What to do when you’re wrong

We all get things wrong from time to time, particularly in relation to fast moving events like the pandemic. So, how can you respond when this happens. Here’s a list of possibilities, generally from best to worst in terms of intellectually responsibility and from least to most common in terms of frequency

  1. Admit error, look at why you were wrong, try and do better next time (let’s get real, we are talking about human beings here. this almost never happens
  2. Go quiet for a while, and don’t return to the topic until you have done some rethinking
  3. Argue that you were right, but that circumstances have changed
  4. Claim that, despite appearances, you’ll be proved right in the end
  5. Go quiet and scrub as much of your past track record as you can
  6. Claim you always held the opposite position to the one you previously supported
  7. Keep fighting, focusing on how being right has made your opponents even more discreditable
  8. Double down and claim a conspiracy against you

I’m planning to do a few posts soon looking at positions I’ve taken that appear to have been wrong, and trying to stay in the top half of this list

32 thoughts on “What to do when you’re wrong

  1. In a meta way it would be good to own up to 6,7 and 8 as well – as we all should You could then belatedly move them up to the top half : )

    It would be good to get your views on how ATAGI should walk their fundamental error in setting their base-case scenario as “locked-in” levels of virus circulation, when the whole point of vaccination is to allow higher levels of virus without the serious consequences.
    They certainly showed they they could do with a proper economist on the group.

  2. There are more options for the bottom half. For example, claim you are not an expert, that you relied on expert advice and the experts, not you, got it wrong.

  3. So then I do not see what your problem is with ATAGI (statements). They essentially say that risk is idiosyncratic and contextual and I find them very informative (e.g., the bit on the Fairfield LGA in their 13 July statement). ATAGI is an technical advisory group. It’s not their job to make policy recommendations. As far as I can see the fucked-up messaging about the AZ jabs was not their fault but the federal government’s.

  4. JQ leaves out the popular Tartuffe option : make a tearful public confession, with humiliating details, and beg the public for forgiveness. They’ll lap it up.

  5. Many older Australians, born before the 1970s, still respond with words heard at the knees of their grandparents. My ancestors came from the UK and Ireland, so I often heard phrases like:
    “A lie will always outrun the truth.”;
    “An open mouth can lead to a broken nose.”;
    “As far as Murphy’s Law is concerned he only knew the half of it.”;
    “You may win on the butter bout lose on the cheese”; and
    “If that’s what you think you have another thing coming.”;
    But as I got older I began to see the hidden meaning in the sarcastic comebacks like
    “I’M SURE its my fault.” (Meaning: I’m certain its your fault”); and
    “You’re in a bit of a pickle aren’t you?” (Meaning: You have stuffed up badly.”).
    Still my all time favorite is:
    “That’s certainly one way of looking at it.” (Meaning: You could not be more wrong.”)

    But my generation also came up with its own coded phrases like:
    “You have a lot of potential!” (Meaning: you need to improve big time.); and
    “You should go far.”(Meaning: Go away from me.)

    So when I am admitting I was wrong (lots of practice here as I was a high school teacher for 34 years)
    I would fall back on some of the above phrases. But as I got older I started to teach teenagers who had never heard these sayings, and talk to young relatives who grew up on social media. So my admissions of fault often fell on deaf ears (there’s another one).

    Humans find it hard to admit that they are wrong outside the confines of very close friendships.

  6. This sounds an interesting and worthwhile exercise in self-reflection. It could also be applied to an analysis of political styles, on a spectrum from say Ardern to Trump.

  7. I try to stay in the range of 1 to 4 and notch everything back up to one. I struggle though. I also think the linear model needs another axis. It is on this other axis that I fail egregiously. This is the axis of staying polite and remaining on good terms whilst disagreeing with someone. I am terrible at that. I immediately come across as angry, dogmatic, sneering, dismissive and so on. While I hold truth as a high value, I fail to hold enough to tact and diplomacy as a value. As some of us older Australians gain the wisdom of old age (hopefully) some few of us begin to realize we are actually undiagnosed “on the spectrum” a bit. We consider being right the only thing and sympathy/empathy as being irrelevant… until we need it of course. It’s actually a bit of a shock to me now to look back on my life and realize how much “on the spectrum” I was and still am. Like a lot of conditions, one begins to learn how to manage it somewhat with some help and some personal reflection.

  8. Caught a clip of mens mental health person saying ” find one trusted friend or professional to be totally open and honest with”.

