Charlie Munger Had “Epistemic Humility,” Endorsing Confucius’s Claim “That Real Knowledge Is Knowing the Extent of One’s Ignorance”

Epistemic humility is honest and useful, but is often punished. We often admire the confident, whether their confidence is justified or not. But I do not agree with Confucius–we can have real knowledge beyond knowing we are very ignorant.

(p. B1) I had the extraordinary good luck to get to know Charlie Munger in the past two decades.

. . .

More than almost anyone I’ve ever known, Munger also possessed what philosophers call epistemic humility: a profound sense of how little anyone can know and how important it is to open and change your mind.

. . .

(p. B4) Munger—who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School without ever earning a college degree—knew perfectly well how smart he was. And it is an understatement to say he didn’t suffer fools gladly. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2019, he used the phrase “massively stupid” at least seven times to describe other people and even entire professions.

So was he a cocky, cranky old man yelling at the clouds?

No. If there was one thing Munger knew, it was himself. As he told me in 2014, “Confucius said that real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance . . . .  Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.”

For the full commentary, see:

Jason Zweig. “THE INTELLIGENT INVESTOR; Charlie Munger’s Reflections on His Life, Luck and Success.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses between paragraphs added; ellipsis internal to the penultimate quoted paragraph in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 29, 2023, and has the title “THE INTELLIGENT INVESTOR; Charlie Munger’s Life Was About Way More Than Money.”)

With Repetitions Surgeons Gain Informal Knowledge, Such as “Muscle Memory”

(p. C6) Imagine you’ve been admitted to the hospital and you’re meeting the physician taking care of you for the first time. Who are you hoping walks through that door? Would you rather they be in their 50s with a good amount of gray hair, or in their 30s, just a few years out of residency?

In a study published in 2017, one of us (Dr. Jena) and colleagues set out to shed some light on the role of age when it came to internists who treat patients in hospitals. These physicians, called hospitalists, provide the majority of care for elderly patients hospitalized in the U.S. with some of the most common acute illnesses, such as serious infections, organ failure and cardiac problems.

. . .

. . ., the results suggested if the over-60 doctors took care of 1,000 patients, 13 patients who died in their care would have survived had they been cared for by the under-40 doctors. We repeated the analysis using 60- and 90-day mortality rates, in case longer term outcomes might have been different, but again, the pattern persisted: Younger doctors had better outcomes than their more experienced peers.

. . .

Younger doctors possess clinical knowledge that is more current. If older doctors haven’t kept up with the latest advances in research and technology, or if they aren’t following the latest guidelines, their care may not be as good as that of their younger peers.

. . .

. . ., a separate study by Dr. Jena and colleagues looked at about 900,000 Medicare patients who underwent common non-elective major surgeries (for example, emergency hip fracture repair or gall bladder surgery) performed by about 46,000 surgeons of varying age.

. . .

The results showed that unlike hospitalists, surgeons got better with age. Their patient mortality rates had modest but significant declines as they got older: mortality was 6.6% for surgeons under 40, 6.5% for surgeons age 40-49, 6.4% for surgeons age 50-59, and 6.3% for surgeons over age 60.

Clearly something different was happening here. It may be that for hospitalists, the benefit of steadily increasing experience starts to be outweighed by their waning knowledge of the most up-to-date care. It’s different for surgeons, though, who hone many of their skills in the OR. Surgeons build muscle memory through repetition, working in confined spaces with complex anatomy. They learn to anticipate technical problems before they happen and plan around them based on prior experience. Over time, they build greater technical skills across a wider variety of scenarios, learn how to best avoid complications, and choose better surgical strategies.

What does this mean for all of us as patients when we meet a new doctor? Taking studies of hospitalists and surgeons together, it’s clear that a doctor’s age isn’t something that can be dismissed out of hand—age does matter—but nor can it be considered in isolation. If we’re concerned about the quality of care we’re receiving, the questions worth asking aren’t “How old are you?” or even “How many years of experience do you have?” but rather “Do you have a lot of experience caring for patients in my situation?” or “What do you do to stay current with the research?”

For the full essay, see:

Anupam B. Jena and Christopher Worsham. “Do Younger or Older Doctors Get Better Results?” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 8, 2023): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay was updated July 8, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

The essay quoted above is adapted from the book:

Jena, Anupam B., and Christopher M. Worsham. Random Acts of Medicine: The Hidden Forces That Sway Doctors, Impact Patients, and Shape Our Health. New York: Doubleday, 2023.

National Public Radio (NPR) Is “U.S. State-Affiliated Media”

Nobel-Prize-winner F.A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom wisely worried about the independence of the press when it is funded by the government.

(p. B6) Twitter on Tuesday [April 5, 2023] evening added a label to National Public Radio’s account on the social network, designating the broadcaster “U.S. state-affiliated media.”

. . .

Twitter’s guidelines define state-affiliated accounts as “outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.” Other news media accounts with the label include RT of Russia and Xinhua of China.

According to cached versions of Twitter’s published policy, for much of Tuesday the guidelines noted that NPR and the BBC of Britain did not receive the label because they were “state-financed media organizations with editorial independence.” The reference to NPR has since been deleted from that policy.

. . .

Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment, and an email to Twitter’s communications department was returned with a poop emoji autoreply. Mr. Musk tweeted in apparent support of the move, posting a passage from Twitter’s policy and saying it “seems accurate” in a reply to a user pointing out the label on NPR’s account.

For the full story, see:

Lora Kelley. “In Policy Shift, Twitter Calls NPR ‘State-Affiliated Media.” The New York Times (Thursday, April 6, 2023): B6.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date April 5, 2023, and has the title “Twitter Labels NPR ‘State-Affiliated Media,’ in Change to Policy.”)

Hayek’s book mentioned above is:

Hayek, Friedrich A. von. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944.

Classical Liberalism Is Based on “Freedom as a Supreme Value”

(p. C7) Almost elected president of his native Peru and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa combines politics and the written word with a distinction that makes him a Grand Old Man, of whom there are far too few left in the world. As befits this status, he is a liberal in the classic sense that derives from the biblical injunction to do to others what you would have them do to you.

He was not always a liberal. As Mr. Vargas Llosa recalls in the beautifully and carefully written opening chapter of “The Call of the Tribe,” he had been a communist in the 1950s.

. . .

(p. C8) José Ortega y Gasset is introduced as “one of the most intelligent and elegant liberal philosophers of the twentieth century.”

. . .

Conceding that Ortega may have been naive, Mr. Vargas Llosa goes on to sign off this chapter with a personal ex cathedra statement: “Liberalism is above all an attitude toward life and society based on tolerance and respect, a love for culture, a desire to coexist with others and a firm defense of freedom as a supreme value.”

. . .

Hayek’s book “The Road to Serfdom” was published in 1944 but Margaret Thatcher, who read it as a student at Oxford, seems to have delayed until she was prime minister before making it compulsory reading for anyone with a sense of politics. She had found an authority for her conviction that central planning was incompatible with freedom.

For the full review, see:

David Pryce-Jones. “The Duty of a Liberal Intellectual.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023): C7-C8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 3, 2023, and has the title “‘The Call of the Tribe’ Review: Mario Vargas Llosa’s Dinner Party.”)

The book under review is:

Llosa, Mario Vargas. The Call of the Tribe. Translated by John King. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023.

Mamet Was Opened to Friedman, Hayek, and Sowell by a Guy Who “Wasn’t Strident or Arrogant”

I often wonder what sort of person, making what sort of argument, is most able to convince those who start out disagreeing. My mentors Ben Rogge and Deirdre McCloskey exemplify the attitude that impressed David Mamet in the passage quoted below. (On the other hand, Murray Rothbard, Karl Marx, and Ayn Rand convinced a lot of people, and each of them could sometimes be strident. I wonder still.)

(p. A11) . . . I received a galley copy of the playwright David Mamet’s “Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of Free Lunch,” published Tuesday. The book is a collection of essays written over the past two years on an array of cultural and political topics: pandemic zealotry, Donald Trump, terrorism, California’s punitive tax code, Christianity and Judaism, Broadway and the movies. The essays are by turns witty, insightful, affecting and cryptic. What struck me most about the book, though, was how superbly out of place its author must be in the eminent environs of his chosen industry.

