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The importance of being modest

Summary:
It can be argued that the world has reach the sorry state it’s in today largely because academics, politicians and “distinguished experts” or “recognized authorities” did not have the humility to admit their own mistakes, or to at least recognize the limits of their knowledge. Of course, this is far from a new affliction in our societies and political systems. Hubris was one among the most terrible sins that the ancient Greeks warned against and there have been too many narcissists in positions of power to count, since the emergence of the first organized society. People who believe they know best, not just for themselves, but everyone else too, are naturally attracted to roles that would allow them to impose their will, their morality and their values on

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It can be argued that the world has reach the sorry state it’s in today largely because academics, politicians and “distinguished experts” or “recognized authorities” did not have the humility to admit their own mistakes, or to at least recognize the limits of their knowledge. Of course, this is far from a new affliction in our societies and political systems. Hubris was one among the most terrible sins that the ancient Greeks warned against and there have been too many narcissists in positions of power to count, since the emergence of the first organized society. People who believe they know best, not just for themselves, but everyone else too, are naturally attracted to roles that would allow them to impose their will, their morality and their values on their neighbor. 

However, it can be argued that the problem is much more prevalent today than at any other time in our history. The modern news landscape, both mainstream and social media, the supercharged propaganda machines of all developed nations, and our public education system, ensure that dangerous figures like that will hardly be challenged by anyone, once they are presented to the public as de facto, “recognized” and “widely accepted” authorities. This is also true of politicians, but it is infinitely more perilous when it comes to science. Because the average citizen can more easily directly question a political stance, whereas it can be impossible to judge the merits of a scientific one, lacking the detailed and specific knowledge in that area.

Therefore, it is much easier to “sell” any academic, from professors to junior researchers, as an “authority” to the people, one that must be obeyed and never questioned. They can freely give us all advice on how to live our lives and they can even dictate policy, despite the fact that usually that kind of thing tends to have knock on effects on areas they have absolutely no clue about. Once placed on their pedestal, they become “anointed”. They don’t even have to share any qualifications, any accomplishments or any testimonies from their peers. Their professional records are irrelevant; well, their failures at any rate. After all, how could you, average Joe, even begin to use your untrained, unspecialized brain to judge the particulars of their CVs or their research? After all, what do you know about climatology, about infectious diseases or about macroeconomics? Isn’t it hubris on your part, to dismiss the decades of dedication and work that someone else invested in a single subject and to instead believe that you know better than them?

Well, these would be fair arguments, if we lived in an unbiased world, where open debate and independent thinking were actually encouraged. In that world, the experts (in plural that is, not just a handpicked one), would engage in public exchanges, they would challenge each other with evidence for different theories and with relevant, contradictory findings. And every viewpoint would be explored and scrutinized, in a grand competition of ideas. Those hypotheses and models that matched real-life observations and had more accurate predictive value would be promoted to theories and only then we could base our policy making upon them. But just as easily, once a better idea came along the old one would be consigned to the ash heap of history. This is the scientific method, this is the product of Reason, everything else we see today is the product of a cult mentality.

And it yields the results one would expect: catastrophically wrong “theories”, leading to devastating consequences for entire nations, even the entire world. We’re seeing much of this play out in real time today. The demented fanaticism of the West and its leaders’ monomaniacal obsession with the “green” agenda has led to an energy crisis like no other. In Europe, guided by “expert advice”, the policies of the last decade and the premature transition away from fossil fuels, has left most countries almost entirely dependent on imports. Skyrocketing electricity bills have already crippled countless households and this self-inflicted crisis even has the potential to cost actual lives this winter. 

Another area where this phenomenon is painfully obvious is the “dismal science”. The field of economics has arguably produced some of the most dangerous “authorities” the world has ever seen. Once placed in a position of power, in a central bank or in a Finance ministry for instance, the chaos they can wreak is frightening and truly lasting. This is because the general public really has no understanding of even the most basic economic principles and no grasp of monetary history and they are justifiably intimidated by the jargon used. This is why central bankers for example can deflect the blame so easily each time their policies go awry, or why “respected economists” can sell nonsensical, but popular, ideas as “fact”, just like we saw with “Modern Monetary Theory”.

A rare exception can be found in Austrian Economics. Economists of this school understand very well that the economy is an extremely complex, living organism and that there is no such thing as a Homo Economicus, or a perfectly rational actor that behaves exactly like a model predicts. No, there are no such creatures, we only have humans to work with, for better or for worse. As Walter E. Block put it in a recent article: 

“I think the steadfast refusal of Austrians to engage in economic predictions is consonant with our limited powers. We can explain economic reality and understand quite a bit of it, but unless “all else is constant” which it never is, we cannot predict, at least not qua economists. Intellectual modesty is of great value. Do I predict that one day mainstream economists will come to see the error of their ways in this regard? I hope so, but, as an Austrian economist, I make no predictions either way.” 

Claudio Grass, Hünenberg See, Switzerland

This article has been published in the Newsroom of pro aurum, the leading precious metals company in Europe with an independent subsidiary in Switzerland. 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Therefore please feel free to share and you can subscribe for my articles by clicking here


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Claudio Grass
Claudio Grass is a passionate advocate of free-market thinking and libertarian philosophy. Following the teachings of the Austrian School of Economics he is convinced that sound money and human freedom are inextricably linked to each other. He is one of the founders of GoldAndLiberty.com.

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