Is it possible to know something, and yet be unable to convincingly explain how you know it? I think so.
[Just to be clear, when I say “I know something” I mean that I believe I know it. But then what else could it mean?]
David Henderson recently said:
Like Scott, I doubt that the CIA was behind the JFK assassination, but all I have is doubt. I don’t have the certainty that Scott has and I don’t know what’s behind that certainty.
Just to be clear, I’m not completely certain of anything. But basically David is right; I claim to “know” that the CIA did not conspire to assassinate Kennedy, with 99.9% certainty. And yet I cannot explain why I know this. So do I? Let’s use an analogy of a picture of Trump’s face, made out of 10,000 dots, or pixels if you prefer. I might look at the picture and say it’s obviously Trump. But how do I know that? None of the individual pixels looks anything like Trump. Rather it’s the cumulative effect of all those pixels that creates the likeness.
When we go through life we accumulate an enormous amount of information. Each piece of information is like a dot, and together it gives us a complex worldview that tells us that some ideas are plausible and some are not. The best I could do is use an analogy, something David would agree with. I might say that I know that the American Girl Scouts leadership council was not behind the Kennedy assassination. If that didn’t work, pick a conspiracy that was even more far fetched—David’s grandmother. At some point he’d accept the idea that one might know something because the alternative is too implausible, or at least most people would. But of course that wouldn’t help at all with the CIA (which really does do nasty things.) The problem is that our life experiences give us each a different set of facts, and a different brain to process those facts. I see a different CIA from the one David sees.
When I was much younger—like 3 months ago—I used to think it was a productive use of time to try to convince someone that Trump’s a demagogue, because . . . well, because he’s obviously a near perfect dictionary definition of a demagogue. But it’s pointless. For every fact you cite, they’ll point to other non-demagogue politicians who do something similar, at least on occasion. Trump’s demagoguery is like the picture with 10,000 pixels, you either see it or you don’t. No single example of the big lie, or of demonizing minorities and foreigners, or of unrealistic promises, or macho posturing, is going to convince anyone, because they’ll always be able to explain it away. After all, politics is a very messy business. And each argument is just one dot.
This also relates to monetary policy. I know that monetary policy was too tight in 2008 and 2009 and that the Fed could have adopted a policy that led to faster NGDP growth. But if asked to explain how I know this, I’d have trouble explaining my belief. I lack an elevator pitch. I could tell people to read my entire blog, from end to end. But that’s 1000s of pages of argument, and it still wouldn’t even come close to explaining my belief, which also depends on decades of reading economic theory, economic history, and the history of economic thought. That reading creates the brain architecture or grid that determines where I store all the various facts that I come across, and explains why I often just “know” that a commenter’s facts are wrong, without having actually checked. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to convince people (in the blog I do the best I can), just that it’s very difficult to do.
On the other hand I strongly recommend that people not try to explain their beliefs on the Kennedy assassination, or 9/11, or why Noam Chomsky is wrong about US foreign policy, or why Trump is a demagogue, or why free will doesn’t exist, or why Scott Alexander is brilliant, or what it means to “know something”, unless you enjoy pointless debates. The odds of convincing anyone are so small that it’s not worth the effort.
PS. I don’t believe that ‘inexplicable knowledge’ is the right term, but am not sure what is. What I have in mind is not just tacit knowledge, as it can also involve reading books or articles.
PPS. I was going to do a post on Trump’s nominees, which so far are mostly lousy. But it’s probably not worth the effort. So I’ll just do a PS. Confirm them. In politics, I always try to put principle over expediency. So although I don’t like many of the nominees, I’ve always felt that Presidents have a right to pick the people who will serve them, unless something truly awful turns up. I didn’t think it was fair to prevent those women from serving as Attorney General back in 1993, just because of various “nanny-gates”, and I’m not going to change my views just because Trump is President.
PPPS. Vox recently published this piece by Sherri Underwood:
I remember the precise moment that I realized I regretted voting for Donald Trump.
It was during his 60 Minutes interview after the election. I was, like everyone else, shocked that he had won. It seemed so unlikely based on the polls and the confidence the media had that he would lose. It was a pleasant surprise, and I went to bed on election night thrilled that he would be our president.
But sitting on my couch, sipping coffee as I watched the interview, I saw with my own eyes who Trump really was as a person. He backtracked on one of his signature campaign promises: pursuing an investigation into the Clinton email scandal. It’s not that I want Clinton to be crucified or “locked up” — it’s the nonchalance with which he went back on his word after hammering it repeatedly during the campaign. The ease and quickness with which he reversed his position shook me to my core. I realized in that moment that I had voted for a demagogue. And it was sickening.
Three months ago I would have mercilessly mocked her stupidity. Now I respect her much more than I respect myself. Writing that article took courage. Not surprisingly, she’s a Midwesterner.
PPPPS. Speaking of the Midwest; Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin were three of the most liberal states in the country back in 1988, going for Dukakis while Illinois and California went for Bush. This fascinating factoid from the National Review suggests they are about to turn red:
In the Upper Midwest, demographic trends have lent a hand: In 2004, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were among the few states in which the oldest white voters were the most liberal, and the generation born of the Great Depression has been dying off.
Those old hippies are the Dukakis voters. The Wisconsin I grew up in is gone—just faded memories. And one more dot to slightly rewire the political map in my brain, which has both spatial and temporal dimensions.
BTW, Politico has a piece on Pepin County, Wisconsin that is the single best article on the election that I have read. I will do a post.
Update: Regarding Trump’s alleged demagoguery: