No one likes to be wrong, but acknowledging mistakes is part of the scientific process … and how successful systems adapt. (More)

TEDscotch, Part III: Mistakes and Humility (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature will hop around several TED talks. Thursday we considered population, food, and energy. Yesterday we looked at quantum connectedness and social media. Today we conclude with why all of us, even scientists, must admit and learn from our mistakes.

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences – the TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh UK each summer – TED includes the award-winning TEDTalks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

Kathryn Schulz: On Being Wrong

Kathryn Schulz is a journalist, author, and public speaker with a credible (if not necessarily enviable) claim to being the world’s leading wrongologist. She was a 2004 recipient of the Pew Fellowship in International Journalism (now the International Reporting Project), and has reported from throughout Central and South America, Japan, and, most recently, the Middle East.

We think it feels bad to be wrong but, as Schulz notes, it only feels bad once we know we’re wrong. Until we know about it, she says, being wrong “feels like being right.” She calls this “error blindness,” and it’s one reason we avoid thinking about being wrong. Another is the cultural pressure to be right, and the assumptions we make about those we believe are wrong: that they’re ignorant, idiots, or evil and maliciously distorting what they know to be the truth. We don’t want to feel those things about ourselves, so we try very hard not to consider whether we may be wrong.

But as Shulz says, “The miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is. It’s that you can see the world as it isn’t.” Our ability to see what is not there, or to see things as no one else yet has, is the source of all human innovation and progress.

Dan Ariely: Beware Conflicts of Interest

Dan Ariely has long been fascinated with how emotional states, moral codes and peer pressure affect our ability to make rational and often extremely important decisions in our daily lives – across a spectrum of our interests, from economic choices (how should I invest?) to personal (who should I marry?). At Duke University, he’s aligned with three departments (business, economics and cognitive neuroscience); he’s also a visiting professor in MIT’s Program in Media Arts and Sciences and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight.

We can learn from mistakes one by one, but that is very painful for ourselves and others. Dr. Ariely’s work focuses on how we most often make mistakes, and in this brief talk he discusses conflicts of interest. He offers two examples where people – one being himself – attempted or considered actions that seem wrong in hindsight. Yet they didn’t seem wrong at the time, or at least not immediately. As we saw last week, conscious reasoning evolved not to seek truth but to convince ourselves and others that we’re right. Until our intuition accepts that we can be wrong, self-interested reason will dutifully go on explaining why we’re right.

Tim Harford: Trial, Error, and the God Complex

Tim Harford argues that the world has become far too unpredictable and complex for today’s challenges to be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinions. Instead, Harford suggests, we need to learn to embrace failure and to constantly adapt, to improvise rather than plan, to work from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Harford challenges the God Complex, whose symptoms are “no matter how complicated the problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution.” In fact, he says, modern problems are far too complex to be understood in that way. His message is not nihilistic. Rather, he says, we must approach complex problems with humility and find answers through trial-and-error.

He offers the example of a soap company that first tried to develop a production nozzle with experts applying the principles of fluid dynamics. Their nozzle failed and, rather than have more experts offer yet another ‘final’ design, the company tried a different approach. They began with ten variations on a simple design, tested each, chose the best one, and developed ten variations on that. After 45 generations of trial-and-error, they had evolved a design that worked brilliantly.

This is how nature solves complex problems, Harford says, and he says we should emulate that method. Critics are quick to point out that Harford’s point is obvious, and his response to that criticism is passionate and powerful:

You think it’s obvious? I will admit it’s obvious when schools start teaching children that there are some problems that don’t have a correct answer. Stop giving them lists of questions every single one of which has an answer. And there’s an authority figure in the corner behind the teacher’s desk who knows all the answers. And if you can’t find the answers, you must be lazy or stupid. When schools stop doing that all the time, I will admit that, yes, it’s obvious that trial and error is a good thing.

When a politician stands up campaigning for elected office and says, “I want to fix our health system. I want to fix our education system. I have no idea how to do it. I have half a dozen ideas. We’re going to test them out. They’ll probably all fail. Then we’ll test some other ideas out. We’ll find some that work. We’ll build on those. We’ll get rid of the ones that don’t.”

When a politician campaigns on that platform, and more importantly, when voters like you and me are willing to vote for that kind of politician, then I will admit that it is obvious that trial and error works. Until then, until then I’m going to keep banging on about trial and error and why we should abandon the God Complex.

As progressives, we should advocate for trial-and-error and learning from mistakes. Yet we must also advocate for policies that buffer the costs of those mistakes for the most vulnerable … because we must never forget that our most expert ideas may be very … wrong.


Happy Saturday!