Modesty

 

Early in George W. Bush’s first term, I was dining with a friend who didn’t agree with my worldview. He challenged my certitude, allowing that he wasn’t sure about many issues. “Don’t you wonder whether you’re right?” he asked. “Well,” I replied, “If I held an incorrect view, I’d change it to the correct one.”

It was a joke, obviously, but I’ve thought of him many times in the intervening years, as my doubts have multiplied about many questions. In that time, I’ve learned – slower than I should have, admittedly – that it’s often impossible to know what the “right” view is. The world is complicated, and our capacity to understand, while glorious, remains limited.

The randomized, controlled study is one of the best tools to test hypotheses, and yet psychology and other fields are currently embroiled in debates over the reliability of published studies. A 2015 examination of 100 psychological studies, published in the magazine Science, found that two-thirds could not be replicated. Similar problems were found with cancer research.

Or consider economics. Does raising the minimum wage increase unemployment? You can find equally prestigious economists arguing both sides of the question, and it’s difficult to tease out the effects of one policy change when many other factors can also affect unemployment.

John Donohue and Steven Levitt caused a minor sensation in 2001 when they theorized that the dramatic drop in crime during the 1990s was traceable to the availability of abortion. Fewer unwanted children after 1973, they argued, had led to fewer criminals. Many challenged the thesis and the data. Some were offended by the implied justification for taking the lives of the unborn. But what did cause the dramatic decline in crime?

Some speculated that the crack epidemic waxed and waned causing the spike and decline in crime. But the timing doesn’t really work. Crime began its steep increase in the 1960s, long before the crack craze.

At the time, I was completely convinced that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and “broken windows” policing deserved the credit, and maybe that was right. It seemed intuitively correct that cracking down on quality of life crimes, stopping and frisking suspicious individuals, and targeting high crime neighborhoods with extra police would discourage crime. The data were staggering: the crime rate dropped 65 percent during Giuliani’s term.

When New York’s Mayor Bill De Blasio ended stop and frisk in 2013, I worried that the crime rate would begin to inch back up. But, as Kyle Smith acknowledged in National Review, crime has continued to drop in New York: “Four of the five least-murderous years in New York City since 1960 have been in the de Blasio era. Other crime statistics have largely followed suit, with the total number of major crimes down in 2017 by about 6 percent since 2016, which was itself a record-low year.”

Something else was tickling the back of my mind about the crime rate: crime dropped everywhere in the United States. It fell in cities that adopted Giuliani-style tough tactics and it also fell in cities that didn’t.

Perhaps it was incarceration? It’s possible, but not dispositive. Canada, for example, experienced a notable decline in crime during the same period but did not have comparable incarceration rates.

In recent years, some have speculated the proliferation of cell phones may be the reason crime declined so much so fast. Criminals may be warier of committing crimes in the presence of witnesses who can easily call police or snap photos of licenses. Open-air drug markets are less necessary when exchanges can be so easily arranged by cell phone.

The point of this is not to abandon the scientific method or throw up our hands in the search for truth. In our time, it’s more urgent than ever to rebut those who deny that truth is knowable. The intellectual left has long been under the sway of postmodernism, which denies that objective truth exists. Oprah Winfrey reflected this thinking (intellectual trends never remain cabined on campuses, they trickle down) when she spoke of “your truth” at the Grammys. In other words, you have your truth and I have mine, which means truth doesn’t exist. The populist right is feverishly denouncing all uncongenial facts as “fake news.”

Truth is not subjective. Water will freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit whether we believe it or not. But we should be modest about our grasp of the truth, mindful of our limited understanding and our own tendency to reach conclusions first and find evidence second. Maybe this column is right, but I won’t be insulted if you check it.

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  1. George Townsend Member
    George Townsend
    @GeorgeTownsend

    Good column, Mona. Very thoughtful.

    I personally am weary of studies. One comes out one year; a few years later a contradictory one comes out. I remember when we were told eggs were bad for you. Then they weren’t. Meanwhile, my Mother’s mother ate a fried egg every day that I can remember, and she lived to be almost a hundred.

    We do need some studies. But they will never replace common sense!

    • #1
  2. Jager Coolidge
    Jager
    @Jager

    Mona Charen: The populist right is feverishly denouncing all uncongenial facts as “fake news.”

    The problem is that there actually are fake controversies spread by the media. If the media was reporting just the true facts, the whole fake news thing would not have taken off. I agree that some of the things people call fake news are not fake. The fact that some things are fake makes finding the truth a mess.

    https://www.gop.com/the-highly-anticipated-2017-fake-news-awards/

     

    • #2
  3. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    This might not be what Oprah meant, but “your truth, my truth” certainly makes sense if it means the particular, limited view one has of the entire truth from wherever it is one is located while looking—one’s vantage point. If that’s what Oprah meant, she’s certainly right.

