Epistemological Humility and the Status Quo Bias

In economics, law, and religion, I tend to see an argument that flows along these lines: “Long-held theory/concept is logically incoherent/contradicted by commonly-observable empirical evidence and I am the first person to notice this!” (This attitude is probably prevalent in other sciences as well, but my reading and interests bias me to the above-mentioned sciences). This attitude of dismissiveness of long-held (or “traditional”/”conventional”) theories and concepts can lead to erroneous conclusions if improperly employed. I argue that epistemological humility (being aware of other knowledge outside what you know is out there) and a status quo bias (the burden of proof lies upon he who is attempting to overturn the current theory rather than the current theory to justify itself) are necessary to advance scientific understanding.

The following is an example I use in my introductory economics exams:

Joe works at a local grocery store. On Monday, he notices that the prices of oranges are $1/lb and 50 people bought a pound of oranges each. On Friday, he noticed the prices of oranges raised to $1.50/lb and that 60 people bought a pound of oranges each. Joe exclaims: "The price of the good rose and people bought more of it! The Law of Demand must be wrong!"

Is Joe correct or incorrect in his statement?

Joe is demonstrating both a lack of deference to the status quo (in this case, the Law of Demand) and epistemological arrogance. Despite centuries of economic theory and research, economics still has downward-sloping demand curves. However, Joe himself claims, through mere observation of everyday activities, that he has enough evidence to overturn the Law of Demand.

If Joe were to practice status quo bias, upon his observation he’d ask himself: “This is a simple observation. What’s the likelihood that economists have missed this?” His bias should have him put a low probability on economics as a whole never noticing a pattern like in the grocery store.

If Joe were also practicing epistemological humility, he’d follow up with the question: “Is there some element of economic theory I am missing here? Something that could rescue the Law of Demand?”

If Joe were to do a bit more research beyond his “bumper sticker” understanding of Demand, he’d quickly realize he has made a mistake: the observation he made can easily be explained by a shift in the demand curve or the demand curve being locally upward-sloping but downward-sloping overall. He would have realized that, indeed, the Law of Demand does hold and the supposed conundrum he noticed is no conundrum at all. The longevity of the Law of Demand does not spring from the fact no one has thought about potential objections to it, but rather that these potential objections have been thought of and rejected.

Now, the status quo bias I advocate here is just that: a bias. It is a maxim, not an axiom. It can and should be overcome. Long-held beliefs are overturned, but the burden of proof is extremely high, just like the presumption of innocence (or the “innocence bias” to keep the terminology consistent) in criminal law.

But failing to defer to the theory, and even worse failing to learn the theory and proceed in ignorance is to operate under the pretense of knowledge, to use Hayek’s phrasing. And unfortunately, a lot of people who argue for nominally just conclusions make this mistake all the time, significantly weakening their own standing and the credibility of their arguments and their position. After all, “[T]he worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended."