Episode 46: What if you’re wrong?

I’d like to deviate

a bit from my regular format to talk about something that’s been on my mind lately – the question of What if I’m wrong?  My days are spent in the world of data analytics and visualization where getting it wrong isn’t taken too well even when most analysts are happy with right enough.  I write this blog and feel I have a need to deliver the absolute best information I can (along with bad jokes and questionable artwork).  In my other side job of woodworking I always look to build the absolute best products possible.  As I pondered this idea of being right, I realized it is well connected with skepticism and critical thinking.  We put a strong emphasis on evaluating the claims and facts around us to determine if they are correct.  Doing so can make it appear as if we always want to be right.

Is the goal of the critical thinker to always be right?  Not in my estimation.  I see us instead wanting to not be wrong.  I know that sounds a bit weird - If you aren’t wrong, aren’t you then right?  Perhaps a better way of putting this is that we want to be the least wrong.  Right and wrong appear as black and white, you are either one or the other.  We can see that there is a spectrum, though, which narrows as we find and incorporate new evidence.  We should constantly evaluate the claims around us looking for consistency, checking to see if they have logical fallacies or if they are based on incomplete or faulty evidence.  If we find a claim is valid, and it changes or adds to an existing fact, then we add it to our existing body of knowledge and adjust as needed.

I find that

critical thinking both requires, but is lacking, a healthy dose of humility.  I know that probably sounds like a contentious opinion.  Considering we are always taking in new information and adjusting our positions as needed, what happens when one of our core beliefs is challenged?  Yes, even as skeptics we’ll still have core beliefs – we’re also still human.  Some ideas can have very deep roots in us that aren’t easy to change.  I grew up, like many, being told any (non-prescription) drug you take will instantly ruin your life and leave you living on the streets.  Now the US is steadily legalizing marijuana, we’ve learned that most drugs don’t addict you after one try, and those who are addicted can seek help and recovery to lead better lives.  As a critical thinker I should just incorporate all this new knowledge, but it’s very hard to overcome everything I grew up learning.  We will all face this issue at some point, probably many times.  If we can’t change all of our own thinking, we should strive to at least recognize where we still have room to improve.

Humility should also make an appearance when we are talking with others.  Sure, it’s great that we spend our free time reading scientific journals, looking at what is peer reviewed, studying logical fallacies, learning how to argue, spotting errors in speeches, etc.  We should realize that many people don’t take this path or at least don’t put in as much effort as we do.  We can show some humility when noticing someone is wrong by perhaps helping them understand the issue instead of just giving a correction.  In fact, if we make an attempt to understand their thinking, we may find it even easier to have a conversation.  Understanding lets us make a connection and that connection will improve communications.

What I eventually found is that, as skeptics and critical thinkers, we should want to be wrong.  This is when we get to put all of our skills to use.  Why were we wrong?  Was our information faulty? Was there a logical fallacy we didn’t catch? Did new information come about that invalidates what we knew?  This is the time that we learn, grow and improve. We can use these as teaching opportunities as well.  By remembering them we can help others see how to proceed when they find out that they’re wrong.

To close out

I’ll say this article turned out much more difficult to write than I originally expected.  My thoughts were jumbled and didn’t come out well.  I had to write, switch to outlining, and then write some more.  I also corrected myself a few times-which I love the irony of.  I have found that, since I write a blog on critical thinking, I feel like I shouldn’t ever be wrong.  When in fact, as I hope this article shows, I want to learn from this experience.  Having someone correct me is how I will learn and improve.  I just hope they’ve already read this article and offer the correction with some kindness and humility.