Sometimes Your Guess Was Wrong

...despite your training.

...despite your being awarded a Ph.D. by a "reputable" university.

...despite your annual salary.

...despite the acknowledgement of other reputable awardees around the world.

Sometimes your guess was wrong!

The corollary is of course... "and your wrongness isn't 'closer to right' than is the wrongness of somebody without all the awards, Purple Hearts, green clovers, very nicely designed diplomas, paychecks, etc., or anybody who simply guesses and comes up with the wrong answer."

[I'm revising the paragraph above] I sense confusion about my use of the term "closer to right" (I'm confused too), so let me say this isn't about "guessing". Clearly, people can guess closer to or farther from what turns out (in the end) to be correct. It is about the value of the guess. If a random body from Harvard guesses 12 and I guess 12 and the answer is 14, my guess is as "good". My point (if there is any point at all) is that we tend to want the answers. Where those answers come from isn't important and (depending upon the question) the answer might come from the unlikeliest of sources. -- TomLeylan

[this was inserted] Why not, I would rather have a watch that was slow than a watch that didn't work.

[so I'm responding] Perhaps, but unlikely. You presuppose a) that you know it is slow, b) how slow it is and c) you have an ability to adjust it against the real time whenever necessary. You also imply that you don't do anything important with your watch. If you were sailing across the Atlantic, the slow watch would put the lives of everybody on your boat in jeopardy. In short, you can like the results of a smaller inaccuracy against a larger one, but my point was that both answers are wrong. There aren't 65 minutes in an hour even if somebody else guesses 73. -- TomLeylan

No, what you said was that "your wrongness isn't closer to right". I can do a lot with a slow watch, I can estimate its slowness and its rate of loss, I can reset it against known correct times, I can make allowances and get to meetings on time. True, I cannot use it to calculate longitude (except that, if I'm clever and know how slow it is, I can use lunar sightings like Slocum did (I'm not)). I can do a lot of time work with a slow watch. A broken watch is just a piece of tin. -- TomAyerst

[in conjunction with the revision above I am amending my response] I get the sense that you believe that I think "close" is bad and that is incorrect. Guessing is necessary; it forms the basis of any hypothesis. How apropos, however, that you chose a watch as an example... as you may know, JohnHarrison (the person who solved "the longitude problem") was himself a man with little formal education. His life was spent solving a problem that the learned men of society could not solve. He was routinely ridiculed.

If there was a simple answer we would all share it with each other and everything would be perfect. Draw your own conclusions... -- TomLeylan
'Closer to right' - perhaps not, but how about 'occurring less often'? -- OleAndersen
Det ved jeg ikke. Hvordan har du det, Ole? [See Note 1]

To your question however, is it true that people with doctoral degrees are right more often?

Take the recent U.S. Presidential election (as an example only.) Both sides are represented by attorneys with law degrees. Since they have opposing viewpoints would we compare the University they went to, their grade point average or their salary to determine who is right? -- TomLeylan

It is not necessarily true, but I like to think that academic training makes one better at academic stuff. The U.S. Presidential election is not an academic exercise - at least not the parts with lawyers involved. -- OleAndersen

Fint, for resten. [See Note 1]

Ole, I think that is point. We all "like to think" various things. The things we think tend to reinforce our own position, i.e. if one is a schoolteacher then schoolteachers are the best thing in the world, ought to run things, are underpaid, etc. That said, I wasn't proposing that academic training should be ignored. I was suggesting that training alone doesn't make one right and conversely that the lack of a degree doesn't make one wrong. -- TomLeylan
No - in and of themselves, none of the above outwardly visible paraphernalia of a higher education can make someone "guess right" more often than someone else. On the other hand, the things mentioned above are merely secondary results of a process which, if academic institutions meet their stated objectives, equips those who have benefited from it with certain intellectual tools; and these tools should indeed be the ones you need to "guess right" most of the time, and at worst know just how wild your guesses are.

Maybe there is a simple answer, and if we did all share it with each other, things would indeed be much closer to perfection than they are. The problem is that even if education is that answer, it is being shared so imperfectly that we won't ever be able to tell. -- LaurentBossavit

It seems to me... that if this were true we would find that University administration, professors and graduates would tend to not smoke cigarettes, get involved with drugs, cheat on their taxes, lie to people, etc. If their education meant they were smarter, we should see that manifested somewhere shouldn't we? [See Note 2] I think we do see that "smarter" promotes at least as many irrational behaviors as "dumber" and there are scientists on both sides of every silly issue. -- TomLeylan

I don't see it that way. In fact, I'm sorry to say, I think this is dreadfully wrong. An education of quality doesn't guarantee that you will be a better person. It just gives you the tools, and the power to use them. That power is yours to use to the fullest, or throw away.

