Tag Archives: failure

Sagan’s Cosmos on the Scientific Method and Uncomfortable Ideas

I’m cur­rently watch­ing Carl Sagan’s excel­lent Cos­mos: A Per­son­al Voy­age. I feel com­pelled to post the fol­low­ing quote from epis­ode four, Heav­en and Hell, as it stood out for its eleg­ant argu­ment for the strength of sci­entif­ic ideas and for not reject­ing uncom­fort­able (if incor­rect) ideas:

There are many hypo­theses in sci­ence which are wrong. That’s all right. It’s the aper­ture to find­ing out what’s right. Sci­ence is a self-cor­rect­ing pro­cess. To be accep­ted, new ideas must sur­vive the most rig­or­ous stand­ards of evid­ence and scru­tiny.

The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that many of his ideas were wrong or silly or in gross con­tra­dic­tion to the facts. Rather, the worst aspect is that some sci­ent­ists attemp­ted to sup­press Velikovsky’s ideas.

The sup­pres­sion of uncom­fort­able ideas may be com­mon in reli­gion or in polit­ics, but it is not the path to know­ledge. And there is no place for it in the endeav­our of sci­ence.

We do not know before­hand where fun­da­ment­al insights will arise from about our mys­ter­i­ous and lovely sol­ar sys­tem. And the his­tory of our study of the sol­ar sys­tem shows clearly that accep­ted and con­ven­tion­al ideas are often wrong and that fun­da­ment­al insights can arise from the most unex­pec­ted sources.

And if you think this only applies to wacky astro­nom­ic­al ideas or insights about our sol­ar sys­tem… well, then you’re delud­ing your­self.

I can’t wait for the updated Cos­mos presen­ted by Neil deGrasse Tyson; it’ll be the best thing on TV since sliced bread.

Recognising Bad Advice and Expertise Failure

Why do we blindly fol­low experts when their advice is so often so wrong*? How can we dif­fer­en­ti­ate between good advice and bad? These are just two of the ques­tions Dav­id Freed­man attempts to answer in Wrong: Why Experts Keep Fail­ing Us (a book that sounds like it could be a nice com­ple­ment to Kath­ryn Schulz’s book, men­tioned pre­vi­ously).

In an inter­view with Time, Freed­man dis­cusses top­ics related to his thes­is, such as our reac­tion when con­fron­ted with experts, experts and the con­firm­a­tion bias, the “Wiz­ard of Oz” effect, how anim­al exper­i­ments help to advance sci­ence but don’t always provide suit­able advice for humans, and what he knows about bad advice and how to recog­nise it:

Bad advice tends to be simplist­ic. It tends to be def­in­ite, uni­ver­sal and cer­tain. But, of course, that’s the advice we love to hear. The best advice tends to be less cer­tain — those research­ers who say, ‘I think maybe this is true in cer­tain situ­ations for some people.’ We should avoid the kind of advice that tends to res­on­ate the most — it’s excit­ing, it’s a break­through, it’s going to solve your prob­lems — and instead look at the advice that embraces com­plex­ity and uncer­tainty. […]

It goes against our intu­ition, but we have to learn to force ourselves to accept, under­stand and even embrace that we live in a com­plex, very messy, very uncer­tain world.

via @vaughanbell

*Some depress­ing facts from Freedman’s book, as chosen by Time:

About two-thirds of the find­ings pub­lished in the top med­ic­al journ­als are refuted with­in a few years. […] As much as 90% of phys­i­cians’ med­ic­al know­ledge has been found to be sub­stan­tially or com­pletely wrong. In fact, there is a 1 in 12 chance that a doctor’s dia­gnos­is will be so wrong that it causes the patient sig­ni­fic­ant harm. And it’s not just medi­cine. Eco­nom­ists have found that all stud­ies pub­lished in eco­nom­ics journ­als are likely to be wrong. Pro­fes­sion­ally pre­pared tax returns are more likely to con­tain sig­ni­fic­ant errors than self-pre­pared returns. Half of all news­pa­per art­icles con­tain at least one fac­tu­al error.

Scaling Success and Bright-Spot Analysis

When there is a large-scale and wide-ran­ging prob­lem that needs a solu­tion, we shouldn’t attempt to solve it with an equally large solu­tion but instead attempt to break the issue down and find outly­ing suc­cesses to rep­lic­ate.

