpretation of things as dogma; it’s critical that we should be constantly challenging our current thinking to ensure that we don’t fall into these obvious ‘traps’.

    Nobody has accepted either Adam Smith or JM Keynes as having the whole answer to anything for eons however I know of nobody of repute who does not acknowledge that both men added to the pool of human knowledge when they exposed their ideas to challenge by their peers and successors. Even my hero, JS Mill, acknowledged that he was merely postulating a good – and potentially better – way of living out Bentham’s Utilitarian Life and not offering the final solution to all of mankind’s behavioural needs (might have been the influence of the better woman he had standing behind him!).

    “So why do senior leaders in politics and business have such strong courage of their convictions, as if they believe we’ve finally reached the apex of human understanding where we have nailed what’s right and what’s true?” The answer, sadly, is that we, as a society, won’t allow them to do otherwise! If uncertainty is expressed they are attacked for their lack of certainty, despite the fact that we should all recognise the fact that these senior leaders are merely human and are as liable to be incorrect as are any of us. Look what happens when a senior politician changes his/her mind; headlines scream U-Turn and we, in the majority, join in with the disparagement!

    So you’re right; we all need to recognise the fact that neither we, nor anybody else, have access to all of the right answers and should spent our time considering what we can do to add to the pool of human knowledge and assets available to us all – as you are constantly doing.

    • We don’t think that we’re stupid or naive because we are the most advanced humans that have ever been on the planet. Just as every generation before has been, including the skull drillers, witch burners and tulip speculators. But we will looks incredibly primative to generations far into the future with technology and understanding far in advance of our own. This is the reality we need to face up to.

      Yep, of course I was simplifying economics to two theories. I was particularly thinking of Alan Greenspan who was hugely Keynesian and in favour of deregulated markets taking care of everything, until of course it all collapsed leaving current and future generations with enormous debts to pay off. He famously said after the crash ‘I think we made a mistake.’ No shit! Easy to say with hindsight, but I wonder how open he was BEFORE the crash to thinking about the extent to which the status quo will turn out to be entirely flawed. If we had more of this kind of humble thinking then I think we would progress faster and avoid more disasters.

      It’s true that the public would find it very difficult to support leaders who don’t portray complete confidence in their own ideas. We want to look up to people we think hold ‘the truth’ but unfortunately, history has shown us that nobody holds the ultimate truth, and there is no reason why we should assume that anyone ever will, unless human progress stands still. Politics and science are very different in that regard. A scientific u-turn when a better theory is discovered is hailed as progress, but a political u-turn in the same circumstances is seen as a failure. And that’s exactly why I think everyone needs to understand this concept so we can elect better leaders who will help take us on a journey of progress where there is no final destination.

  2. It goes too far to say “all things we believe today will be proved wrong”. Using this logic, we can never know anything, only be in a perpetual state of knowing nothing. Like life itself, thoughts ideas, methods, technology and concepts are prone to evolution. Copernicus did not simply dismiss all that had gone before as “wrong” (but most of it was!) – he evolved some of the thinking of both those before him and those around him to create an idea that while radical at the time, is now established fact.

    The main reason we can be more confident today, more than any other time in history, that our ideas are correct is that we are more advanced that ever before. Our ability to measure and simulate, to test and formulate and then test again, are better than they have ever been.

    Yes, a proportion of things we deem as true today will be proved wrong in the future, that cycle (the gap between an idea and it’s proof or disproof) is getting shorter and shorter. Due in no small part to the ability to communicate in minutes with others, all round the world, who are in the same field as you. Copernicus had to wait 6 months for a reply to letters he wrote to others in his field.

    I applaud forward thinking. I applaud tearing up what went before and starting with a blank bit of paper. But true understanding often comes only from understanding what has come before.

    • I didn’t go so far as to say “all things we believe today will be proved wrong” – you selectively edited me and left out the important ‘almost.’ 😛

      I’m sure that many of today’s ‘proofs’ will hold true, but the point is that many, if not most will turn out to be wrong or insufficient and that’s what we need to face up to. I’m talking about the distant future here when we have technology, techniques that are barely imaginable now, not to mention far more experience and hindsight. Imagine presenting Copernicus with a Large Hadron Collider (or even email!) and then consider what new developments could come about over the next few centuries in fields like nano- and bio-tech (e.g. organic computers with greater emotional capability than humans) that would blow our primative minds if we could see them now.

      Perhaps I wasn’t clear about the implication of this. I’m not saying we should assume that what we know today is worthless and throw it away and start again. I completely agree that many important new developments are built on top of old ones. What we need to do is face up to the fact that the developments in understanding that are ahead of us are hugely greater than everything that has come before throughout the whole of human history. This is especially true, as you pointed out, because the rate of progress and tehnological advancement is inreasing exponentially, not linearly.

  3. Tom,

    Sounds like we’re all in agreement here; nothing’s necessarily perfect or final and we should all investigate /challenge all of todays ‘givens’.

    It’s also agreed that tomorrow we’ll know more than we know today for an assortment of reasons.

    We all, also, agree that there are people about today who are expressing a higher degree of certainty than is justified either by current ‘facts’ or experience.

    All that’s in dispute is whether it’s valid / justified to accept what we know / think now until we have a justified basis for challanging what we know / think now or not.

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