At the risk of beating a dead horse (but when has that ever stopped me?), I want to bring the epistemic closure discussion to bear on what Cardinal Ratzinger knew, or should have known, about the Maciel scandal, and related scandals. How we know what we know — epistemology — is something that has occupied my thoughts for the past few years, in part because I want to understand how I managed to miss all the obvious signs that the Iraq War wasn’t going to be the cakewalk that the Bush administration says it was. As longtime readers will remember, I’ve written about how I ignored or otherwise dismissed all arguments and information contrary to what I wanted to believe. I was entirely closed to any contrary viewpoint. But here’s the thing: I thought I was the one with the open mind, and all the naysayers were so blinded by ideology, fear or cowardice that they couldn’t see what was plainly true.
In retrospect, I have been able to see how the strong post-9/11 emotions I had conditioned all the information I took in the march up to war. I was prepared to believe everything that justified a vengeful military strike, and equally prepared to discard any information that argued against it. And — this is the key thing — I was unaware of what I was doing.
All of the professional and most of the personal circles I moved in back in those days reaffirmed what I wanted to believe. At a certain point, I simply did not see what was right in front of my eyes. This is not to deny my own responsibility for moral choices I made. Rather, I’m trying to understand how
I (and others) could have been so wrong, so I can be aware of epistemic and social factors that make a mistaken choice all but inevitable. There is no guarantee that any of us will make the right decision in any given situation, but we do have a responsibility to make a good faith effort to minimize the chances of making a bad decision.
In “The Black Swan,”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes:
The problem is that our ideas are sticky: once we produce a theory, we are not likely to change our minds — so those who delay developing their theories are better off. When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts those opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate. Two mechanisms are at play here: the confirmation bias that we saw in Chatper 5, and belief perserverance, the tendency not to reverse opinions you already have. Remember that we treat ideas like possessions, and it will be hard for us to part with them.
(“Confirmation bias” is the tendency we have to credit information that bolsters what we already believe to be true.)
This paragraph in Taleb’s book comes in a longer passage in which he discusses experimental data showing that more information tends not to equip us to make better choices; more information does not necessarily lead to greater understanding. Strangely enough, throwing more information at professionals across disciplines in experiments didn’t make them less confident in their original diagnoses or conclusions, but reinforced their initial stances. This is not a quality limited to cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church, but to all people.
What does this have to do with Cardinal Ratzinger? It shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine that someone who rises to that level of leadership in the Roman Catholic Church has some pretty rock-hard views on what Catholicism is, and that to be committed to the Church at that level is necessarily to epistemically limit the options available to oneself. To expect a senior cardinal in the Roman church, a man who has spent much of his life living inside the Vatican bubble, to be as skeptical about the information shown to him as, say, a secularist professor at an American university, is totally unrealistic. (It is also true that the secularist professor will have his sacred cows, and it is almost equally certain that he will not be able to imagine what he doesn’t know. Taleb: “Remember that infinite vigilance is just not possible.”).
Now, let us assume for the sake of argument that Ratzinger had sufficient information to draw strong and solid negative conclusions about Maciel and his brood of vipers. Does it necessarily follow that he would have drawn harshly negative conclusions about the refusal of John Paul and his inner circle to act against Maciel — conclusions so strong as to have compelled him to act in a manner highly uncharacteristic for a senior curial cardinal (e.g., to have made him overturn the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple)? I don’t know, and neither do you. I do know from my own experience that you simply could not have convinced me in 2002 and 2003 that President Bush was wrong about Iraq, and that him and his inner circle were marching us toward disaster. I was not prepared to believe it, not only because of my emotional commitment to avenging 9/11, but because I had a lot epistemically invested in the idea that the intellectual establishment rallying behind the war knew what they were talking about, and the other side didn’t. I can even remember telling myself and others, when confronted with some hard to ignore argument, that the president must know things we don’t, and we really shouldn’t questions his judgment in a time of war. It is not so difficult for me to imagine that Cardinal Ratzinger, even if he had drawn negative conclusions about Maciel, deferred to the judgment of the Pope, not only out of pious regard, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, out of epistemic necessity.
It was only yesterday, it seems, that orthodox Catholic bloggers, when confronted by evidence that John Paul’s actions (or lack thereof) in the scandal could not be defended, resorted to asserting that surely the Holy Father must know things we don’t, and must be carrying out some secret agenda to rout the bad guys. It was literally unthinkable that this might not be the case at all. Strange that I, a committed Catholic at the time, found it easier to trust in the judgment of the American president on the war than in the Pope on the scandal. In retrospect, neither deserved my confidence, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that we have to make decisions based on limited evidence, evidence that is limited in part by our own epistemic biases, some of which are cloaked from us by the choices we’ve previously made. Taleb’s discussion of “unknown unknowns” — things we don’t know exist because it doesn’t occur to us to ask — is key here. One reason why priests got away for so long with molesting boys is that it never would have occurred to many Catholics (and others) to imagine
that a priest would do something like that.
I’m rambling here, but what I’m trying to do is to climb inside Ratzinger’s head and imagine how much effort he had to make to overcome the epistemic biases that hid from his consciousness the true horror and corruption of the Maciel matter, and the rest of it. We who sit far away from any situation may comfortably assume that what we see is readily apparent to those up close. Or, if we are close to a situation, we may comfortably assume that we see more clearly what’s really going on than those on the outside. The truth is, both perspectives are distorting in their own ways — and in ways that will not become fully apparent until time has passed. Infinite vigilance is not possible. And decisions must be made now
This is the stuff from which tragedies are made.