    Cell phones ! Talk about a change right in front of you that you miss considering. We’ve all read at least one crime story in which criminals cut phone lines.

     

    • #3
  4. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Jager (View Comment):

    Mona Charen: The populist right is feverishly denouncing all uncongenial facts as “fake news.”

    The problem is that there actually are fake controversies spread by the media. If the media was reporting just the true facts, the whole fake news thing would not have taken off. I agree that some of the things people call fake news are not fake. The fact that some things are fake makes finding the truth a mess.

    https://www.gop.com/the-highly-anticipated-2017-fake-news-awards/

    I decided not to make much of an issue of this sentence because of the general absence of Trump-bashing in the column.  Buuutt . . .  what exactly is the “populist right”?  And what “uncongenial” (great word) facts are being denounced?  If you’re going to say this, a little support for the statement might be in order.

    • #4
  5. Michael Collins Member
    Michael Collins
    @MichaelCollins

    Mona Charen: In that time, I’ve learned – slower than I should have, admittedly – that it’s often impossible to know what the “right” view is. The world is complicated, and our capacity to understand, while glorious, remains limited.

    That sounds Hayekian to me.   Truth is objective, but the ones who claim to know everything tend to be socialists and progressives.  Conservatives understand that while truth is objective, knowledge is dispersed.   That is what makes the right, right.

    • #5
  6. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Jager (View Comment):

    Mona Charen: The populist right is feverishly denouncing all uncongenial facts as “fake news.”

    The problem is that there actually are fake controversies spread by the media. If the media was reporting just the true facts, the whole fake news thing would not have taken off. I agree that some of the things people call fake news are not fake. The fact that some things are fake makes finding the truth a mess.

    https://www.gop.com/the-highly-anticipated-2017-fake-news-awards/

    I decided not to make much of an issue of this sentence because of the general absence of Trump-bashing in the column. Buuutt . . . what exactly is the “populist right”? And what “uncongenial” (great word) facts are being denounced? If you’re going to say this, a little support for the statement might be in order.

    It’s her best column since I started reading her in the primaries.

    I’m willing to let this slide.

    Mona Charen: “Four of the five least-murderous years in New York City since 1960 have been in the de Blasio era. Other crime statistics have largely followed suit, with the total number of major crimes down in 2017 by about 6 percent since 2016, which was itself a record-low year.” (Quoting Mr. Smith)

    Heather MacDonald, about the same exact time, mentioned that this same time period also saw those major cities go through a trend of gentrification.

    It is that gentrification which is now helping fuel the ongoing crime drop. Urban hipsters are flocking to areas that once were the purview of drug dealers and pimps, trailing in their wake legitimate commerce and street life, which further attracts law-abiding activity and residents in a virtuous cycle of increasing public safety. The degree of demographic change is startling.

    Ms. MacDonald continues to point out that Baltimore and Chicago, where no such gentrification has occurred, have not experienced the same drop in crime that NYC and LA have.

    • #6
  7. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Mona Charen: In our time, it’s more urgent than ever to rebut those who deny that truth is knowable.

    When I was homeschooled, my science book covered thoroughly the monastics and Christians that pursued scientific discovery – they were truth seekers. Believing they knew the source of Truth, they wanted to discover how he made the world tick. It was an interesting philosophy – and at the time, that’s what it was – philosophy.

    “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know” (Goodreads attributes this to Aristotle… does that sound like Aristotle?)

    • #7
  8. PHCheese Member
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Seawater doesn’t freeze at 32, it freezes at 28.4  Fahrenheit .

    • #8
  9. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Mona Charen: Maybe this column is right, but I won’t be insulted if you check it.

    Dear Mona,

    There is more than enough epistemological relativism in the world and I’m very glad you have no intention of adding to it. One of my little running jokes has been that the SJWs are now protesting that the white male patriarchy refused to repeal the Law of Gravity because they hate the disabled. After all, it falls together into a really cool narrative with the ring of truth. Lately, I’ve been very concerned lest my joke end up coming true. argh.