    Most men wear the biggest masks.

    And another to add to Gregory J. McKenzie’s list – “a problem shared is a problem halved”.

    Good on you JQ for publicly and transparently revisiting anything you perceive as ‘wrong’. Which provides confidence leading to less ‘wrong’ in the long term.

    “ATAGI statement on use of COVID-19 vaccines in an outbreak setting”

    Date published: 
    13 July 2021

    https://www.health.gov.au/news/atagi-statement-on-use-of-covid-19-vaccines-in-an-outbreak-setting

  9. ATAGI needs to take Option 3: our advice was right, assuming no transmission, but things have changed, and now everyone should get vaccinated ASAP. Options 1 and 2 not really available here, since we can’t do without a body like this, and it’s better to retcon the advice than to retract it.

  10. J.Q.,

    Correct. Sometimes, item 3 is valid. Some known facts do change. Or as Ernestine Gross more correctly states, in the virus case, the equation has not changed but some parameter values in the equation have changed as the virus spreads and mutates. The future trajectories of certain parameter values remain unknown but as we gather more time series data we get a better sense how to predict or project the future (graphed) trajectories of the parameters. This is a really important point and I hope people get it. Because if they don’t understand this concept they can’t understand this pandemic or the gravely serious risks we still face.

    As well as bowdlerized and market fundamentalist economics from the political and business classes, we also face bowdlerized pseudo-science from the same sources and also from the oligopolistic media. The early claims about herd immunity were always highly likely to be proved nonsense. They have been so proved since. Not only were an unconscionable, medically unmanageable and economically destructive number of deaths almost certain to happen in a “let it rip to herd immunity” strategy BUT ALSO it was highly likely that an RNA virus from the coronavirus “family” would prove, just like influenza viruses (as a more well known non-corona RNA virus group) to be highly mutable and thus show extensive and evolving immune escape, vaccine escape, treatment escape and even quarantine escape. That these highly-likely-to-be-proven-true probable facts were ignored, obfuscated and denied to extreme and persistent levels shows the high degrees of scientific illiteracy, general ignorance and plain duplicity and bad faith running deep and rampant through our political, business, commentariat and under-educated classes.

    Such levels of ignorance, political manipulation and media generation of ignorance could and can only characterize a society and political economy system deeply mired in self-destructive denial about fundamental realities about our world attested to by hard science. Such a society (the neoliberal West in this case) which had the expert knoweldge and overall resources but foolishly and willfully threw away all its advtanges to embrace plainly catastrophic courses of action stands in need of a complete renovation (let us call it that) or it will most assuredly collapse under COIVID-19 and the other excistential crises we face like AGW or human generated climate change.

    I put it as strongly as this because like other people writing on this site I am furious at the Morrison government and that part of the business community which has caused 1,000s, 10,000s or more (many millions world wide and counting) of people to die or suffer serious disease sequale so they (the 1% and maybe even the 10%) can keep their excess profit streams up. There is a term for that. It is properly called wilful or negligent manslaughter for personal gain. People have an absolute right to be furious. If one is not going to get furious against such a flagrant and selfish piece of criminal deception and immoral self-interest, which leads to millions of unnecessary deaths world-wide one could only be a doormat (unless a scheming rentier of the deliberately unequal system). Doormats get walked on, expended and tossed aside. It’s about time the people stood up and totally removed from the exploitative elites from power. A start would be to totally smash the LNP in the next Federal election here in Australia. If we don’t, Australia collapses. It’s as stark as that.

  11. Ikonoclast, perhaps you could clarify:

    ” because like other people writing on this site I am furious at the Morrison government and that part of the business community which has caused 1,000s, 10,000s or more (many millions world wide and counting) of people to die or suffer serious disease sequale so they (the 1% and maybe even the 10%) can keep their excess profit streams up. There is a term for that. It is properly called wilful or negligent manslaughter for personal gain. People have an absolute right to be furious. If one is not going to get furious against such a flagrant and selfish piece of criminal deception and immoral self-interest, which leads to millions of unnecessary deaths world-wide one could only be a doormat (unless a scheming rentier of the deliberately unequal system). Doormats get walked on, expended and tossed aside. It’s about time the people stood up and totally removed from the exploitative elites from power. A start would be to totally smash the LNP in the next Federal election here in Australia. If we don’t, Australia collapses. It’s as stark as that.”

    Until yesterday we had experienced 941 deaths in Australia and 32,000 cases of Covid infection. Most of the deaths originated in Victoria and can be attributed to failures in the quarantine system managed by a Labor Government.

