On Being Wrong

by Luna Flesher

It seems like the most important goal in life for some people is to be right. Decades ago, Rush Limbaugh proclaimed himself right, all the time, every time. His listeners, “dittoheads”, were vicariously right just for agreeing with him.  This set the trend for Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Newt Gingrich.

These leaders in turn have created the recent fad: to proudly declare one’s rightness, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against it. Even if it pisses people off, even if undermines the cause, even if it makes them look like complete idiots.

One can hardly blame them. Humans seem to be pre-wired to receive mental pleasure when we reinforce our existing beliefs. We are uncomfortable when our beliefs are challenged.  This concept is called Cognitive Dissonance/Consonance theory, which I have written about before, several times.  I will certainly write about it again, because it explains so much about human motivations.

In spite of how intensely you believe you are right, this is sometimes at odds with actually being right.  There is no human being on earth who’s entire belief system is 100% correct.  Not even Rush.  Even if you are right about a lot of things, you are most certainly wrong about a few other things.

If you think you are somehow one-0f-a-kind or special to have been blessed with the super power of Always Being Right, then I can easily show you the first thing you are wrong about.

Maybe you are still thinking to yourself that you are an exception, so I will persist.  Other people are wrong, right?  Even when they are sure they are right, they are wrong. Right?  So what makes you so freaking special, that you’re the only one who never sometimes wrong?

Moving on.

If you are at least a little bit wrong, wouldn’t it be in your best interest to try to figure out where you are wrong, so you can update your beliefs?  If you did, you’d be more right than you were before.  Wouldn’t it to be awesome to always be growing and developing, so you can always be just a little bit more right?

Think about this for a second.  When you’re debating a point with someone, you could have a refreshing new outlook.  Maybe, just maybe, the other person is right.  They may be offering you a special gift: giving you the chance to become more right than you were before.

But if they change your mind, doesn’t that mean they win? No! Because if they are actually right, and you accept that by abandoning your untrue belief, then they don’t win the argument — YOU DO. Because you walk away with a precious new understanding of the world, and you’ve brought your mind a little closer to reality.

I am wrong.  I am currently wrong about a great many things.  I’m sure to commit to writing many of those things, right here in this blog.  I know this for two reasons: 1) I do not have any super powers, and 2) I have been horribly, terribly wrong about a great many things in my past.

When you accept the idea that you might actually be fallible, it gives you an advantage in the world that those self-assured alwaysrighties don’t have — the ability to eventually be right about more things than they are.

It’s probably kind of scary to think of making yourself vulnerable to so many other points of view.  After all, someone may try to deceive you.  You might be tricked by the Evil Side to Join Their Ranks!  But actually, when you get into the habit of critically examining every piece of information, it makes your mind stronger — not in the sense of being more rigid and unchangeable, but stronger against being misled. You learn a few methods to help detect lies and find out the reality of things.  It’s not infallible, but it is uncanny and borders on being a super power itself.

This gives you another advantage — When you do get into a debate, and you are right, you will have more facts, they will be more accurate, your debating skills will be more finely tuned, and you will be more able to convince the other person that they are wrong.

When I am considering my opinion on some new issue (the current healthcare debate for example) I often refuse to take a stance unless I have had time to research and take in data about the topic.  I don’t actually enjoy being wrong, so it helps me to put some effort into picking the right side to begin with.  I don’t just assume that my previous position on similar topics will necessarily apply on the current topic, because then I stand a good chance of failing to understand some crucial element of it.  Sometimes if I don’t have time or interest in a topic, I never end up picking a side.  I may express that I lean a little one way, but will not commit.  To me, committing about something I know little about is a form of intellectual dishonesty.

Even after much study, I may arrive at the wrong conclusion.  Therefore, I am always ready to take in new information that may unravel my previous positions. Because no matter how much I research, I am still not omniscient.  And neither are you.

Rush may proudly declare he is right.  I instead proudly proclaim that I can be wrong.  And that, in and of itself, makes me more right than Rush.

Published in: on August 12, 2009 at 9:51 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. 9 of 10 Pieces to the Puzzle – On Being Wrong (or Right) (Jodi Stoddard 8/14/2009)

    I once gave an object lesson. I cut a large poster into puzzle pieces. The class put it back together, but one piece was missing. The picture was an artists painting of a fireplace, mantel, rocking chair, part of a rug. I told the class that one person in the room knew what the puzzle was about, and several others were going to make up a convencing story to go along with the puzzle. At the end, the class would have the chance to vote on who they thought gave the correct illistration of what the picture really represented.
    Each assigned adult in the classroom stood up and told their rendition. One person told of the old woman who used to rock in that chair. One person elaborated about the people who used to gather in that room around the fire. One person told a story of the real estate agent who had sold that house. And the last person, in a single sentence, stated: “It is a picture of a bunch of dogs”, and sat down.
    There were nearly 100 people in that class. I asked them – by raise of hands to vote on whose story they believed to be true. The first 3 stories got all of the votes and the final story got not a single hand raised. No one believed that it was a story of a bunch of dogs.
    I then took out the last piece of the puzzle and put it in place. On the other half of the rug laid a pile of Dalmation puppies.
    Sometimes we think we ‘see’ everything evident in which to base our conclusions. Sometimes people, science, intellect, fact gathering, analysis can all be very convincing to us that we ‘see’ and understand perfectly. Often facts can be drawn from the evidence that makes the outcome seem irrefutable. And despite all that, even with 90% of the picture in focus, that small 10% can change the entire outcome.

