Type I And Type II Errors

The greatest challenge in governance of  a free republic is, at the same instance, the greatest feature of the American experiment in freedom and also the greatest danger.

That challenge can be explained in these two propositions:

  • Doing something when nothing would yield a better result.
  • Doing nothing when action is required to achieve a result.

These two are commonly known in statistics as  Type I and Type II errors:

  • A Type I error is deciding that something is true when it is false (a false positive), i.e. when the null hypothesis is true but is rejected.
  • A Type II error is deciding something is false when it is true (a false negative) or accepting the null hypothesis when it is false.

Knowing which one of these is to avoid would seem to rest on simple logic and adherence to the basic core principles of our Constitution, yet almost without qualification and with unerring accuracy, our elite political class relies on focus groups and current public opinion, flips a coin and chooses wrongly in almost every case.

No matter what politicians say, they are motivated by power…not principle. You have to be a little arrogant and egotistic to even put yourself forward for what is really the world’s biggest episode of American Idol. Most of our elected officials are successful and wealthy people already – or they are trained to be. They are lawyers, doctors, business people, etc., so there is only one answer to why they would walk away from contouring in that track and move to a lower paying government job – the accumulation of power. Even those who want “to do good for the little guy” are running to accumulate the power to effect changes that they want to see.

And after they do get elected, the desire to be re-elected becomes an overwhelming motivating force. As evidence, have a look at Obama. He spent 2007 and 2008 ignoring his senatorial duties to run for the presidency, actually spent time doing his job badly for 2009 and 2010 – was spooked by the tidal wave of the 2010 mid- terms and has spent the last two years campaigning for the office again. Four out of the past six years have been spent campaigning, not minding the store. 66.6% of the time focused on something else or at least with divided attention to the task we hired him to do.

Know what I call people who do that at my company?


The effect of this desire to be elected/re-elected creates a situation very common to any process. Over-adjusting. The temptation of politicians to be swayed by the fad of the moment, their inability to resist when the constituency wants them to “do something!” about every issue, leads to lack of consistency and a herky-jerky motion in our system of governance.

Everything is a process. Life is a process. Even when we are sitting still or asleep, time advances and the process of life continues. We may not be actively engaged in it but we cannot stop it because the world continues to revolve.

Every process is subject to something called the central limit theorem that states that the highs and lows all oscillate around a mean – we see this in life. Our lives tend to be ordinary for most of the time with pluses and minuses moving back and forth across what we would call a “normal” day, so much so that we can go all day without a truly memorable moment (can you tell me what you did every minute of last Wednesday?) but we also recognize when we have extraordinary highs or lows, “outliers” or special events – those are what we remember.

Governing a society is no different than managing a manufacturing process. Most of the time life just hums along without intervention, and when it does, we call that common cause variation –  life is in statistical control – but every so often an event happens that is so far out of the norm that we do notice it. Just like with any process, if the event is desirable, we want to adjust to have more of it. If undesirable, the temptation is to adjust the process to prevent the unacceptable variation – but before we give into that temptation, we should understand if that point is an outlier or not, essentially a one-off event with a special cause, one that is not part of the normal variation of life.

But if we don’t understand the event, we risk “over-adjusting” the process and thereby making the problem worse. We need to understand if the process is actually changing or there is an assignable cause because it may not be an indication of a process change or shift at all and left alone, the process, just like life, will settle back to the natural, common variation.

When faced with such a change, politicians and people who are weak in principle will panic, then romp down and twist the control knobs all the way up to eleven and then when the process jumps too far to one side, they yank it back down to zero – the result is twofold – we don’t get the control that they sought to implement and the process just keeps jumping back and forth from extreme to extreme with no time to settle in – it never stabilizes.

If we hew to principles, this does not happen. Principles inform us when to act and when not to act. We aren’t swayed by fads and trends. They are the steadying force to the process, the controls.

Politicians are swayed by politics, ergo the name. Politics change, principles do not.

8 thoughts on “Type I And Type II Errors

  1. My wife and I suffered a Reverse Abilene the other day, when we went to see “The Campaign”.( Warning, it sucks, sucks really bad. Really, REALLY stinkeroo bad!). About ten minutes into the movie, I realized that I was going to hate it pretty much, but we had decided on the movie together, and I didn’t want to spoil the movie for her. Even when I realized that she had not laughed for an entire hour, I said nothing.
    After the movie was over, I gave my opinion of same, and Joi said that she almost asked me if I wanted to leave several times. So we both sat through a movie that we both hated because each was reluctant to share their opinion.

    Seriously, “The Campaign” sucks, but you may have already heard that by now.

  2. “Four out of the past six years have been spent campaigning, not minding the store.”

    Sad, but true. (By the way, McCain’s Senate attendance/voting record during the last presidential campaign was even worse than Obama’s, but I don’t condone either.) Equally sad but true is the fact that most members of the House of Representatives spend almost all of each two-year term running for office.

    One major problem with our system: it costs a fortune to run for federal office. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-11630884

  3. Pingback: Obama’s Epic FAIL: Awesomely Super Fantastic/Yet Stunningly and Totally Ineffective | The Rio Norte Line

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