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Thursday, May 17, 2012

What If I'm Wrong?

One of the ways to determine if a given situation requires courage is to dig for the risk.  On Lion's Whiskers our definition of courage has less to do with fear, and more to do with risk.  If you perceive a risk (either real or imagined), then you need courage to face the risk.  In most matters of intellectual courage, the risk is being wrong.  Being wrong, as "the world's only wrongologist," Kathryn Schultz, points out in this fascinating TED lecture,  does not feel good. Correction: knowing that you are wrong does not feel good.  As Schulz observes, often when we are wrong we don't know it, so we feel fine.  It's the discovery that we were wrong that can feel so bad.  In fact, the more our identity is wrapped up with our intellectual accomplishments or with our ideologies, the worse being wrong feels.   It ought to be a simple matter of saying, "Oops, this fact I thought was true is actually false," and letting it go, but instead we make it about ourselves:  we are wrong.  Ow.

Intellectual courage, or being willing to face the risk of being wrong, allows for flexibility, inventiveness, adaptability, creativity, curiosity, objectivity, and focus.  Being unwilling to face the risk of being wrong (discovering we hold false beliefs) leads to rigidity, dogma, prejudice, and worst of all, more wrongness!  As philosopher George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."   Let me hasten to clarify what I  mean by false belief:  If you believed that two people were standing on your foot and it turned out it was only one person standing on your foot, that was a false belief.  If you further believed that the person standing on your foot was deliberately and maliciously hurting you, and it turned out the person was actually unaware of your foot there, that was a false belief.  I'm not talking about religion.

Refusing to accept the reality about the person standing on your foot is generally an indication that the risk of being wrong is truly enormous, that it threatens the very foundations of a whole system of beliefs.  A good example of this is the Inquisition of Gallileo, who presented evidence of planetary motion around the sun and the imperfection (in the form of sunspots) of the universe, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest because of it.  (In this case I am talking about religious belief.)

Two more insightful quotations are instructive here, the first from Aristotle, and the second from Emerson:

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."  

"Let me never fall into the vulgar  mistake of dreaming I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted." 

Without the intellectual courage to consider and investigate an idea that may challenge or contradict our current beliefs and possibly reveal them to be false beliefs, debate becomes impossible, and a discussion between people with opposing views can quickly devolve into shouting and personal attacks.

Not long ago I ran into a version of this problem with my daughter, who had decided that something she had been doing (let's call it X) was not at all her cup of tea.  The problem arose when I asked how she felt about the thing that X was a subset of, and her position was she didn't see anything positive about any of it, because she didn't see anything positive about X.  She was taking the part for the whole, a logical fallacy called pars pro toto.  This is the (often false) belief that what is true for part of a thing is true for the whole thing.  I kept asking, "But what about this part, and this other part, and this other part?" and she dug her heels in even harder and claimed I was forcing her to accept X!

So I backed off.  Just as I have been trying to model that failure is always an option, I am trying to model that being wrong is always an option, too, and that revising an opinion in the light of new evidence is totally acceptable.  The more often I can find opportunities to say, "Oh, I guess I was wrong about that," the better.  Mind you, at first I didn't especially enjoy saying, "Look, there I go being wrong again," but the truth is it actually gets easier the more I do it!   Lisa recently wrote about making failure okay, and how liberating it can be to let go of perfectionism, and I am finding it very liberating to make being wrong okay.  Besides, it's exhausting having to be right all the time - and my friends will tell you it's very annoying!

Here's Kathryn Schulz's liberating (and entertaining) TED lecture, and notice (near the end) what she has to say about stories.  Enjoy!
 







1 comment:

  1. Love the Emerson quote! (And the whole article too.)

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