Another way of putting this question is: how does your ideology and social setting blind you? One way to answer is to look at those beliefs that you have the most incentive to deceive yourself about. What are your biases? For instance, I’m probably not as smart or as caring as I think I am, because I want to be smart and caring and I’m going to be on the lookout for evidence in favor of those two beliefs and be tempted to ignore or discount evidence against them. But then, too, there is the Dunning-Kreuger effect, so who the hell knows? Whatever we think about these traits, we’re probably wrong, but in the banal way that everyone else is likely to be wrong, too.
I have something like my old prompt about books that changed your mind. Even if we’re conscious of the dangers of motivated reasoning and motivated rationality, we can still point to those beliefs that we hold that we see as the weakest, perhaps not because we hold them in an effort to signal ability or loyalty, but because we find holding those beliefs useful for orienting further inquiry. So here goes:
- Moral Realism: The belief I hold that is most likely to be wrong is a belief in moral judgments that track something objective or at least non-agent-relative. After all, it’s difficult to engage in normative inquiry without believing that our researches track something. Just as philosophers of religion tend to believe in God and astrologers tend to believe in the predictive power of the stars, ethical and political philosophers tend to believe in their thing, too. If we’re wrong on this (as thousands of relativist undergraduates have confided in me) then we’re unlikely to find lasting success. And there is certainly some reason to believe that we haven’t seen much in the way of progress in normative inquiry, despite recent trends like the line that runs through John Rawls, Derek Parfit, Philip Pettit, and Elizabeth Anderson.
- Character Skepticism: the second-most-likely-to-be-wrong belief I hold is skepticism about the existence of persistent character traits. I went to school with a generation of scholars who were significantly motivated by what they thought of as the deconstruction of the subject or the death of the author, so there’s certainly a sociological or network effect bias to my skepticism. With all the evidence accumulating that character traits like conscientiousness have a genetic component, it’s almost absurd to pretend that there aren’t some traits that persist over time and context. Still, I find that skepticism to be very important for my discussions of moral equality, status emotions, and the fallibility or person-oriented judgments, and so I persist(!) in holding it. (Even while I hold many people in great esteem for what I take to be their persistent habit of being right, wise, or good.)
- The Basic Income and the Value-Added Tax: I’m not sure I’m “most likely to be wrong” on BIG+VAT, but I do think it’s the policy advocacy position where my confidence in advancing it is the least-well-matched by the sensus communis. Call it the “largest gap between my estimation of the evidence and the general estimate.” This blog got its title by my mixed feelings about utopian theorizing, but with BIG+VAT I do feel a bit like a utopian. Even beyond all the naysayers, there’s even some recent evidence that consumption (which a VAT would disincentivize) is an important component in reducing poverty. This suggests one reason to prefer income redistribution over VAT, and so the whole edifice is certainly shaky if the right empirical evidence comes along.
- The Unimportance of the Middle-Class: I tend to worry less about the middle-class than the least-advantaged, which leads me to worry more about the unemployed than the employed, more about global workers than domestic workers, and more about those without a college degree than those who have credentials. But there are lots of good arguments in political theory for a vibrant middle-class, not the least of which is Elizabeth Warren’s claim that “A middle class where people are falling out and into poverty is a middle class that has less room to bring people up and out of poverty.” So I may very well be wrong.
- The Inefficacy of Charter Schools: I tend to think that charter schools are an anti-union boondoggle, that they are less effective than the public schools they replace, and that the cherry-picked evidence in their favor usually depends upon hidden selection effects or a resurgence of racial segregation. Even in the best cases, they seem to offer a model that would not scale beyond the single school which has lucked into success, and I’m heartened by the Stanford study that showed that charters were twice as likely to be worse than regular public schools than to be better than them. But of course, a charter school advocate would say that we ought simply to close failing charters, leaving us with some schools that are equal to public schools and some that are superior to them: at the margin, that’s a good deal. And, too, not all charter schools are for-profit market-oriented corporate monstrosities; there are some innovative experiments in common-pool resource management going on within the charter school movement. Perhaps it is better to let parents dissatisfied with their public school options take the risk. If we believe in pluralism, these experiments might be a better way to match differing childrens’ needs with settings where those needs will be met. I dunno: I’m glad I’m not in charge of K-12 education policy in this country.
- Incarceration and Drugs: Like many progressives, I suspect that there is something deeply wrong with mass incarceration and the drug war. Most of the people I know seem to agree with all the constituent arguments against the way criminal justice is practiced in this country. We’re deeply embarrassed by the number and racial composition of prisoners here. And yet the system remains, and both engaged citizens and smart, caring politicians seem powerless to change it. Clearly, there’s some piece of this puzzle we just don’t understand.
- Meat Eating: I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be eating meat, and certainly not meat produced under the inhumane conditions in US factory farms. Yet I seem to be completely akratic on this front; I believe I shouldn’t, but I do it anyway. I’m certainly wrong, one way or another, because my actions and beliefs are in contradiction. This is more of an anxiety over that inconsistency than a likely-wrong belief, though, so maybe it’s not completely fitting with the principle of the question.
What are you most likely to be wrong about?