That’s the wis­dom of Dan and Chip Heath–authors of Made to Stick and Switch–say­ing that to solve com­plex prob­lems we should change our way of think­ing to ‘bright-spot’ ana­lys­is and attempt to scale small suc­cesses.

That’s the first step to fix­ing everything from addic­tion to cor­por­ate mal­aise to mal­nu­tri­tion. A prob­lem may look hope­lessly com­plex. But there’s a game plan that can yield move­ment on even the toughest issues. And it starts with loc­at­ing a bright spot – a ray of hope. […]

Our ration­al brain has a prob­lem focus when it needs a solu­tion focus. If you are a man­ager, ask your­self, What is the ratio of the time you spend solv­ing prob­lems versus scal­ing suc­cesses?

We need to switch from archae­olo­gic­al prob­lem solv­ing to bright-spot evan­gel­iz­ing. […] Even in fail­ure there is suc­cess. […]

These flashes of suc­cess, these bright spots, can provide our road map for action – and the hope that change is pos­sible.

via @Ando_F

On Being Wrong: Estimating Our Beliefs

Fol­low­ing the forced retire­ment of Helen Thomas fol­low­ing her con­tro­ver­sial com­ments on Israel and Palestine, Felix Sal­mon dis­cusses how being wrong–and more import­antly, the will­ing­ness to be wrong–is an admir­able trait that should be applauded.

In dis­cuss­ing this, Sal­mon points to a con­ver­sa­tion between Tyler Cowen and Wil Wilkin­son, where Cowen pro­poses:

Take whatever your polit­ic­al beliefs hap­pen to be. Obvi­ously the view you hold you think is most likely to be true, but I think you should give that some­thing like 60–40, where­as in real­ity most people will give it 95 to 5 or 99 to 1 in terms of prob­ab­il­ity that it is cor­rect. Or if you ask people what is the chance this view of yours is wrong, very few people are will­ing to assign it any num­ber at all. Or if you ask people who believe in God or are athe­ists, what’s the chance you’re wrong – I’ve asked athe­ists what’s the chance you’re wrong and they’ll say some­thing like a tril­lion to one, and that to me is absurd, that even if you think all of the strongest argu­ments for athe­ism are cor­rect, your estim­ate that athe­ism is in fact the cor­rect point of view shouldn’t be that high, maybe you know 90–10 or 95 to 5, at most.

Sal­mon con­tin­ues:

I try hard to believe […] that many if not most of my opin­ions are wrong (although of course I have no idea which they are), and that many of the most inter­est­ing and use­ful things I write come out of my being wrong rather than being right. This is not, as Wilkin­son noted to Cowen, an easy intel­lec­tu­al stance to hold: he calls it “a weird viol­a­tion of the actu­al com­pu­ta­tion­al con­straints of the human mind”.

via The Browser

Ira Glass on Being Wrong and Manufacturing Inspiration

Dis­cuss­ing how many great stor­ies “hinge on people being wrong”, Kath­ryn Schulz inter­views This Amer­ic­an Life host Ira Glass on the bene­fits of being wrong.

I feel like being wrong is really import­ant to doing decent work. To do any kind of cre­at­ive work well, you have to run at stuff know­ing that it’s usu­ally going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. […] In my exper­i­ence, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actu­ally gets good. And you can’t tell if it’s going to be good until you’re really late in the pro­cess. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, some­thing will turn out great and really sur­prise you. […]

I had this exper­i­ence a couple of years ago where I got to sit in on the edit­or­i­al meet­ing at the Onion. Every Monday they have to come up with like 17 or 18 head­lines, and to do that, they gen­er­ate 600 head­lines per week. I feel like that’s why it’s good: because they are will­ing to be wrong 583 times to be right 17. […]

If you do cre­at­ive work, there’s a sense that inspir­a­tion is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just man­u­fac­ture inspir­a­tion through sheer brute force. You can simply pro­duce enough mater­i­al that the thing will arrive that seems inspired.

This fant­ast­ic­ally com­pre­hens­ive inter­view is one of the best I’ve read in a while and is part of a series of inter­views on the sub­ject of ‘wrong­ness’ fol­low­ing the pub­lic­a­tion of Schulz’s book, Being Wrong: Adven­tures in the Mar­gin of Error.

Pre­vi­ous inter­viewees include Anthony Bourdain, Joe Posnanski, Diane Rav­itch and Alan Der­show­itz (part two).

via Intel­li­gent Life