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“Small” Errors, Frauds and Violences

People often don’t want to fix “small” problems. They commonly don’t believe that consistently getting “small” stuff right would lead to better outcomes for big problems.

“Small” Intellectual Errors

For example, people generally don’t think avoiding misquotes, incorrect cites, factual errors, math errors, grammar errors, ambiguous sentences and vague references would dramatically improve discussions.

They’ve never tried it, don’t have the skill to try it even if they wanted to, and have no experience with what it’d be like.

But they believe it’d be too much work because they aren’t imagining practicing these skills until they’re largely automated. If you do all the work with conscious effort, that would indeed be too much work, as it would be for most things.

You automatically use many words for their correct meanings, like “cat” or “table”. What you automatically and reliably get right, with ease, can be expanded with study and practice. What you find intuitive or second-nature can be expanded. Reliably getting it right without it taking significant conscious is called mastery.

But you can basically only expand your mastery to “small” issues. You can’t just take some big, hard, complex thing with 50 parts and master it as a single, whole unit. You have to break it into those 50 parts and mastery them individually. You can only realistically work on a few at a time.

So if you don’t want to work on small things, you’ll be stuck. And most people are pretty stuck on most topics, so that makes sense. The theory fits with my observations.

Also, in general, you can’t know how “small” an error is until after you fix it. Sometimes what appears to be a “small” error turns out very important and requires large changes to fix. And sometimes what appears to be a “big” error can be fixed with one small change. After you understand the error and its solution, you can judge its size. But when there are still significant unknowns, you’re just guessing. So if you refuse to try to fix “small” errors, you will inevitably guess that some “big” errors are small and then refuse to try to fix them.

Factory Farm Fraud

Similarly, animal welfare activists generally don’t believe that policing fraud is a good approach to factory farms. Fraud is too “small” of an issue which doesn’t directly do what they want, just like how avoiding misquotes is too “small” of an issue which doesn’t directly make conversations productive.

Activists tend to want to help the animals directly. They want better living conditions for animals. They broadly aren’t concerned with companies putting untrue statements on their websites which mislead the public. Big lies like “our chickens spend their whole lives in pasture” when they’re actually kept locked in indoor cages would draw attention. Meat companies generally don’t lie that egregiously, but they do make many untrue and misleading statements which contribute to the public having the wrong idea about what farms are like.

Fraud is uncontroversially illegal. But many people wouldn’t really care if a company used a misquote in an ad. That would be “small” fraud. Basically, I think companies should communicate with the public using similar minimal standards to what rational philosophy discussions should use. They don’t have to be super smart or wise, but they should at least get basics right. By basics I mean things where there’s no real controversy about what the correct answer is. They should quote accurately, cite accurately, get math right, get facts right, avoid statements that are both ambiguous and misleading, and get all the other “small” issues right. Not all of these are fraud issues. If a person in a discussion makes an ad hominem attack instead of an argument, that’s bad. If a company does it on their website, that’s bad too, but it’s not fraud, it’s just dumb. But many types of “small” errors, like wrong quotes or facts in marketing materials, can be fraud.

What Is Fraud?

Legally, fraud involves communicating something false or misleading about something where there is an objective, right answer (not something which is a matter of opinion). Fraud has to be knowing or reckless, not an innocent accident. If they lied on purpose, or they chose not to take reasonable steps to find out if what they said is true or false, then it can be fraud. Fraud also requires harm – e.g. consumers who made purchasing decisions partly based on fraudulent information. And all of this has to be judged according to current, standard ideas in our society, not by using any advanced but unpopular philosophy analysis.

Does “Small” Fraud Matter?

There’s widespread agreement that it’s important to police a “big” fraud like FTX, Enron, Theranos, Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme, or Wells Fargo creating millions of accounts that people didn’t sign up for.

Do large corporations commit “small” frauds that qualify according to the legal meaning of fraud that I explained? I believe they do that routinely. It isn’t policed well. It could be.

If smaller frauds were policed well, would that help much? I think so. I think the effectiveness would be similar to the effectiveness of policing “small” errors in intellectual discussions. I think even many people who think it’d be ineffective can agree with me that it’d be similarly effective in the two different cases. There’s a parallel there.