. . .

Mr. Mamet announced a turn to the political right in a 2008 essay for the Village Voice, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal,’ ” but he was a black sheep long before then. His 1992 play “Oleanna,” for instance, features a male academic whose life and career are ruined by a calculating female student’s spurious accusation of sexual harassment.

Was there a moment when he decided to break ranks altogether? “I met a guy at my synagogue here maybe 20 years ago,” he says. “He was talking about Milton Friedman and [Friedrich] Hayek and Thomas Sowell. It didn’t make any sense to me, but I was impressed by his attitude. He wasn’t strident or arrogant. It was that guy’s attitude that impressed me.”

The man lent Mr. Mamet some books by these authors. “I said to him, ‘Good, I’ll read them. But,’ I said, ‘when my friends come over, I’ll have to hide them.’ He said: ‘I don’t.’ And that changed my life. What was I saying? Did I really think I had to hide books from my friends? How sick was I? It was a Road to Damascus moment.”

. . .

Woke signaling, blind compliance with public-health authoritarianism, deference to theater critics and tyrannical city officials—Mr. Mamet doesn’t play along. I’m reminded of the line spoken by Richard Roma, the aggressive and highly successful real-estate salesman in “Glengarry Glen Ross” played by Al Pacino in the 1992 film adaptation. “I subscribe to the law of contrary public opinion,” Roma says. “If everyone thinks one thing, then I say bet the other way.”

For the full interview, see:

Barton Swaim, interviewer. “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; A Defiant Scribe in the Age of Conformity.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 9, 2022): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 8, 2022, and has the title “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Opinion: David Mamet Is a Defiant Scribe in the Age of Conformity.”)

Mamet’s recent book, mentioned in the interview above, is:

Mamet, David. Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch. New York: Broadside Books, 2022.

“Intolerance Leads Not to Progress, but Stagnation”

(p. C10) . . . this past year I revisited the works of Friedrich Hayek, the great 20th-century expositor of classical liberalism. His most sweeping work is “The Constitution of Liberty”—a legal history as much as a defense of freedom—which includes a timely case for tolerance. We cannot foresee the particulars of human progress, which means “we shall never get the benefits of freedom, never obtain those unforeseeable developments for which it provides the opportunity,” if freedom “is not also granted where the uses made of it by some do not seem desirable.” Thus intolerance leads not to progress, but stagnation.

For the full review, see:

Raymond Kethledge. “12 Months of Reading; Raymond Kethledge.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021): C10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 10, 2021, and has the title “Who Read What: Business Leaders Share Their Favorite Books of 2021.”)

The book praised by Kethledge is:

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Constitution of Liberty. Reprint ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

“When I Knew More Thank Hayek” AIER YouTube Video

The American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) premiered on Mon., Jan. 4, 2020, a neat YouTube video they created based on a shortened version of my article “When I Knew More Than Hayek.” [Hayek, Covid & The Use of Knowledge in Society | Kate Wand via @youtube] #Hayek #localknowledge

Book Advice from Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty

(p. 6) Do you and your wife, the activist and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, share similar taste in books? What books has she recommended to you, and vice versa?

Very similar, so books frequently cross the bedroom from one nightstand to the other. A good example was Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty,” her favorite work of political philosophy, which she urged me to read.

. . .

Which books do you think capture the current social and political moment in America?

I shared the widespread enthusiasm for J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” last year, but the must-read book for Trump’s election and presidency remains Charles Murray’s astonishingly prescient “Coming Apart.” I wish the contemptible “students” who disrupted his lecture at Middlebury College earlier this year — not one of whom I’ll bet had ever read a word of his — would read “Coming Apart” and then look in the mirror and realize: “Oh God, I’m a member of that loathsome coastal cognitive elite that is completely out of touch with middle America.”

. . .

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

. . . To give an example of a book I found overrated, Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” was both conceptually unsound and tediously executed.

For the full interview, see:

“BY THE BOOK; Niall Ferguson.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, January 14, 2018): 6.

