To Err is Human

by johnmccreery

Via Slashdot,

Hugh Pickens sends in an excerpt in last week’s Boston Globe from Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

“The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning, the more it becomes clear that our capacity to make mistakes is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain so swift, adaptable, and intelligent. Rather than treating errors like the bedbugs of the intellect — an appalling and embarrassing nuisance we try to pretend out of existence — we need to recognize that human fallibility is part and parcel of human brilliance. Neuroscientists increasingly think that inductive reasoning undergirds virtually all of human cognition. Humans use inductive reasoning to learn language, organize the world into meaningful categories, and grasp the relationship between cause and effect. Thanks to inductive reasoning, we are able to form nearly instantaneous beliefs and take action accordingly. However, Schulz writes, ‘The distinctive thing about inductive reasoning is that it generates conclusions that aren’t necessarily true. They are, instead, probabilistically true — which means they are possibly false.’ Schulz recommends that we respond to the mistakes (or putative mistakes) of those around us with empathy and generosity and demand that our business and political leaders acknowledge and redress their errors rather than ignoring or denying them. ‘Once we recognize that we do not err out of laziness, stupidity, or evil intent, we can liberate ourselves from the impossible burden of trying to be permanently right. We can take seriously the proposition that we could be in error, without deeming ourselves idiotic or unworthy.'”


6 Comments to “To Err is Human”

  1. “One recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it.” – A. Camus

  2. I wonder if Hume would appreciate the experimental support – or if he’d point out that the finding is not necessarily true on its own terms ;-p

    I guess to this I’d add the critical importance of recursion. While it’s human, all too human to jump to conclusions, a path branches there between remaining stuck in first conclusions and reexamining them in light of new information. I find I do some of both and suspect there are things to be learned about the conditions under which one or the other path is likely to be taken. I also seem to remember reading that ‘first to market’ is very important, that is, that a first conclusion sets as the default and is disproportionately weighted in future investigation and analysis.

  3. By the way, sometimes people err out of laziness, stupidity or evil intent. The question then would be why using the same inductive brains some people bias toward believing all errors are stigmata of fundamental flaw and some bias toward believing that to err is human, etc.

  4. I’ve just now been reminded of a now-infamous class of mistaken induction, anosognosia or the Dunning-Kruger Effect. “But I wore the juice!” The problem comes because the same skills required to reach a sound conclusion are the ones needed to evaluate the soundness of a conclusion, so not only are we incompetent but we don’t know we’re incompetent. We don’t know that we don’t know. I’m not subtle enough to weave this back into your post on the fly, John, but it seemed relevant.

  5. Thanks for the Dunning-Kurger Effect link. I was especially taken by the paragraph in the story in which Dunning is quoted as saying,

    If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute. The decision I just made does not make much sense. I had better go and get some independent advice.” But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas. And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

    Struck me as I read it that this could be the explanation for why intelligence and sociability evolve together. We need other people to point out our blind spots to us.

  6. Right. But we also seek out people who confirm our blind spots, and social groups develop their Dunning-Kruger zones as well. So are we persistent in error because there’s some evolutionary advantage to it, or because it often doesn’t hurt enough to keep us from breeding?

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