17 August 2018

Importance of Errors


Yesterday I talked with my husband about the severe lack of the critical thinking among the people around us.
Many people do not realize that we are not living in a deterministic world, but probabilistic.
And guess what, that comes from a significant gap in education.
Both my husband and I experienced that gap.
The gap is ridiculously easy to correct. Both of us did science experiments through our education, starting with elementary school. And of course, when attempting to do experiment neither of us couldn't measure precisely what textbooks told us the 'result' should be.

I remember still a school experiment with gravity acceleration. It was my first time doing a real experiment, and I was itching to get my hands on it. We were dropping the metal marbles tube filled with thick oil and calculating that famous 9.81 m/s^2. But, again and again, I was getting the wrong results. Frustration set in, and worry about the grade. With the wrong result, I would never be able to keep my grade as good as I needed for future education. My conclusion was that the experiment was a colossal waste of time. The equipment was old, barely functional, and of course, no matter how carefully I measured, I never got the correct result.

No one explained to me that errors might be because the equipment was old, misaligned, broken, because I do not have too fast reactions or even because someone else is making a local power-supply spike. No one ever mentioned that errors come because of life itself, because nothing in our reality is absolute, deterministic, nor perfect.
Only in later years of undergraduate university education we actually got information about types of errors and how common they are. We got explanations why most of our measurements did not yield the correct result. We basically learned that we live in a probabilistic universe where errors are reasonable to expect, and the correct value is found by doing mathematical analysis of a large number of the individual measurements.
In essence, you cannot get the correct answer because life gets in the way. Equipment does not function every time the same, your own reactions and attention are not the same every time you do the measurement. And more complicated the experiment, the more stuff can go wrong and skew your result. And that is the reality of our universe.
You probably heard that old saying: "There are no black and white, only the shades of gray." Well, that’s an exact description of the probabilistic universe. There is no right and wrong, there are attempts at doing something and the longer you doing it, the sum of all efforts will get closer and closer to the correct answer.

But in schools and our families, we are not taught that. Instead, we are taught that authorities are always right, that there is knowledge we are not supposed to question, ever. We are also taught that when you’re confident that you know something, then you really know it and that errors are not life, but a signal of weaknesses.
For me, it took a scientific research experience to realize that errors are normal and actually can teach us more than exact ‘truth.’ Errors open questions, open avenues for curiosity to blossom. Saying I’m not sure, or I do not know, does not mean weakness, it means honesty and an open mind.

Imagine how different world would be if kids start learning that there is no absolutely correct answer, that you instead get a bunch of responses distributed around the truth because life induces variations and obstacles on every step.
Imagine learning that no human know absolute truth and that people who claim certainty are most likely liars.

Sure, this kind of experience would lead to questioning anyone and anything that states they know the absolute truth, or that only their version of the events is the correct one. If one knows how hard it is to get to the truth, then an average adult would not blindly follow the authority and people who tell them they know the absolute truth.

But, a population that questions authority is not really acceptable to any ruling class. Maybe that is the real reason why neither parents nor schools teach children that is ok to examine stuff around you, that errors are acceptable and excellent learning source.


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