Making the Right Mistakes

Fear of doing the wrong thing is often what holds us back from taking actions or making decisions.  But not to decide is to decide.  It’s easy when there is a right answer, but usually there is just a better answer, and we’re not sure how to determine what that is.

Martin Luther recognized that challenge in one of his most pungent observations: “Sin boldly.”  He knew that there are few unmitigated good actions. Most of them have at least some negative consequences, some unexpected, some minimized while  focusing on the positive outcomes, some just intentionally ignored. Driving a car is good. Polluting the air is bad.  Disposable diapers are convenient but fill the landfill.  Washing cloth diapers has its own consequences. Working more hours at a challenging job can bring financial rewards and satisfaction, but at what price in terms of health or family time?

Statisticians know this well.  They have invented a useful and, of course, measurable (that’s what statistics is!) yardstick called Type I error and Type II error. It’s a decision tool for the particular purpose of determining whether a theory is supported by the facts.  A researcher proposes a hypothesis that left-handed people are more prone to violence than right-handed people. Various kinds of evidence is brought to bear, such as police records.  Type I error is the probability of accepting this hypothesis as true  when it is actually false. We don’t want that to happen, or at least not very often.  Lives may depend on getting it right. As a left-handed person, I don’t want to be discriminated against for something I not, just because I belong to that category.  Truth has consequences. (Yes, I know that’s and old TV show and also a city in New Mexico.)  So keeping Type I error as low as possible is the safe strategy.  But guess what? When you minimize Type I error, Type II error increases.  Type II error is the likelihood of rejecting something as false when it is actually true. Maybe we really should be wary of left-handed people!  After all, the Latin word for left-handed is sinistra.  You can miss out on a lot of good choices if you let fear of Type II error get in the way.

Two lessons: listen to your gut, which is where your fear of bad consequences is at war with your sense of adventure, but also listen to your brain. Get good information so that you can assess what the benefits are and the downside of each alternative you are looking at. Martin Luther took the riskier choice and started the Protestant Reformation, knowing what the consequences might be for himself, his family, his supporters, and peace in Germany. So every time I find myself leaning toward the safe choice, I conjure up my inner Martin Luther and say to myself, Sin Boldly!





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