What If We’re Wrong?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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During a recent conversation with EconTalk host Russ Roberts, author and essayist Chuck Klosterman discussed his new book But What If We’re Wrong. Explaining his premise, Klosterman noted that “we sort of exist in this world where we live as if we are right about how we view reality…” But, of course, as his title suggests, we might be wrong.

This strikes me as a generally conservative observation—what might be called epistemological modesty. What does this mean? As David Brooks notes, “People with this disposition believe that wisdom begins with an awareness of our own ignorance.”

It is ironic that almost all incentives today push us in the opposite direction. In some instances, this means that those with big egos and hubris get promoted; in other cases, it forces otherwise modest individuals to feign confidence.

Successful political pundits, for example, may be frequently wrong, but they are never uncertain. This is not an accident.

As Klosterman tells Roberts,

we’ve really increased the number of people who can be actively involved in the public discourse [so that] it has become much more difficult to get attention in that specific kind of attention economy. So, what seems to have emerged is this idea that expressing a high degree of certitude dovetails with some kind of authority. In other words, simply just having the confidence that you’re right somehow gives your argument a little more merit, and of course as this has proliferated, it has had, you know, like the opposite effect, in the sense that people act more confident about ideas that they themselves understand to be fragile and probably incorrect.

The notion that we don’t know what we don’t know might sound like a non-judgmental, open-minded concept that dorm room progressives would eat up. But, despite the stereotypes, conservatives are generally more open to this esoteric thought exercise, precisely because epistemological modesty, when taken to its logical end, suggests that central planning and “comprehensive” plans are a fool’s errand.

The clichés and tropes we invoke are telling. Liberals, in their conceit, talk about being on “the wrong side of history“—as if they are clairvoyant. Conservatives (perhaps overly optimistic, in this regard) envision a future where generations will look back at the practice of abortion with the same incredulous disdain that 20th century Americans reserve for slavery.

We should all be honest and humble enough to admit that the 21st century man has not suddenly arrived at the truth—any more than past generations foolishly might have believed they had it all figured out.

Along those lines, in the field of religion, noted Pastor Tim Keller argues that modern Christians should realize that today’s consensus and accepted values are ephemeral and arbitrary—a point that might help Christians cope with living a countercultural lifestyle.

In his book The Reason For God, Keller writes,

How can we use our time’s standard of “progressive” as the plumbline by which we decide which parts of the Bible are valid and which are not? Many of the beliefs of our grandparents and great-grandparents now seem silly and even embarrassing to us. That process is not going to stop now. Our grandchildren will find many of our views outmoded as well. Wouldn’t it be tragic if we threw the Bible away over a belief that will soon look pretty weak or wrong?

It’s hard to tell who will be proven right, but liberals tend to assume that 21st century moderns have arrived at the end of history. The truth is that we might be wrong about some very big things. The more we admit this to ourselves, I think, the better off we will be.

Then again, I could be wrong.

Matt K. Lewis