(Note: ellipses added, bold in original. Bold questions are by the anonymous NYT interviewer. Unbold answers are by Niall Ferguson.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date Jan. 11, 2018, and has the same title as the print version. The last question and answer quoted above, appeared in the online, but not in the print, version. Neither version gives the name of the interviewer.)

Ayann Hirsi Ali’s favorite political philosophy book, mentioned above, is:

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Constitution of Liberty. Reprint ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011 (1st ed. 1960).

Outspoken Admirer of Friedman and Hayek Disappears in Communist China

(p. A19) The disappearance of Mr. Ren, a longtime critic of the Chinese government, adds to fears that China is sliding backward and abandoning the reforms that saved it from extreme poverty and international isolation. Mr. Ren was no radical — he was a decades-long loyal Communist Party member, the former leader of a state-run company and a friend to some of China’s most powerful politicians. He emerged in what now seems a distant time, from the 1980s to the period before Mr. Xi became top leader, when the party brooked no challenge to its rule but allowed some individuals to question some of its choices.

Mr. Ren’s fate remains unclear. But if he was punished for his writing, it suggests China’s leadership won’t tolerate criticism no matter how justified it might be.

. . .

He was influenced by free-market economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. He believed government control needed to be checked.

“State power in any country is greedy, so it needs to be subject to public supervision,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Otherwise, the power will be abused and everybody will suffer from it.”

. . .

In 2011, near the peak of China’s openness to new ideas, Mr. Ren, an avid reader, started a book club. It drew China’s top entrepreneurs, intellectuals and government officials. Books included Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” The events became so popular that people had to apply through a lottery system to join. Some people flew to Beijing from all over the country to attend.

Mr. Ren said his goal was to help China’s young generation develop independent thinking so it would not follow the orders of authority slavishly. The government said no to some topics and speakers, but left it largely alone.

By early 2016, he had nearly 38 million followers on Weibo. But party attitudes toward expression were changing.

That same year, Mr. Xi declared that all Chinese news media had to serve the party. No Chinese leader since Mao Zedong had made that obligation so explicit. Mr. Ren shot back on Weibo, writing that the news media should serve the people, not the party, or the people would suffer.

Retribution was swift. His Weibo account was deleted. His party membership was suspended for a year. His passport was taken away. Members of his family weren’t allowed to leave the country. He faced constant investigations and interrogations.

. . .

Then came the coronavirus outbreak. When doctors working with the disease tried to publicly warn China about the outbreak, they were threatened by government officials. For Mr. Ren, friends said, this confirmed his argument that a media that serves the party couldn’t serve the people.

“Without a media representing the interests of the people by publishing the actual facts,” he wrote in the essay that circulated this year, “people’s lives are being ravaged by both the virus and the major illness of the system.”

He shared the essay with a few friends. Three days after his 69th birthday, he disappeared. His assistant and his son have disappeared, too.

For the full commentary, see:

Li Yuan. “THE NEW NEW WORLD; A Longtime Party Insider Vanishes, in a Blow to China’s Future.” The New York Times (Wednesday, April 1, 2020): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated April 2, 2020, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; A Loyal Chinese Critic Vanishes, in a Blow to the Nation’s Future.”)

Introvert Was Student of Schumpeter and Hayek

(p. A9) As a boy, David Rockefeller idolized his big brother Nelson, a self-assured bon vivant who didn’t let the family name stand in the way of a good time–and sometimes furtively shot rubber bands at his siblings during the morning prayer periods imposed by their austere father.
David, by contrast, was shy, insecure and often lonely, retreating into his hobby of collecting beetles and reliant on tutors for companionship.
. . .
A family friend advised him that studying economics would dispel the idea that any job he obtained was due to his family’s influence. He took graduate courses at Harvard, including an introduction to economics from Joseph Schumpeter.
He furthered his studies at the London School of Economics, where his tutor was Friedrich von Hayek, a future Nobel laureate. He won a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago in 1940 after writing a dissertation on overcapacity in industrial plants.

For the full obituary, see:
James R. Hagerty. “Former Chase Leader Overcame Shyness as Child.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., MARCH 25, 2017): A9.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date MARCH 24, 2017, and has the title “David Rockefeller Overcame Youthful Shyness and Insecurities.”)