Epistemic Status

One of my favorite bloggers, Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex, often begins his blog posts with a brief parenthetical about his “epistemic status.”

It’s his way of declaring at the outset how confident he is what he’s about to say.

In a recent post, for example, he wrote:

[Epistemic status: very speculative, asserted with only ~30% confidence. On the other hand, even though psychiatrists don’t really talk about this it’s possible other groups know this all already]

The caveat about epistemic status is an attempt to be forthright while anticipating obvious criticisms of what he’s about to write before anyone reads it. It is a meta-wonky way of sidestepping the easiest forms of criticism and moving on to the heart of the subject matter.

It’s also a declaration of modesty and self-awareness. The least intelligent tend to be the most confident in their beliefs. And the most intelligent know that there’s much more that we don’t know than what we do.

Scott Alexander is as smart as it gets. So, even though he’s smarter than 99.99% of the population, indeed, because he’s smarter than 99.99% of the population, he knows there’s always a chance he might be wrong. And thus whenever he states an opinion he starts with a frank estimate about how likely it is that he is wrong.

And since I believe that the most efficient way to grow is to steal from people who are smarter than you are, I might adopt this practice as well. With due recognition that it is a lesson learned from someone much more intelligent than I am.