2020: A World Renewed

Special Area

Mistakes & Recoveries

Introductory Questions

    • When is the last time you made a mistake?
    • When is the last time you told someone you made a mistake?
    • How often do you reassure someone who made a mistake that it’s okay? How often do you mean it?
    • What is the difference between a mistake and a failure? How about between a mistake and an error?
    • Is it possible for no one to be to blame for a mistake? Can two or more people all be to blame?
    • Is there such a thing as a “harmless” mistake—or is a harmless mistake not a mistake at all?
    • Is there a difference between an “innocent” mistake and a harmless one? Can you ever fault someone for an innocent mistake?
    • Do people make more mistakes as they grow older, or fewer?
    • When do you need to apologize for a mistake? When don’t you?
    • Just as mistakes come in many shapes and forms, so do apologies. How do apologies between friends differ from apologies made by public figures?
    • How long does it take to become clear whether a decision was a mistake?
    • Have you ever realized you were making a mistake but had no choice but to follow through with it?
    • Has anyone ever told you that you were making a mistake, only for you to disagree with them?
    • Who do you know who makes the fewest mistakes?
    • Do you have a responsibility to admit your mistakes to other people?
    • When do you have a responsibility to expose other people’s mistakes?
    • Should people be punished for their mistakes—and by whom?
    • Can it be a mistake to tell someone they are making a mistake?
    • Would it be a better world if we always forgave people for their mistakes?
    • If a person has only bad choices, is it considered a mistake no matter which of them they choose
    • What is the opposite of a mistake?

The Psychology of Mistakes | Insights from the Cognitive Sciences

    • People seem hardwired to prefer easy answers; they want characters to be heroes or villains and choices to be absolutely right or clearly wrong. But is 1+1=ORANGE less wrong than 1+1=3? Consider Isaac Asimov's essay "The Relativity of Wrong"—which asks you to weigh whether many things that we believe to be wrong are actually surprisingly close to right—and whether we need to find better ways to measure the magnitude of a mistake. Discuss with your team: do people actually want easy answers, or is that a mistaken assumption? What is something that your parents believe to be wrong which may be wrong but not that wrong?
    • Research suggests that when people think back to past experiences, they focus on their mistakes more than on their successes. What are the positive and negative impacts that this tendency might have on their decision-making?
    • Some psychologists argue that people who are reluctant to admit mistakes suffer from fragile egos. Discuss with your team: what is the best way to handle someone who refuses to accept they have made a mistake, even when the facts are indisputable?
    • We’ve all made mistakes, but what does the way you react to them say about you? Discuss with your team: what is the best way to respond to a mistake—and does your answer differ for different kinds of mistakes? How important is it that people feel guilty for their mistakes?
    • Consider this argument that “Western” and “Eastern” cultures treat mistakes at school differently. Discuss with your team: is the author making the mistake of overgeneralizing? Based on her findings, should the lowest-scoring scholars on the Challenge be required to retake the test in front of other teams?
    • The way someone judges the mistakes of other people—or their own—may be influenced by their upbringing. In one family, a child might be taught that overeating is wrong; in another, that leaving food on one’s plate is wasteful. Discuss with your team: are there things perceived as mistakes in one culture that are celebrated in another? To what degree should people adopt the customs of others when they are traveling?
    • United States President Joe Biden once referred to the now-defeated president as Donald Hump; Donald Hump declared that he “will stop defrauding all of the people of this country.” People often misspeak; sometimes, as here, they misspeak in ways that suggest they are exposing a thought they would prefer to keep hidden. Learn more about these so-called Freudian slips (also referred to as parapraxis) and the arguments for and against their revealing true thoughts, feelings, and desires. Discuss with your team: are Freudian slips examples of when it is a mistake to tell the truth? Are there other times when dishonesty is socially preferable?
    • Considerable evidence suggests that men and women in positions of leadership are judged differently for their mistakes, although not all studies concur. Discuss with your team: is there any truth to this argument, and, if so, should we take steps to address the discrepancy? For instance, should the media (or teachers) be required to spend extra time discussing the successes of female leaders?
    • How might social factors such as race or class factor into the way we interpret other people’s mistakes?
    • The science of signal detection theory explores the way people perceive and interpret the information around them—but that detection process is not perfect. Research the basics of SDT and consider: are some of us more prone to perceptual mistakes? How often do you perceive things incorrectly, such as hearing your name when no one said it? Can missed or misinterpreted signals lead to serious mistakes?

