Saturday, January 14, 2012


Prudential judgment is one of the four cardinal virtues. Human intellect has enabled our species, which is neither physically the largest nor strongest, to prevail over most species on the earth. The Enlightenment emphasized human reason and led to general adoption of the scientific method. The evolution of human culture and knowledge accelerates the pace of human development and social change. Prudential judgment, rightly exercised, enriches life.

Yet, human judgment remains notoriously unreliable. For example, recently released documents show that the 1961 Nobel Prize Committee deemed J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit, an unexceptional storyteller. The Nobel Committee similarly declined to award the literature prize to Robert Frost and E.M. Forster in that year. (Dave Itzkoff, “Tolkien Snubbed by Nobel Prize Jury, Papers Reveal,” New York Times, January 6, 2012)

Many evangelical Christians prefer the pseudo-science of Australian Ken Ham (he believes that reason should confirm rather than reinterpret the Bible) to the real science of evolutionary biologists. Many of these same evangelical Christians prefer the pseudo-history of Dave Barton (he rewrites history to make Washington and Madison into Christian evangelicals) to known facts. Evangelicals choose these false belief systems in spite of other, lesser known evangelicals, like Francis Collins (head of the National Institutes of Health) and Mark Noll (a prominent historian whose writings correctly portray Washington and Madison as deists). Pseudo-scholars apparently presume that God created humans with intellect and curiosity to impair spiritual well-being and to impede the advancement of knowledge (which they seem to think depends exclusively on revelation). Some commentators speculate that money and media draw attention to Ham, Barton, and their advocates, attracting additional supporters for reasons unrelated to sound judgment. (For more on why attempting to read the Bible literally is foolish rather than wise, read my series on the Bible – Ethical Musings: In what way is the Bible authoritative?)

Many factors effect human judgment. For example, research indicates that magnets can influence moral judgment. Volunteers received a magnetic pulse, which the individual could not detect, to their brain’s right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ). Prior studies had shown that the RTPJ is highly active when a person is thinking about another person’s intentions. Asked to make moral judgments about a man who permitted his girlfriend to cross a bridge that he knew was unsafe, people who received the magnetic pulse were less likely to consider intentions than members of a control group. (Chris Smyth, “Moral compass influenced by magnets, researchers say,” The Times, March 30, 2010)

That research has obvious implications for jurors and other situations in which humans exercise judgment about others. Perhaps jury trials and deliberations should occur only in spaces free of magnetic pulses – unless one thinks that intent is irrelevant in determining criminal culpability!

In spite of the unreliability of human judgment, a majority of physicians prefer to trust their judgment rather than adopt an evidentiary approach to the practice of medicine. Physicians who rely on their professional judgment do so because they believe that it produces better results for the patient. Unfortunately, physicians who do this when data on treatment outcomes is available cause needless deaths and wastes healthcare resources. (Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, pp. 125-145)

Researchers seem likely to identify other factors that alter human judgment. Marketers know that sex sells, i.e., sex influences judgment about purchasing items, including brand, specific characteristics desired, and quantity bought. Clearly, pure reason is at best a rare commodity and arguably does not exist (some would contend that mathematics is an example of pure reason).

These musings about prudential judgment lead me to three conclusions:

1.    When possible, humans achieve better results by relying on data rather than judgment.

2.    In some (many?) circumstances, insufficient data and knowledge mean that humans have no choice but to exercise prudential judgment. Humans do best when they avoiding judging the worth of others (Jesus: judge not).

3.    Consequently, humans should exercise prudential judgment with great humility about their own capacity to err while making broad allowances for people to reach divergent judgments.

If widely followed, those conclusions would reintroduce much civility into politics and religion.

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