But wait a minute

Probability of The Unforeseen

Lord Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England was once asked about the low interest rates and whether they were good or bad. He answered that they were good, because that meant young people can take out mortgages to buy houses. “But wait a minute”, was that what really happened? Not quite. As a result of the low interest rates non-young people started buying to rent and this drove the house prices even higher, putting the house market out of reach for the young people who were trying to get onto the housing ladder.

Was this an oversight by Lord King? Perhaps. It is hard to predict the future, but more often than not there are unforeseen consequences. Although we could not know beforehand what these might be, we should always assume the probability of the unforeseen happening to be not zero.

What is the usefulness of this assumption? It’s not as if we could prepare for the unforeseen or as the phrase often attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, “unknown unknowns”. Instead, by always having this at the back of our minds, hopefully our decisions are imbued with greater prudence and diligence, aware that the outcome of our decisions may materialise within a range and not in an accurate, specific bulls-eye way as we often wish it would.

Local versus Global

In a brief essay, Marti Leimbach writes about her hard life, arguing that privilege does not come automatically just by being born white. Despite sympathising with her I thought, “but wait a minute”, when making a case shouldn’t we first differentiate whether the points she makes are local or global?

Whereas her situation was due to bad luck and localised to her person, bad luck that could have fallen on anyone, the negative effects of racism (and yes, that includes lack of privilege), sexism and all other discriminatory ‘isms’ do apply universally based on colour, gender, sexual orientation or class independent of personal situations and luck. To conflate your own personal situation with society-wide challenges does not advance the discussion on the definition and exclusivity of ‘privilege’. People often try to pick out a single abnormality to disprove a whole case, especially those who write to distract the readers from the real issue.

Even in mathematics a distinction is made when describing local and global solutions. Every additional constraint which might appear as the problem demands, would require the narrowing down of the set to one or a few specific solutions of the formula, away from the global optimum. On the other hand, if you start from the vantage point of a local optimum, you may wrongly extrapolate that this is the global solution too.

Proper Sample Size

“But wait a minute” thinking may also help to prevent us from jumping to conclusions. Let’s say that a person attends an interview equipped with high recommendations from previous employers and a nearly flawless record performance of many years. The interviewer for some reason or another then summarily dismisses the person based on this single interview. Is this outcome correct?  Can suitability for a job be determined based on one interview?

Alternatively, if someone is recruiting an athlete and dismisses him as a candidate based on a single field performance, we would say “but wait a minute” that’s ridiculous, that’s not enough observation to know whether he is a good athlete or not. Some would even say that this is not fair, we have to see more of him on the field. It could be that that day he was ill or still recovering from an injury.

To come to the right conclusion and therefore outcome, we need to have a proper sample size suited to the situation. Here, I’m reminded as well of a lecturer at the MIT who acknowledges this by allowing his students to take the better marks of the two major exams, saying that “Everyone has a bad day!”.

In case you wonder, Google, who is well known for measuring everything, found from their research that the marginal benefit of an additional job interview diminishes after the fourth, so maybe there is value to making the intangibles measurable after all.

At this point you might think “but wait a minute” is just a disguise for adopting good mathematical practice in your thinking, and indeed you may be right. Leonardo Da Vinci said, “No human investigation can be called true science without passing through mathematical tests; and if you say that the sciences which begin and end in the mind contain truth, this cannot be conceded, and must be denied for many reasons.”

‘But wait a minute’ thinking as the phrase implies, is about taking a pause after we have come to a conclusion and questioning whether it was the right one. This one minute of self-check is perhaps sixty seconds longer than most people would ever give themselves the luxury to ponder.


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