Saturday, July 10, 2010

Know 2, Don't Know 8?

In sixteeenth century Europe, when pretensions to absolute certainty made burning supposed heretics at the stake an all-too-common occurrence, Michel Montaigne remained a cool reserve.

How, he queried in his essays, could people be so certain of the truth of dogmatic, abstract propositions, when the human mind is so inherently limited? And, one must also note, the human heart is so potentially treacherous?

A decade into the 21st century, such healthy scepticism remains an important counterpoint to pell-mell orthodoxy. Why are so many people in America incarcerated, and what do we really get for the constant and still increasing drain on our collective coffers?

Let's admit that, to a very great extent, noone knows.

A number of the foremost criminologists have recently moved toward this more Montaigne-like view. Michael Tonry, puncturing holes in the easy explanations of why crime rates fell throughout the 1990s, speaks openly of "mystery." Alfred Blumenstein points out the very low amount of money spent on criminal justice research, compared to medical and even dental research. And Franklin Zimring commented a couple of years ago, regarding the state of criminal justice knowledge, that one could describe the score on that question as Know 2, Don't Know 8.

To recongnize the importance of this epistemological humilty, one could even go two millenia back from Montaigne to Socrates. Admitting what you do not know can be the beginning of wisdom.

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