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Epistemocracy: If Leaders Knew the Limitations of Their Knowledge

Those in positions of power must recognize that our knowledge is very limited, and that to truly progress we must trust decentralization.

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By Mason Mohon | @mohonofficial

The human mind is a powerful machine. Its capabilities for knowledge has given us the wonders of modern medicine, ever-advancing technology, and beautiful arts that we admire almost constantly. Its cognitive abilities dwarf those of nearly every animal on Earth. The capabilities for creativity and individualized abstract thinking set humanity apart even from our most advanced machines.

Yet despite the unbelievable complexity of our brains, it tends to fall victim to many traps – set by itself. Cognitive biases and fallacious modes of thought plague the minds of even the smartest among us. One can be blinded by their own knowledge; lack of humility and high hubris can lead one to make very serious mistakes, and this has very serious implication when it comes to putting individuals in positions of power. Those who occupy authority positions in academia, business, and especially government are responsible when it comes to being aware and working against the traps of the brain.

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb talks about how history is mainly driven by Black Swans: completely unpredictable events that have a profound impact. These include events such as 9/11, the 2008 financial crash, and the discovery of the new world. Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes, so we tend to embed these events into a narrative that make them seem completely predictable. In fact, though, events occur in a completely unpredictable manner. It is impossible to see a Black Swan coming.

This lack of ability to predict the results of an action calls into question the viability of having a technocrat make economic/political decisions for an entire country. Top-down approaches to governance can prove to do more harm than good. Making decisions for others may not be the best way to organize and socio-political order.

Taleb introduces the reader to a mathematician named Henri Poincaré. Poincaré is a scientific thinker that Taleb believes does not get the credit he deserves. Some believe that he came up with the theory of relativity before Einstein, yet dismissed it as unimportant. This scientific one-upsmanship is beside the point, though. What Taleb (and I) would like to focus on is Poincaré “three body problem.”

The underrated scientist argued that mathematics can easily show us its own limitations. Taleb explains that Poincaré “introduced nonlinearities, small effects that can lead to severe consequences.” He discovered that when making predictions, precision is key because these tiny nonlinear errors can compound the overall error of the prediction quite rapidly. Poincaré then introduces the three body problem.

If we were to organize a solar-style system with only two planets and no other factors, we would be able to “indefinitely predict the behavior of these planets, no sweat.” Yet our capabilities to predict are completely decimated when we add a seemingly inconsequential comet into the mix. Initially, its effect will be essentially nothing, but over time it will have a large impact, making the ability to predict the movement of 3 rocks governed only by gravity practically impossible. And I do not use “practically” just because it is a nice word. I use it because, in practice, humans cannot make such a forecast.

Now, look at the real world. Your own life is infinitely more complicated than three rocks floating in space. We can barely predict the events in our own lives because we all face our own Black Swans. There are many events that come straight out of left field, leaving us completely dumbfounded and uncertain about the future. No human can make perfect predictions in their own life. While some may be more competent than others, we are not as good as we think when it comes to making plans.

I wrote on this once before, but I focused mostly on political opinions. I failed to see that the problem of not recognizing the unknowns that create most of reality (in relation to ourselves) goes much further than having a political opinion. We are far more incompetent when it comes to prediction than we believe. This is because we are surrounded by humans as complex and dynamic as ourselves. We can barely keep an accurate representation of ourselves in mind, so how are we supposed to do the same with others?

If we move forward to political leaders, the impact of this problem becomes much more pressing. Friederich Hayek, the libertarian economist and philosopher, explained the problem of knowledge when it comes to central planning. Taleb goes on to say that the planner “cannot aggregate knowledge… But society as a whole will be able to integrate into its functioning these multiple pieces of information.” It is better when smaller institutions are in “control” (whatever form that may take) because they are more capable of being aware of the information that is pertinent to the organization.

Hayek indicated that this root of this problem was something called “scientism.” Because of the continued explosion of knowledge available to the human race, we have become blind. As we learn more, the Dunning-Kruger effect takes hold. We begin to think that because we know more, we can do more, plan more, and control more. This is ultimately false because the human mind has a very limited capacity when compared to the totality of all human knowledge. Taleb continues that “owing to the growth of scientific knowledge, we overestimate our ability to understand the subtle changes that constitute the world, and what weight needs to be imparted to each such change.”

So how do we solve such a problem? If we cannot expect the world’s foremost experts in physics and mathematics to make long-term predictions of the behavior of 3 floating rocks, how can we expect a democratically elected leader to make plans that accurately account for the future problems of nearly 400 million individuals? Clearly, the current system of government we have is a joke. The idea that just because 51% of humans chose the leader does not mean that the leader has perfect knowledge. This is because no one short of an angel (or possibly even God) will be able to make the most fair and predictably accurate decisions when governing.

Taleb’s solution lays in something called Epistemocracy. This is not as much of a revamping of the structure of the political organization, but rather a change in the attitude of those in power. Anyone holding a position of rank must be an epistemocrat – someone that recognizes the extreme limitations of their knowledge. They need to realize that they cannot plan because they cannot fully understand. They must put their trust in the spontaneous order created by the interacting aggregate knowledge of society.

This, paired with a further decentralized governmental structure, could prove to be phenomenally beneficial for the human race. Fewer pompous leaders that think they know everything will only help us. And fewer people under the jurisdiction of each leader will create a decentralized society that would allow for accurate knowledge to win out in the formation of society and politics.


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