Disallowing fraud is one of the basics of law and order, after disallowing violence. It’s important to classical liberalism and capitalism. It’s widely accepted by other schools of thought too, e.g. socialists and Keynesians also oppose fraud. But people from all those schools of thoughts tend not to care about “small” fraud like I do.

Fraud is closely related to breach of contract and theft. Suppose I read your marketing materials, reasonably conclude that your mattress doesn’t contain fiberglass, and buy it. The implied contract is that I trade $1000 for a mattress with various characteristics like being new, clean, a specific size, fiberglass-free and shipped to my home. If the mattress provided doesn’t satisfy the (implied) contract terms, then the company has not fulfilled their side of the contract. They are guilty of breach of contract. They therefore, in short, have no right to receive money from me as specified in the contract that they didn’t follow. If they keep my money anyway then, from a theoretical perspective, that’s theft because they have my property and won’t give it back. I could sue (and that’s at least somewhat realistic). Many people would see the connection to breach of contract and theft if the company purposefully shipped an empty box with no mattress in it, but fewer people seem to see it if they send a mattress which doesn’t match what was advertised in a “smaller” way.

“Small” Violence

Disallowing “small” instances of violence is much more popular than disallowing “small” frauds, but not everyone cares about it. Some people think pushing someone at a bar, or even getting in a fist fight, is acceptable behavior. I think it’s absolutely unacceptable to get into someone’s personal space in an intimidating manner, so that they reasonably fear that you might touch them in any way without consent. Worse is actually doing any intentional, aggressive, non-consensual touch. I wish this was enforced better. I think many people do have anti-violence opinions similar to mine. There are people find even “small” violence horrifying and don’t want it to happen to anyone. That viewpoint exists for violence in a way that I don’t think it does for fraud or misquotes.

Note that I was discussing the enforcement of “small” violence to strangers. Unfortunately, people’s attitudes tend to be worse when it’s done to your wife, your girlfriend, your own child, etc. Police usually treat “domestic” violence differently than other violence and do less to stop it. However, again, lots of people besides me do want better protection for victims.

Maybe after “small” violence is more thoroughly rejected by almost everyone, society will start taking “small” fraud and “small” breach of contract more seriously.

Why To Improve “Small” Problems

Smaller problems tend to provide opportunities for improvement that are easier to get right, easier to implement, simpler, and less controversial about what the right answer is.

Basically, fix the easy stuff first and then you’ll get into a better situation and can reevaluate what problems are left. Fixing a bunch of small problems will usually help with some but not all of the bigger or harder problems.

Also, the best way to solve hard problems is often to break them down into small parts. So then you end up solving a bunch of small problems. This is just like learning a big, hard subject by breaking it down into many parts.

People often resist this, but not because they disagree that the small problem is bad or that your fix will work. There are a few reasons they resist it:

  • They are in a big hurry to work directly on the big problem that they care about
  • They are skeptical that the small fixes will add up to much or make much difference or be important enough
  • They think the small fixes will take too much work

Why would small fixes take a lot of work? Because people don’t respect them, sabotage them, complain about them, etc., instead of doing them. People make it harder than it has to be, then say it’s too hard.

Small fixes also seem like too much work if problem solving is broken to the point that fixing anything is nearly impossible. People in that situation often don’t even want to try to solve a problem unless the rewards are really bad (or the issue is so small that they don’t recognize what they’re doing as problem solving – people who don’t want to solve “small” problems often do solve hundreds of tiny problems every day).

If you’re really stuck on problem solving and can barely solve anything, working on smaller problems can help you get unstuck. If you try to work on big problems, it’s more overwhelming and gives you more hard stuff to deal with at once. The big problem is hard and getting unstuck is hard, so that’s at least two things. It’d be better to get unstuck with a small, easy problem that is unimportant (so the stakes are low and you don’t feel much pressure), so the only hard part is whatever you’re stuck on, and everything else provides minimal distraction. Though I think many of these people want to be distracted from the (irrational) reasons they’re stuck and failing to solve problems, rather than wanting to face and try to solve what’s going on there.

Small fixes also seem to hard if you imagine doing many small things using conscious effort and attention. To get lots of small things right, you must practice, automatize, and use your subconscious. If you aren’t doing that, you aren’t going to be very effective at small or big things. Most of your brainpower is in your subconscious.

See also my articles Ignoring “Small” Errors and “Small” Fraud by Tyson and Food Safety Net Services.

Elliot Temple on January 2, 2023


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