The Kindness of Prejudice

I read someplace, years ago, that the object of science is, laboriously and at great expense, to confirm the commonplace. Here’s my favorite illustration: Shakespeare gave us (perhaps transmitting Plato) “the empty vessel makes the greatest sound,” but, the bard lacking the scientific credentials so necessary today, Dunning and Kruger produced the following:

“People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.”

Pick your idiom as you like, but bear in mind “the empty vessel” or the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” next time you peruse the news or social media. There the wearisome certainty, cloying irony, and unmeasured stridency repetitiously on display make me long for the kind of sense spoken by Stark Young:

“I remind myself of diverse things. It is not necessary to make men, foolish or serious, agree with me, no matter what the principle is; they may have different faculties. Nor should I be over-anxious to justify our cause, lest I resemble those who, the more they act out of sheer sensation, the more they claim to live by reason’s laws. And I must not make the mistake of saying that any of these qualities that I would promote has reason for its basis; it is based on preference only, and it achieves its consummation, or perfection, in becoming rational. It is then a thing complete in itself, making its own kind of sense.”

The root of belief is largely “extra-rational”; we will live by preference, sensibility, and prejudice. Unacknowledged, prejudice may be mistaken for “reason’s laws,” science, or the voice of the Holy Spirit, but acknowledged, it may lead to the temperate and humane attitude of Young.

As the scope and competence of government increase, so do our reliance on expert opinion and, in lockstep, the activity and application of prejudice. The public is kept busy discussing epidemiology, statistics, data analysis, and law, without possessing a shred of knowledge by which to evaluate their claims. Finding largely unintelligible theories plausible because compatible with our prejudices, we then angrily brandish them in our preferred digital arena. 

Our felt need for a scientific weapon in these disputes points to the modern prejudice with which we began, that in favor of science over wisdom. We find, for example, the plodding inelegancies of the Dunning-Kruger Effect more authoritative than the proverb preserved by Shakespeare. Whatever preference we allow it, science must be translated by experts, and reliance on experts is a matter of the extra-rational—an “appeal to authority” is, strictly speaking, a logical fallacy. 

Hence to believe public opinion above prejudice, we must make at least three doubtful assumptions: that science has greater authority than other methods of knowing; that the public can assess the credentials and credibility of an expert; and that the public can evaluate expert argument.

The advance of science will not entail the eradication of prejudice unless every man may be made expert in every field of knowledge. Until then, we might heed Edmund Burke’s defense of prejudice:

“We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages…Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved.”

Understanding that our opinions are based on trust, affection, received opinion, and tradition, we will be cautious and respectful in our speech—unwilling empty vessels.

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