Some Notes on Being Wrong

Yesterday I predicted: “In the short term–the next few days or weeks–the experts are probably right. Markets won’t crash”.

Today the markets crashed.

Unlike the folks in the Obama Administration, or the Tea Party, or indeed unlike every other person who has ever lived, I sometimes make mistakes.

Since being wrong is a unique situation that I alone of all humanity have experienced, I thought it would be of interest to record a bit about what it’s like and how I deal with it. I know that no one else anywhere will ever have occasion to use this information because no one else is ever wrong about anything, but as a purely ethnographic exercise it still might be interesting.

So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be wrong, and wonder how the only person in the world to ever be wrong deals with it, read on!

The first thing to note is that I’m used to being wrong. I’ve been wrong about pretty much everything for my entire life. I chose the wrong interests as a child–science and technology and literature–and pursued an education in the wrong subject–engineering physics–and did the wrong thing after graduating–went to grad school–and got interested in the wrong philosophy–Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”, which I got so wrong I became a leading critic of it–and made the wrong choice with regard to religion by becoming an atheist. I made the wrong career choice by wandering around within academia and then leaving it entirely to work for the wrong company in the wrong industry for the wrong length of time. I developed the wrong skill set and ran the my business in the wrong way (“You can’t outsource rocket science” I was told by one advisor upon hearing the kind of services I provided my clients with.) I support the wrong charities–Amnesty and the Canadian Cancer Society–and I’m in the process of making another wrong career move in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons.

So I’m really, really good at wrong. I’ve been told I’m so wrong about so many things by so many people it’s really a wonder that I’ve ended up so happy, although I’m probably wrong about that, too.

The most important thing about being wrong is to not sweat it. For me, at least–because I am wrong so much about so many things–being wrong one more time is just no big deal. In the extremely unlikely situation where you do happen to find yourself wrong about something–hard though that is to imagine, I know–you should just say, “Huh. I guess I was wrong about that.”

This saves a lot of time and effort. It saves you from trying to pin the blame for your error on someone else, or worse yet, trying to reason your way out of being wrong based on some hopeful counter-factuals of the form, “But IF X had happened then Y would have surely followed and I would have been right!”

Here’s some advice: no one cares about what would have happened if something other than what happened happened. People care about what actually happened, and if you were wrong about what actually happened, you were wrong, pure and simple. Attempting to distract, deflect or blame others, the situation, your mother, God, penguins or the Illuminati just announces to the world that you’re a cowardly wanker who doesn’t have the guts to admit it when you’re wrong.

Hard words, I know, but as I’m the only person who’s ever been wrong about anything I feel I have some right to pass judgement on those entirely hypothetical people who also might be wrong about stuff now and then.

Attempts to redefine reality in a way that makes you less wrong are ridiculous and childish. I’m tempted to call them “womanly”, but for many reasons both empirical and moral that would be wrong.

Having avoided that trap, the next thing to do is ask: “Why was I wrong?” and “How can avoid making the same mistake, or the same kind of mistake, again?”

As someone who was never wrong once said, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

Avoiding the same mistake or the same kind of mistake requires thoughtful analysis, which is so far beyond the scope of the average human being it’s a good thing they’re never wrong, because if they were they’d never be able to cope with it in a productive and constructive way.

In the present case, I made a very simple mistake: I predicted what I wanted to be true. I had no particular reason for believing it. Other experts were predicting it, but I was well aware of how lame they are. I just really hoped it would be the way the future fell out. I imagined a wobble this morning followed by a rebound, gold falling back to $1650 or so over the next couple of weeks, and the markets generally being soft but not plunging.

I was wrong.

This is a difficult kind of mistake to avoid, but I think the key is this: when in doubt, don’t predict. I started out writing yesterday by saying I had no clue what was going on, and ended by making a prediction. That should be a red-flag right there.

Today, I have no clue what is going on. I still think gold might be a good thing to buy. I still think inflation is a major risk in the US. Given the partisan dysfunction in Washington there seems no more plausible way for the US to deal with its debt than print money, and in doing so it will erode the value of every dollar out there. So I wouldn’t be shocked if that happened, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it didn’t either.

About TJ

Scientist, engineer, inventor, writer, poet, sailor, hiker, canoeist, father.
This entry was posted in economics, epistemology, life, politics, prediction, probability, psychology, science. Bookmark the permalink.

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