  12. I am reminded of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s list of the five standard civil service excuses (from Yes, Minister), since these were all essentially excuses for having got things wrong.

    1. There is a perfectly satisfactory explanation for everything, but security forbids its disclosure. (This might be used to flesh out 4, 5, or 8 on your list.)
    2. It only went wrong because of heavy cuts in staff and budget, which stretched supervisory resources beyond their limits. (This might be used to flesh out 3, 7, or 8 on your list.)
    3. It was a worthwhile experiment, now abandoned, but not before it provided much valuable data and considerable employment. (This might be used to flesh out 3, 4, or 7 on your list.)
    4. It occurred before certain important facts were known, and could not happen again. (This might be used to flesh out 1, 5, 6, or 7 on your list.)
    5. It was an unfortunate lapse by an individual, which has now been dealt with under internal disciplinary procedures. (This might be used to flesh out 5, 6, 7, or 8 on your list.)

  13. Harry Clarke,

    That is a biased characterization of the facts achieved by the technique of extensive omission. In other words you have cherry-picked the one fact that suits your theory that the deaths are almost all the Vic. Labor govt’s fault and nobody else’s’. You have ignored much else of the whole complex of facts.

    First let me agree with you on that cherry-picked fact in itself. In itself it bears very considerable truth. The Victorian system (including the government and hotel quarantine system DID fail and there is blame to apportion for that. The Vic inquiry was a “white-washing-nobody-made-any-decisions” type of blame-ducking inquiry. That is true. I do not dispute.

    But you elide everything else which suggests anything other than “it’s all the Victorian Govt’s fault and/or they are the worst for killing or risking people”. Let’s run through the failures elsewhere;

    (1) The failure to protect NSW and Australia’s borders from the cruise ship fiasco: the Ruby Princess. FAULT: that of Federal Govt and NSW LNP Govts
    .
    (2) The failure to implement national quarantine properly by beginning a national quarantine stattions system: instead continuing to rely on the repetitively failing hotel quarantine model. FAULT: That of the LNP Federal Govt.

    (3) The failure to order adequate vaccines for Australia across a “Kelly bet” portfolio to maximise our chances of getting enough of the most safe and successful cutting edge vaccines (which have turned out to be he most successful by far like Pfizer and Moderna). The consequent failure of the Australian vaccination program. FAULT: that od the Federal LNP government.

    (4) The excessive continuing laxness of national border controls permitting multiple departures and re-entries to Australia by money-privileged people and entries of non-citizens and non-permanent Australians on special visas to suit business lobbying requests WHILE failing to bring home distressed Australian citizens and permanent residents. FAULT: Federal LNP government.

    (5) The atrocious state and management of Federal overseen for-profit old-aged person homes permitting unvaccinated persons and staff and casual staff working at multiple sites. FAULT: The Federal LNP Govenment.

    (6) Breakdowns in NSW quarantine inluding the “FedEx” one that started this delta crisis. FAULT: NSW Govt.

    (7) Failure to hard lock-down the delta outbreak in NSW so that it became national crisis: FAULT; NSW Govt and Gladys B. Scott Morrison tag team (The Bumbling Wonders) with Fed. LNP backing.

    (8) Failures in Qld. including now the failure to lock down to all NSW (at least check) so Anna P. could junket to Tokyo. FAULT Anna P. and Qld. LABOR.

    In summary, you will see I am not cherry-picking, not being partisan and I am taking cognizance of all the main facts in this complex, interacting situation.

  14. I think COVID has a few years to play out and in that time important lessons have (hopefully) been learned.

    In particular, collective action is required to protect individual freedoms.

    This extends to individual countries, without agreement and cooperation on a global scale nations will be vulnerable to the costs of disaster.

    It’s also worth noting that the economic philosophy of the LNP has been literally dumped overboard and the value of stimulus appreciated by the political class.

  15. Thank you, J-D, for reminding me to pack my Yes Minister book and Yes, Prime Minister book, and the DVDs, as I flee the CBD for much safer and easier lock down in country side. There is another episode, I think, when Appleby gives the contrasting example of how to use five questions to steer the outcome of a questionaire, and then five similar but different questions that steer the same person to vote for the opposite outcome. It is a brilliant illustration of how to lead by the nose. If I come across it, I’ll name the episode.

