Late into the recent episode about Thomas Kuhn, the conversation settled into the apparent threat of relativism looming in Kuhn’s ideas. This led to a tone of “been there, done that,” especially in highlighting the psychological reality of theÂ confirmation bias. This isn’t a term used directly during the episode, but it captures precisely what was discussed: the notion that we see what we expect to see. In science (or in any study really, since it’s all mediated by a human lens), this means that we generally find evidence that confirms our current biases. I think it’s a fair leap to say that Kuhn’s suggestion of “paradigms” acts as another way of saying biases (unless that’s just my bias).
It follows then that “normal science” proceeds according to the logic of a confirmation paradigm. With knowledge generally, this is how we all “normally” proceed. We set up a comfortable (perhaps even empirically justifiable) way of seeing things, and then everything within our view conveniently (or legitimately) supports our initial vision. We are blind to anything outside that way of seeing. That is, of course, until a new paradigm comes into focus. If we’re open-minded enough, hopefully we’ll have the humility to re-vise our former bedrock.
All of this talk reminded me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work, most notablyÂ The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable andÂ Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. While I can hardly do either piece justice in such a brief post, I’ll try to highlight a few of his prevailing points. Besides, you’re better off reading his views in his words anyway, especially if you enjoy Nietzsche’s style. Taleb tends to adopt the same grandiloquent, aphoristic hauteur.
InÂ The Black Swan, Taleb introduces the concept of (you may have guessed it) black swans: events, positive or negative, that are deemed improbable yet cause massive consequences. They are defined by their rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective predictability. Black swans sound like Kuhn’s means for scientific revolution, for paradigm shifts. But regardless of the term we use to define the catalyst, why should we care? According to Taleb, and this is nothing new, “categorizing always produces reduction in true complexity…any reduction of the world around us can have explosive consequences since it rules out some sources of uncertainty; it drives us to a misunderstanding of the fabric of the world” (16). Science ostensibly propels us toward an understanding of the fabric of the world, but even its espoused objectivity is always dubious, and we’re never getting quite as close to understanding as we’d like to think. Kuhn recognized this, the PEL crew bemoaned it. Our perspective is always coming up short, even in the meticulous, careful vision afforded by the scientific process.
What Taleb would encourage is simply the humbling reminder that we can’t purge ourselves of that reality. We have to live with our greatest shortcoming: that we’re human, that we understandÂ everything through our humanity. As frustrating and nauseating as this may seem, since it may encourage relativism, even nihilism, it’s actually fairly inspiring: there’s always more for us to learn and know. Of course, no one wants to keep having the rug swept out from under their feet, or even to admit (not the probability) the reality of its perpetual arrival. Far better to secure its comfort and stay within a particular paradigm/tradition/ideology, right? For Taleb, that’s where the real trouble begins. Willed ignorance.Â ChoosingÂ (if we’re aware) to stick to a particular perspective. Pretending that black swans aren’t out there, about to dismantle the beautiful artifice we’ve constructed to make sense of our world.
So does this mean we stop building? Does this mean we stop categorizing? Stop trying to understand the way the world works? No. It means we understand what we’re doing as we go after these great fruits. It means we admit that we may be wrong, rather than insist that we’re right. In order to do so, Taleb encourages people to become “rational flaneurs,” or “someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision at every step to revise his schedule, so he can imbibe things based on new information…the flaneur is not a prisoner of a plan. Tourism, actual or figurative, is imbued with the teleological illusion; it assumes completeness of vision and gets one locked into a hard-to-revise program, while the flaneur continuously – and, what is crucial, rationally – modifies his target as he acquires information [what Taleb termsÂ optionality]” (170Â Antifragility). Seeking knowledge isn’t the issue for Taleb; it’s the typical method we use.
Kuhn urges us to remember that science is subject to the same inherent flaws as any intellectual endeavor, and Taleb does the same. Taleb’s point, at least, is to help us see that we gain from disorder, chaos, and randomness (because we’re antifragile); meanwhile, we work so hard (and for him, modernity is the supreme and loathsome evidence of this) to prevent these unpredictable elements. We don’t want to see our paradigms dissolve, even though they’re bound to.
In the end, a willingness to revise, in everything that we do, is paramount. That is, a willingness to abide by our current understanding of nature and evolution, a willingness to allow ourselves to adapt and change. Even if we’re not willing, we don’t really have a choice; the world keeps moving forward even as, or perhaps especially when, we try to freeze it. So whether we’re studying physics, deciding whether or not we like someone, or writing a blog post, we shouldn’t get too comfortable with our current sight. With eyes always open and ever alert to new information, we find our greatest strength- our antifragility.