Stats Made Easy

Practical Tools for Effective Experimentation

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Not always right, but never in doubt

This is the motto of those fearless few, such as successful surgeons, who forge ahead with never a look back. As they progress, by-standers bullets just bounce off these never-doubters impervious armor. Assuming it’s true that such confidence (if not outright arrogance) is not misplaced, this a highly desirable trait for doctors, lawyers and other professionals (such as statistical consultants) that others rely upon for good advice on critical matters. Umpires and referees mustn't ever waver in their calls, but as all fans would doubtless agree, bad judgments are made every game, especially against their home team. Also, consider the current race for the American Presidency – do you hear any candidates saying that they doubt the country can ever be put back on the proper path (right or left, depending on party)?

Trouble comes when an expert in a specific area cannot acknowledge incompetence in other endeavors. If you ever run into such a maddening individual who dismisses your greater experience in an area of primary interest, consider this premise of neurologist Robert A. Burton: Certainty arises out of involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason, which I paraphrased from this author's web page for the newly-published book On Being Certain.

Obviously ignorance is bliss in my case, because I am not the least bit interested in reading Burton’s book – it will undermine my confidence in the few things I really feel certain about. Ever since I saw someone at an American Statistical Association conference wearing a shirt proclaiming that “Statistics Means Never Having to Say You’re Certain” it’s been hard for me to develop 100 percent confidence in anything. To be told that I am manifesting an ephemeral mental state like anger or other emotions when I leave no doubt in pillars of certainty such as ‘2 plus 2 equals 4’ would be too much for me to bear.

Can Burton possibly be right? No way! I doubt it very much.


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