Thursday, April 19, 2007


As I have mentioned here before, I consider the frequent (or omnipresent) lack of critical thinking on the part of most people in society to be one of its greatest ailments. I always delight, therefore, in finding an example of some clear, critical thinking - even more so when it is done at an abstract enough level to provide one with one or more principles with which to approach problems or situations of a similar type.

TCS Daily has an article entitled Politics, Decision Theory and Contradictory Complaints, which I consider to be one such example.

The thesis of the article is that decisions generally improve with the quality of the information to which the person making the decision has access. Lacking perfect information, there will always be the risk of mistakes. There are, however, generally two types of mistakes as with the MRI example offered by the author:

"Consider the decision about the MRI. Without the MRI, the doctor would guess to go with treatment plan A. Beforehand, no one can be certain whether or not the MRI will provide information that causes the doctor to switch to plan B. The MRI can either be valuable or not. And the MRI can either be ordered or not. This leads to four possibilities."

Order the MRIForgo the MRI
MRI would be valuablegood decisionType I error
MRI would not matterType II errorgood decision

That is, the two extremes correspond to the two types of mistakes that can happen. The author goes on to illustrate how efforts to decrease one type of error can cause an increase in the other type of error if those efforts are not based on an increased quantity or quality of information.

Now, none of this is rocket science, but it is a nice, clear, concise explanation and illustration (using several timely topics, I might add) of a principle that could come in quite handy when making certain types of decisions.

The full article is short and well worth the read.

1 Comment:

Maarek said...

One observation I can make is that the best way to prevent both of these errors, rather than just one, is not a Federal planning committee. The more distance you are from each individual choice, the less likely you are to weigh each choice with due deliberation, and instead fall back on general guidelines politically motivated ass covering.

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