Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Rightness of Wrongness

There is the story of a professor at a university that has taught the same theory, with passion, for decades, and one day hears a lecture by a visiting scientist. The contents of this lecture presents the data, reasoning and evidence that the basis of the lessons of the professor, that he had held so dear as part of his teaching, are wrong. The professor, upon the conclusion of the lecture, is said to have stood up and shook the hand of the visitor, thanking him for removing the fallacy and correcting his thinking. From memory, I think this was in one of Richard Dawkins books, I think it was The God Delusion, but I don't have a copy here to check.

In any case it is a nice story, and one that touches the heart. Perhaps it touches because it has the appearance of humility that we can aspire to; the admission of being wrong and being happy to be shown to be wrong. When I consider my feelings as to why this touches me emotionally, it is because I can put myself in that position, but to my internal shame, realise that my own reaction may not be so humble. You see, I have a problem of ego; I want to be considered to be right. Being right is quite a common feeling that humans have and is part of our cognitive makeup. We need to feel right so we can derive some stimulation that promotes the keeping of correct information in our brains.

I don’t like it when I am wrong. Being wrong leaves me with have uncomfortable feelings and emotions. It is hard to admit that I am wrong, and it is a failing that I need to be more aware of and correct so I can be a better person. Hopefully since I am aware of it I can act on it. It takes practice, but detaching the ego from the sense of rightness is a very important step.

Religions tend to have an insistence of having an absolutely infallible model of reality, which is really an old-fashioned dogma that has been whittled away since the enlightenment times of the 17th century. Our meat brains are the product of billions of years of evolution which means they are very good at survival, but not necessarily able to be right all the time about all of reality. Our brains are good at helping us survive, and have allowed us to make a complex, interrelated technological world, but that doesn’t mean we are right all the time. So we must expect that we can be wrong about a great many things. Nothing in human experience is permanent, or immutable; all findings are provisional.

The professional scientist, in fact any professional person, needs to have a sense of “rightness” so they can do their job and function with confidence. It would be quite debilitating to constantly second-guess all of the concepts that we hold in our heads all of the time. So we get comfortable with what we know. However, the thing that distinguishes a professional from the amateur is the ability to accept that when they are wrong they must correct their mistake. It is far more important to be correct than to be considered as right. The social and psychological pressure that resists this correction is that being considered right is one of the ways that a person can have the confidence of their employers, superiors, customers, peers, friends and relations. Having to admit being wrong gives the sense that this confidence has been misplaced, and leaves me feeling disappointed that I was not correct in the first place.

Scientists, like in the example in the first paragraph, have to confront the reality that they will be wrong many times, and learn that there is no shame in this. Being wrong, admitting it, and correcting the erroneous ideas are the way to approach reality in an adult fashion. In the wider society, it is rare for someone to admit they are wrong without getting some social stigma attached, and I would like to see that change. I would like to see a wider acceptance of being allowed to be wrong at some point in the past so it is easier to be correct oneself when new knowledge arises. Acknowledging wrongness and correcting mistakes should not have a significant social cost.

Wilfully remaining wrong, in the face of evidence, on the other hand, should have considerable social cost, although what that cost should be, I do not know.

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