You are wrong

in #philosophylast year

If you're like every other human in the world, you no doubt believe many things. There are things you believe are factually true. There are things you believe are morally true. There are things you believe are the best course of action given certain circumstances. You're probably right about many of them, perhaps most of them.

But here's something you need to understand, and internalize: At least one of those beliefs, but probably several, are wrong. Not just slightly wrong, but completely flat out not even in the right ballpark.

Your beliefs are wrong.

It doesn't matter who you are, or how smart you are, or if you're a liberal or conservative or object to that dichotomy. There is something you belief where are you are, quite simply, wrong.

How do I know? Because you're human, and humans are extremely fallible. We learn more every year about just how fallible. Our brains quite literally filter out information we disagree with so that we can go on believing we're right. In fact, the smarter you are, the more likely you are to do that without realizing it.


"But I've done my research, I've looked into it, and I'm confident I'm right." Good! Doing research and looking into a topic is critically important to understanding it and becoming a better, more knowledgeable, more right person. But remember that point about the brain filter. Just because you've read a lot on a topic doesn't mean you've read a representative sample of information on that topic. Maybe you inadvertently only sought out and paid attention to sources you already agreed with. Maybe some of your sources are themselves wrong. Maybe some of your sources are deliberately lying for whatever reason. Maybe your brain is doing that filter thing, and you literally can't remember the thing you read that disagreed with your prior beliefs. I guarantee you that every single person reading this has done that about something.

"OK, I may be wrong about some things, but the big things I get right." Perhaps. You're likely wrong about an awful lot of small stuff, some of it trivial but some of it small but significant. But those big things? They're made up of lots of small things. If you're wrong about a collection of small things in the same area, odds are you're also wrong about the big things in that area, too.

"Well, maybe I'm not perfectly right, but it's complicated. And I get enough of it right." Very true! Most topics are at least ten times more complicated than you think they are. There's a lot of nuance in most topics. If you gloss over those details, edge cases, complications, and other nuance, though... you may be kind of right, but blindly applying "kind of right" to a problem you don't fully understand can lead to disastrous undesired consequences.

"But the world doesn't make sense unless this is true." Humans like consistency. Our brains are pattern matching machines. We want our understanding to fit together, so when a new piece doesn't fit... well, clearly that piece is wrong, not us. It takes a lot to overcome that mental inertia, and the more core that belief is to our sense of our place in the world the harder it is for it to budge.

"But if I'm wrong about that... what else might I be wrong about" Ah, and here we come to the core problem of being right or wrong. Our beliefs are what defines our sense of self. The way we view the world, the assumptions we make about how it works... That's what defines you as you. More importantly, that's what defines us as us. Our sense of community, togetherness, camaraderie, and family are all based on that shared sense of the world, on a common definition of truth. And we will defend our sense of "us"-ness, our collective truth, even in the face of evidence that it is not true after all.

It's trendy these days to say that "we all have our own truth." That is self-aggrandizing bullshit. As a wise philosopher once said, "Culture defines what is truth. Truth, unfortunately for culture, is unaware of this."

You're probably right about a lot of things, and should be proud of that. At the same time, though, I ask you to internalize one very powerful concept:

Something that is core to your belief about the world is wrong. I don't know what it is; it's likely different for every person. But it is wrong.

That is probably uncomfortable to think about. It should be. It would be a bad sign if it wasn't uncomfortable. But it is still the case.

And you know what? That's OK. Or rather, it can be OK, because being wrong is the first step toward being right.

How do you make it OK? By accepting that you can still be you even if your sense of you changes in the face of new information. In particular, there are a couple of simple, but not easy, concepts for you to apply.

  1. Consider something you believe. Now ask yourself, what evidence would it take to convince you that you're wrong about it? Under what circumstances would you be willing to conclude that you're wrong, and adjust your view accordingly? Write it down if you have to, and make sure it's something actually reasonable and in theory possible. Now find that evidence. Keep an eye out for it as you research a topic. Look for that contradicting evidence, actively. Maybe it's there, maybe it's not. If not, then maybe you're right on that one. But if you cannot think of what would convince you that you're wrong... then your belief is not rational but based on blind faith. And that is almost certainly wrong.

  2. Give yourself permission to be wrong. Being wrong about something, big or small, doesn't make you a bad person. Admitting you were wrong, both to yourself and others, is a sign of strength, not weakness. But you have to then adapt to be right. Being wrong about something, and knowing it, and still proceeding as if it were true isn't strength or consistency or pride... it's hypocrisy and cowardice. And those are almost always wrong.

  3. Give others permission to be wrong. This can be almost as hard as giving yourself permission to be wrong. There's really two parts to this one, though. First, demonstrate that being wrong is OK by admitting when you're wrong. This is easier in little things, but is a critical part of a healthy workplace, or home, or community. Admit and own up when you're wrong in little things, and conversely support other people when they admit they're wrong. Don't be glib about it, don't be condescending, just create a culture in which "being wrong" is a positive learning experience rather than a black mark.

  4. Accept those that are wrong. This can be especially hard, especially when you think they're wrong about something major, or very consequential, or even dangerous. When you vilify "those people" who are wrong about something that is important to you, you make it clear that only "bad people" think that. Is calling someone a bad person really going to convince them to change their view on something? Would it change your view? I suspect not. Perhaps they really are objectively wrong and you're right, but remember what we said above about that shared belief being how we define our sense of "us".

If you make it known that you view all flat-earthers as stupid, ignorant morons, you create no space for flat-earthers to reform. No flat-earther is going to want to even speak with you, much less be willing to hear your evidence that they are wrong. And that means even if they do get evidence that they are wrong, their brain will actively filter it out because if they tried to change their view, not only would it cripple their sense of self but their whole sense of community and camaraderie with other flat-earthers. And by refusing to even speak to them, you've made it clear they're not welcome in your community, either. So left with the devil they know, they reject evidence that they're wrong and continue to be wrong... because then at least they have a community that accepts them, and that is more important to the vast majority of people than some idealistic idea of being right.

So, do your self-work, keep an open mind, and all that jazz. But as you do so, keep in mind why you're doing it. It's because you want to be more right in the future. But becoming more right means first admitting that, on something important to you... you're wrong.


Interesting post. Thanks and resteemed!