Everyday Mistakes

    • Not all mistakes shatter the world. Think about the ones people make at home and in school as part of their everyday lives. As you can see, they are often quite trivial. Discuss with your team: what kinds of mistakes are worth worrying about? How often is it okay to misplace your keys or to forget to feed the dog? When should you intervene in someone else’s everyday mistakes?
    • With that said, some of these mistakes may start to affect other people. Consider the following examples of technology-related mistakes. Can you think of any others like them? How might they impose real burdens on others—or on you?
      • pocket dialing | accidental "Reply All" | email storm
      • sleep calling/texting | closing without saving
      • succumbing to phishing | insecure passwords | not backing up

    • Just because certain mistakes are common doesn’t mean they are inconsequential. Many people make decisions that can lead to difficulties down the line. Consider the following examples, then discuss with your team: how can (and when should) you help someone whom you see making these kinds of mistakes?
      • overspending | undersaving | credit card debt
      • poor diet | reckless driving | procrastination

Epic Mishaps of History

    • Some mistakes in military history are apocryphal—the stuff of legend. The city of Troy probably didn’t naively admit past its gates a horse full of enemy soldiers. But many turning points in history did hinge on one side making a fateful error. Napoleon didn’t need to invade Russia in the winter. The North Korean army didn’t need to pause its conquest of South Korea for three days, allowing the United Nations time to regroup. France should have realized Nazi Germany could just bypass its northerly fortifications and blitz in through the Ardennes to the south; it fell to Hitler in six weeks. If history is written by the victors, then surely the victors would want to publicize the mistakes of the defeated—but there can be a tension between detailing your enemy’s mistakes and not making them sound as if they were too easy to defeat. Discuss with your team: if you were writing about winning a debate at the global round, would you emphasize that your opponents never studied and forgot to charge their laptops—or would you focus on your own preparations?
    • Research these examples and those below. Were actual mistakes made, and, if so, by whom?
      • Battle of Karansebes | Great Emu War | “Mokusatsu”
      • Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow | Charge of the Light Brigade
      • Wounded Knee Massacre | Battle of Changping
      • Failure of the Spanish Armada | Battle of Adwa   

    • Abraham Lincoln probably shouldn’t have gone to the theater, but it would be hard to call it a mistake; he didn’t know the play would end badly. Other historical figures, however, have engaged in activities that seem to have been poorly thought-out. Consider the Aaron Burr Conspiracy, Richard Nixon’s bugging of his own White House, and the antics of John McAfee, then explore this research into “the psychology of stupid mistakes”. Are powerful people especially prone to facepalm-worthy choices?
    • When an accident happens, at first people rally to help the victims—but eventually the finger-pointing begins. Research the following tragedies. Were mistakes made that people should have caught? Was anyone held responsible for them, if so?
      • Halifax Explosion | Chernobyl | The Titanic
      • The Crash on Tenerife | Challenger Explosion

    • Sometimes, companies make mistakes in the release of new products; they fail to catch on with consumers for reasons that seem obvious in retrospect. Consider the following examples, and then discuss with your team: where did these companies go wrong, and did they respond effectively to the poor reception for their products?
      • New Coke | Ford Pinto | Samsung Galaxy Fold
      • Google Glasses | Apple Maps | Windows Phone

Courting Errors | Mistakes in the Judicial System

    • Judges are human; they make mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes can be harmless, but other times they might require cases to be reopened. Discuss with your team: should judges who make more mistakes be assigned to simpler cases?
    • Canadian law professor Alice Woolley argues that when judges decide a case immorally, their decisions aren’t just wrong—they’re wrongful. Discuss with your team: who should judge the judge? Should judges consider changing public values in making their decisions?
    • Sometimes new evidence comes to light after a case has already been decided. Since 1973, 166 prisoners convicted and sentenced to death in the United States have been freed, largely through the introduction of new DNA evidence. Even in countries without the death penalty, some number of people are probably being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Discuss with your team: if a justice system is currently convicting too many innocent people, should we make it harder for people to be convicted—even if this would allow more guilty people to go free?
    • In the 1857 case Scott v. Sanford, the United States Supreme Court ruled that African-Americans should not be considered citizens of the United States. The Rivonia Trial in South Africa saw over a dozen leaders of the African National Congress indicted for “fermenting violent revolution”. Today, decisions like these are almost universally seen as egregious mistakes. Discuss with your team: are there similar decisions happening today that will be seen as mistakes in the future?

