The Siren Song of Certainty

Statistician William Briggs ran a great post today under the headline “Uncertainty Is an Impossible Sell” (h/t Danilo Freire on Facebook). Read the whole thing, but here’s the money quote:

If you want to set up business as a data scientist (the newfangled term by which statisticians are beginning to call themselves), the lesson is this: promise the moon and charge like you’re actually going there. Failure is rarely punished and never remembered.

Sad but true. Sad because the siren song of certainty tempts us into wasteful spending and poorly informed decision-making and makes it tougher for honest brokers to compete in the marketplace of paid work and ideas.

Here’s Daniel Kahneman on the latter point in Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 262–263):

Optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers…

Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients. An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality—but it is not what people and organizations want. Extreme uncertainty is paralyzing under dangerous circumstances, and the admission that one is merely guessing is especially unacceptable when the stakes are high. Acting on pretended knowledge is often the preferred solution.

Remember, the con in con artist is short for confidence. The more excited or flattered or assured a forecaster or other expert makes you feel, the more skeptical you should probably be.

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