Originally published December 25, 2016
The world is such a big and messy place, all anyone can do is focus on understanding a tiny slice of it. So most of us can be forgiven our ignorance about empirical questions as complex as the causes of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the likely effects of a particular international trade deal, the costs and benefits of raising the federal minimum wage to $15, and so forth. These questions are so enormously complex, thoughtful people who devote their lives to investigating them do not always reach consensus. But what cannot be forgiven is holding passionate opinions on issues of immense practical significance when we are almost completely ignorant of the facts. It does not matter how strongly we may believe we are factually correct or that we are fighting the darkest forces of evil, when we choose to address a topic that may seriously affect the lives of other people, we incur a correspondingly serious obligation to discharge onerous epistemic duties.
If we do not bother to acquaint ourselves with the most basic facts, to expose ourselves openly to people with whom we are inclined to disagree, and especially to those who have thought the longest and hardest about these topics, then we are not entitled to any opinion. As J.S. Mill wrote in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” For most of us, the only defensible attitude on most issues is perfect agnosticism.
The problem is, we have little tolerance for agnosticism. A politician who admitted that she held no opinion on the TPP might expect mockery, even though it is as unreasonable to expect the average politician to know about the difficult empirical questions raised by such agreements as it is to expect the average doctor or nurse. And we should all be alive to the possibility that most politicians would not do much better than the rest of us if they had to pass Econ 101 tomorrow. It is even worse that we ordinary people suffer disapprobation when we express agnosticism towards issues about which we know nothing. This intolerance of ignorance threatens to sever both policy makers and ordinary people from reality, harming our best chance at improving our world — scientific knowledge combined with careful, open-minded moral thinking.
The article is here.