Mistakes in Medicine and the Sciences

    • One morning in December 1799, retired American president George Washington woke up with a sore throat and a high fever; doctors treated him by draining him of over forty percent of his blood. The practice of bloodletting was widespread for centuries. It also probably killed him. Discuss with your team: why would something that seems like such an obvious mistake today have been such a popular medical treatment for so long? What practices common in medicine today do you think our descendants will look back at with similar disdain?
    • Another widely discredited medical treatment is the frontal lobotomy. Many psychiatric patients would have the fronts of their brains scraped away, either in a hospital setting or, to save time, right at home, with icepicks through their eyes. The result: zombie-like individuals reduced to fragments of their former selves. Consider the movement to strip the Nobel Prize from the doctor who first championed frontal lobotomies. Do you agree with those who would punish him, or with those who defend him as someone whose work was well-intentioned? Discuss with your team: when new information comes to light, should historical awards be reevaluated?
    • Historical medical mistakes tended to be based on misunderstandings and incomplete knowledge of new technologies. Consider these additional examples, and discuss with your team: was anyone to blame for these mistakes, or were they justified in their historical context?
    • Even today, medical professionals can still make mistakes—from surgeries on the wrong body part to babies switched at birth. More seriously, patients may be misdiagnosed, especially when they are suffering from rare conditions, delaying treatment until it is too late to help them. Discuss with your team: who should be held responsible for such mistakes? With so many hospitals and so many patients in the world, do we need to accept that some mistakes are inevitable?
    • Medical tests can sometimes lead to incorrect results, including false positives. Discuss with your team: should doctors emphasize to all patients that test results may be inaccurate, or would this undermine public confidence in medicine?

He Who Gaffes Last

    • Famous people make infamous mistakes; some can cost lives, but others just damage (or utterly ruin) political prospects. Days before the 2008 American presidential primary in New Hampshire, a debate moderator asked then-Senator Hillary Clinton how she felt about concerns that she wasn’t as likeable as also-then-Senator Barack Obama. “That hurts my feelings,” she said. “I don’t think I’m that bad.” Obama offered his own words of support: “You’re likeable enough.” Obama had just committed a classic political gaffe—misspeaking in a way that would cost him dearly. He went on to lose New Hampshire. Although he recovered to win other states, he would commit other gaffes along the way.
    • Michael Kinsley has described gaffes as a kind of unintended honesty, a moment when a politician (or other public figure) “accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head.” Discuss with your team: are we unfairly punishing politicians for their unfiltered honesty? Or are gaffes the best insight we have into someone’s true nature?
    • Look into the following gaffes, and evaluate whether those who committed them experienced lasting damage. Are they examples of “accidental honesty” or of something else? How would you have advised each person involved to handle the aftermath of his or her gaffe?
    • Some errors seen as gaffes may be the result of misinterpretation or of technical issues beyond a person’s control—such as the microphone that recorded the “Dean Scream” in 2004 while muting the audience noise around him, exactly as it was meant to do. Discuss with your team: if you were Howard Dean, how would you have responded to the situation? Would you have explained to the public that the microphone was to blame?
    • Politicians are not the only people who can commit gaffes; any source that is supposed to be unbiased or reliable is particularly vulnerable to them, as when CNN accidentally identified Russian President Vladimir Putin as a hostage-taking British terrorist, or when the Chicago Tribune announced the wrong winner in the 1948 United States presidential election. Discuss with your team: should news sources that make mistakes be required to pay reparations to those affected? What about news sources that intentionally spread false information?
    • In 2012, New York Magazine offered its own take on the “taxonomy of gaffes”, dividing them into five different kinds. Does their classification seem reasonable to you—or does it seem agenda-driven in some way?
    • Eight years later, in a world which has grown accustomed to interacting on social media, is oversharing the newest kind of gaffe?
    • Some say that in today’s world gaffes will go viral more quickly, others that they will be forgotten sooner. Discuss with your team: which is it, or are both true? Is the best way to manage the aftermath of a gaffe different today than it would have been a decade ago? And, do gaffes even matter? Some studies suggest that the people who pay the most attention to them already have the most resolute opinions anyway.

But Can a Droid Underestimate?

    • Computers are often seen as infallible—cold, calculating, and unerring. However, they often don’t work exactly as intended, leading to unintended outcomes that range from harmless glitches to disastrous miscalculations.
    • A “bug” is a flaw in a system which results in unexpected and often incorrect behavior. In one famous case, the bug was actually a bug. Consider the following bugs, and discuss with your team: how could they have been best avoided, and who should bear the responsibility for them?

