Scott’s Column – Our Limitations
August 20 2021
A few weeks ago one of my ministry colleagues said in relation to the pandemic, “I’m f***ing tired of navigating this thing.” I’m sure he speaks not only for every clergyperson, but probably every human being on the planet.
The context was the new guidance by the CDC just ahead of the new Delta surge, after months of life returning to relative normalcy. The last few weeks caught most of us by surprise as we had to once again change habits.
Back in the spring of 2020 I realized that we were also dealing with an epistemic crisis. In the midst of much uncertainty, people were struggling to understand what was accurate and not, what was true, what was a wise and moral decision, whom to trust for information, how to estimate risk, etc. We are rarely so acutely thrown into a situation where we have to suddenly and radically alter our habits and where information and recommendations were constantly changing and we must confront the inadequacies of our decision-making processes.
For me an important thing to watch for was epistemic humility. Given that there was so much we didn’t know and so much that was changing, I preferred listening to those folks who didn’t presume to know and were less likely to speculate about the future.
Dealing with this pandemic revealed many of our epistemic biases and limitations. We pretty much all had some confirmation bias, wherein we were excited about a new report or article that backed up an idea we already believed. There was also a lot of both over- and under-estimating of risk at various points by most of us. Many experienced optimistic bias, believing the world to be more benign than it really is.
In his 2011 best seller Thinking, Fast and Slow Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman wrote, “When it comes to rare events, our mind is not designed to get things quite right. For the residents of a planet that may be exposed to events no one has yet experienced, this is not good news.” Eerily prescient, he.
I know I’m late to the party given how many of my friends had already read this book, but I did so this summer. I wish I had read it a long time ago or that I had read it early in the pandemic. Kahneman details all the many ways the human brain goes wrong in seeking the truth, evaluating risks and possibilities, making judgements, experiencing the present, and remembering the past. We like to think we are rational agents in control and making good choices, but he lays out all the empirical research which shows otherwise. And particularly so when we are in rare situations.
As this pandemic shifted yet again in late July, I was reading his three chapters on risk assessment and how truly bad humans are that. He writes that we overweight losses that have low probability and tend to underweight outcomes that are almost certain.
On the final page of the book he writes that “an organization is a factory that manufactures judgments and decisions.” He gives some guidance for minimizing biases and our epistemic limitations. But one of my takeaways from the book is that our organizational decision-making can’t be purely rational, because human beings are not purely rational. We have to deal with actual humans and their flawed psychological processes. Which means that dealing with crises can be even more difficult.
Kahneman advises that the best way to prevent errors is to “recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement” from the rational part of your brain. He does write that we are less likely to use this procedure though when we most need it. “The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision.”
So what helps is collaborating with others who are more likely to see your limitations and help you with them, just as you are more likely to see theirs. So working together to make wise decisions helps us all.
A good reminder of why we congregationalists govern ourselves the way we do.