In a discussion of his variant of the write-a-thousand-words-a-day strategy (as he puts it, “a system for the production of academic results in writing”), Thomas Basbøll writes:
Believe the claims you are making. That is, confine yourself to making claims you believe. I always emphasize this when I [Basbøll] define knowledge as “justified, true belief”. . . . I think if there is one sure way to undermine your sense of your own genius it is to begin to say things you know to be publishable without being sure they are true. Or even things you know to be “true” but don’t understand well enough to believe.
He points out that this is not so easy:
In times when there are strong orthodoxies it can sometimes be difficult to know what to believe. Or, rather, it is all too easy to know what to believe (what the “right belief” is). It is therefore difficult to stick to statements of one’s own belief. I sometimes worry that our universities, which are systems of formal education and formalized research environments, have become too orthodox. I’m sure the orthodoxies are largely true and justified. I’m just not sure we’re giving each other, and ourselves, the time we need to believe in them.
Basbøll’s comments about belieiving what one writes (which, I think might be even better labeled as “provisional belief”) reminds me of some things I’ve written with Shalizi (for example, this) on the importance of strong assumptions in statistical learning. In short, strong assuptions play two roles: First, with strong assumps we can (often) make strong and precise inferences. The likelihood function is a powerful thing. Second, strong assumptions are strongly checkable and falsifiable. We take our models seriously, work with them as if we believe them unquestioningly, then use the leverage from this simulation of belief to check model fit and explore discrepancies between inferences and data.
This is only vaguely related to Basbøll’s idea, but I think there is some connection in that it illustrates the two-edged nature of belief. On the one hand, belief is powerful. By conditioning on assumptions, we can rule out alternatives and move quickly and surely. But belief is risky, especially since all of our beliefs, if stated precisely enough, our false. The resolution is that we can use the strength and power of beliefs to better study their limitations.
P.S. I think Basbøll’s argument would be much stronger if he could support it with a factual story involving mountaineering. In the absence of such a story, he has to present his claims as raw speculation backed only by his introspection and personal experience. I have to admit, though, that it’s hard to come up with such stories. Perhaps he find something written by a poet who’d framed the story in just the right way. But if Basbøll were to use someone else’s writing, he’d have a dilemma: cite the source and then reveal it’s just a story, not something that actually happened; or don’t cite any source and then maybe get busted for copying someone else’s work without attribution. In the modern era of Google, that’s not so easy. This could be a serious blow to the sort of sensemaking scholarship that is Basbøll’s specialty.
P.P.S. This cut-and-paste is just killing me. If I do any more posts on this guy, I’m gonna have to figure out how to type ø directly!