Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margin of Error


Picnic area sign

“as a staff, we joke that every single episode of our show has the same crypto-theme. And the crypto-theme is: 'I thought this one thing was going to happen and something else happened instead.' And the thing is, we need this. We need these moments of surprise and reversal and wrongness to make these stories work.”

[Ira Glass]

Ever wondered what that sign is for? Sometimes we do wonder about things, yet we don't ask and pretend we know (unless we're among friends) for fear of looking stupid.

To be wrong in public is the ultimate source of shame. Yet it is human to make mistakes, said Seneca the Young (attributed), persisting is where the devil comes in. An example that the devil is in the details. Aristotle provided some clarity in the Ethics by writing that to do something wrong and not feel shame is a sign of wickedness.

Isaac Asimov was a prolific American author and a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. He believed in the relativity of right and wrong

In an essay, Asimov said, “‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.” Instead, he says, “it seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts,” and that certain ideas can be true in a sense, but still in need of further correction with new information. 

When there's nothing at stake, we're not so bent on being right. But in most instances, it's more fun being right because being wrong has consequences, it exposes us. However, when we get past that instinct and dislike, we open the door to discovery and learning.

Journalist Kathryn Schulz says:

Granted it is easy at least comparatively to find pleasure in error when there's nothing at stake. But that can't be the whole story since all of us have been known to throw tantrums over totally trivial mistakes. What makes illusions different is that for the most part we enter in them by consent. We might not know exactly how we are going to err but we know that the error is coming and we say yes to the experience anyways.

In a sense much the same thing could be said of life in general. We can't know where your next error lurks or what form it will take but we can be very sure that it is waiting for us. With illusions we look forward to this encounter since whatever minor price we paid in pride is handily outweighed by curiosity at first and by pleasure afterward. The same will not always true when we venture past these simple perceptual failures to more complex and consequential mistakes. But nor is willing the embrace of error always beyond us. In fact this might be the most important thing that illusions can teach us: that is is possible at least some of the time to find in being wrong a deeper satisfaction then we would have found being right.

Her goal with Being Wrong is “to foster an intimacy with our own fallibility, to expand our vocabulary for and interest in talking about our mistakes, and to linger for a while inside the normally elusive and ephemeral experience of being wrong.”

To err is to wander and wandering is the way we discover the world and lost in thought it is the also the way we discover ourselves. Being right might be gratifying but in the end it is static a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling and sometimes even dangerous but in the end it is a journey and a story. Who really wants to stay at home and be right when you can don your armor spring up on your steed and go forth to explore the world True you might get lost along get stranded in a swamp have a scare at the edge of a cliff thieves might steal your gold brigands might imprison you in a cave sorcerers might turn you into a toad but what of what To fuck up is to find adventure: it is in the spirit that this book is written.

Our relationship with certainty is complicated; it's not just about rational thinking, but involves our emotions and impacts our identity. So we prefer to tell ourselves a story that is more consistent with our view of the world, or current actions. For a radical example, Schulz says:

Albert Speer minister of armaments and war production during the Third Reich close friend to Adolf Hitler and highest-ranking Nazi official to ever express remorse for his actions. In his memoir Inside the Third Reich Speer candidly addressed his failure to look for evidence of what was happening around him.

“I did not query a friend who told him not to visit Auschwitz I did not query Himmler I did not query Hitler,” he wrote. “I did not speak with personal friends. I did not investigate for I did not want to know what was happening there… for fear of discovering something which might have made me turn away from my course. I had closed my eyes.”

We all tend to give more weight to evidence that confirms our beliefs, even if it's just on the surface. But knowing the name of something is not the same as knowing it, which means we should not stop at the surface, but learn to go deep. Seeking evidence that both proves and disproves our hypotheses is a way to move in the direction of knowing what is going on, and potentially discovering even bigger ideas. 

Says Schulz:

If you really want to be right (or at least improve the odds of being right), you have to start by acknowledging your fallibility, deliberately seeking out your mistakes, and figuring out what caused you to make them.

This truth has long been recognized in domains where being right is not just a zingy little ego boost but a matter of real urgency: in transportation, industrial design, food and drug safety, nuclear energy, and so forth. When they are at their best, such domains have a productive obsession with error. They try to imagine every possible reason a mistake could occur, they prevent as many of them as possible, and they conduct exhaustive postmortems on the ones that slip through. By embracing error as inevitable, these industries are better able to anticipate mistakes, prevent them, and respond appropriately when those prevention efforts fail.

Our culture influences how we make decisions, and also what we pay attention to in our desire to fit in. When culture of personalty overtakes culture of character, confidence becomes the product  of perception rather than the hard earned ability to deliver on promises based on validation.

In this evidence-free environment where judgment and opinion rule the day, what is certain becomes comfort food for the mind. The more ego drives, the more our sense of self becomes fragile and in need of protection and being right is culturally associated with being worthy:

In our collective imagination, error is associated not just with shame and stupidity but also with ignorance, indolence, psychopathology, and moral degeneracy. This set of associations was nicely summed up by the Italian cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, who noted that we err because of (among other things) “inattention, distraction, lack of interest, poor preparation, genuine stupidity, timidity, braggadocio, emotional imbalance,…ideological, racial, social or chauvinistic prejudices, as well as aggressive or prevaricatory instincts.” In this rather despairing view—and it is the common one—our errors are evidence of our gravest social, intellectual, and moral failings.

Rather than doing the work to understand issues, or uncovering our learning opportunities, the most interesting manifestation of internal insecurity is a public display of aggression. Survival instinct is also part of it, and it may be for this reason that our minds tend to discard the instances in which we were wrong or made mistakes.

Instead of having a meta-category, we have many different definitions for our errors. Says Schulz:

We file them under a range of headings—“embarrassing moments,” “lessons I’ve learned,” “stuff I used to believe”—but very seldom does an event live inside us with the simple designation “wrong.”

This is an attempt of our personal culture to diffuse by blunting words rather than acknowledging gaps. The more we identify our sense of self and identity with our minds, the stronger our desire to minimize and forget those errors. Yet as Seneca said, making mistakes is all too human. We are creatures who try things, and as part of having experiences, we are wrong. It is not us who are the error.

 

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