What inspires you?

Question: What inspires you?

Lawrence Summers: I think that I developed the habit of mind, very early on, of not taking anything on faith. And so when somebody tells me, “It’s generally accepted that …”, I tend to bristle and be skeptical about any proposition that’s said to be generally accepted. Most of the time things are generally accepted for a reason, and I’ve taken the posture to come to understand why it’s generally accepted to a greater extent.

But sometimes, by having that reflexive skepticism and proclivity to challenge, you’ll learn that the emperor doesn’t have any clothes. You’ll learn that it’s less a proposition than a platitude, and that’s how interesting things start to develop.

So I try to maintain the habit of mind of skepticism, and I try very hard also to not live with contradictory belief. And so I find myself constantly balancing the different things that I know; and when they seem inconsistent with each other, try to understand which one is right, or what the right synthesis is.

Sometimes that leads to productive approaches. Sometimes that leads me to change my mind. Often it leads me to feel more secure in my prior belief. But without those exercises of challenge, I find it very hard to know and to believe things with conviction.

This is a kind of approach to thinking, and approach to ideas, that’s very much the habit of science. It’s very much the habit of debate. But it’s something that is somewhat less fashionable than it once was. We have an administration [i.e. the George W. Bush administration] that takes pride in the fact that its policies are based on faith and conviction rather than reason and evidence. In a very different corner, in large parts of the academic world that would almost define themselves by the opposition to what the [George W. Bush] administration stands for, there’s a belief that truth is an arbitrary social construct, or a reflection of power relations rather than reality, and the great virtue of debate is respect for each other’s positions. And I have very much the opposite sense. The great virtue of debate is to understand it better, and you come closer to a better answer.

So those are the sort of habits of mine that lie behind the different things that I do. I’m not sure that I really understand that world view. I think in some cases, it’s a comfortable world view if you lack the analytic techniques to deal with data and evidence, that it’s comfortable to develop theories that render them less relevant. And that, I think, is certainly a part of the story.

I think another part of the story is that people develop a conviction that you can’t know things, and in some ultimate, philosophical sense, that may be true. But decisions have to be made and people do make decisions. And it seems to me that it’s better to think about more informed decisions than less informed decisions. But with the luxury of not needing to decide, it’s easier to take the relaxed view of what constitutes truth, and what need there is for evidence than when there are consequential choices that, if made more wisely, will either have enormous benefits for people or have enormous costs to people.

So I think the feeling of responsibility for action – which I’ve been fortunate to have in my time outside and inside the university – probably creates a greater sense of responsibility to debate.

Recorded On: June 13, 2007

By having that reflexive skepticism and proclivity to challenge, you'll learn that the emperor doesn't have any clothes.

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