An education leaves you prey to all human foibles. Worse, it comes with the extra responsibility that if, in spite of it, you succumb to such foibles, yours will be a greater failure than if you had lacked such an education.

It's not that there are "scientists on both sides of every silly issue" - it's more that every issue has a silly side, and some on the silly side will happen to be scientists, because all scientists are perfectible humans... as we are all.

Learning, knowledge, curiosity: these improve us, without a shadow of a doubt. Whether institutions of learning, as we know them, perform their mission appropriately is another matter. -- LaurentBossavit

It is impossible to not learn Asking a college graduate which stocks to invest in or a university professor how best to deal with crime in America doesn't yield "closer to right" answers than asking people at random. This was never against higher education. I simply pointed out that education (and even experience) isn't the thing responsible for the right answer. How many times has each of us heard somebody start with "I've been doing <blah> for <n> years" followed immediately by something ludicrous? -- TomLeylan

In my workplace, there's considerable correlation between coming up with (what seem to me to be) good answers, and having good grades/many degrees/long experience. It's a smallish group of people, so the sample size is small, and furthermore I happen to be one of the "good grades and many degrees" crowd and so I may be mistaking good answers for bad - but it does look to me as if there is a connection. Of course, academic ability and experience don't confer infallibility, so of course these people will still do dumb things sometimes. But I think they do fewer, and usually less catastrophically, dumb things. -- GarethMcCaughan

There will always be exceptions but I'm not certain this is one. You received good grades and you come up with good ideas. You don't suggest they demonstrate cause and effect, right? You would have the same good ideas if you didn't attend the college you did and quite probably if you had received poor grades. I'm not "dumber" because a teacher gave me a "C" in English at some point in my life. People who received an "A" that year aren't smarter, are they?

But I like real world examples. MarchFirst? is in the news these days (NASDAQ: MRCH) which traded at 81 1/8 at its 52-week high. On Nov. 27th it traded at $1 a share. I don't know the answer but do you think the CEO (R. Bernard), the President (T. Metz), the CIO, the VP in charge of whatever have college degrees? I think they do. So are they "smart" or in keeping with my original statement "was their guess wrong" despite having a degree? -- TomLeylan

I don't suggest they demonstrate cause and effect. I do suggest that the correlations are not coincidence. The point isn't that the education makes a person clever (though sometimes I think it helps), but that in order to get good grades and all that stuff, it helps to be able to think well. So people who think well are more likely to get good grades. Now, of course some people are best at non-academic stuff, some people are exam-passing machines and can't do anything else, some people have their academic lives wrecked by a couple of idiot teachers, and so on, so of course it's not a matter of "cause and effect" if by that you mean that everyone with good grades is smarter than everyone without. But I'd guess that (unless your teacher in that year you mention was an idiot, which is always possible) if you looked at the people in the class who got Cs and the people who got As now, umpteen years on, you'd find that on average the As have done a little better, even though some of them might have turned out to be clueless and some people with Cs might have turned out to be much better than any of the As. And that's all I'm saying.

I'm not sure what the point of your example is. Did anyone ever suggest that people with degrees, or people with fantastic grades, or people with enormous salaries, or any other sort of people, never **** things up disastrously? If they did, I never saw it. -- GarethMcCaughan

This page didn't start as a rant -- it branched from YouArentGonnaNeedIt. But to answer your question directly, "sure". If you mean in Wiki, I would have to search, but if you mean 'in the world', I see it every day. It isn't as simple as claiming they don't mess up but rather that they are excused from the mess up. A similar action by a person without a diploma yields "he is a dunce", but with the diploma, "he misjudged the whims of the investor."

On the other hand, you didn't answer the very first question I asked you. Do you consider the "good grades and good ideas" observation (in your workplace) to be an example of cause and effect or do you think that you would see good ideas even if the same people didn't attend MIT or received an "F" on their political science exam? -- TomLeylan

I thought I did answer it, but never mind: I'll try again. I think there's some cause-and-effect, but mostly it's that people who are able to get good results are (slightly) more often able to think well in other ways too.

