What makes skepticism healthy

Daniel Kahneman is a deeply skeptical person. Ever since his childhood, he held strong beliefs about the complexities underlying human behaviour. As a child, he questioned the existence of god. As a student, he refused to believe his teachers. As a 21-year-old psychologist in the Israeli army, he invalidated their selection process and replaced it with a more effective interview. As a professor, his work with Amos Tversky has fundamentally shifted our understanding of human judgement. After 60+ years in the field, he remains an inveterate skeptic and continues to this day to question his every assertion.

Despite all of his skepticism, Kahneman’s assertions have made him the most influential psychologist alive today. His work sees application across several fields – sports, business, leadership, decision making and economic theory. He is one of two psychologists to have earned the Nobel prize in Economics. As a person who built his career around doubt and uncertainty, his influence spans an extraordinary number of fields.

I find this surprising, for unbridled skepticism can devolve into cynicism. A person who dismisses ideas outright is likely to not appreciate the bounded realms of their applicability.

Kahneman is a skeptic, but he is no cynic. Something about the how he directs his skepticism helps him break through cynicism and into a variety of fields. When he encounters a new idea, instead of qualifying it or disqualifying it outright, Kahneman thinks about the boundaries of its applicability. Thereby, he provides us a more nuanced understanding rather than merely shoot down theories. A telling example here is his collaboration with his academic adversary – Gary Klein. Klein was a firm believer in expert intuition while Kahneman questioned the abilities of most experts and despised their overconfidence. Through a 6 year collaboration, Kahneman and Klein outlined the boundaries of expert intuition – they established the specific conditions under which experts can nurture and utilize their intuition, thereby qualifying rather than disqualifying their abilities.

As a skeptic, it maybe more meaningful to ask “What could this be true of?” rather than “Is this idea valid?”.

Inspiration: The undoing project – Michael Lewis

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