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Credulity is the new Skepticism
Why doubt is overrated
Thinking slow and slower
Scientists are the world’s professionals when it comes to seeking truth and advancing human knowledge.
So when scientific and para-scientific figures like Carl Sagan, Michael Shermer, and James Randi popularized Skepticism in the public mind, it seemed expert and credible.
But there’s one question I just can’t stop thinking about:
Einstein-era Nobel-winning physicist Max Planck famously said “Science advances one funeral at a time.” If scientists are the world’s leading professionals at seeking truth and advancing knowledge, then why are they so SLOW to recognize truth and advance their knowledge?
According to Planck, if scientists lived forever, their mistakes might be eternal.
But so would most people’s!
When it comes to willingness to recognize truth, what advantage do top scientists possess over the general public?
I struggle to see any.
I suspect Skepticism makes us dumber, for a number of reasons.
Here are a few:
No market for skepticism
In theory, science declares “all knowledge is tentative.”
In practice, well… according to Max Planck, most scientists would literally rather die than practice that.
By contrast, investors and risk managers have mastered the practice of tentative knowledge industry-wide, in a single elegant stroke: they stopped talking about “knowledge” altogether, and instead talk about risk and uncertainty. The presumption of fallibility is so sincere among investors that they don’t frame anything in terms of “knowledge” or “facts” like scientists do.
This allows investors to iterate their beliefs very quickly.
A stock chart visualizes confidence over time, reflecting every twitch of doubt and hope:
Imagine if we visualized the scientific community’s confidence over time in a given idea:
Note the difference in iteration rate. How few and cumbersome are the changes in confidence around a major scientific idea in the last century.
How totally desolate the prospects seem to be for today’s proponents of ether — for example, fans of Nikola Tesla:
“Long ago [mankind] recognized that all perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, of a tenuity beyond conception, filling all space, the Ākāśa or luminiferous ether, which is acted upon by the life-giving Prana or creative force, calling into existence, in never ending cycles, all things and phenomena.
“All things and phenomena,” you say?
Pretty big statement, from a pretty big scientific authority.
Yet instead of probing this uncertainty for overlooked breakthroughs, the entire scientific world simply picks a side and swears lifelong allegiance, in the name of skepticism.
Max Planck pointed this out 100 years ago. True to form, it hasn’t changed.
Markets vs Life
If skepticism were highly effective for discerning truth, stock traders would use it to make money. But they don’t, because stock traders compete against people who take minutes — not decades — to incorporate new information into their worldviews.
Skepticism iterates too slowly to be useful in markets.
Yet, skepticism seems even less useful in life, for a very specific reason:
In markets, you can limit your risk exposure to your area of expertise. You, Ideamarket readers, might have the expertise to invest wisely in web3 social protocols and a couple other niche areas.
But in life, we’re constantly exposed to risk outside our areas of expertise:
What constitutes a healthy diet?
What constitutes morality?
Is the COVID vaccine good or bad?
A skeptical investor can “opt out” of a risky asset class. But a skeptical person cannot opt out of reality. If milk is good for you, it affects your life. If masturbation is morally wrong, it affects your life. If the COVID vaccine causes myocarditis, it affects your life.
If investors value knowledge iteration rate so highly, and they can opt out — how much more should we ordinary people value it, who cannot opt out?
Skepticism is learned
Before we learn about skepticism, we’re just thinking about stuff, and trying to figure it out. Innocently. Like children.
When we’re taught about skepticism, we believe it — after all, we’re still credulous! Thus, skepticism begins with credulity. We cannot adopt a posture of doubt without first being credulous enough to be convinced it’s a good idea.
Then we change.
Skepticism is like the foreigner who immigrates into your mind, then closes the borders to all who try to come after.
When we learn skepticism, we stop letting things in.
Defending ourselves from incursions into our pristine bastions of scientific truth, we dry out intellectually. We can now only improve human knowledge by dying and being replaced.
Thus proceeds science. Is it really the best we can do?
Credulity makes mistakes. Skepticism makes mistakes permanent.
If the goal is to improve our thinking, we should learn how to update our beliefs with ease, not with reluctance.
With apologies to Mark Twain,
The person who is unwilling to believe the truth has no advantage over the person who never hears it.
In the internet age, virtually everyone hears the truth — from a friend, from an enemy, or from a conspiracy theorist. Therefore, the advantage now seems completely concentrated in people who are willing to believe new things — the exact opposite of skepticism.
I’m Jewish by blood, but by faith, I’ve been (in chronological order) —
and now, Catholic.
“Mike, that just means you’re a fool getting dragged around by your nose.”
But at least I won’t be the same fool forever like Max Planck’s colleagues!