Essay, Research Paper
Humans And Their Ability To Make Mistakes
In today’s pop culture, there is one very popular view of the future.
All humans will be free to do as they wish, because robots and computers will
work for us. Computers are viewed as the ideal slaves. They work non-stop, never
complain, and above all, never make mistakes. It is often said that computers
don’t make mistakes, that it is the person using the computer who commits errors.
What is it that makes humans err, but not computers? I will prove that it is
simply the way humans are built that makes us commit errors. Unlike computers,
built of mechanical or electronic parts, humans are made of organic matter and
nerve pathways. These same pathways, with the help of the brain are responsible
for all the decision making. I shall demonstrate why humans err, despite the
fact that we have eyes and ears to sense with.
Before I can establish causes for error, I shall define the terms
“error” and “mistake”. In the context of this essay, they will simply mean that
a human obtained a result different from the expected, correct one. Whether it
in be adding two numbers, or calling someone by the wrong name, these are all
errors that a computer would not make. An error can also be interpreted as being
a wrong physical move. If a person is walking in the woods and trips on a branch,
it is because the person erred in the sense of watching the path followed.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that humans make mistakes all the
time. Let us simply analyze any process in which there is a chance for someone
to commit an error. Take for example a cashier in a grocery store. The cashier
obtains the total on the cash register, and receives a twenty dollar bill from
the customer. She must now give the patron back his/her change. The cash
register tells the cashier that the client is owed 4.60$. The cashier then
reaches into her change drawer to retrieve the proper set of coins. This is
where the opportunity for error increases. What if the cashier only gives the
customer back $4.55, because she mistakenly returned a nickel instead of a dime?
What caused this blunder? Would this blunder have happened if the cashier had
had 15 minutes to decide on how much change to return instead of 15 seconds?
Logically speaking, we can establish that if the cashier had 15 minutes to
select the proper set of coins, she probably wouldn’t have made a mistake. This
is due to the fact that she would have taken more time in figuring out which
coins to choose and would even have had time to review her decision several
What can we deduce from this discussion? Humans are more prone to make
mistakes if they are rushed than if they have lots of time to do an operation.
There are many other examples. If you give a class a math exam, but restrict
them to 15 minutes, we can be almost certain that they will get a lower mark
than the same class doing the same test in one hour. The reason is fairly simple.
Our brains and senses simply do not react fast enough. That is why computers are
so renown for their dependability in terms of errors. Computers can perform
thousands more operations per second than a human with no chance of error. This
is due to the construction of these machines. Their inanimate parts are better
adapted to executing these operations at very high speeds.
Let us take another example. A man is adding up a column of numbers. We
will pretend that this individual has a basic knowledge of math. The mistakes he
might make, if any, will not be due to his lack of knowledge of the basic
addition rules. He sits down with a sheet of paper with a list of many three
digit numbers. What kinds of errors can he commit, and why? While adding up the
numbers, he might mistake a 7 for a 1 and add the numbers together wrong. He
might, while adding, disregard a number once in a while. All these possible
mistakes would lead to the wrong final answer, but what causes these errors?
Once again, the time factor is very important. Given the chance to redo his
calculations another 99 times, he would certainly produce the correct final
answer. The reason he committed errors was simply that he was doing an action
faster that his brain and eyes could handle with 100% accuracy. It seems that
our brains can compute complex operations that allow us to drive a car through
terrible weather conditions, at night, but all these operations cannot be
accomplished within too short a time limit.
So far, we have discussed the speed at which the brain can compute
operations without error. We must consider other factors which can also lead to
mistakes. To explain other types of error, I will use a terminology developed
and used by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. He identifies something called
sense data. Sense data is the data received by our senses from the object being
“sensed”. For instance, if a person is looking at a red apple, the shape and
color and all other aspects of this apple are received in the form of sense data.
In the case of the man adding up the numbers, he mistook a 7 for a 1. What
really happened is that his senses misidentified the number. The sense data was
received by his eyes, which then converted this information into an electrical
signal to be sent to the brain for analysis. There are thus two possibilities.
Either the eyes did not transform the signal of the 7 properly, or the brain
misunderstood the signal received from the eyes. In both cases, the sense data
was analyzed incorrectly, leading to an error in the final calculation.
Some skeptics might criticize my position by saying that, no matter how
much time a person has to complete a job, he or she might still commit errors.
In the example of the cashier that I used earlier, one might say that although
she had 15 minutes to select 3 different coins, that she still might make a
mistake. One could justify this position by saying that this is due to a lack of
attention. If a person has 15 minutes to complete a simple task, they will pay
very little attention to the details. If the coin is slightly worn out, and the
cashier is not paying attention, then she will pick it up by mistake. Moreover,
once the coin is selected, she will assume that it is the right one, so that
even if she checks the coins before handing them to the customer, she might
simply assume that she has selected the correct amount. My answer to this
position is fairly clear. No matter how little attention she pays to the job she
is doing, that is not where the error lies. If she is distracted while picking
up the coins in question, then her senses are not receiving and analyzing the
sense datum properly, or thoroughly. This is simply a more complex case of what
I described earlier, with the man mistaking a 7 for a 1. The individual is not
drawing the right conclusion from the sense data received.
In light of the examples and discussions presented, I think is safe to
say that human error is due to the fact that the brain can only function
perfectly up to a certain speed. Also, the five human senses do not always
properly interpret the sense data received, causing the brain to make mistakes.
Not paying attention to what one is doing is not a reason for making a mistake.
It is the repercussions of this behavior that cause the error, because the
person is not using his/her senses properly. In conclusion, it is understandable
that humans make mistakes despite the fact that our senses receive sense data
from objects surrounding us. After all, if this weren’t true, you would have
just finished reading a perfect essay!