Epistemic Humility—Knowing Your Limits in a Pandemic

Essay by Erik Angner: “Ignorance,” wrote Charles Darwin in 1871, “more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Darwin’s insight is worth keeping in mind when dealing with the current coronavirus crisis. That includes those of us who are behavioral scientists. Overconfidence—and a lack of epistemic humility more broadly—can cause real harm.

In the middle of a pandemic, knowledge is in short supply. We don’t know how many people are infected, or how many people will be. We have much to learn about how to treat the people who are sick—and how to help prevent infection in those who aren’t. There’s reasonable disagreement on the best policies to pursue, whether about health care, economics, or supply distribution. Although scientists worldwide are working hard and in concert to address these questions, final answers are some ways away.

Another thing that’s in short supply is the realization of how little we know. Even a quick glance at social or traditional media will reveal many people who express themselves with way more confidence than they should…

Frequent expressions of supreme confidence might seem odd in light of our obvious and inevitable ignorance about a new threat. The thing about overconfidence, though, is that it afflicts most of us much of the time. That’s according to cognitive psychologists, who’ve studied the phenomenon systematically for half a century. Overconfidence has been called “the mother of all psychological biases.” The research has led to findings that are at the same time hilarious and depressing. In one classic study, for example, 93 percent of U.S. drivers claimed to be more skillful than the median—which is not possible.

“But surely,” you might object, “overconfidence is only for amateurs—experts would not behave like this.” Sadly, being an expert in some domain does not protect against overconfidence. Some research suggests that the more knowledgeable are more prone to overconfidence. In a famous study of clinical psychologists and psychology students, researchers asked a series of questions about a real person described in psychological literature. As the participants received more and more information about the case, their confidence in their judgment grew—but the quality of their judgment did not. And psychologists with a Ph.D. did no better than the students….(More)”.