The State of Wrong

Personal Lessons from a class I took during Spring Quarter, NAS 212 Community Development for Sovereignty and Autonomy, at UC Davis.

Correction: There are many states. I have experienced them all. From a Type 1 error like not seeing that someone financially wealthy is poor in other ways, to the more problematic Type II error like thinking that poverty has a universal definition (1). There are ways to mitigate these errors but not eliminate them entirely. Let’s walk through some of these assumptions that I no longer have confidence in making the claim as entirely ‘right.’ In this week’s blog, I explore the phenomenon of being wrong, and share how it is a lesson I learn time after time.

Core assumption 1: Money is the reward for hard work.

I was taught early on these lessons: If you score well on a spelling test in elementary school, parents give you an allowance. If you get good grades in high school, you earn a merit scholarship for college. If you demonstrate leadership ability and commitment to the community, you have a better chance at winning the grant proposal.

This notion that money drives the wheel of the world is not 100% inaccurate. To be sure, I studied markets and learned tremendous insights about the workings of the world through an Economics degree. I am not against world trade (in fact, I embrace it, studying the specialty chocolate market) nor am I against the reality that many people struggling to make ends meet when income doesn’t match expenditures. What I am saying is that on the other side of the coin, money can also feed into a cycle of inequality and what's needed is more than a quick-fix solution.

Core assumption 2: Measure what matters most.

The number of friends, clicks on a webpage, GDP, your tax deductible, calories on a plate, 30-day challenges met, miles trekked, countries visited, points earned, LinkedIn connections, publications—you get the point.

These are all ‘measures’ of success, however defined. We’re good at counting. I like numbers too; they convey a simple message and can be manipulated through all sorts of fun equations. Yet, we should keep in mind that these measures are not a substitute for the harder formulas to prove. Numbers are not neutral. Nor are they the whole. They are one piece of a larger story.

Core assumption 3: People want your help.

Did they ask?

All of us do-gooders think the world needs fixing and it’s our job to lift poor people out of poverty and eradicate climate change. I really struggle with this one because I have good intentions too.

Poverty, Inc. It’s a good movie. You should watch it.

As with any assumption, these stand to be tested and accepted or rejected depending on the situation. Sometimes they stand true. Sometimes they stand to be rejected.

There’s no glory or frills to being wrong. It is a physically uncomfortable experience. In Western culture, we’re taught to embrace failure while we shy away from mistakes. It’s a contradiction. I appreciate when people correct my errors. At the same time, it is not an easy as it can be uncomfortable to either give or receive correction. Think back to when you’re learning a foreign language. I still make mistakes all the time in Spanish, which is partly my lazy fault, and partly because of ingrained errors that have never been corrected. These mistakes become embarrassing, even more so because I am not always aware of them. Can we put our egos aside and do a better job of helping correct false assumptions for the collective construction of knowledge?

Please, correct me if I’m wrong.

(1) Type 1 error: Incorrect rejection of a true null, so the error is more about our statistical conclusions that the null hypothesis itself. Type 2 error: Incorrectly retaining a false null, so the error is more about having the wrong null hypothesis in the first place.

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