    If I can get back to the parental home, safe from intrusion of the virus, yay. If not, maybe I go Netflix crazy…

    While I wasn’t so in shock at lockdowns in March 2020, by this time in 2021 it is infuriating. If it’s necessary then of course we do it. However, the key phrase is “if it’s necessary,” for why is it necessary in July 2021? Well, because the virus evolves for one, and we failed to vaccinate even a sliver of our population, by this point in the pandemic, and finally, we failed to set up built-for-purpose international quarantine facilities across the country, or to co-opt suitable facilities, out of the capital cities. The latter was a massive governmental failure, but to have the second and the third factors left to fate? Both!

    That’s more than mere ignorance or mistake in behaviour. In New Scientist, March 2020, the discussion of the m-RNA vaccines and the likelihood they would be fairly efficacious, that meant we knew way back then, we should have a crack at local manufacture of such potential vaccines. Sure, they mightn’t have worked, but the odds were very good that they would work, without killing lots of people who took the vaccine. Or could be readily modified to be efficacious. Even early polio killed or injured a small percentage of the people who took it, and that didn’t discourage public acceptance of that initial vaccine. With Moderna and others having already successfully demonstrated the general safety of m-RNA vaccines, the only question was whether it worked well enough, or not.

    Here we are, with much more infectious and potentially more virulent strains/variants of the original SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus. We still have no reasonably effective quarantine facilities as a state and federally run system. We had plenty of information on what to do about it, and yet we didn’t. The cost of a single NSW lockdown has to exceed that of a properly run international quarantine facility system. Surely.

    This is an absolutely classic example of what is called “Operational Risk.” Low probability of happening, but an astronomical cost to a single realisation—the Severity. That’s pretty much the definition of a pandemic, and the costs of dealing with it. How is it that the highest echelons of our politicians and their political staff are not adequately accounting for the nature of the risk they have actually exposed all of Australia to? If I were a small to medium business owner in the current environment, I would be shitting bricks, and then some. A matter of one week, or two, it could be the difference between keeping the lights on, and going out of business. Totally out of business. The wreckages of the previous shut downs are there to see, in the CBDs and surrounding suburbs. At the same time that rents are blowing out for residential properties, there are these massive empty offices, dead for months now.

    While I have a certain distaste for the many recent forms of Capitalism, I have no such issue with local small business owners who are just trying to keep the businesses going, and are hanging onto their otherwise fantastic staff. My opprobrium is directed at the highest echelons of the federal government. It’s not hindsight to acknowledge something that was glaringly obvious to many specialists *at that time*. So, it is so sad to see that 1,2 and 3 are only seldom acknowledged, and if they are, it is by the public health officials, and not the political staff or politicians. I’ll wager that both public health officials and politicians understand how a change in circumstances on the ground can change the nature of the advice/instruction offered to the public. However, it seems to be overwhelmingly the public official who is shot down for simply adapting their advice to the changing circumstances. The politician, especially if they are an LNP politician, gets by with barely a knee scrape.

  16. Another version of #3: argue that your position was the most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from what was known at the time.

  17. Which, in my case, takes the form of referring to certain positions I took in the early 1980s using a formulation along the lines of “Of course, if I had known then what I know now I would have had a different view, but I only knew then what I knew then and I honestly did the best I could on that basis”.

  18. A more shameless variant of #5: just keep going because you’re a political pundit and no one will ever hold you accountable for anything you’ve ever said. (In other words, why bother going quiet or scrubbing the record?)

  19. Which, in my case, takes the form of referring to certain positions I took in the early 1980s using a formulation along the lines of “Of course, if I had known then what I know now I would have had a different view, but I only knew then what I knew then and I honestly did the best I could on that basis”.

    That’s similar to number 4 on Humphrey Appleby’s list, which he described as the excuse that was used for the Munich Agreement.

    One thing about this excuse, and indeed all of Humphrey Appleby’s excuses, is that they are true sometimes, as indeed are many of the items on John Quiggin’s list. Even people getting things wrong only because they have been manipulated by a conspiracy into getting them wrong is something that does happen sometimes. However, there are lots of excuses which are used far more often than they are actually valid.

  20. Perhaps it is worthwhile to consider how to try to minimise the risk of being wrong next time. Many things are complex and outcomes are not nice and predictable, so being wrong may be unavoidable. However, there is a considerable literature available on complex systems and their frequently nonlinear outcomes that may be difficult or impossible to predict. This literature suggests generic approaches on how to minimise error when there is complexity. Perhaps we might do well to see these taught extensively.

