I have been thinking a great deal about what it means to be wrong since reading Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. The author asks a fascinating question. What does it feel like to be wrong? Her answer? It feels the same as being right, because before we realize we are wrong, we think we are right. A more interesting question is what does it feel like to realize we are wrong? The emotions range from mild embarrassment to deep guilt and utter shame. I know them well, both from personal experience, and from stories on the suicide hotline from those for whom being wrong and being worthless are synonymous.
Here is a question Being Wrong forces me to ponder: Is it possible that most of what I believe at this moment is wrong, even though I feel right? After all, most of what I believe today is different from what I once believed. From thoughts about the Chamber of Commerce to who I know my wife and children to be. From business methodology and writing techniques to sales and philosophy, virtually everything I think today is vastly different from what I once thought was true.
This dilemma of learning something new, only to be shown its limitations in the future, isn’t just true for us as individuals. Consider this excerpt from Being Wrong:
By way of example, consider the domain of science. The history of that field is littered with discarded theories, some of which are among humanity’s most dramatic mistakes: the flat earth, the geocentric universe, the existence of ether, the cosmological constant, cold fusion. Science proceeds by perceiving and correcting these errors, but over time, the corrections themselves often prove wrong as well. As a consequence, some philosophers of science have reached a conclusion that is known, in clumsy but funny fashion, as the Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science. The gist is this: because even the most seemingly bulletproof scientific theories of time past eventually prove wrong, we must assume that today’s theories will someday prove wrong as well. And what goes for science goes in general—for politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child-rearing, education. No matter the domain of life, one generations’ verities so often become the next generations’ falsehoods that we might as well have a Pessimistic Meta-Induction for the History of Everything.
A “Pessimistic Meta-Induction for the History of Everything” suggests that humans are sentenced to a future in which everything the species believes will someday be found to be short-sighted, inaccurate or just plain wrong. And those new theories—the ones that laid waste to our current beliefs—they too will eventually hit the trash bin of human thought.
The implications are enormous. If humanity’s most cherished beliefs—those “proven” by the scientific method—are to be questioned, what then of the thoughts, projections, conclusions and analyses that pop out of my brain relatively untested or unexamined? How might life be different if I woke up each morning yearning to discover the ways in which I am wrong, rather than shielding myself from the slings and arrows aimed squarely at my deepest beliefs. How might I be in the world if I knew most of my current thinking was wrong and looked for ways to find out how?
I don’t know the answer, but the older I get, the more I feel as though I am missing a great deal of what is possible in life as long as I remain certain I am right—when I am in fact wrong and just need the wisdom and courage to acknowledge that possibility.
1 thought on “Being Right…Even When I am Not”
Roger: I know you wrote this 22 months ago, but I’m just now seeing it. You articulated delightfully well some of the effects on my cognition when reading about the wrongological ideas from Schulz and others. I linked this post to my blog The Overweening Generalist for 7/26/12.