Sunday, 24 July 2016

Why it's good to admit to being wrong every now and then...


I used to work with a chap - forget his name, it was along time ago before I came to Bradford - who, when I'd point out a mistake in his stats or similar, would smile and say: "I may occasionally be in error but I'm never wrong." To be fair this was said with a smile while the mistake was corrected - I always liked him for that.

It was quite a while after this that I discovered Rousseau's idea of the General Will and, importantly, that my colleague's quote was more or less a description of how (paradoxically) the General Will is intrinsically right. Now the problem with this collectivist take on will is, as I'm sure folk have already noticed, that we need to have a way of knowing what that General Will is actually saying.

We can point to democracy as a means of determining what the General Will is saying except that, as us Brits have just discovered, democracy doesn't do this - is 52/48 a statement of General Will to Leave the EU or merely the result of a democratic contest? So, if we can't use voting to determine General Will (and the recent referendum reminds us of this fact) how do we decide? Or maybe the General Will - even badged as 'Common Good' or 'Common Purpose' - really doesn't exist?

For Actualists and latterly Fascists, the answer was simple, the General Will was embodied in the leader and his advisors (in themselves the leaders of the state's 'corporations' - army, business, organised labour, academia and so forth). But we're still stuck with the idea that somebody or some thing is the embodiment of that General Will - meaning, of course, that that person or body is intrinsically right. As the wags might say: "I may have my faults but being wrong isn't one of them!"

It seems to me that, in our sophisticated Western liberal democracies, this General Will has been embodied in a technocratic elite - a sort of Platonic administration by expert. Political decisions are sub-contracted to a process overseen by these experts - at the end of the process the politicians (defined here as the people we elect to represent us) do little other than rubber stamp the conclusions of the experts since these are 'scientific' or 'evidence-based'.

If we take the debate about standardised packaging for cigarettes as an example, we can see that the General Will was embodied in a small number of government bodies, academic departments and lobby groups rather than in the mass of response to the Department of Health's consultation on the proposal:

In total, 665,989 campaign responses were received from 24 separate campaigns. Around two-thirds of campaign responses received were from people who are opposed to the introduction of standardised packaging (total of 427,888 responses) and one-third of campaign responses received were from people who are in support (238,101 responses)...

The problem is that the opposition wasn't from those suitably (in the government's view) qualified to comment and they chose to assess only 'detailed' responses which, surprise surprise, split 53/43 in favour of standardised packaging. It doesn't matter whether or not you agree with the proposal for standardised packaging of cigarettes - the process of confirming the proposal post-consultation ignored the majority of responses because they were insufficiently 'detailed'.

The problem we have here is that there's a reluctance to admit that - regardless of how well 'evidenced' a policy might be, sometimes they are simply wrong. Indeed we know there's evidence of this with the standardised packaging policy:

“From a statistical perspective, none of these changes were different from zero. Over the timeframe of the analysis, the data does not demonstrate that there has been a change in smoking prevalence following the introduction of plain packaging.”

They also insert this important warning: “It is not possible to assign a causal relationship between the changes in the noticeabilty of health warnings or smoking prevalence and the introduction of plain packaging, as there have been a number of other confounding factors that have occurred before and during the period of this analysis.”

All this is merely illustrative of the problem with 'evidence' in making public policy. It's not just that we can't prove the counterfactual (what would have happened if we'd not made the policy decision) but also that appraising whether or not something works in social policy is really difficult - because of those confounding factors implicit in the second paragraph of the quotation above. Again this isn't an argument against the organised and systematic appraisal of public policy but rather a call for something different.

Put bluntly, it would be good for those experts to admit they were wrong every now and then rather than perform tortuous contortions aimed at explaining why, despite all the data (confounded or not) they really aren't wrong.

There is nothing weak about admitting a mistake - of fessing up and saying: "folks, I got that wrong!" Yet it seems that too many of us are constitutionally incapable of making that admission. We make predictions - often sweepingly on the basis of 'I'm an expert and I say' rather than actual research or analysis - and when they turn out wrong, the best we can do is sit quietly in the corner hoping no-one calls us out on our error. Some of the 'experts' are more brazen - denying that was what they predicted, shouting about how you've misunderstood what they said, and insisting that someone else is twisting their words to mean something different.

It's because of this - plus the patronising arrogance us clever folk use too much of the time - that polling tells us that much of the population simply doesn't trust what we're saying. Coupled with shouty and aggressive appeals to authority, we shove aside deductive reasoning and intelligent (if naive) questioning in favour of findings from a focus group of experts or determined by our partisan google searches. Treating the mass of the population as semi-sentient may seem right - what, after all, to those sheep know, they have to be led - but that mass of people doesn't forget and, given the chance, will stick two fingers up at you.

Truth is there isn't any General Will - or Common Purpose for that matter - but rather a moving collection of shared interests that never involve every person. Government - however hard you bash the social policy thing - is a pretty poor way of managing these shared interests. And the futher that government is from the things that actually matter to the folk who (in George Bailey's words) do all the living, working and dying round here, the less effective it becomes.

So my friends, make an effort - admit it when you get something wrong, a prediction doesn't turn out quite as you thought or a policy you backed is a failure. It will be a catharsis for you and will get you a damn sight more respect than trying to pretend you weren't wrong. And, of course, feel free to call me out on this too.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a former boss used to remind we underlings, "The only time I was ever wrong was that day when I thought I'd made a mistake".