Approximation


In the end, our best idea can only be an approximation.

Once we realize this, we can be freed by the shackle of perfectionism, content with doing the best we can instead of declaring ideas as “absolute truths”. The unfortunate reality is that anything we try to measure or quantify has inherent uncertainty in it. That’s just the way our scientific process works. We measure to the best of our ability, and then identify the uncertainties. This allows us to get the “best idea we can at a given point in time”.

The point isn’t to be perfect. After we’ve established this, the focus goes to reducing our uncertainties. Yet at the same time, we know that they can never be zero, since any method of measurement has some uncertainty.

Unfortunately, people in general don’t adopt this kind of view. Instead, everything is said with certainty, as if being confident about one’s answers automatically makes them more likely to be true. We just have to look at so many leaders of companies or organizations, who speak to the public with one hundred percent certainty. For them it seems, certainty trumps admitting that they’re only making an approximation.

At the end of the day, it’s not actually possible to reduce the approximation to the point that we can be absolutely sure that an idea is correct. However, instead of just assuming everyone else realizes this and then talking as if a certain piece of information is absolute, we need to keep on repeating that distinction. If we don’t, we run the risk of forgetting this crucial fact.

The sad reality is that some people of influence use this knowledge to their advantage, tweaking information so that is sounds certain. Just as cunning are the ones who use the fact that everything is subjective to make a strong argument seem less strong (evolution, for example).

If we want to protect ourselves from these people, we need to remember that information is never absolute, and always carries a degree of uncertainty. That uncertainty is a crucial part of judging whether or not a piece of information should be trusted. When in doubt, question the source and the uncertainty. Then, we’ll be able to make smart and rational arguments based on uncertainties, instead of believing leaders because of their confidence.

Everything we do is an approximation. It does us good to remember this every once in a while.

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