“I don’t know'” There they are. The truest and most applicable sentence in the English language. The more certain you are as to the proper solution to most of life’s problems, the more likely you’re wrong. A persistent problem by its nature is difficult. Were an irritant easy to resolve it would be gone. People create or have imposed on them governments purportedly to ease the lives of those under their writ.
Democracy was invented by classical Athens. It typically descended to mob rule. In fact, Athenian democracy only functioned well under the leadership of Pericles who was a leader of genius. An example of the Athenians poor decision making (one of a very long list) occured in 406 BC after the Battle of Arginusae. The Athenians near the end of their tether after 25 years of war against Sparta unexpectedly won the naval engagement. Bad weather prevented the rescue of the Athenian sailors whose ships had been lost and were in the water. Six of the eight generals in charge of the fleet were tried and executed. Pericles’ son of the same name was among them.The other two fled. I can think of no other example in which the reward for victory was death. So great was the effect of the battle that the Spartans offered to make peace. The mob rejected this offer and Athens was completely defeated about a year later. Athenian democracy was replaced by the rule of oligarchs who proved no more adept at government than the democrats.
Churchill’s famous remark that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others is hardly a ringing endorsement. He wasn’t executed for guiding Britain through its darkest hour; he was just tossed overboard in exchange for national health insurance. If the Brits had it to do over again they’d make the same choice.
The genius of the American Constitution was its distrust of government, especially at the center. Over the ensuing two and a half centuries each problem that confronted the nation was “solved’ by continual accretion of power by the national government. A country that encompassed a continent was eventually ruled to ever increasing amount by the federal government. Never did any of the three branches of government and the super army of bureaucrats admit to ignorance. There was a rule and regulation for every eventuality. Government pretended to omniscience. No matter what the illness or symptom a significant, and often decisive, portion of the populace looked to government for succor.
Every problem is an excuse for more rent seeking. Adrift in an ocean of ignorance, every threat is existential. Thus no price is too great to forbear if Armageddon is to be dodged. When faced with the choice of saying “I don’t know” as opposed to ignorant intervention, the latter is a universal choice. Difficulties which will spontaneously resolve are never given the opportunity to do so. Placing bad outcomes in their proper perspective is almost never done. Tversky and Kahneman’s fast thinking is perpetuated to the virtual exclusion of their preferred slow thinking. The former is a gut reaction that precludes analysis. The latter is a reasoned approach to whatever hurdle looms.
A few examples. The recent school shooting in Texas is literally driving everyone mad. The horror of the atrocity overwhelms any reasoned approach. Something must be done. That we don’t know why young men go berserk and commit an atrocity is no bar to action no matter how ineffective. Look at the chart below from Just How Common Are School Shootings? Deaths from school shootings are as rare as they are upsetting to the boundary of reason and beyond. When an event is as uncommon as a school shooting there are not enough data to allow accurate analysis about cause and effect.
Emotions typically overwhelm rational evaluation in the aftermath of an inhuman act. It’s quintessentially human to be shocked and deeply wounded when children are murdered. Alas, it’s just as human to waive reason when a response is demanded. Admitting ignorance in the face of catastrophe is unacceptable to most. Thus, when a mass casualty event happens questions are asked in the immediate aftermath that would best be answered by the three words of this essay. The TV stations are charged with filling at least 24 hours with 20 seconds of information. So fable is the result. Later when the real story is framed everybody blames everybody else for not getting the unknowable right. The politicians and the press engage in a sticky embrace that both will later find repellent.
Then there’s the economy. We have a plague of bureaucrats and politicians who are perpetually surprised when things economic do not turn out the way they said they would. They are immune to Hayek’s truism that no one understands the economy as it’s too complicated to be understood or managed and that it’s best to leave it alone. Another three words that cannot be uttered. The Fed Chairman confesses that inflation was not transitory as he supposed. He can’t understand that his job is to tangle the economy rather than the opposite.
Next is congress whose sole area of competence is getting re-elected. And even here they sometimes fail. In a fit of… well, let’s just say in a fit, they spent $40 billion to aid Ukraine. Do they have any idea where that money will end up? The country (take your pick as to which one) is chronically corrupt. Once the moolah filters through the Ukrainian oligarchs (we like them as opposed to their Russian counterparts) and the defense contractors, how much will be left for the war effort? Here again the answer is I don’t know, but I’d take a bet at long odds that it (real defense expenditure) won’t be much.
The federal government has been spending like a character out of Fanny Hill or My Secret Life or My Life and Loves. Only the merest chance stopped them from spending the country into oblivion. They pass bills that they haven’t read and thus could truly reply when asked what they had done – I don’t know. But, of course, they don’t.
Alas, the three infamous words often are applicable to the outcome of many doctor-patient relationships. But here too – especially here – they are not part of the medical vocabulary. The use of Greek or Latin nomenclature is especially useful in situations of diagnostic ignorance. Evidence Based Medicine was invented to deal with this disquieting issue, but it is being replaced by Equity Based Medicine in which lack of knowledge or insight is a feature. Opposing such a structure is racist.
I could go on with examples that require but avoid the sentence until the heat death of the reader, but you can easily add to the list without recourse to Google. I’ll conclude with the truism that the ability to utter the three little words when appropriate and without loss of dignity is the surest sign of wisdom and maturity.