As for the phenomena you report, I'm shocked but I'll take your word for it. I've mercifully never seen such bizarre behaviour. But then, I'm still quite young and inexperienced. -- GarethMcCaughan

Forgive my pointing it out, but you must have seen it. Perhaps you just didn't recognize it. Please ask any of your co-workers if what you are describing is cause and effect i.e. that "good grades" causes "good ideas".

A quick search of the Internet will yield examples of people who didn't go to school, did poorly in school or who didn't receive degrees but who did invent things, develop cures, started businesses, served admirably in the defense of their country, etc., etc. The Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, U.S. Grant and Bill Gates just to name a few.

But to bring this silly topic to an end. I'm not saying that "going to school is bad"; I wrote SometimesYourGuessWasWrong. -- TomLeylan

What I said I haven't seen is people being excused for cocking something up simply because they have good grades or a good education. I never denied that there are plenty of people who had a bad education or bad results in school but who did tremendously well. And you didn't just say that sometimes guesses are wrong even when the guessers have impressive credentials: you also said that impressive credentials don't indicate that their holders are at all more likely to be right. Be all that as it may, I too am happy to "bring this silly topic to an end". -- GarethMcCaughan

Okay we can end it the way it began. by simply reading what I actually wrote. ... despite your training... despite your being awarded a Ph.D. by a "reputable" university... despite your annual salary... despite the acknowledgement of other reputable awardees around the world...

Sometimes your guess was wrong! -- TomLeylan

Sure. Sometimes, anybody's guess is wrong. However, the idea that you are as likely to get a correct answer from an uneducated person pulling it out of the air as you are from an educated person (assuming education in the area of interest) is simply inane. Neither reason nor empirical observation offer any support for this idea whatsoever. Nor does your corollary follow.

But aren't those just the calculated risks we take in order to get on with life?

More importantly, there is more value in an educated guess that can be explained and justfied than a wild guess based only on an uneducated hunch, even if they are the same. Furfu. [See Note 1]

People with education, experience, and good reputations don't always make better guesses than those without. But it's the way to bet.

Not to muddy the education-vs-not water too much, but I have found RealLife experience to be a tremendous curriculum. It is true that I lack a "formal" education in ComputerScience, and that this has led to moments of "comprehension dissonance" between what I knew and the terminology used by the educated to describe what I knew. Conversely, I missed some indoctrination in the "classics" and have consequently reinvented some wheels. I find that: The scars I won doing things the hard way represent insight that FormalEducation? would have made harder. The price I pay is that I have to read more and ask more questions of those who have had the FormalEducation?. On balance, I would say I prefer it this way. -- GarryHamilton

Concur. I never did get a degree in anydamnthing, so I guess that makes me an ignernt hillbilly or something. That "comprehension dissonance" Garry describes applies to me in so many ways. It wasn't until I got into my thirties that I discovered a lot of the principles of embedded software engineering I had gleaned through pain and suffering actually had names. Imagine my further surprise when I discovered Patterns, and my joy upon finding this Repository of same! (Plus, the Design Patterns book.)

Nonetheless, sometimes my guess is wrong. In most engineering circumstances, I am one of the oldest, most experienced, and most capable people working on a project. That doesn't protect me from pulling answers out of thin air. When that happens, I am the first person to suggest we brainstorm with the floor sweepers and window washers as well as representatives of other scientific disciplines. The grunts are just as likely to think of something as the highbrows are if we are all equally out of our expertise domain. -- MartySchrader

The difference between a "regular" person and a smart person is that the smart person can document or describe their decision process as carefully and logically as possible. Being a human in a complex world, mistakes will always be made. But, nobody can learn from that mistake if they don't know why it was made and what went wrong with the decision process. FailureAnalysis? is important. And, I'll respect somebody who is honest about any slip-ups they did, regardless of acreditation.

  1. This is supposed to be a predominantly English Wiki. Translation, please?
  2. If you check the statistics, you'll find that academics do live longer than average. But why let facts get in the way of a good rant? Please, do carry on. -- I disagree with this note: I would rather think that academics are richer than average (remember the paychecks are indeed related to diplomas), and that rich people do live longer than average (because healthcare costs)... but this does not make them necessarily smarter, it just means that the length of their life is less dependant on what they do, would it be foolish or smart.

See also HindrancesToLearning, BadStuffWeLearnInSchool, SoftwareDevelopmentIsGambling

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