On the Necessity of Being Wrong

Yeah, I’m sure you’re smarter than this guy.

I’ve been wrong before. Sure, not terribly often – but it happens to the best of us. I do my best to face my wrongness, abandon the incorrect belief, and learn from my mistake.

I have noticed, however, that most people seem to fear being wrong. There is a tendency to cling tenaciously – even irrationally – to a belief that is demonstrated to be wrong in some capacity. There have been studies about this phenomenon; humans will go to great lengths to maintain a belief that they identify as essential, to the point of ignoring the cognitive dissonace that evidence may cause and simply making a snap assessment.

Perhaps I have an advantage as a scientist – I’ve been trained to analyze and challenge “knowledge,” and I put that skill to use every single day of my life. Still, although scientists in general may have a better rate of rejecting a belief that is demonstrated to be “wrong,” we still don’t do it perfectly. We are, after all, only human.

In fact, humans by and large tend to make decisions without actually thinking, and then rationalize those decisions later. Yes, even you. Even me. Even Dr. Hawking.

So perhaps this is an instinctive response to our attempts to create social currency; being “right” creates value for us in the eyes of others. If we’re demonstrated to be wrong, that social value must decrease, right? In order for us to maintain our social value – and thus guarantee our continued survival in that social group – we will ignore being “wrong” in favor of fitting in. Maintaining our social homeostasis.

But then we run into this problem – if we go to great lengths to always be “right” by ignoring information that is valid but contradictory, we will eventually go crazy. We’ll ignore reality in favor of our delusion of “rightness.”

Reality? Who needs that? Shit’s boring.

And this is why it’s so goddamn important to be wrong. The lines we usually hear are things like, “Oh, it’s OK to be wrong,” or “There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” or “Just get back on the horse!”

The problem is that all of these statements are rooted in an assumption of negativity – in order to be valid, the statements must start with an assumption that we all perceive being wrong as a bad thing, and then those statements proceed to tell you how that’s wrong. Which we know is bad.

Do you see the issue with that approach?

I say that being wrong isn’t a thing we endure; it’s a thing that is in and of itself good. You should want to be wrong. It’s desirable. You should stand up and proudly declare your wrongness. Shout it from the rooftops. Wear a giant red “W” on your chest.

Why? Because it means that you have a new thing to learn. It means that you can continue your journey of discovery. Exercise your intellectual muscle. Trim the fat of ignorance.

And fundamentally, it means that you’re human. The most likely shared experience we will have is that of being wrong and dealing with the ramifications – remember that we all make snap decisions without full consideration, so the odds are good that we’ll be wrong. The odds are that everyone will be wrong – and we can share our experiences in that regard.

You’ll probably be wrong way the hell more often than you’ll be right. And that’s a good thing, because that’s how we learn.

If you point out how someone else is wrong, you’re actually doing them a favor. They were going to do things with incorrect information! It would have been wasted effort! Now they can learn new things!

Obviously, there are ways to do it tactfully – don’t be a dick about it. But nobody – nobody – should be afraid of being wrong, or of pointing out to someone that they are wrong.

Trust me, it’s not like this most of the time

I’m not saying that you should go out of your way to make mistakes – sometimes, being wrong can have disastrous consequences. A doctor who misdiagnoses a tumor can kill you. A cop who shoots the wrong guy has robbed an innocent person of life unjustly. An intelligence report that contains a mistake can start a multi-year war.

Our brains often turn small instances of being wrong into massive ordeals – even if the actual ramifications of being wrong would be small, we will tend to exaggerate those things to help support our desire to be right.

The vast majority of the time, though, our being wrong is primarily of consequence to us and us alone. If someone forces me to admit to being wrong, it just involves me admitting that I might not know everything that I thought I do.

I don’t do it perfectly. Nobody does. But that’s the mentality we should have when approaching being “right” or “wrong.”

And besides, if you were just right all the time, life would get boring pretty quickly. We wouldn’t need to explore, and so we’d never have a reason to leave the house. We’d become isolated. Withdrawn. Antisocial. And eventually, in a cruel irony, our social value would be reduced to zero.

So get out there and dare to be wrong – you might learn something new.

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3 comments on “On the Necessity of Being Wrong

  1. sint4x says:

    But, if you’re right about being wrong then I’m wrong about being right, so being wrong on occasion will aid us in being right more often. but by being right more often we will be wrong less often, thus giving us less opportunity at being wrong so that we may become right.
    Solution: push the limits of your being right to the point where you start becoming wrong again so that you may once again become right, only at a higher level of being right.

    and if you read that right, you will see that I’m right….right or wrong?

  2. […] and all experiments carry a risk of failure. Actually, they carry a virtual guarantee of failure. Being wrong isn’t a bad thing, though – it’s desirable, and it helps us […]

  3. […] written a fair bit about the necessity of being wrong and on the need to occasionally revisit your work because of that. This is all good and well. So […]

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