    Oh, I am admittedly one of the most competitive people on the planet. Being thus, I can be rebellious, stubborn, and reluctant to eat crow, no matter how deservedly. I have also learned that one tell-tale sign of a persons inherent short-comings can be seen not within ourselves, but as a mirrored vision that glares harshly back at us from within others -like a mirror, we see within others what we disdain most about ourselves, and yet are often completely unaware of it within ourselves. Yet, ironically, it is what causes us the most frustration and irritation about others.

    I like the saying that goes something like this: “it isn’t important WHO is right – but it IS important WHAT is right”. There is a right and wrong, fact and fiction, truth and error. No man is an island. Everything we do, say, even think – has a ripple effect which flows out from us. Laws of science, physics, nature – all are governed by ‘truth’. We may not understand how everything works – so what we don’t yet know we guess at, have theories about, run experiments on, fit what parts we do understand into our world. We study, read, and search, and hope that our sources are correct and haven’t lead us astray. We use our intellect, gut instincts and outcomes to discern if we are hitting close to the mark. It is in our nature to search for the truth in all things. Our concept of ‘truth’ is our ballast, our center, our core. It becomes – good or bad, like it or not, our ‘reality’ and our compass and we will follow where it points. Until, or unless our understanding of that ‘truth’ becomes shaken, new information is gleaned, or outcomes change, then it evolves into a new ‘reality’ for us. The world was flat until it wasn’t.
    I have pondered over the ending of Michael Criton’s book Sphere, where the people that experienced the power of the Sphere decided that it was too destructive, and made a pact to use its power to wish it out of existence. I know that there is great power not only in ‘positive thinking’ but also in a collective power. Likewise, I have toyed with the idea of wondering if what we decide we want for our reality ‘after this life’ will be what we get, in some form or another. For those that believe in reincarnation, will they come back as something or someone else? For those who believe in a Heaven – will they wish it into existence? For those who don’t, will they cease to exist? Are they really so different then, those who say the world will come to an end, and those who do not believe in anything after this?

    And herein lies my sick solace, as that ugly, competitive beast within me says: “Ah, if I am ‘wrong’, and there is no God, no afterlife, neither of us will know. But if you are ‘wrong’, I will be able to say “I told you so!”.

  2. I absolutely agree with your points, and they go along with mine very well. That is exactly why I try not to jump to conclusions when a new issue presents itself to me. That is exactly why I am capable of being swayed on many things I am currently convinced of: because no matter how much I have researched, or no matter how well my previous conclusions fit previous situations, I may be missing data.

    HOWEVER, the corollary to that is that if I have in fact researched and thought through an issue in depth, the level of evidence required to convince me otherwise needs to be pretty steep. I will certainly give consideration to that evidence, but it must be real, and must be verifiable.

    Your last paragraph seems to be a variation on Pascal’s Wager. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal's_Wager

    I’m just thinking about how weird a motivation it is, to want to say “I told you so!” about something so important as eternal salvation. It seems.. childish. :) I’m just saying. It seems like the chance to gloat over being right after we die is more important to you than searching for real truth here, even if it means you’re wrong.

    I reject Pascal’s conclusions for a couple of reasons, but this format is too short a place to go into that and it’s way off topic.

    • Concerning your observation: “I’m just thinking about how weird a motivation it is, to want to say “I told you so!” about something so important as eternal salvation. It seems.. childish. :) I’m just saying. It seems like the chance to gloat over being right after we die is more important to you than searching for real truth here, even if it means you’re wrong.”

      I totally agree – it is childish, and at the same time I say it, I realize that if I am right, I will likely not even feel like saying it if (or when) the chance does present itself. It was said only in the spirit of a fun debate. I have had many occassion to say “I told you so” to my sons (for example), but when the perfect time arrives, I have never even been tempted to say it. By then it is too poignant of a moment, to joyful or emotional to say anything so trite. Or, even too painful for the other person – so at those times, it never even crosses my mind.
      We do however have a family “warning”. It is usually said before anything happens and used in jest as a friendly reminder that something could happen, or someone might be ready to make a mistake. The saying is “Bedframe on the freeway!”. Twenty years ago, while using a horsetrailer as a moving van, Robert slid our bedframe in thru the back door of the trailer on top of all of our belongings. I asked him if he was going to secure it and was concerned it might fall out. He said it would be fine. Well, needless to say, one mile from our destination, it fell out of the back of the horsetrailer and was run over by a Semitruck before it could be rescued. He was humbled enough to suck it up, and is happy to have that be our fun family warning – spoken only in love.

      Although I have not mastered the art of the word, it was a great epiphany for me when I learned the real meaning of the word ‘humble’ as being ‘teachable’. We all want to learn and grow, so hopefully we will all master the art of being more humble. I commit to endeavor to become such.

  3. One more thought I had about this topic — Intentionally avoiding new information, or intentionally avoiding information that may support opposing views, is a form of self-imposed ignorance.

    1. In the case that you are wrong, you are keeping yourself from learning something new, so your beliefs more closely match reality (or at least more closely match available data).

    2. In the case that you are right, you can better understand the opposing view, which makes you better equipped to argue against it. It also makes you more sure in your stance.

    For this reason, I try to learn as much as I can about the world, even if it means reading an opposing view. Even if it means watching a documentary I figure I will disagree with. Even if it means patiently listening to my opponent’s points in a one-on-one argument.

  4. well said

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