Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hard to know for sure

I keep running into this problem of the limitations of knowledge. Today, a professor friend of mine reminded me how the one thing you take away from earning a PhD is how little you know of your field of study. We were discussing the old saying that after your first week in China you’ll feel like you could write a book about the place; after a year you’ll think you could write a magazine article; after a few years you give up writing anything.

The Useless Tree Blog discusses (via China Law Blog) a recent interview with Chinese official Wang Qishan claiming that China is only understandable to insiders like himself, but my first thought is “what does it mean to understand in the first place.” Does anybody really know?

Then there’s Peter Norvig’s excellent review of a recent remark by Noam Chomsky dismissing the use of statistical techniques in linguistics. Chomsky apparently thinks real scientific understanding requires more than a statistical analysis of a bunch of data—you have to synthesize that knowledge, presumably into simpler, fundamental rules that describe the Universe. That’s super-hard, and except in Physics almost always turns out to be an approximation anyway.

This is just restating the problem identified by Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society and by countless others who reflect on the limitations of what we know.

Society gives too much credit to people who appear to know, but I think self-confidence is no substitute for understanding.