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When you're certain that you possess the real truth
A basic question in epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) is: how do we know that what we believe is actually true? Could we be deceived? Or, in the case of trying to explain and predict complex phenomena, could our understanding be mistaken because the problem is beyond our ability to comprehend?
Imagine what happens if you deny the possibility that you could ever be deceived or that you could be unable to comprehend a complex phenomenon. Your intuition tells you that you could not possibly be wrong. This intuition is what philosophers label naïve realism.
I do not like the term naive realism, because what the expression means is not intuitive. You can never insert it into an essay without first explaining it. But the late Jeffrey Friedman, one of my favorite social theorists, makes extensive use of it in his book Power Without Knowledge. That book discusses how naive realism on the part of citizens and public officials can and does warp political behavior.
For Friedman, naive realism causes, or at least is correlated with, uncharitable views of those with whom one disagrees. In a series of posts summarizing Power Without Knowledge, Kevin Corcoran writes that for the naive realist
there can be no scope for reasonable disagreement. Nonetheless, disagreement undeniably persists, therefore disagreement is proof the other party is unreasonable, if not outright malicious
You can see how naive realism connects with asymmetric insight. If “there can be no scope for reasonable disagreement,” then why does that other fellow disagree with you? You are inclined to think that it comes from his pathological psychology or cynical self-interest.
Naive realism would tend to make citizens overconfident in their opinions concerning public policy. If I believe that I have the solution to a problem, then I will be pretty darned impatient with leaders who do not solve the problem.
Naive realism on the part of public officials is a serious drawback. If the officials are sure that their views are correct, then they may undertake bold interventions without regard to the risks, unintended consequences, or coercion that is embedded in their policies.
Friedman points out that although I may acknowledge that I do not know how to solve a problem, my naive realism may take the form of being convinced that someone has a solution. This will bias me toward supporting interventionist public officials, creating a selection bias in favor of officials who themselves are guilty of naive realism.
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.