    I will defend the populist right’s cries of “fake news” a little if you don’t mind. First, I remind you that the current White House Press Corps does not have one registered Republican on it. This is completely different from even 20 years ago when real conservative voices would have been heard at every press conference. Now, Sarah Huckabee Sanders takes a gun, a chair, and whip into the lion’s den and fights this mob off every single time. The woman deserves a medal for this. Meanwhile, in this perverse society, she is grotesquely openly attacked for her dress & hairstyle by women who claim to be feminists. No small bias is shown there I’m so sure. Second, when I went to University, I think the earth had just cooled and the dinosaurs still roamed around, about 25% of the faculty were well-known conservatives. They had worldwide reputations and Nobel prizes. Thus, there was always a counterforce on campus even if the majority of the professors were quite liberal. Now there is an overwhelming bias to the left on campus that tries to extort silence from anyone expressing a conservative opinion. If there are conservative profs left in this environment they are keeping their heads extremely low. I suspect that the current interest in Jordon Peterson is related to this. Current college-age students have been subjected to a deconstructionist version of Chairman Mao’s Red Guard. They are undoubtedly sick to death of this nonsense. Peterson is a professional academic who has the guts to speak directly against this intellectual tyranny and stand up for academic freedom.

    Sometimes when the populist right yells “fake news” it’s because it is fake news.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #9
  10. Allan Rutter Member
    Allan Rutter
    @AllanRutter

    You’ve stated your admiration for Russ Roberts’ EconTalk before, but this column shows that influence again.  His recent guest, John Ioannidis, spoke of his work in this very subject–how researchers’ bias can taint their work, particularly in the type of research that attempts to summarize other research reports in hopes that large numbers of small sample size studies can aggregate into stronger findings.

    For me, the issue is not whether truth is subjective or objective (my own faith affirms that there is indeed truth to be discovered), it’s whether some observable phenomena are so complicated that our attempts to understand them or craft a theory about them will always be limited by the inherent uncertainty of our theories and the observations that created them. Our theories may bend toward truth, but a healthy modesty about our limitations is always in order.

    Thanks for the post!

    • #10
  11. Terry Mott Member
    Terry Mott
    @TerryMott

    Mona Charen:Truth is not subjective. Water will freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit whether we believe it or not. But we should be modest about our grasp of the truth, mindful of our limited understanding and our own tendency to reach conclusions first and find evidence second.

    Does that mean that you now renounce all the times that you dismissed all Trump supporters as racists, based solely on their desire to limit illegal immigration?

    • #11
  12. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Mona Charen: Truth is not subjective. Water will freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit whether we believe it or not.

    Depending on the pressure. This “truth” is not as absolute as Mona would like to believe.

    • #12
  13. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    I’m sorry, but those gear teeth aren’t made right.  The engineer in me is too distracted by that to read the article. :)

     

    edit:  Okay, guilt caused me to look past the odd gear teeth and read the article.  Very good, Mona.  I like it.

    • #13
  14. George Townsend Member
    George Townsend
    @GeorgeTownsend

    Stina (View Comment):
    Heather MacDonald, about the same exact time, mentioned that this same time period also saw those major cities go through a trend of gentrification.

    It is that gentrification which is now helping fuel the ongoing crime drop. Urban hipsters are flocking to areas that once were the purview of drug dealers and pimps, trailing in their wake legitimate commerce and street life, which further attracts law-abiding activity and residents in a virtuous cycle of increasing public safety. The degree of demographic change is startling.

    Ms. MacDonald continues to point out that Baltimore and Chicago, where no such gentrification has occurred, have not experienced the same drop in crime that NYC and LA have.

    Heather is certainly an indispensable asset.

    • #14
  15. Curt North Member
    Curt North
    @CurtNorth

    It’s nice to hear back from the OP authors like this.  I really like how she engages in thoughtful debate the way she does.

    Oh, wait…

    • #15
  16. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Mona Charen: Water will freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit whether we believe it or not.

    Chances are it will not change state at exactly 32 degrees F any more than ice will melt at 32 degrees F. Pressure, purity of the water matter.

    • #16
  17. George Townsend Member
    George Townsend
    @GeorgeTownsend

    Curt Norusth (View Comment):
    It’s nice to hear back from the OP authors like this. I really like how she engages in thoughtful debate the way she does.

    Oh, wait…

    Must we endure the constant put-down of Mona? This was a very thoughtful analysis.

    • #17
  18. Curt North Member
    Curt North
    @CurtNorth

    Moderator Note:

    The CoC encourages people to stay on-topic. Remarks which may apply to *any* OP with a given author's name simply because it's that author's name aren't topical.

    George Townsend (View Comment):

    Curt Norusth (View Comment):
    It’s nice to hear back from the OP authors like this. I really like how she engages in thoughtful debate the way she does.

    Oh, wait…

    Must we endure the constant put-down of Mona? This was a very thoughtful analysis.

    I wouldn’t know, I quit reading her over a year ago.

    Note that my comment wasn’t about the post itself since, as I stated, I don’t read her anymore.  My comment was directed at the idea of carrying her (or anyone else’s for that matter) syndicated columns on here.  Those are available all over the internet, IMHO Rico should be reserved for member posts, and anyone posting on here has somewhat of an obligation to engage afterwards, as noted recently by the wonderful @susanquinn in an excellent member post.  Syndicated columns with no follow-up by the author on this site are simply not needed.

    • #18
  19. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    Michael Collins (View Comment):

    Mona Charen: In that time, I’ve learned – slower than I should have, admittedly – that it’s often impossible to know what the “right” view is. The world is complicated, and our capacity to understand, while glorious, remains limited.

    That sounds Hayekian to me. Truth is objective, but the ones who claim to know everything tend to be socialists and progressives. Conservatives understand that while truth is objective, knowledge is dispersed. That is what makes the right, right.

    This is why central bank discretion is a disaster and likely the source of all of our problems.

    • #19
  20. George Townsend Member
    George Townsend
    @GeorgeTownsend

    Curt North (View Comment):
    Syndicated columns with no follow-up by the author on this site are simply not needed.

    Well, I happen to enjoy her columns. You do not speak for all of us.

    • #20
  21. Curt North Member
    Curt North
    @CurtNorth

    George Townsend (View Comment):

    Curt North (View Comment):
    Syndicated columns with no follow-up by the author on this site are simply not needed.

    Well, I happen to enjoy her columns. You do not speak for all of us.

    Again, her columns can be found anywhere.  My point was that IMHO Rico should reserve this place for paying members.

    An I never claimed to speak for anyone but myself.

    • #21
  22. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    Curt North (View Comment):

    George Townsend (View Comment):

    Curt North (View Comment):
    Syndicated columns with no follow-up by the author on this site are simply not needed.

    Well, I happen to enjoy her columns. You do not speak for all of us.

    Again, her columns can be found anywhere. My point was that IMHO Rico should reserve this place for paying members.

    An I never claimed to speak for anyone but myself.

    Ricochet has had contributors since it’s creation and we will continue to do so.

    • #22
  23. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    Curt North (View Comment):
    I wouldn’t know, I quit reading her over a year ago.

    Then why would you comment on her posts?

    • #23
  24. Curt North Member
    Curt North
    @CurtNorth

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):

    Curt North (View Comment):
    I wouldn’t know, I quit reading her over a year ago.

    Then why would you comment on her posts?

    Simply to voice my opinion on syndicated columns being carried here.  Contributor columns can be differentiated from syndicated columns as far as I know.  I’m not trying to be argumentative, just trying to do my little bit to steer this place more towards the right and away from the center, or center-left.

    • #24
  25. George Townsend Member
    George Townsend
    @GeorgeTownsend

    Curt North (View Comment):

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):

    Curt North (View Comment):
    I wouldn’t know, I quit reading her over a year ago.

    Then why would you comment on her posts?

    Simply to voice my opinion on syndicated columns being carried here. Contributor columns can be differentiated from syndicated columns as far as I know. I’m not trying to be argumentative, just trying to do my little bit to steer this place more towards the right and away from the center, or center-left.

    Anything I would add at this point would come close to violating the Code of Conduct. I just believe it is not up to you to try to steer someone else’s site to where you think it should be. And I commend Mr. Gabriel for standing up to you.

    • #25
  26. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Mona Charen: Truth is not subjective. Water will freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit whether we believe it or not.

    Depending on the pressure. This “truth” is not as absolute as Mona would like to believe.

    That’s the trouble when folks stray outside their expertise, isn’t it? When it comes to pundits like this, what is their expertise? In that context, the OP title is profoundly ironic.

    • #26
  27. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    George Townsend (View Comment):
    Good column, Mona. Very thoughtful.

    I personally am weary of studies. One comes out one year; a few years later a contradictory one comes out. I remember when we were told eggs were bad for you. Then they weren’t. Meanwhile, my Mother’s mother ate a fried egg every day that I can remember, and she lived to be almost a hundred.

    We do need some studies. But they will never replace common sense!

    • #27
  28. George Townsend Member
    George Townsend
    @GeorgeTownsend

    TBA (View Comment):

    George Townsend (View Comment):
    Good column, Mona. Very thoughtful.

    I personally am weary of studies. One comes out one year; a few years later a contradictory one comes out. I remember when we were told eggs were bad for you. Then they weren’t. Meanwhile, my Mother’s mother ate a fried egg every day that I can remember, and she lived to be almost a hundred.

    We do need some studies. But they will never replace common sense!

    Thanks! I just got up, took my shower. What a great way to start the day!!

    • #28

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