The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.
~Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism 46
No one has yet been found so firm of mind and purpose as resolutely to compel himself to sweep away all theories and common notions, and to apply the understanding, thus made fair and even, to a fresh examination of particulars. Thus it happens that human knowledge, as we have it, is a mere medley and ill-digested mass, made up of much credulity and much accident, and also of the childish notions which we at first imbibed.
~Francis Bacon, Aphorism 97
I began this journey several years ago, full of the feeling that I knew things, and that those things were worth sharing, and that there was much to be gained by sharing those things with others and debating their implications. Since that time, most of what I have learned has been negative: the things I “knew” I didn’t “know” in a meaningful sense of the term, the things I learned was mostly that knowledge in general and human knowledge in particular was generally in error and deeply fallible in any case.
They weren’t goths or loners.
The two teenagers who killed 13 people and themselves at suburban Denver’s Columbine High School 10 years ago next week weren’t in the “Trenchcoat Mafia,” disaffected videogamers who wore cowboy dusters. The killings ignited a national debate over bullying, but the record now shows Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold hadn’t been bullied – in fact, they had bragged in diaries about picking on freshmen and “fags.”
Their rampage put schools on alert for “enemies lists” made by troubled students, but the enemies on their list had graduated from Columbine a year earlier. Contrary to early reports, Harris and Klebold weren’t on antidepressant medication and didn’t target jocks, blacks or Christians, police now say, citing the killers’ journals and witness accounts. That story about a student being shot in the head after she said she believed in God? Never happened, the FBI says now.
A decade after Harris and Klebold made Columbine a synonym for rage, new information – including several books that analyze the tragedy through diaries, e-mails, appointment books, videotape, police affidavits and interviews with witnesses, friends and survivors – indicate that much of what the public has been told about the shootings is wrong.
~Greg Toppo, US News & World Report
This is but one of innumerable instances where what everyone “knew” about something was false, in almost every particular. Because forecasting errors compound, this means that not only what we “knew” about that particular incident, but also everything that we “knew” that was in any way illuminated by that incident is false. We begin with a falsehood, and no amount of work can undo it.
It has come to my attention that for some time, this is all the insight I’ve had to share with others. Be cautious, very cautious, of what you think you know. You are almost certainly wrong, and so am I. I’ve said more than once that to me, the most shocking thing about the current financial crisis is that all those highly-paid, expert risk managers built their models without any risk factor for the model being wrong. But upon reflection, that really doesn’t seem so shocking, does it? All of us, myself included, are similarly attached to what we believe we know, and similarly dismissive of the improbability that what we know qualifies in any meaningful way as knowledge.
But even that conviction that I now hold strongly is flawed, and more to the point, tiresome when presented in this format. I’m grateful to buhdy for hosting my thoughts, and for all of you who read them. I hope that all of you will feel the same way should I come to a future where I have something else to say.