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The curse of plausibility

Published on 28 March 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Katharina Höhne posted this comment to an earlier blog of mine on “Use and abuse of conspiracy theories”:

But let me challenge you on one aspect: I think the distinction Badawi introduces between “true” and “plausible” is an important one. One need not be a pure philosophical idealist who would assume that world and mind are the same to acknowledge that “true” is unattainable. Hence, I agree with your point on the search for original truth being a distraction. However, I don’t agree that the call for the “plausible” should be equated with a lowering of standards. Depending on your philosophical leanings, the search for any cause (necessary or sufficient) can be seen as the search for plausability. Ultimately, from a pragmatist perspective it is the search for a plausible narrative of events. It is the stories we tell about the world. We can’t compare these stories with “the real”. We can only judge them in terms of plausability. A distinction between condition and cause does not change this

The argument is cogent and deserves closer analysis.

It all comes down to what you do with a plausible explanation.

If a plausible explanation helps you to see more dimensions of a problem: more power to you. There is just one, inevitable, limit: we operate within “bounded rationality”, which refers to the limited capacity of the human mind to conceive and evaluate all pertinent alternatives. By definition, we remain within the bounds of the plausible. We have a hard time finding the counter-intuitive plausible – because it is erh…implausible. Remember Columbus’ egg. Most discoveries turn out to be: “why didn’t I think of it?” moments.

If the “plausibility” argument,once developed, however, transforms surreptitiously into “default truth” – then it becomes dangerous. Put it in simple terms: if we can imagine solution A and B, and we discard A on plausibility grounds, we may not, e contrario, affirm B (you may only do so if you know that A and B are a closed set). For C may lurk waiting to be discovered[1].

“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Captain Edward SMITH, last skippering the TITANIC

All correlations are “plausibility” arguments. We notice that storks and babies are observed in the same place. We may not infer that storks bring babies.

Two politically charged examples clarify this most common logical fallacy of equating correlation with causation.

Evolutionist/creationist debate. Using statistical formulas creationists argue that “it is improbable” for something as complex as an eye to have emerged by “trial and error”. The spurious default conclusion enters the scene now: ergo, God must have created it.

DAWKINS has written a book by the title: Climbing mount improbable. His argument is terse. When faced with the vertical mountain face of Mount Improbable (below Cezanne’s Sainte Victoire) one can mutter: it improbable that one could climb to the top of it. Upon walking around the mountain the chair-bound skeptic would have noticed on the other side a leisurely path up to the top.

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My second example comes from my own economic house. Economists have long argued about the emergence of money in a traditional society. Adam SMITH was the first one to argue: “Imagine a village without money.” He went on to describe the dire difficulties in which the people in this imaginary village would find themselves: “They’d be forced to barter!” At which point, Adam SMITH makes the plausibility argument: “Ergo, it is plausible that in some distant past we moved from barter to money to a credit (B => M => C). It was a matter of convenience.” Every self-respecting economist (and his brother) has retold this fairy tale since 1776. You have “plausibility squared”.

The sole problem is – it is a fairy tale, as I intimated. Anthropologists went looking for the primeval barter society and never found it[2]. It turns out that in a traditional society we run on credit, bestow gifts to each other, and barter with foreigners. So the causal chain goes C => M => B. Traditional societies ran thing differently: once more Mount Improbable has a hidden easy path to the top.

Adam SMITH’s fairy tale was not innocent. His political aim was to argue that economic exchanges were a natural phenomenon – that could occur in absence of the state. The role of the state, he concluded, was to (a) secure property, so that exchanges can take place (Hobbes), (b) secure the value of money. You can see the outlines of neo-liberalism emerge from the murky mists of plausibility.

To conclude, Katharina, if “plausibility” enlarges the scope of your discernment, fine. If it is prelude to an e contrario conclusion, then you better ask: who benefits from such unwarranted conclusion – a very plausible suggestion.

Should you act on plausibility? Sure, as long as you don’t expect it to be inevitable.

[1] This is Karl POPPER’s argument.

[2] David GRAEBER (2012): Debt. The first 5,000 years. Melville House, New York.

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