Cowen’s Epistemic Portfolio Theory and Flaubert’s Maxim

A portfolio theory is a way to minimize risk by diversifying one’s commitments or investments, using hopefully countercyclical strategies so that some part of your portfolio is always growing. Tyler Cowen suggests an amusing epistemic portfolio theory:

That is, most people have an internal psychological need to fulfill a “quota of dogmatism.”  If you’re very dogmatic in one area, you may be less dogmatic in others.  I’ve also met people — I won’t name names — who are extremely dogmatic on ethical issues but quite open-minded on empirics.  The ethical dogmatism frees them up to follow the evidence on the empirics, as they don’t feel their overall beliefs are threatened by the empirical results.

Some people, if they feel they must always follow the evidence, respond by skewing their interpretation of that evidence.

There’s a lesson here.  If you wish to be a more open-minded thinker, adhere to some extreme and perhaps unreasonable fandoms, the more firmly believed the better and the more obscure the area the better.  This will help fulfill your dogmatism quota, yet without much skewing your more important beliefs.

Frankly, I suspect Cowen is recapitulating Gustave Flaubert. Here’s Flaubert:

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Of course, Flaubert’s maxim is a kind of portfolio of habits related to personal and professional radicalism, where Cowen argues for a specifically epistemic portfolio. But his inclusion of ethical beliefs suggests they may not be far off. I find that I am mildly suspicious of the claim, and I’m leaning towards the belief that dogmatism or fallibilism will tend to aggravate themselves. Why can’t we adopt Bayesean or fallibilist commitments slowly, expanding them as we find the time and energy?

Consider Descartes in the Meditations: must we be suspicious of the authenticity of Cartesian doubt in order to maintain portfolio theory? Descartes looks like a kind of dogmatist about self and God, after all… though that could either mean that he is an example of a portfolio doubter, or that he didn’t work sufficiently carefully through the doubts and had a kind of epistemic bubble and crash.

What I imagine is the opposite of Cartesian doubt: rather than doubt everything all at once and risk epistemic shocks and a resurgence of unemployed credulity, we work on sustainable growth in GDP: Gross Doubt Production. The goal is to root out our dogmatisms throughout a lifetime, growing milder and less certain with age.

In short, where Cowen adopts an epistemic Keynesian model, I’m advocating epistemic Hayekianism:





2 responses to “Cowen’s Epistemic Portfolio Theory and Flaubert’s Maxim”

  1. […] of my reflections on it. In particular, I am mindful that my position is somewhat at odds with my fallibilism, and I want to make it clear how I see them […]

  2. […] is a dangerous thing.” (But isn’t that what TED is for?) Then he reminds us of the epistemic portfolio theory, which holds that we’ll tend to balance our subjects of agnosticism, unpopular beliefs, and […]

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