Diagnosis: Omniscience Delusion

Nobel Prize 2008 recipient in economicsI have spent most of the last 50 years writing books that examine reflective, creative, and critical thinking and offer guidance in their use. Along the way I have encountered some of the best and the worst examples of human thought, so it takes a lot to surprise me.

Nevertheless, I was recently surprised and disappointed by a statement made by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman in an column titled “Republican Health Care Panic.” His thesis was that Republicans are upset because Obama’s health care program is probably going to work, and he concluded with these words:

Republicans may be willing to risk economic and financial crisis solely to deny essential health care and financial security to millions of their fellow Americans.

I read the column several times because I kept doubting I had read it right the first time. To begin with, I found it hard to believe he was actually claiming that Obama care is probably going to work when most of the analyses I have seen conclude that it is already an unparalleled disaster and is likely to worsen when fully implemented.

But what troubled me more was the outrageous claim in Krugman’s final line. Like the commercial that showed Paul Ryan pushing granny off the cliff, it is an affront to both common decency and elementary logic. But his words are worse than the commercial. One can imagine a scurrilous adman creating the commercial while remaining anonymous. In contrast, Krugman put his name and photo on his column.

Consider his claim more closely. He doesn’t say that Republicans are mistaken, misguided, or even stupid in trying to repeal Obamacare. No. He says that Republicans want millions of Americans to be harmed. In other words, that they have malicious, even criminal intent. In a word, that they are evil! And that is absurd.

Anyone who took Logic 101 will recognize Krugman’s claim for what it is—ignoring the opposing argument and attacking the person instead, also known as argumentum ad hominem. It is a tactic typically employed by those who have no evidentiary basis for their views. As the old lawyer is reported to have advised his young associate: “If you have no case, abuse the opposing counsel.”

Does Krugman know better? Well, consider this. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale with a degree in economics, then earned a PhD from MIT. He taught at Stanford and Yale and is now at Princeton. As if that weren’t enough, he won a Nobel Prize in economics.

So how can such an educated and intellectually accomplished man make such an outrageous claim? Perhaps because of arrogance. But a somewhat kinder explanation is that he suffers from the delusion of omniscience.

In The Lesson, an absurdist play by Eugene Ionesco, a young girl visits a professor and asks for his guidance in pursuing the “total doctorate.” In testing her qualification for this pursuit, the professor discovers that, though she can perform nine-digit multiplication in her head, she cannot subtract four minus three. He therefore informs her that she cannot qualify for the “total doctorate.”

Krugman is not exactly like Ionesco’s character. She was seeking the “total doctorate.” He believes he already has it—in other words, that he can speak with authority about any subject and, even more amazing, is able not only to discern the qualities and consequences of people’s words and deeds—he can also divine their inner motivations. (It is perhaps no coincidence that he brands people who disagree with him as having the least honorable motivations.)

In one way, however, Krugman is very much like Ionesco’s student. Although he has mastered the complex mathematics of economics, he stumbles badly with the elementary challenge of avoiding overgeneralizing and demonizing. Therein lies irrefutable proof that he is not omniscient after all, but only delusional. (There but for the grace of God goes God.)

Happily, delusion of omniscience is not irreversible. In fact, a substantial body of case evidence documents it can be cured by a daily dose of humility. In a case as severe as Krugman’s, of course, the dosage may have to be increased and the required course of treatment extended.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved