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2008_06_08:14: learning, intelligence, wrongness
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Notes for an essay tentatively entitled "How to be Wrong".
Problem: You say something moderately or fantastically wrong. Then someone challenges you or reality proves that you are wrong. What do you do?
I run into a lot of people who cannot stand to be wrong, either about a particular topic, or about anything at all. Then they don't know what to do: defend their wrong opinion? Yell? Stop talking to the challenger? Stomp away? Avoid the challenger henceforth? Gossip about the challenger?
My solution? Just be wrong. It's ok! Simpler than it sounds. Some subsidiary skills and preparations are required, to be ok with being wrong. That is the intended focus of this essay. It is not currently in essay form. It is a collection of random thoughts that come to me now and then when confronted with people who can't stand to be wrong. They are not necessarily in a particularly good ordering. Some of these notes may even be wrong! I'm fine with this. I will correct them as I think about them. See? That's not so hard, is it?
* Don't get angry. Emotional outbursts suggest that you realize that you are wrong but don't know what to do about it. It's like when parents have no clue what to do with their misbehaving children, so they hit them. Further, being angry, whether it shows on your face or in your voice or not, prevents you from thinking clearly; not thinking clearly is one of the surest paths to saying things that are wrong.
* Listen more. People who are the most wrong most of the time, are the people who never stop talking. They are spouting opinions left and right.
It's not that people who talk alot can't be right. Of course they can! However, these people willlingly take on the risk that they will be wrong. People who think carefully, form and follow principles, use good logic, reason from experience--these people can talk all day long, and not be wrong. The risk of being wrong is very slight, because they arrived at their opinions by sound means. And generally, their skulls can be penetrated by reason coming in from the outside. They tend to welcome argument and correction, new evidence or the discovery of the falsehood of one of their premises, because that is the kind of people they are. These people are rather rare. I don't run across them very often.
If you are not (yet) one of these people, then your risk of being wrong is much, much greater. Until you learn how to be wrong, you will need to conceal your wrongness. To conceal your wrongness, talk less, and listen more. This will result in your (1) making fewer observable mistakes that someone might challenge, (2) your being embarrassed less often and hence in less danger of being more wrong due to emotional outbursts, and (3) your learning more and thus supporting your glorious future of being right.
* Ask questions before you criticize. When you feel that you disagree with someone else's opinion, statement, argument, theory, etc., your first mission is to look for little bits of agreement to grab onto. This is your connection with the other person. From here, you can begin to put yourself in the other person's place; and putting yourself in the other person's place is how you are going to come to an understanding of her position. You simply cannot criticize something that you don't understand, so make sure that you understand. Ask very simple, general questions that will reveal points of agreement and connection; in doing so, you will also reveal possible points of contention. It is these little points of contention that are the real reason for disagreement in most cases. They make the discussion interesting, and sometimes, when they are resolved, the entire disagreement can be resolved, with very little bloodshed. The currently-relevant advantage of proceeding in this manner is that it gives you ever so little room to be wrong! A person asking a question is not wrong; questions are not right or wrong, they are neutral. Any misunderstanding of the other person's position remains inside your head where you can fix it quickly upon receiving his answer, rather than being blurted out to hover over your head like a big fat "FAIL!" sign.
* If you don't yet know how to ask useful questions, then ask if the person will kindly repeat the argument, perhaps in different words, perhaps using less jargon and more of the vernacular. It sometimes happens that people will condescend to you, upon being asked for a simpler repetition. Do not be sensitive about this. They have not yet said that you are wrong (how could they? You haven't made any claims yet.). They *might* be implying that you are stupid, uneducated, or not very good at reasoning. But guess what? That is an instance of THEM being WRONG! No need to point this out; it will be stunningly clear to them when you finally get the gist and begin engaging with them.
Use your discretion. If you are out playing with the big dogs, and you can't quite follow their rapidfire discussion, don't interrupt to ask for a repetition. It's very difficult to recover from that sort of thing. People begin to think of you as a pest and an impediment rather than someone who is earnest and interested. Just listen, and try to grasp whatever you can. Or go join another discussion, and later sneak home and look up key words on the web.
