Verbally Expressing Error Bars

One of the things I most value in other people is uncertainty. That is, one of the traits I most value in people is a keen awareness of how easy it is to be wrong, of how little we actually know about everything we do, everything we see, and everything we are, and how easy it is to miss crucial details in any situation.

I try to be very careful with my words. I suppose you could say I try to be scientific. A good scientist, when writing up experimental results, will rarely draw hard and fast conclusions from them, because rarely can hard and fast conclusions be drawn about anything. There are always confounds. A good scientist keeps track of everything that could possibly be wrong with whatever hypothesis they are testing, and with whatever tests they are using to evaluate their hypothesis. This attitude, it seems to me, is just as important outside the scientific arena as inside it.

A lot of my most commonly used phrases are things like “I think…”, “It seems intuitive to me that…”, “X seems suggestive of…”, “I don’t remember [contextually important point] very well, so I could be misrepresenting Y”, and the ever-useful “I could be wrong”. I try to frame the things I say so that it’s clear how much I know, what I feel certain or uncertain about, and how certain or uncertain I feel, and why. To show my error bars, so to speak. I think that this is incredibly important. I don’t so much think of it as trying to be scientific—I just think of it as trying to be truthful.

One of the things that most affects my opinion of people I talk to on a day-to-day basis is how much they share my proclivity for always expressing their error bars. I very easily become mistrustful of people who seem certain too often. I can’t help but think that if people aren’t expressing their error bars, it’s because they aren’t aware of them. If you aren’t aware of your margin of error as a scientist, you’re a poor scientist, and by the same token, if you’re not aware of your margin of error in life, then you’re going to be hard pressed to get me to put that much faith in any of the conclusions you’ve drawn about life. Also, I’ll probably find you annoying.

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By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other