Sep 19, 2008
Reply to: Overconfidence is Stylish
I respectfully defend my lord Will Strunk:
"If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!" This comical piece of advice struck me as sound at the time, and I still respect it. Why compound ignorance with inaudibility? Why run and hide?
How does being vague, tame, colorless, irresolute, help someone to understand your current state of uncertainty? Any more than mumbling helps them understand a word you aren't sure how to pronounce?
Goofus says: "The sky, if such a thing exists at all, might or might not have a property of color, but, if it does have color, then I feel inclined to state that it might be green."
Gallant says: "70% probability the sky is green."
Which of them sounds more confident, more definite?
But which of them has managed to quickly communicate their state of uncertainty?
(And which of them is more likely to actually, in real life, spend any time planning and preparing for the eventuality that the sky is blue?)
I am often accused of overconfidence because my audience is not familiar with the concept of there being iron laws that govern the manipulation of uncertainty. Just because I don't know the object-level doesn't necessarily mean that I am in a state of fear and doubt as to what I should be thinking. That comes through in my writing, and so I sound confident even when I am in the midst of manipulating uncertainty. That might be a disadvantage in my attempts to communicate; but I would rather clearly describe my state of uncertainty, and worry afterward about how that makes me look.
And similarly, I have often seen people who spend no effort at all on possibilities other than their mainline, praised for their seeming humility, on account of their indefinite language. They are skilled at sounding uncertain, which makes them appear modest; but not skilled at handling uncertainty. That is a political advantage, but it doesn't help them think. Also the audience is given more slack to interpret the speaker as being on their side; but to deliberately exploit this effect is dishonesty.
Often the caveats we attach to our speech have little to do with any actual humility - actual plans we prepared, and actions we took, against the eventuality of things turning out the other way. And more to do with being able to avoid admitting to ourselves that we were wrong. We attached a caveat, didn't we?
Maybe Will Strunk did think it was better to be wrong than irresolute (though that doesn't quite seem to have been a direct quote from him). If so, then that was Will Strunk's flaw as a rationalist. Presumably he only knew the part of rationality that pertained to writing.
But the core of Will Strunk's lesson learned from the art of writing, not to obscure your position when you are unsure of it, seems to me very wise indeed. In particular you should not obscure your position from yourself.
EDIT 2015: I am not saying that you should act more confident than you are, or fail to communicate uncertainty; this would be dishonesty. I am saying that it is okay to communicate uncertainty by saying “60% probability” rather than two paragraphs of timid language. Talking like this may cause some who know not the Way to criticize your status-overreaching for asserting so vigorous and definite a probability. This may be a real PR problem depending on your circumstances, but I don’t see it as an inherent ethical problem.