There should be a macho way to say “I don’t know”
I recently gave an interview with Russ Roberts at EconTalk, which was fun and which has generated a lot of interesting feedback for me. I had no idea so many people listened to that podcast. Turns out it’ll eventually add up to something like 50,000, with half of those people listening this week. Cool!
One thing Russ and I talked about is still on my mind. Namely, how many problems are the direct result of people pretending to understand something, or exaggerating the certainty of an uncertain quantity. People just don’t acknowledge errorbars when they should!
What up, people?
Part of the problem exists because when we model something, the model typically just comes out with a single answer, usually a number, and it seems so certain to us, so tangible, even when we know that slightly different starting conditions or inputs to our models would have resulted in a different number.
So for example, an SAT score. We know that, on a different day with a different amount of sleep or a different test, we might score significantly differently. And yet the score is the score, and it’s hugely important and we brand ourselves with it as if it’s some kind of final word.
But another part of this problem is that people are seldom incentivized to admit they don’t know something. Indeed the ones we hear from the most are professional opinion-holders, and they are going to lose their audience and their gigs if they go on air saying, “I’m not sure what’s going to happen with [the economy], we’ve honestly never been in this situation before and our data is just not sufficient to make a prediction that’s worth its weight.”
You can replace “the economy” by anything and the problem still holds.
Who’s going to say that?? Someone who doesn’t mind losing their job is who. Which is too bad, because honest people do say that quite a large portion of the time. So professional opinion-holders are kind of trained to be dishonest in this way.
And so are TED talks, but that’s a vent for another day.
I wish there were a macho way to admit you didn’t know something, so people could understand that admitting uncertainty isn’t equivalent to being wishy-washy.
I mean, sometimes I want to bust out and say, “I don’t know that, and neither do you, motherfucker!” but I’m not sure how well that would go over. Some people get touchy about profanity.
But it’s getting there, and it points to something ironic about this uncertainty-as-wishy-washiness: it is sometimes macho to point out that other people are blowing smoke. In other words, I can be a whistle blower on other people’s illusion of certainty even when I can’t make being uncertain sound cool.
I think that explains, to some extent, why so many people end up criticizing other people for false claims rather than making a stance on uncertainty themselves. The other reason of course is that it’s easier to blow holes in other people’s theories, once stated, than it is to come up with a foolproof theory of one’s own.
Any suggestions for macho approaches to errorbars?