Feb 052015

Note: This article will appear in the March/April issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

You don’t have to agree with my premise, however, if I propose a thought experiment, would you play along for just a moment?

Starting right now, suppose you knew for a fact that a significant portion—perhaps 30 or 40 percent—of everything you thought, felt and believed was wrong, or at least considerably askew. Further, what if everyone else had the same awareness of their own thoughts and feelings? How might you enter the world differently? I have been asking this question in recent presentations, and the conclusions vary wildly.

Some find the idea horrifying: “I’d never be able to make a decision.” “I would be frightened to say anything.” “I think I would be paralyzed.” “We’d never get anything done!”

Many find it reassuring: “I’d be more curious, less dogmatic.” “I would ask more questions.” “I would enter the world more gently.” “I’d be more open to learning.”

Admittedly, I fall into this latter category.

Too often, in today’s public discourse, the retort to an opposing view often sounds like “You’re an idiot, and let me tell you why.” We have public hearings in which, I fear, no one is listening. Attend one sometime and see if you can discern any question marks hiding out amongst the very large and forceful periods that end most sentences. Of course you’ll have to discount “questions” the likes of “Are you nuts?”

The world would be a better place if each of us opened ourselves first to the possibility of our own rational shortcomings, rather than clawing desperately for the flaw in the logic of others. If I was truly interested in listening for my shortcomings, rather than yours, might it become a more thoughtful, sympathetic world imbued with greater understanding? But then, attention to my own failings would require courage…and a less tenacious ego.

Having read a great deal about our current understanding of the human brain, there are overwhelming reasons to accept the premise that a significant percent of a human’s thoughts are misguided. I previously documented many[1], so I won’t repeat them here. But consider a few more.

Human memory is imprecise and capricious. Your brain dissects experiences and stores them in disparate parts of your cortex. When memories are recalled, these pieces are reassembled, not accurately, but in a “good-enough” fashion that is easily distorted. Eyewitness accounts in a court of law, we now know, are among the least reliable pieces of evidence. Once a supposed culprit is identified in a sketchbook or lineup, that image replaces the one real one formed in the cortex at the moment of the offense.

Have you ever jumped to conclusions about another human being based on how they dress, a bumper sticker on their car, a sound bite or rumor…only to discover you pre-judged them erroneously?

How much of what you believe today is identical with what you believed 10 or 20 years ago? While some new thinking is based on adding to your store of knowledge, haven’t you discovered many ways in which your thinking in years past was inaccurate?

How much of what humankind believes today is the same as we believed, say, 500 years ago? I dare say very little. Is it possible what we believe 500 years from now will be equally distant from what we “know” is true today? I think it is possible.

So is it conceivable that 10 or 20 years from now, each of us will, in fact, discover that some large portion of our beliefs today are limited, misguided or flat out wrong? I hope so! Put another way: in 10 years, if I am destined to think exactly as I do today…just shoot me now!

When I think back on the myriad difficult relationships that populate portions of my personal history, it pains me to realize, had I had the wisdom to end more of my sentences with question marks rather than periods, life could have been so much sweeter…and I so much the wiser for having been less certain and more curious.

But, then again, maybe I am wrong about this whole idea.

[1] See my April 7, 2013 blog post, “Majesty and Radiance.”

Sep 132010


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.