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Skepticism … is generally a questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief or dogma. It is often directed at domains, such as the supernatural, morality (moral skepticism), theism (skepticism about the existence of God), or knowledge (skepticism about the possibility of knowledge, or of certainty). (More)
Humans have long had many possible sources for our beliefs about the physical world. These include intuitive folk physics, sacred scriptures, inherited traditions, traveler stories, drug-induced experiences, gadget sales pitches, and expert beliefs within various professions. And for a very long time, we paid the most attention to the highest status sources, even if they were less reliable. This encouraged gullibility; we often believed pretty crazy stuff, endorsed by the high status.
One ancient high status group was astronomers, whose status was high because their topic was high – the sky above. It so happened that astronomers naturally focused on a small number of very standard parameters of wide interest: the sky positions of planets and comets (anything that moved relative to the stars). Astronomers often gained status by being better able to predict these positions, and for this purpose they found it useful to: (1) collect and share careful records on past positions, (2) master sufficient math to precisely describe past patterns, and (3) use those patterns to predict future parameter values.
For a long time astronomy seemed quite exceptional. Most other domains of interest seemed to have too much fuzziness, change, and variety to support a similar approach. What can you usefully measure while walking through a jungle? What useful general patterns can simple math describe there? But slowly and painfully, humans learned to identify a few relatively stable focal parameters of wide interest in other domains as well. First in physics: velocity, weight, density, temperature, pressure, toughness, heat of reaction, etc. Then in dozens of practical domains.
With such standard focal parameters in hand, domain experts also gained status by being able to predict future parameter values. As a result, they also learned that it helped to carefully collect shared systematic data, and to master sufficient math to capture their patterns.
And thus beget the scientific revolution, which helped beget the industrial revolution. A measurement revolution starting in astronomy, moving to physics, and then invading dozens of industrial domains. As domains acquired better stable focal parameters to observe, and better predictions, many such domains acquired industrial power. That is, those who had mastered such things could create devices and plans of greater social value. This raised the status of such domain experts, so that eventually this “scientific” process acquired high status: carefully collecting stable focal parameters, systematically collecting and sharing data on them, and making math models to describe their patterns. “Science” was high status.
One way to think about all this is in terms of the rise of skepticism. If you allow yourself to doubt if you can believe what your sources tell you about the physical world, your main doubt will be “who can I trust?” To overcome such doubt, you’ll want to focus on a small number of focal parameters, and for those seek shared data and explicit math models. That is, data where everyone can check how the data is collected, or collect it themselves, with redundant records to protect against tampering, and explicit shared math models describing their patterns. That is, you will turn to the methods to which those astronomers first turned.
Which is all to say that the skeptics turned out to be right. Not the extreme skeptics who doubted their own eyes, but the more moderate ones, who doubted holy scriptures and inherited traditions. Our distant ancestors were wrong (factually, if not strategically) to too eagerly trust their high status sources, and skeptics were right to focus on the few sources that they could most trust, when inclined toward great doubt. Slow methodical collection and study of the sort of data of which skeptics could most approve turned out to be a big key to enabling humanity’s current levels of wealth and power.
For a while now, I’ve been exploring the following thesis: this same sort of skepticism, if extended to our social relations, can similarly allow a great extension of our “scientific” and “industrial” revolutions, making our social systems far more effective and efficient. Today, we mainly use prestige markers to select and reward the many agents who serve us, instead of more directly paying for results or following track records. If asked, many say we do this because we can’t measure results well. But as with the first scientific revolution, with work we can find ways to coordinate to measure more stable focal parameters, sufficient to let us pay for results. Let me explain.
In civilization, we don’t do everything for ourselves. We instead rely on a great many expert agents to advise us and act for us. Plumbers, cooks, bankers, fund managers, manufacturers, politicians, contractors, reporters, teachers, researchers, police, regulators, priests, doctors, lawyers, therapists, and so on. They all claim to work on our behalf. But if you will allow yourself to doubt such claims, you will find plenty of room for skepticism. Instead of being as useful as they can, why don’t they just do what is easy, or what benefits them?
We don’t pay experts like doctors or lawyers directly for results in improving our cases, and we don’t even know their track records in previous cases. But aside from a few “bad apples”, we are told that we can trust them. They are loyal to us, coming from our nation, city, neighborhood, ethnicity, gender, or political faction. Or they follow proper procedures, required by authorities.
Or, most important, they are prestigious. They went to respected schools, are affiliated with respected institutions, and satisfied demanding licensing criteria. Gossip shows us that others choose and respect them. If they misbehave then we can sue them, or regulators may punish them. (Though such events are rare.) What more could we want?
But of course prestige doesn’t obviously induce a lawyer to win our case or promote justice, nor a doctor to make us well. Or a reporter to tell us the truth. Yes, it is logically possible that selecting them on prestige happens to also max gains for us. But we rarely hear any supporting argument for such common but remarkable claims; we are just supposed to accept them because, well, prestigious people say so.
Just as our distant ancestors were too gullible (factually, if not strategically) about their sources of knowledge on the physical world around them, we today are too gullible on how much we can trust the many experts on which we rely. Oh we are quite capable of skepticism about our rivals, such as rival governments and their laws and officials. Or rival professions and their experts. Or rival suppliers within our profession. But without such rivalry, we revert to gullibility, at least regarding “our” prestigious experts who follow proper procedures.
Yes, it will take work to develop better ways to measure results, and to collect track records. (And supporting math.) But progress here also requires removing many legal obstacles. For example, trial lawyers all win or lose in public proceedings, records of which are public. Yet it is very hard to actually collect such records into a shared database; many sit in filing cabinets in dusty county courthouse basements.
Contingency fees are a way to pay lawyers for results, but they are illegal in many places. Bounty hunters are paid for results in catching fugitives, but are illegal in many places. Bail bonds give results incentives to those who choose jail versus freedom, but they are being made illegal now. And so on. Similarly, medical records are more often stored electronically, but medical ethics rules make it very hard to aggregate them, and also to use creative ways to pay doctors based on results.
I’ve written many posts on how we could work to pay more for results, and choose more based on track records. And I plan to write more. But in this post I wanted to make the key point that what should drive us in this direction is skepticism about how well we can trust our usual experts, chosen mainly for their prestige (and loyalty and procedures) and using weak payment incentives. You might feel embarrassed by such skepticism, thinking it shows you to be low status and anti-social. After all, don’t all the friendly high status popular people trust their experts?
But the ancient skeptics were right about distrusting their sources on the physical world, and following their inclination helped to create science and industry, and our vast wealth today. Continuing to follow skeptical intuitions, this time regarding our expert agents, may allow us to create and maintain far better systems of law, medicine, governance, and much more. Onward, to Science 2.0!