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Thinking Out Loud

Freaking Out: Some Thoughts on Thinking

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 06, 2015

Think Like a FreakEarly this summer I participated in a panel for the Louisville Institute's Vocation of the Theological Educator program along with two friends: Craig Dykstra, formerly senior vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, Inc., now a professor at Duke Divinity School, and Barbara Wheeler, retired president of Auburn Theological Seminary. Our audience consisted of Louisville Institute Fellows - young scholars, all of whom have recently completed their doctorates in areas of theological studies. Through this program, Louisville Institute places them in theological schools around the country for a two-year resident fellowship, during which they teach and participate in the life of a faculty and school. They also explore the vocation of teaching men and women who are preparing for ministry.

As you can imagine, these young theological educators face some serious questions with immediate personal implications: "What are the trends in religious faith? With most mainline and many evangelical churches declining in numbers, is there a viable future for theological education? With the financial pressures on higher education, is there a future for theological schools? What will students do after they finish their two-year residency? Will there be jobs for them? If so, what kinds of jobs will there be?"

Being fairly typical of my type, in response to their questions about the future of churches and seminaries, I reported on some studies I have seen and conversations I've sat in on that might give us some indication of where the culture seems to be headed and what we might do in response to it.

After I finished saying what I said, Craig Dykstra said something amazing, disarming, and really insightful. He said, "I don't know."

With those three words, "I don't know," Craig suddenly placed all of us in a better position to figure out some things.

The temptation to speculate on why things are the way they are and to predict the way things will be in the future is really strong. The fact that we have few (and sometimes no) real facts to work with seldom prevents most of us from opining on all sorts of questions. Most of the answers we give are a rehash of party lines and threadbare orthodoxies, conventional wisdom, prejudices, biases and wishful thinking. Relatively few of our responses are the consequence of careful original thought based on evidence.

As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explain in their newest venture into the realm of Freakonomics, Think Like a Freak (New York: William Morrow, 2014), such speculation is strongly incentivized in our society. One is almost always rewarded for speaking up rather than saying, "I don't know." Indeed, in our society, the blame game often starts with attacking people who are willing to leave a question open rather than those who demand that others blindly toe the line of some orthodoxy. (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 29.) Incidentally, the orthodoxies espoused are not always representative of some hidebound institutional traditionalism. Many orthodoxies that get spouted are "edgy," "out of the box," just as fraught with conventional wisdom, and just as brutal as the traditions they are meant to replace in their enforcement of absolute unquestioning adherence.

Indeed, the more dogmatic one sounds, in many contexts, the more likely one is thought to be smart - a person of conviction, "real leadership material." We see this often in the fields of politics and religion. Levitt and Dubner refer to the proponents of such thinking as "entrepreneurs of error," using a term introduced by Edward Glaeser, an economist. (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 22.)

Of course, we often see this among people who speak with great authority on complex issues they know little or nothing about. As Levitt and Dubner observe, "just because you're great at something doesn't mean you're good at everything." They give the scientific name for a malady that has reached epidemic proportions, and not just in church and academic settings: "ultracrepidarianism," or "the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one's knowledge or competence." (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 28.)

However, even experts speaking on subjects about which they are experts tend to get it right a surprisingly low percentage of the time. A few years ago, I mentioned in a blog the excellent research of Philip Tetlock who found that experts with postgraduate degrees did only slightly better in their predictions than a "dart-throwing chimp" would have done. (Philip E. Tetlock.  Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.) Levitt and Dubner draw on Tetlock's research as well as on studies conducted by Jerker Denrell and Christina Fang in the field of economics, and Christopher Avery and Judith Chevalier on the subject of betting on professional football.

The reason experts consistently do so badly in analyzing political, social and economic issues (even if these are their areas of expertise!) is because of their dedication to a particular dogma, "an unshakeable belief they know something to be true even when they don't." (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 24-25.)

These observations remind me of an experience I had several years ago. A colleague at the University of Texas asked me to serve on a panel with three economists at the business school. He asked each economist to make a presentation. Then, he asked me to respond to their presentations from an ethical perspective. Their presentations were fascinating, but they could hardly have been more different: a Friedmanian Free-Market Capitalist; a Marxist who believed the world has been on a downward spiral since the end of Mesolithic society (I'm not making this up); and an eclectic pragmatist. I took pages and pages of notes, and when they had finished their presentations, went to the podium and told the audience:

"I felt really intimidated being asked to participate in this panel on economics tonight. Economists, I thought, deal in the world of hard numbers and facts. I'm a theologian. Theologians construct more-or-less logical edifices on the basis of faith assumptions. What I've discovered tonight is that economists are just like theologians."

Our "biases" and "the incentives to fake it are simply too strong" to allow most of us the freedom to speak the truth about so many of the most important questions confronting us when the truth is that much of the time we simply don't know. It takes courage and a special brand of intelligence to admit ignorance. But this kind of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. When we admit that we don't already know the answers, we are liberated to investigate, experiment, inquire and learn. (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 29 and 47.)

Admitting we don't know is just one aspect of dealing with the really difficult problems and seemingly intractable questions facing us, of course. We also would do well to agree to suspend our dogmatic adherence to party lines, our compulsion to blame others, and to score points on people with whom we find ourselves in disagreement. I suspect this would come hard to some of us engaged in politics and religion. But if we hope to deal with some of the biggest problems facing our society and our church today, we need to learn, and learning requires a genuinely open mind.

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