Reading Week – Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error – Kathryn Schulz

I am left with a clear understanding of the history of error and a very different view on what it is to be wrong, why it’s important and how I haven’t spent as much time thinking about it as perhaps I should have done.

We do not often allow ourselves to be wrong we routinely immediately replace one theory with another. Note much of our (English) language about “how did I ever believe such-and-such-a-thing.

Suprise has an interesting relationship with error. Once we have used a jack-in-the-box once why do our brains continue to be surprised whenever the “Jack” appears.

The reason I find religion so distasteful is that the scientific method requires that hypotheses must be testable with results that are reproducible. Yet the deluded followers of religions are typically much happier. Accuracy on the great issues of our lives that there is no point to it all, that there is no purpose, one is merely a mammal on a small rock typically increases one’s probability of being depressed. (Interestingly being depressed also appears to correlate with having a real perspective.)

However, the saving grace of the scientific method is that because it is open, and requires error, every time we are wrong we find ourselves getting closer to the truth. Thus perversely “errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally towards it.”

The approach we take to those who do not agree with us is again interesting, “You don’t live in the real world” is particularly apt since what it really means is “your model of the world differs from mine, the real mode of the world.”

This leads us to a standard trap because our model of the world is the correct one. It must just be that you are missing facts as to the reason we disagree. If I can just tell you then we will agree. When sharing “the facts” fails to work we assume that you must just be stupid and then.

The statement, “the exception that proves the rule” is so obviously gibberish just one of the ways we deal with error the other, much simpler is tp forget about it. While certain high impact errors may stick in our memories most sharply, in general, we forget them very quickly hence Benjamin Frankin’s decision to record his mistakes since “[erroneous] facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than vulnerable ones.”

Bacon called the four problems that cause error ‘offendicula‘ – the tendencies to; pretend to know, defer to authority, blindly do what has been done before and submit to peer pressure. These four categories of error enforcement were particularly well demonstrated in the Swiss Cantons of Appenzells. (Most) men had been able to vote in the Appenzells since the thirteenth century but, in the case of Appenzell Innerhoden, the male citizens voting with their “swords”, never gave women the vote voluntarily. They waited for the constitutional court to force it on them (as the last hold out Canton) in 1990.

One of the ways that we all decide what is true is based upon who told us. I have not myself checked the maths that supposedly confirms the existence of the Higgs Boson so why is this less wrong than trusting my preacher man, shaman or witch? That is to say that “our faith that we are right is faith that someone else is right.”

The Talmud has a novel solution to groupthink. There is a prohibition on the death penalty if a decision was unanimous. Of course, if this becomes purely a ceremonial act it would be interesting to know if it still pricks the groupthink bubble.

Doubt could be thought of as a skill. It is not useful to go around refusing to take any action until we know it is a good one but we must stay open to doubt. Humans are very good at identifying the correct pattern from incredibly scant data.

There is a condition of wrongness where one is paralyzed or perhaps blind but one’s brain does not accept this and si if engaged on conversation one will be sure that one can see of have just played a round of golf. This is perhaps because there are two (or more) systems at play. One generating hypotheses and another assessing how they meet with the evidence. Thus if the second is broken we will perhaps just spout the first thought that enters our head!

As an interesting case in point, given the tone of the book, I was most confused why Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was being so highly praised as interesting because the female protagonist had once worked in a warehouse.

A further interesting fact Symposium just means drinking session. Now I have a name for my jeroboam fuelled Data Science sessions, “please join me for the Data Science Symposium.”

People tend to overestimate how important they are and their estimate of their own infallibility tends to correlate with their power.

The six sigma methodology with its define, measure, analyse, improve and control is perhaps worth more investigation.

Why do we choose our life partners based on hormones? Not only is this what we do but it is what (Western) society widely encourages us to do. There is also plenty of evidence that people make this decision very badly (the divorce rate for third marriages is ~75%). With modern contract law, it is virtually impossible for a more consequential decision to exist than the marriage contract and yet logic and reason will rarely dissuade us from entering it.

The claim that machines don’t make errors was interesting. AI is making this less true, think of the AI asked to draw a bird that drew a branch on a tree, with leaves in the background, instead. Though it is true to say that they do not feel error I am not sure that we know what it is for us to feel either.

Overall though it is worth remembering that if we didn’t massively underestimate how hard things would be we would likely never start anything.

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