Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

It is OK to publicly make a mistake and change your mind

65 Post author: JGWeissman 12 April 2011 01:24AM

At a recent meetup, we tried having a structured discussion in which we would all choose to talk about a belief that influences our behavior, talk about something we protect, or talk about a mistake we once made and have corrected. And it seemed that people thought it would require exceptional bravery to choose to talk about one's mistake. Elsewhere on Less Wrong, people are concerned about retaining the ability to edit a comment expressing a position they later reconsider and think is wrong.

My first reaction to all of this is that we need a group norm so that it doesn't require bravery to admit a mistake, or to leave a record of previously held positions. My second reaction is that we do in fact have such a norm. Comments expressing a change in position, that accept counter arguments and refutations, get up voted. Old comments reflecting the old wrong position are generally not down voted for being wrong. The problem is not how we treat people that make mistakes, but that people have inaccurate anticipations of how we will react.

So, to everyone who is worried about this, I want to say: It's OK. You can admit your mistakes. You can make a mistake and change your mind. We, the community, will applaud your growth, celebrate your new strength, and leave your mistake in the past where it belongs.

Comments (13)

Comment author: Wei_Dai 12 April 2011 05:19:01PM 9 points [-]

The fear of public embarrassment can be a strong motivation to think more carefully about one's ideas. Without it, I think I will more often be tempted to make a comment or post without thinking through possible ways that I could be wrong. I'd like to preserve that motivation for myself as well as others, so let's not make the cost of publicly making a mistake too low.

Comment author: orthonormal 13 April 2011 03:43:47AM 5 points [-]

In this thread, "mistakes" primarily means "old mistaken beliefs" rather than "careless/foolish comments".

Comment author: Wei_Dai 13 April 2011 03:25:53PM *  2 points [-]

The opening post talks about "publicly making a mistake", which I think meant making a post or comment that turns out to be wrong. (It also talks about admitting your mistakes, which I agree does refer to "old mistaken beliefs".) I suggest that we should feel some measure of embarrassment for making a post or comment that turns out to be wrong, even if it feels like (or appears as if) we were being careful/not foolish when we wrote it. The latter standard is too loose and subjective, hence easily rationalized away.

Comment author: Ian_Ryan 12 April 2011 09:27:53PM *  5 points [-]

But isn't being wary of coming off as lazy or unconstructive different than being afraid to make mistakes? The former seems desirable; the latter not so much.

Comment author: Ian_Ryan 12 April 2011 04:42:57AM *  7 points [-]

I haven't been here long enough to verify whether that norm (that it doesn't require bravery to admit a mistake) really is in place, but assuming it is, I'm sure I'll enjoy my stay!

Indeed, if there's anything that could make or break your rationality in one shot, it's whether you're afraid to make mistakes. There's no influence more corrupting than being afraid to screw up, and there's nothing more liberating than being free of that fear.

Comment author: jwhendy 12 April 2011 01:55:55AM 14 points [-]

This is great. I don't have much to add specifically to the topic, other than to say I've been quite moved lately when contemplating the gem that LW has been for me. I received quite the input on my recent request for help, and stumbled across something recently talking about how important sharing intimate struggles and information is in terms of bonding.

I think a lot of the reason this doesn't happen save for a few close friends is the issue of feeling "safe" sharing such information. We fear that since no one looks like on the outside how we feel on the inside -- they couldn't possibly understand or accept us and our grab bags of traits and beliefs. But it is happening... right here.

This has meant especially much to me in thinking about the general view that the non-religious (I know not everyone here is, but a lot are, and I have recently become one) have no camaraderie or support to provide. This is just plain wrong, I'm pleased to say. While the general tone here at least strikes me as quasi "cold and intellectual" (but isn't that the nature of most of the topics, anyway?), hearts come out to play quite frequently when individuals share loss, struggles, and their softer sides.

I've been blown away. A post like this, while perhaps aimed at something as far from the emotional side of things as "I was wrong about FAI"... also means that a community has formed in which all of the typical fears about being wrong can be dissolved and reassured away.

This is a community aimed at helping, not the ostracizing derision that is feared in our mental movies. While I think it's quite natural to have inclinations of pride that sway us from admitting mistakes, it's fantastic to be part of a community where one can look at the supposed self-preservation provided by such an instinct, see it's ineffectiveness, and then admit, "Schucks... I was wrong about that, too."

Thanks for the reminder and encouragement.

Comment author: lukeprog 12 April 2011 04:35:20PM 4 points [-]

Yes.

A recent example from my own life. I wrote a post encouraging SIAI to publish in mainstream journals. One month later, I wrote another post that basically said, "Oops. I no longer think the cost-benefit analysis comes out that way."

Comment author: David_Gerard 12 April 2011 03:33:22PM *  4 points [-]

How about a discussion post for "What mistakes have you made lately?"

(I just spent £38 I can ill afford on accessories for my new CrackBerry that I literally did not need in any way at all. I am currently composing in my head an annotated stack trace of my attack of More Wrong.)

Comment author: fortyeridania 14 April 2011 02:01:10AM 2 points [-]

We, the community, will applaud your growth, celebrate your new strength, and leave your mistake in the past where it belongs.

Does this mean we should past errors, as long as they’ve been admitted? As I understand it, there is a chain of three different claims:

(1) LWers should admit their mistakes. (2) To encourage this, LWers should be supportive of those who admit their mistakes. (3) As a mechanism for this, LWers should ignore errors that have been admitted as mistakes by their authors.

I like (1) and (2). I’d like to spell out the cost of (3).

Past mistakes are relevant to estimates of future accuracy because patterns in mistakes could indicate bias or ignorance. The author's admission of error should not change this (though it should make us discount her other output less, because her demonstrated willingness to admit errors decreases the likelihood that her other output has errors known to her but not yet to us).

Thus, not accounting for past mistakes (whether others’ or our own) prevents the discovery of, and thus correction for, error patterns. Hence the cost of such an enforcement mechanism.

That being said, the costs might be outweighed by the benefits, if this mechanism is much better than other mechanisms.

On a related note, people do occasionally try to keep track of the errors of public figures, such as at TakeOnIt (previously mentioned on LW here and Project Votesmart.

Comment author: JGWeissman 14 April 2011 02:27:22AM 1 point [-]

Ok, if someone constantly has mistakes to admit, that would be a problem, and yes, we should encourage that person to be more careful in forming their positions.

Also, though I endorse the typical behavior, what I said about how LW responds to mistakes is a description of what currently actually happens, and my message is directed at those who are afraid the response might be harsher.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 12 April 2011 08:46:46AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: LucasSloan 12 April 2011 01:51:33AM 1 point [-]

Agreed in the strongest possible terms - not doing this is one of my greatest flaws as a rationalist.

Comment author: curiousepic 13 April 2011 08:01:08PM 0 points [-]