Holding Ideas

All at the same time...
All at the same time...

Some students struggle with social sciences and humanities like Economics, Geography and History because they think they can’t hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and not take a side. Economist are somewhat famous for being able to do that and often criticized for being that way. As a matter of fact, humans are remarkably capable of doing that; we overrate our consistency of thought and the need for ideas that don’t contradict. When we demand scientific proofs for certain claims yet openly express faith in certain religious claims, we’re adopting contradictory frameworks of proof.

The reason why these subjects require that we hold contradictory ideas or for us to withhold judgment of these ideas is the lack of a proper quantitative approach to evaluating them. We might be able to come up with pros and cons but we are unable to assign a positive figure to denote the value and significance of the pro and a corresponding negative figure for a con and then evaluate them in an accounting matrix that will tell you which is better and how much better. Any attempts at that will be subjective and arbitrary anyways. As a result, it is important that students of these subjects hold on to them without judging but maintain the ability to dissect and analyse these ideas, zoom into certain features and investigate different aspects of it when necessary. More importantly, we’ll have to master our language and internalize the nuances of the typical jargons used in the field to discuss these observations we make.

As humans, we will definitely have preferences for some explanation over others as well as some outcomes over others and this is a reason behind all the disputes that social scientist usually have with each other, including high profile ones by economists. And worst, unlike sciences where there are experiments everyone can agree on to check their ideas and theories to discover ‘the truth’, the search for truths in social sciences have often ended in vain because of the dynamic nature of the field. Scientists might not agree before a discovery is confirmed (Linus Pauling, a super-Nobel laureate with 3 Nobel prizes famously believed that DNA’s structure should be a Triple Helix) but once it is confirmed, we find little delusional souls continuing with their false beliefs unless they are ignorant of the confirmation. Economics had its share of control experiments that happened in the world, often by chance. Unfortunately, they can never be repeated perfectly and their results are never agreed upon by experts in the field.

This is not to say that the subjects offer little value to the world; in fact the dynamic nature of these fields mean that there is always questions to answer and things to explore readily. And that is why we need more people to be able to hold different ideas at the same time and have different opinions on the same issue under different sort of circumstances and be able to see the world this way.

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