The Value of False Certainty

If, for whatever reason, you find yourself in the midst of an organization you’d like to sabotage without attracting suspicion, the CIA has some advice for you, including:

  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

Careful deliberation has its place, but at some point, a decision has to be made. “Sometimes wrong, never in doubt” is the motto – stated or otherwise – of many health care practitioners. It may seem like bad policy, but the value of decisiveness may outweigh the chance of making taking a suboptimal path.

That is, within the realm of decision theory, there are situations in which a continuous unknown variable, let’s say the relative attractiveness of two choices, must be collapsed into a YES-NO outcome, since choosing the “wrong” one is preferable to leaving the question undecided, or even hedging between the choices. Generals in an attacking army may disagree to go by the mountain route or by sea, but if diving forces is not practical, no decision is worse than the wrong one.

The mathematician John Allen Paulos, author of the book “Innumeracy“, has famously said that the 2000 US Presidential Election in Florida should have been declared a tie and decided by something non-recount related, like flipping a coin (or perhaps a best of seven rock-paper-scissors battle).

“The electoral process has too many variables, too many inevitable flaws, for anyone to assume naïvely that all we need do in this dead heat is tote up the votes and be done with it. Measuring the relatively tiny gap in votes between the two candidates is a bit like measuring the lengths of two bacteria with a yardstick. The Florida electoral system, in particular, is incapable of making such fine determinations…Consider finally the problems associated with counting six million of anything. All these figures swamp the present vote difference between the candidates.”
– John Allen Paulos (NY Times,  11/22/2000)

The line of thought should be compelling for any scientist. A final official margin of 537 out of almost six million votes cast is well within the margin of error. In the end, the US Supreme court decided to stop recounts, and made Bush the winner. Paulos recently wrote that he regrets that his work partially contributed to this outcome.

Rendering verdicts “from on high” is one solution for achieving closure and moving on. This is what I’d term “decision theater.” In ancient times, it would be the proclamation coming from a Monarch or Oracle.

The opacity of the decision-making process and lack of possibility for appeal were features, not bugs. The more mysterious the “black box” from which the decision emanates, the less possibility for it to be gainsaid. Today we have judges and juries who retire to deliberate in secrete, but then return with final “verdicts.”

The one thing that could bring a playground game of touch football to an abrupt halt was a dispute over a rule or “call.” Some of the value of having a referee (even a bad one) is to remove the advantage of arguing calls and just getting back to the game. As much as people complained about the decrease in quality NFL’s replacement referees in 2012, the very last play that ended the lockout was not just the wrong call – which depends on an especially obscure section (“simultaneous catch”) of an infamously complicated rulebook – but was ruled originally both a game-winning touchdown and a game-winning-for-the-other-team interception by two different officials. The dysfunction was obvious to even casual fans who never pondered the difference between video review rules in the end-zone vs. the field of play.

So even now that the regular NFL referees are back on the job, they will carefully scrutinize link-by-link whether or not a football is past the first down line… a football that was placed by estimating kinda sorta where the runner was down.