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

[LINK] Being proven wrong is like winning the lottery

29 Post author: Unnamed 29 October 2011 10:40PM

Phil Birnbaum at Sabermetric Research writes about how people have things backwards; it's great to find out that you're wrong:

Let's suppose you open a restaurant, and you're very successful, and people like your food. You're very proud of being a great chef. Then, someone tells you, correctly, that one of your appetizers, one that you think is one of your best, is actually pretty awful. Your customers hate it.

Your first reaction might be to get defensive. But, again, you should be thrilled! Now you can fix that dish. Your food, your restaurant, your profit, and your reputation will all be better than before. It's almost the best thing that can happen to you. Being wrong is like winning the lottery!

...

I guess my overall point is that any online discussion, even between people who violently disagree with each other, should be a co-operative venture. One of you is wrong, and you're working together to find out who. And, we should keep in mind that most of the benefit goes to the person who was actually wrong in the first place.

When someone you respect, or someone who seems to be expert and knowledgeable, starts disagreeing with you, it's like you've stumbled upon a fistful of lottery tickets. Argue your position, yes, but don't get defensive, and keep an open mind. Sure, it might be that other guy who's wrong. But if you're really, really lucky, it'll be you.

Comments (15)

Comment author: ahartell 29 October 2011 10:45:41PM *  15 points [-]

I like the idea in the quotation, but it seems a little off. Being wrong isn't like winning the lottery; being wrong is bad. It's like "winning the lottery" to find out you're wrong, because then you stop being in that bad state (hopefully). Phil Birnbaum knows this (he says so in the post), but that doesn't make the line "Being wrong is like winning the lottery" much less annoying.

Comment author: 110phil 29 October 2011 10:58:07PM *  16 points [-]

Thanks! Now changed in original.

Comment author: ahartell 29 October 2011 11:03:04PM *  11 points [-]

That's a lot better.
P.S. Great job taking your own advice. :)

Comment author: gwern 30 October 2011 12:43:42AM 11 points [-]

"Surprises are things that you not only didn't know, but that contradict things you thought you knew. And so they're the most valuable sort of fact you can get. They're like a food that's not merely healthy, but counteracts the unhealthy effects of things you've already eaten."

"The Age of the Essay", Paul Graham http://paulgraham.com/essay.html

Comment author: antigonus 30 October 2011 12:48:06AM 8 points [-]

And like winning the lottery, it doesn't provide you with a tremendous amount of status. :\

Comment author: djcb 30 October 2011 12:45:33PM 7 points [-]

Well... surely, if you are wrong about something it is good to find out about that, and update your map. And surely it is a good thing to change your mind rather than defensively cling to your opinions.

But, 'winning the lottery'? Not being wrong in the first place is better (ie., having the more accurate map already is obviously better); and there is a (rational or not) social (status) cost to being shown wrong (imagine being shown wrong all the time - that's certainly not like winning the lottery all the time...)

So, while I would agree that most people are not willing enough to change their opinions when evidence comes in against them, trying to achieve that by claiming that being shown wrong is the best thing since sliced bread goes too far. Associating something desirable with something you want to promote may be good marketing of course...

Comment author: lessdazed 30 October 2011 07:08:25AM *  5 points [-]

The mistaken attitude comes from both status considerations and a map-territory confusion. I think the author could do better by being explicit about what the cause or causes of the problem are, and also by putting more emphasis on the second issue.

It seems that in his post, Birnbaum implicates status as most if not all of the cause of our misperception,

And I should add that I'm not saying that I, personally, know how to suppress my own ego, or even that I succeed in doing it when I try. I'm just saying that I know I should.

However, the map-territory error is a significant cause of confusion. The mechanism is that people might feel that by believing something about the world, they can make it true in the world.

While I don't follow baseball or baseball sabermetrics at all, and have never taken a course on statistics, I learned about statistics through GVT, VUKOTA, Corsi, qualcomp, and the other hockey sabermetrics. Here is something from just a few days ago:

We've already concluded that it doesn't seem to stem from any lingering injury effects. Nor does it make sense to be a case of suddenly diminished skills…after all, we're talking about a talented player in his mid-20s. So what option does that leave?

The most obvious remaining choice is a change in usage under current head coach Claude Julien. So let's examine some of Bergeron's statistics to find out if the talented pivot isn't being non-optimally utilized on the man advantage. If the answer is yes, it's actually good news for Boston, believe it or not. There could be a significant untapped resource for providing more goal-scoring production (Bergeron is signed through 2013-14) sitting on the Bruins roster, waiting to be taken advantage of.

Emphasis added. I agree with what the author of the above quote implies, that even when ego is not at stake, when evaluating third parties' situations, it is counter-intuitive to think that someone's having been wrong or foolish until now indicates they are in a good situation. This indicates that however important ego and status are, the map-territory confusion is sufficient to cause the mistake the blog post warns of.

Comment author: 110phil 30 October 2011 01:13:10PM 2 points [-]

The point is well-taken that there are causes other than ego, and I could have mentioned that in the post.

I'm not sure what you're getting at with the hockey example, though.

Comment author: lessdazed 31 October 2011 07:59:43AM 0 points [-]

In the example, someone assumes that readers will not realize that a third party (The Bruins) having been wrong is good for them, even though there is no ego involved for most readers.

Comment author: 110phil 31 October 2011 02:01:55PM 1 point [-]

Ah, OK.

That's a slightly different case, though, isn't it? The author is not saying "it's good news for Boston [fans]" because they now are right when they were wrong before, and now their map is more accurate. Rather, he's saying that it's good news for Boston [fans] because the state of the world in the "right" case means more future Boston success than the state of the world in the "wrong" case.

Suppose Bergeron was doing well instead of poorly, and the author argued that it's because the coach is playing him too much and he's going to get tired or injured. In that case, the author might argue "Is Bergeron being played on every power play when he used to be played only rarely? If the answer is yes, it's actually bad news for Boston, believe it or not."

In other words, the "good news" and "bad news" don't seem to refer to the desirability of the map matching the territory. In this particular context, they refer to the desirability of the territory itself.

Comment author: lessdazed 31 October 2011 04:41:47PM *  1 point [-]

Great point Phil! I didn't see that, that is an important difference in the cases.

I had mentally automatically interpreted your point "it's bad to be wrong. Therefore, if you're wrong, the best thing is to *stop being wrong*. And the way to stop being wrong is to change your mind." as a special case of his, "the state of the world in the 'was wrong/am right' case means more future success than the state of the world in the 'was wrong/still wrong' case."

Comment author: Grognor 30 October 2011 04:14:32AM 4 points [-]

Well said! I can't remember where I read it, but I remember reading a great line that went something like, "How can you feel dismayed at having been shown to be wrong about something? It makes you wiser than you were yesterday."

I might have read it on lesswrong. If anyone knows the line in question, do tell me in a reply to this comment.

Comment author: Rain 03 November 2011 04:14:01PM 2 points [-]

Here and here.

Comment author: DanielLC 31 October 2011 12:23:15AM 1 point [-]

"How can you feel dismayed at having been shown to be wrong about something? It makes you wiser than you were yesterday."

But yesterday you didn't know you were wrong. There was a reason for you to be more dismayed than you are now, but since you didn't know about it, you could scarcely have been blamed for not being dismayed.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 30 October 2011 09:39:14PM 1 point [-]

There's a pot of gold at the end of every error.