Editor's Letter: Human fallibility

Let us not put too much trust in those who navigate this world with smug certainty; the truly wise concede their fallibility up front, and keep learning from their mistakes.

If his game were baseball, Alan Greenspan would have had one helluva batting average. But when the former Federal Reserve chairman defensively told Congress last week that in his two decades overseeing the economy, he was “right 70 percent of the time,” no one in the room—or in the larger public—was impressed. Greenspan failed to foresee the housing bubble’s explosive pop, and being right seven out of 10 times is not good enough for a guru once called the Oracle. The public expects Fed chairmen, presidents, CEOs, popes, and other sages anointed to make Big Decisions to be exempt from human fallibility. When it turns out they’re not, we are outraged. We demand that they be drawn and quartered. Perhaps, though, it might be more useful to draw a more universal lesson from their failures: No one—and by “no one,” unfortunately, I am including you and me—can escape being wrong at least 30 percent of the time. And that’s in a good week.

Life is complex beyond imagining, and we mortals are prone to stumbling into mistakes. (Just ask my wife and daughters, who remind me of my foolishness virtually every day.) Groupthink, rigid belief systems, egotism, lack of information, the notion that the past always predicts the future—all predispose the human mind to blindness and delusion. We learn best from trial and error; plotted courses need to be corrected along the way to account for shifts in wind and current. So let us not put too much trust in those who navigate this world with smug certainty; the truly wise concede their fallibility up front, and keep learning from their mistakes.

William Falk

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