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Which side will your margin of error fall on?

McKinley Valentine — 2 min read
Which side will your margin of error fall on?
Photo by Sarah Kilian / Unsplash

Specifically: it is safe to ignore any theory that hasn't thought carefully about which side their margin of error will fall on, because it is not a serious theory.

What I mean is that you have to assume you are never going to get something perfectly. I mean obviously. So, for example, when you decide how trusting to be of people who ask for money on the street, you have to accept that you are either occasionally get scammed, or occasionally be unfair and cynical to a deserving person. And then when you find out you got scammed, instead of saying "my whole policy is wrong! I will never trust again!" you have to say "welp, that was the margin of error. I already accepted that cost."

A lot of people, when you ask which way their margin is going to fall, just repeat the intention to be perfect - "I give money to people who deserve it." Okay but what about when you don't get it right? "I can always tell." So that's a plan based around perfect judgement and no mistakes ever, that is a terrible plan.

(Obvious example: you might get cheated on, and it sucks, but the only way to make yourself totally safe against it is to be a jealous spy who puts tracking software on your partner's computer. No one healthy does this - we let the margin of error fall on the cheating side not the stalking side)

I'm avoiding mentioning political policies (the justice system, welfare payments, refugees) but it obviously applies. If a person refuses to answer whether they prefer the government to be too profligate or too callous, and own the consequences of what they're advocating, they are ridiculous and you don't have to listen to them.

This is related to the resulting fallacy: If you do something with a 90% chance of success, and you still fail, that doesn't mean your strategy is bad and you should beat yourself up. It's just the margin of error. 90% is good odds.

If you gamble your life savings and you happen to become a billionaire from it, you still made a bad choice and you shouldn't be congratulated. (For real, don't congratulate people for gambling wins: gambling is a horrific addiction and they are probably not telling you about all the times they lost. Don't be an enabler.)

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #42 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

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