* Never point out that someone has been WRONG IN A BIG WAY. Not everyone minds being told that they are wrong, but you do. The problem, for you, as a person who doesn't know how to be wrong yet, is that you are encouraging others to treat you the same way. You might think that swaggeringly telling people that they are wrong is a good strategy for intimidating them. It does work sometimes! Problem is, one day, you will run into me. I have no problem at all being wrong. If I have been hypothesizing freely, or repeating something that I read without a deep understanding, I will say, "Oh, really? What is the truth, then?" And I will mean it, because I am curious, and the interesting part to me is not appearing to others as though I am right, but getting information. If I have been talking about a topic I know intimately, I will say, "Oh really. Explain where I am wrong." And then you will be in big trouble. Not from me, of course, but from you. Now you are stuck in the position of having to defend your claim. You probably won't be able to, and then you'll be angry with me for pointing it out to you (even though all I did was ask you to elaborate). So the easiest way to avoid getting into this situation that you will find horribly uncomfortable, is to not go around telling people that they are flat out wrong.
* Stop saying "No, but..." Sometimes this is a habit of speech, as meaningless as saying "Um". Even as a habit of speech, it makes you seem disagreeable. To me, it sounds like you are now engaging me in a dispute. Why? Because the word 'no' tends to imply that the speaker disagrees with something. I have a friend who says 'no' no matter what the topic, even if it is clearly a matter of personal taste rather than universal, intersubjective truth. If I say, "Tomatoes are really good in omelettes!" she will say, "No no, peppers are good in omelettes". Upon probing her opinions further, it turns out that she also likes tomatoes in omelettes. What she really meant was "Yes, tomatoes are good in omelettes, AND so are peppers." So there was a dispute for absolutely no good reason at all, and the worst part, in her mind, is that she ends up being wrong. This is just completely avoidable.
That was a trivial example of how habitually saying 'No' gets one into wrongness trouble. Here is a less trivial example. I say, "It's important to mulch your soil if you want to conserve moisture in your garden." You say, "No, but, I thought fertilizer is the really important thing." So it is, so it is! Plants do need food, yes! If I were you, I would have said something like, "Yes, mulch is important; perhaps as important as food, wouldn't you agree?" Why are you saying 'No, but'? Is it because you disagree that mulch is important to conserving moisture? It had better not be. Because, if you disagree with that, now you are wrong--perfectly avoidably wrong. And, given that I have great knowledge in this area, I am sure to engage with you in the dispute, and you will lose; and the longer you argue with me, the harder you will go down. What a waste of your time and pride!
* Don't say anything unless you know that it is true, you have a good argument for thinking it is true, or you qualify your statement by saying something like, "I have no idea whether this is true, but...". If none of these apply, then either say nothing, or ask questions.
Now, let's say that you haven't yet read the above, or you slip back into your old ways and start criticizing people before you have good evidence or hypothesizing wildly without qualification. And it happens that someone in your "audience" knows what you are talking about much better than you do. And it turns out that you are so incredibly wrong that you can't recover. What do you do now? Here are some of the things that you should say, so that you don't look like a complete idiot:
1. Oh, really? I didn't know that! How interesting!
2. Do you suggest a web site or a paper that I could read on this topic?
3. Wow, tell me more!
4. I had no idea!
5. Hunh, I guess I have to look up my source again; maybe I misunderstood something.
6. What does the word 'x' mean?
The question about word meaning is extremely important. Sometimes, the person who is telling you that you are wrong, is giving you useful information about an alleged interest of yours. Get as much as you can.
But sometimes, the person telling you that you are wrong, is wrong. She thinks she knows what you mean, but she doesn't. And a telltale sign of this is that she uses either very different words (the meaning of which you do know) or she uses words in a way that doesn't sound quite right to you. The most expedient method for determining which part of what either of you is saying is right, is to come to an agreement on word meaning.
Many people are exceedingly uncomfortable with the blatant question, "What does the word 'x' mean?" If that's you, try an inquiry worded more like this: "Let us make sure that we are talking about the same thing. When you use the word 'x' in this context, what do you mean by it? I am happy to grant you your usage for the sake of discussion."