  21. Then there is the saying “There’s no fool like an old fool”. My take on this is that youthful errors can often be the result of insufficient information and experience, whereas with the passing of time one could be expected to acquire more information and accumulate experiences with which to inform one’s decisions, in which case the errors of old age are far more likely to be the result of poor reasoning, which of course also manifests itself as an inability to recognise one’s error.

    This is why QuadRANT contributors provide so many examples of #7 and #8.

  22. I always thought the “no fool like an old fool” saying referred to wealthy old men who think young women like for their charm and good looks.

  23. 1. Anderl says:
    JULY 19, 2021 AT 8:08 AM
    So then I do not see what your problem is with ATAGI (statements). They essentially say that risk is idiosyncratic and contextual and I find them very informative (e.g., the bit on the Fairfield LGA in their 13 July statement). ATAGI is an technical advisory group. It’s not their job to make policy recommendations. As far as I can see the fucked-up messaging about the AZ jabs was not their fault but the federal government’s.

    I agree very much with Anderl’s statement. The interview with Allen Cheng the co-chair of ATAGI (AFR 22 July, p.9) makes it very clear that ATAGI deliberately offered the option of people under the age of 50 (and the under the age of 60) getting the Astra Zeneca vaccine if they thought the benefits outweighed the risks for them.
    The government should then have taken over the messaging and made the pathway to Astra Zeneca for those under 60 very clear on the website where you work out what you are eligible for and when. The website until very recently did not offer Astra Zeneca as an option for those under 50 (or 60). The website should have clearly set out the benefits and risks of Astra Zeneca according to your context, and should also have set out the benefits to the whole community of someone being vaccinated. As Allen Cheng said it was not possible for ATAGI to give blanket advice. ‘How much are you personally at risk if you’re an Uber driver in western Sydney, in an outbreak area, versus a farmer in the Mallee or in Western Australia? That risk is clearly very different. All of these are valid reasons and they’re personal and we can’t give one-size-fits-all advice in that sort of context’.
    This is a clear government -Ministerial and Department of Health Secretary – fail. It is not an ATAGI fail.

  24. John Goss,

    I agree. “This is a clear government – Ministerial and Department of Health Secretary – fail. It is not an ATAGI fail.” I would add Prime Ministerial fail too.

    Indeed, the Federal Govt. has failed on every front with this pandemic. They failed to;

    (a) Implement strong enough lock-down policies.(The states picked up most of that slack.)
    (b) Move from stop-gap hotel quarantining to purpose built quarantine stations.
    (c) Acquire rights to enough types and numbers of vaccines to have back-ups and “Kelly bet” the choices.
    (d) Keep the national borders more strictly controlled. They permitted borders to become too porous.
    (e) Give good information and messaging.
    (f) Keep up payments (jobkeeper etc. for the long haul.

    The NSW situation is now almost completely out of control with only 15% of the national population fully vaccinated. It will be touch and go whether we have a disastrous delta wave and start looking like Italy in the early days or the UK for most of this pandemic.Nothing but incredibly strict quarantining and multiple levels of ring-fencing will save Australia now.

  25. ATAGI advice was contingent on the availability of suitable replacement vaccines.

    I’m sure that if Morrison had had the AZ jab there would have been less uncertainty. But he didn’t, he chose the scarce Pfizer which sends a string message – don’t get AZ.

  26. Morrison got in early at #1. His pfizer vaccine immunity would now be waning markedly, so maybe inaction man will be pushed soon to get a booster AZ jab. Maybe that will even be made public?

    In Israel:

    @pfizer vaccine’s immunity is waning. In this graph, you can see infections and hospitalizations in the last 3 weeks, normalized. Chances of a January vaccinnated … Person to be infected are 3 times that of someone vaccinted in May. Possible caveats are geographical spread (the outbreak did not spread to areas in which people got the shots late) and that people who are less healthy were prioritized. Same trend is seen with the young.

    Inaction:

  27. Young don’t have the full picture and old can get lazy or tired in their thinking.

    I was wrong about Shorten winning but so was everyone else, so here’s another one – I was wrong because my information sources were wrong.

  28. “I’m sure that if Morrison had had the AZ jab there would have been less uncertainty. But he didn’t, he chose the scarce Pfizer which sends a string message – don’t get AZ.”

    Was he in line already for any vaccine, or did he get some top politician privilege to get a vaccine in the first place? (serious question, not a rhetorical one).

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