More Probability Suckage

Source: xkcd

Source: xkcd

I have often noted (see here too) that we generally suck at math, to our great detriment. I have also noted that we are especially poor at dealing with probabilities. If a weather forecaster says that there is an 80 percent chance of rain and it remains sunny, instead of waiting to see if, in the aggregate, it rains 80 percent of the times when his or her forecast called for an 80 percent chance of rain, we race to conclude — perhaps based upon that single instance — that the forecaster isn’t any good. Data trumps our lyin’ eyes, but we don’t routinely see it (and even deny its efficacy).

Further evidence – as if it were needed – in support of my thesis has been offered this week in the reaction to Nate Silver’s projection that Republicans have a very real chance of gaining control of the Senate later this year. This forecast (“a Republican gain of six seats, plus or minus five”) is hardy earth-shattering to anybody who has been paying attention. The configuration of seats up for election favors Republicans and the Democratic President’s approval ratings are dreadful. There isn’t much reason to expect an upswing in Democratic support either, even though (obviously) almost anything could happen over the next few months. Dealing with probabilities necessarily means being wrong sometimes.

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In Praise of Flip-Flopping

We’re all in sales.

The sales process isn’t necessarily concerned with transactions in goods for a fee (and/or a commission).  More broadly, it’s about convincing those you seek to convince and gaining market share in your chosen endeavor.  Bloggers try to sell readers.  Lawyers try to sell clients and juries.  Presidential candidates try to sell voters. 

Which brings me to my current topic.

The Sunday news shows yesterday were awash in discussions of whether or not Mitt Romney and/or Newt Gingrich are “flip-floppers.”  In essence, a flip-flopper is seen as someone who doesn’t have solid convictions and thus changes positions to suit the politics of the moment (see below, from here). 

This is seen as a very bad thing.  We want our leaders to be tough, strong and principled.  We don’t want them to pander to us.  But even though we may admire a principled opponent, we aren’t likely to vote for one — which often leads to major quandaries as well as to the temptation to flip-flop. 

We are generally “sold” on account of clarity — a position that is clearly stated and which makes sense — and conviction — the passionate conviction of the proponent.  That’s good sales technique.  Ask a question at a political “debate” and the responses (not answers) will generally be clear and passionate soundbites (Rick Parry notwithstanding), perhaps tangentially related to the question.

On the other hand, we aren’t usually sold by humility and on positions which change based upon new evidence or better arguments, even though truth is very well served by them.  As per the scientific method, we should always hold our view of the truth lightly and tentatively, subject to more and better information and arguments.  Flip-flopping for those reasons (as opposed to mere expediency) is a good, useful and desirable thing. Granted, political candidates aren’t generally known for their careful review of the facts and precedents.  Neither are they often benefitted by changes in position, no matter how justified or nuanced (except for certain moves leftward, which don’t generally help conservatives at the ballot box but which may result in glowing profiles in The New York Times pontificating about how they have “grown”). But a flip-flop for good reasons is to be applauded.

As Keynes rightly put it (maybe), “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”  So here’s my (qualified) endorsement of flip-flopping.  May we see more of it…for good and principled reasons.