Type I vs Type II Errors

I often think about life situations as Type I versus Type II errors. I’m sure how I apply this is probably not consistent with how true statistics uses it, but oh well. Wikipedia has an entry on it if you want to go there. (It uses words like null hyphothesis though so be forewarned.)

For me how I think about this is that for every choice I make there are two risks. One is that I act on something I think is true and it turns out to be false. The other is that I don’t act on something because I think it is false and it turns out to be true.

In the current COVID-19 crisis, mask wearing is an example of this. Early on there was discussion that virus particles were so small that mask wearing wasn’t really effective. Now pretty much all of the experts are recommending it and saying it helps. I can definitely see that having a cloth barrier between me and others will prevent some spread but I’m still curious about the small particles issue.

However, despite my ongoing skepticism, ever since they started recommending masks, I’ve been wearing one. Because to me I’d rather take on the risk of wearing a mask and finding out I didn’t need to than the risk of not wearing one and realizing later I should have.

If I wear a mask and it has absolutely no impact and does nothing to protect me from getting sick, it also doesn’t do me any harm. It’s uncomfortable and annoying to wear a mask, especially now that I ordered a more robust one online instead of hand-crocheting one that had some breathing holes built into it, but all that does is reminds me that I really shouldn’t be out and about more than is necessary anyway.

I have no ego about my appearance these days, so there’s no vanity issue for me. And I’m not out a lot, so it’s a minor inconvenience to address a potentially significant risk.

If I don’t wear a mask and it turns out a mask could have protected me, then I’ll likely get sick. Maybe I’ll be one of the lucky ones and it goes away fast and there’s no lasting damage. But maybe I spend 90 days in the hospital, lose a leg, need a double lung transplant, and still end up dying like just happened to a perfectly healthy man who was younger than I am. Or maybe I don’t even need to go to the hospital but I have long-term breathing complications that I struggle with for years.

In this scenario–do I wear a mask or don’t I–I’m going to wear a mask. Because I do not want to get this shit. Both of my parents have dealt with long-term health complications. (My brother as well although not in the “how many times are you going to be rushed to the hospital this year?” sense that both of my parents have.)

Mask wearing is a good example of this, but when you look around you’ll see that life is full of Type I vs. Type II error choices. Asking someone out or telling them you love them. Taking a job. Quitting a job. Going on a vacation. Devoting time to writing a book. There are risks on both sides of those decisions.

It all comes down to which type of error you’d rather make. The error of acting and being wrong or the error of not acting when you could’ve been right.

Some of the risks are easy to see so easy to choose between. Others, not so much. But in my opinion it’s always a good idea when confronted with a choice to weigh the potential cost of acting against the potential cost of not acting.

 

 

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres.

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