Friday, July 18, 2008

Being right for the wrong reasons

I've grown used to living with long-distance social interactions as an expatriate, with co-workers and extended family living thousands of miles away and many hours delayed. While this separation sometimes makes it difficult to understand events, I still feel like I usually know what's happening since I can infer the likely causes.

So, for example, I've talked with colleagues about what positions might be available at one of our US centers. They tell me that nothing is available now, but that they'll surely open a suitable position next fiscal year. I know that budgets are, indeed, tight, so I look for a way to wait until the job becomes funded.

Yesterday, I read an article about the Gettier Problem, a philosophical challenge that asks when, in fact, we can say that we "know" something. An illustrative example is:

I'm worried that my car is safe one night, so I go outside to look at it. Unfortunately, I get turned around in the dark and go the wrong direction up my street, where I see a car that looks like mine, safe. Meanwhile, my car is, in fact, parked safely down the street.

Do I "know" that my car is safe, and am I justified in sleeping peacefully?

Classically, philosophers would say 'yes'. Their reasoning rests on three facts: My car is safe, I believe it is safe, and I have evidence to justify my belief. (Their technical term for this argument is Knowledge through Justified True Belief, and it's considered a basic test for whether what we think we know is, in fact, true).

Still, if I am right for utterly wrong reasons, I have to admit that I don't really know the situation.

And that puts a creeping doubt into my smug self-assurance about inferring causes for distant events.

Its true that a vacancy will open next year, I believe my friends when they tell me that, and I justify it as a budget issue. But if management opens the vacancy on the basis of finding an attractive new project rather than making a further budget allocation in an existing project, then my chances of landing the position are significantly diminished.

Arriving at the right answer for wrong reasons is a brittle basis for taking action. I end up watching the wrong indicators and talking to the wrong people because I make wrong assumptions. Even though I'm right in the end, I'm wrong on particulars.

So, while it's important to get the facts right, its also important to understand and to verify the reasons for believing them. Particularly in distant interactions where a lot goes unsaid and my mind is good at filling gaps with inferences, I need to stop and check the assumptions before planning actions.

Drawing credit: Jared Byer


Jared said...

The gettier problem does have a solution. That is if you are willing to be a skeptic and accept that we can't know anything.

Thanks for the credit on the image, but it wasn't actually mine. I found it somewhere else and now I can't remember were.

Dave Hampton said...

Thanks for looking in! I don't think that skeptisism is an unrealistic attitude,but it is a poor basis for making decisions. :)

And thanks for the picture: it illustrated the problem well!

Jared said...

I think skepticism is great for making decisions. If more decision makers remembered that they might be wrong they wouldn't make as many bad decisions.

I think accepting they fact that you don't know anything for certain helps making decisions because it keeps everything in perspective.

I find often that the people who are wrong are the ones who refuse to accept that they might be wrong.