Being Wrong is Alright

21 Jul

by Benjamen Johnson

Part of being a skeptic is learning to admit you’re wrong. This can be a hard thing to do when everything else in your being rebels against the rational side of your brain — it just  doesn’t come naturally. Coupled with a society where hardly anybody ever publicly admits to being wrong because they are afraid it’ll cost them their job, family, political career, or even open them up a lawsuit, makes admitting you’re wrong that much more difficult.

Yet admitting and owning up to being wrong is a important process, it is one of the processes that makes skepticism so powerful. When is the last time you heard a true believer say he was wrong, without some sort of qualification like special pleading or moving the goalposts?

I’ll admit I’ve been spectacularly wrong on many occasions. To name a few, I was a global climate change denier, I was fooled by the anti-vaxer “too many too soon” argument, and I bought several wackaloon theories about ancient peoples being much more advanced much earlier than archaeologists said they were.

What were some of the reasons it was hard to admit I was wrong on these positions?

  • It disturbed my world view
  • It would effect what I was already doing or make me do something I didn’t want to do.
  • The truth conflicted with what my friends and family believe
  • I was suffering cognitive dissonance — ignoring evidence that did not fit my views

Let’s take the too many too soon argument. After my daughter was born, we got a list of the shots she would be receiving and each which visit. Carefully going through the list, I was somewhat surprised at the number. I just couldn’t see how sticking a kid with a needle that many times could be healthy for them. Many of the immunizations I agreed with, but I remember the Varicella (Chicken Pox) and Hepatitis B vaccines stood out as two unnecessary ones. The chicken pox vaccine especially flustered me. I remember telling my wife that we both had Chicken Pox, there’s nothing wrong with a kid getting Chicken Pox, it’s part of being a kid.

Of course my bias affected how I researched the topic. I found sources that backed my predetermined opinion and disregarded the sources that conflicted it. So what made me change my mind? It wasn’t an immediate change, in fact we continued with the vaccination schedule as laid out by the clinic, because I begrudgingly deferred to my wife’s judgment and just didn’t feel like fighting the system. As time passed I became less emotionally attached to the opinion and the conflicting arguments started to make headway into my brain.

What’s important is that I now freely admit I was wrong so I can learn from the experience. By examining the reasons I was wrong, I have tools to evaluate other aspects of my life where I’ve been less than skeptical. Being wrong yourself also helps you learn to become more sympathetic with other people who hold non-scientific beliefs. You realize that if you can make mistakes or be sucked into plausible sounding pseudo-science that anybody can.

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4 Responses to “Being Wrong is Alright”

  1. Megan Press July 21, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    Thank you for this post. Well said. I think that recognizing this should, I hope, increase our empathy for others and help inform how we speak to those who are holding on to pseudoscientific beliefs.

  2. Melissa Lee July 21, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    Another great post, Ben.
    I have no tolerance for anyone who lacks empathy towards believers. They are only doing what feels natural. Critical thinking is counter-intuitive and must be learned with practice & discipline.
    I find myself happy to learn when I’m wrong. It means one more piece of nonsense that I can call myself happily disabused of.

    • Mully410 July 26, 2011 at 10:57 pm #

      I agree. Great post Ben and thoughtful comments Melissa. We need more empathy in the world.

  3. Random Ntrygg July 23, 2011 at 11:13 am #

    if we can’t admit that we’re wrong sometimes, then we’re saying that we never really learn anything

    I am happy to say that I try to learn something every day

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