Thursday, April 17, 2008

Learn from Misstatements or Errors

Well worth reading

The Value of Error
May 27, 2003
by Wendy McElroy,

...The viciousness that now passes for public discourse compounds the common fear most people have of being wrong, especially in a public situation. That fear is intimately connected with the desire not to appear ridiculous or inadequate. Yet error in all its forms — from misstatements to imprudent acts — can and should serve a healthy role in personal development. Mistakes are reality's feedback ... but you've got to listen.

As a society, we badly need a levelheaded approach to error in its various forms — three of the most common of which are errors of fact, errors of circumstance and errors of approach.

Errors of fact are simple misstatements, like 2 + 2 = 3 or the claim that Charles Dickens wrote Moby Dick. Such errors are inescapable — everyone makes one sooner or later — and they don't mean a great deal as long as you correct them and proceed with increased care.

Errors of circumstance are "reasonable" mistakes that occur due to the context of your knowledge and do not reflect a lack of care on your part. For example, several centuries ago if you stated "the earth is flat," you would be wrong but reasonably so because that was the common belief.

This applies to actions as well. For example, if you are suddenly fired the day after you buy on a much-needed new car, then buying the car may turn out to be a mistake. Nevertheless, you acted appropriately by basing the purchase on circumstances you had no reason to believe would change.

Nevertheless, even in these cases, a dose of reality can be a learning experience. The flat-earther might begin to question other of his surrounding assumptions; the car buyer might realize that financial planning should include the possibility of circumstances changing.

Errors of approach do not involve specific mistakes but refer instead to faulty methods of approaching ideas or facts. Perhaps you've developed the habit of never backing down from a statement even when you realize you're wrong. Or you sort through data in order to verify a foregone conclusion rather than to assess what it is telling you. Or you automatically launch into a personal attack of those with whom you disagree rather than dealing with the facts and arguments.

An error of approach is the most significant type of mistake you can make because it is neither reasonable nor open to correction. Instead it acts as barrier both to real-world feedback and to clear thinking.

Errors of fact can easily become errors of approach, usually through a fear of intellectual embarrassment. Through this process, people take a comparatively minor incident — a simple misstatement — and convert it into a habit that blocks their ability to reason and destroys their credibility. The habit also precludes the possibility of learning from error.

All of us make useful errors every day...

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