Ignorance and Expertise

I was reading this excellent 2010 speech by the great baseball writer Bill James in his latest essay collection, “Solid Fool’s Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom”, and the whole thing is available at his website if you’re a subscriber. It’s an excellent summary of what James does and does not do for a living, but I found it also very pointed about his approaches to conventional wisdom and what they say about aspects of our current public policy debates that turn on appeals to authority and the confident assertions of experts that they understand everything, or that presuppose central planning through the mechanism of complex rules devised by experts or solutions that purport to simultaneously understand the conditions of every local economy at once, in opposition to the worldview that presupposes that wisdom comes from the collective trial and error of the largest possible number of people over time. I thought some of you might too:

I have always thought that it was best not to define oneself, but to let the world say about you whatever it is that the world chooses to say. This is my first reference point for the Power of Ignorance. By not claiming to know exactly what it is that I am doing, I remain able to attempt whatever it is that I feel like attempting. It’s a great advantage.

I should say, unless there be misunderstanding about this, that I am in no way in favor of ignorance or against the advance of knowledge. I have worked my entire life for the advancement of knowledge, trying to increase respect for reason and respect for research in the world of sports. I am embracing ignorance here in this sense and for this reason: that we are all, in my view, condemned to float endlessly in a vast sea of un-answered questions and unknown reference points – a Sea of Ignorance, if you will. The example that I like to use is a chess board. How many moves ahead can you see on a chess board? I can see about one move ahead of myself in a chess game. If you can see 3 or 4 moves ahead on a chess board, you can beat 99% of chess players, and if you could see 7 or 8 moves ahead in a chess game, you would be a world-class chess champion.

Well, suppose that a chess board was not eight squares wide and eight squares long, but a hundred squares wide and a hundred squares long, with a thousand moving pieces, rather than 32. How far ahead could you see on a chess board then? The world is like a chess board that is a million squares wide and a million squares long with hundreds of thousands of moving pieces and hundreds of thousands of different players moving them. In my view, anyone who imagines that he can anticipate what will happen next, in any area of life, is delusional, and people who think that experts should be able to do this are children and fools.

If the world was 10% more complicated than the human mind, or even if it was 40% more complicated or ten times as complicated, then the difference between an intelligent person’s ability to understand the world and a less intelligent person’s ability to understand the world would be very meaningful. But since the world is billions and billions of times more complicated than the human mind, individual intelligence is almost entirely irrelevant to the understanding of the world. What is critical to understanding is humility and co-operation. What is critical to gaining more understanding of the world is to learn to accept and appreciate the vastness of our ignorance, and to understand that one can only survive in a sea of ignorance by working with others to make our small lifeboat a little bit stronger. Only by embracing the fact of our limitless ignorance can one position oneself to increase the store of knowledge.

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I want to point out to you in passing that “getting the answers right” had almost nothing to do with the success of my career. My reputation is based entirely on finding the right questions to ask – that is, in finding questions that have objective answers, but to which no one happens to know what the objective answer is. That’s what I did 35 years ago; that’s what I do now. When I do that, it makes almost no difference whether I get the answer right, or whether I get it a little bit wrong. Of course I do my very best to get the answers right, out of pride and caution, but it doesn’t actually matter.


Because if I don’t get the answer right, somebody else will. It is called “science.”

Again, I am not qualified to lecture you or to lecture anyone about the scientific method. In fact, my understanding of the scientific method is very rudimentary, very primitive. Nonetheless, the scientific method has been the greatest ally of my career. Basically, what I know about the scientific method would fit onto a bumper sticker, and, that being the case, I might as well read you the bumper sticker. We design tests to see whether an assertion is compatible or incompatible with the evidence. When you do that, someone else will always figure out some way to do another test, and a better test. When that happens, it is my responsibility to acknowledge that the other person’s research is better than mine or is an advancement from mine. What is necessary to the advancement of knowledge, then, is humility – the capacity to recognize that other people have accomplished something that I have not been able to accomplish. That, then, is the bumper sticker: what is necessary to the advancement of knowledge is humility.

When you go to an expert and you say that, “I don’t think that what you are saying is true,” that will be perceived as arrogance. Who are you to challenge the experts? But it is not arrogance, at all; it is grounded in the understanding that we are all floating in a vast sea of ignorance, and that much of what weall believe to be true will later be shown to be nonsense. To recognize this is not arrogance; it is humility.

When I was in Elementary School in the early 1960s, our principal was fond of telling us that, when he was a young man just after World War One, he took a college chemistry class, in which the professor told the students that they were studying science at the ideal time, because all of the important discoveries had been made now. Everything that there was to be known about chemistry or biology or physics, he suggested, was pretty much known now.

Science and knowledge were not settled then. Nor are they now. Indeed, nothing is ever settled – we start, because we cannot test every premise of our lives, with the traditions and conventional wisdom we inherit, because those are generally the result of copious trial and error in the past. Even for every baseball shibboleth James has tested and found wanting over time, many more that we don’t even think of have endured because people played the game and found what worked. But we never stop testing new things, and gradually replacing the old ones by the same system of trial and error. That’s how science works, just as it’s how democracy or law or social tradition or free markets work.

There’s much more – as I said, I left out huge chunks of the speech – so read the whole thing.