    • Up until the 1990s, many computers were designed to store dates with two digits for the year: 97 meant 1997, 06 meant 1906. People eventually realized that this approach would pose a problem in the year 2000: software might think the digits 00 meant 1900. This “Y2K Bug” gained worldwide notoriety, and many (though not all) countries invested tremendous sums in trying to fix it before time ran 00ut. Discuss with your team: was it a mistake for programmers not to foresee this bug earlier? And, given that 2000 came and went without any major incident, was it a mistake for the world to focus so much attention on it—or was this level of attention the reason nothing dire happened?
    • Explore the world of software testing and quality assurance. What methodologies have engineers come up with to minimize bugs?
      • fault | failure | error | debugging | logic error
      • bugs vs. glitches | race condition | off-by-one
      • software testing | black-box | white-box | unit testing

    • Consider the saying: “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”. If an unintended feature makes its way into a system but has no major impact on the user, is it still a mistake?
    • Explore the concept of error fares, in which airlines sell tickets for much lower than their intended price. Sometimes, people (and companies) are expected to honor their mistakes; in fact, there was a time when the United States government forced airlines to do so. Does the fact that error fares can now be disseminated over the Internet in a matter of minutes affect whether airlines should be obligated to let people keep the underpriced tickets they have booked?
    • Many apparent bugs are the result of user error. Discuss with your team: should programmers be held responsible for the errors their software permits users to make—and do they have a duty to predict all reasonable uses and misuses? Is there such a thing as an unpredictable misuse?

Is it Too Late Now to Say I'm Sorry?

    • The Internet is full of self-help articles on how to apologize. Discuss with your team: why is it so hard to apologize effectively? What strategies do you find most effective?
    • In 2015, Volkswagen was caught rigging its vehicles to reduce emissions during testing. Some have criticized the company’s initial apology as unconvincing. Discuss with your team: when is an apology not an apology? Do apologies need to be coupled with corrective actions, or can an expression of regret sometimes suffice?
    • Consider the following apologies. Discuss with your team: which ones were the most effective, and what could those whose apologies were less effective have done differently?

    • Last year, the University of Wisconsin faced a public relations crisis when it released a promotional video for a homecoming celebration. Nearly every student in it was white. The university quickly apologized and released a revision featuring more diversity—but critics noted that this update glossed over the university’s actual lack of minority students. Discuss with your team: were the university’s apology and new video the best way forward under the circumstances, or were they potentially counterproductive? Can it sometimes be a mistake to present things as they are rather than as they should be?
    • Recently, the phenomenon of “cancel culture” has grown more prevalent not just in entertainment but across many industries. Explore the origins of cancel culture and discuss with your team: are these public reactions justified? When does a statement or action cross the line from a recoverable mistake to an unforgiveable misdeed?

Concluding Questions

    • Some mistakes are small misunderstandings; others are global catastrophes. Work with your team to design a scale to measure mistakes. Would it be similar to that for a natural disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake, or more like one used in a field such as economics?  
    • An ant scrambling about because it can’t find its nest, a duckling imprinting on a human as its mother, a cat running away from a vaguely snake-like cucumber. Animal mistakes can make for cute viral moments, but are they really mistakes at all, or are mistakes unique to humans?
    • The artist Bob Ross once said, "we don't make mistakes; just happy little accidents". Can you find examples of historical mistakes that have had happy consequences—and, if so, why were they still considered mistakes? You might ponder whether accidental discoveries (such as penicillin) would qualify.
    • In film and television, when an actor messes up a line, the director sometimes starts the scene over; other times, the mistake makes it into the final cut. What makes some mistakes more usable than others?
    • In science, mistakes are an accepted part of the scientific method. Would you say, then, that those astronomers who first identified Pluto as a planet made a mistake, given its later declassification? If so, do they owe anyone an apology? Does the admission of mistakes in science make it easier for critics to question the value of science in general?
    • We’ve come to expect some films (and television shows) to include blooper reels, but they only first began appearing in the late 1970s. What about them do audiences find entertaining, and are they more appropriate for certain genres than for others? Put another way: would we be more likely to post Instagram stories of bloopers of the Scholar’s Bowl or of the Flag March?
    • What kinds of factors free someone of responsibility for their mistakes? Is someone addicted to opioids making a mistake when they continue to take them, or does making a mistake require a degree of discretion that addicts may no longer have?
    • A misprinted Pokemon trading card recently sold for $18,000 on eBay. In the world of trading cards, why are misprints worth so much—and are they worth more than an intentionally rare card? Discuss with your team: would misprinted textbooks, restaurant menus, or airport signage be valued in a similar way?
    • When it comes to recovering from a mistake, is there a difference between an apology and an act of redemption? If so, what kinds of mistakes require redemption? Would publishing outlines late in 2019 require redemption in 2020?

Last Updated: January 18 (in But Can A Droid Underestimate)