Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Best Way To Be Right Is To Not Mind Being Shown You're Wrong


One of the kindest things a regular reader once said to me was how consistently he thinks I get things right. "The thing about your blogs is that you're just so damn right about everything". Let me assure you, I always try. And the secret, as I'll explain, and as the title indicates, is in not being afraid of being wrong. You'll usually notice something reassuring about genuine truth-seekers: if someone shows them they are wrong about something, or offers them a better way of looking at things, or imparts some wisdom that comes from superior reasoning skills, they never mind having these things pointed out.

Genuine truth-seekers are more likely to rigorously explore both sides of the argument, and only opt for the position they think makes most sense, and best conforms to reason, logic and evidence. Because the truth is, throughout your life, every time you're open enough for someone to show you where you're wrong is equally a time when you've been given the opportunity to be right about something new.

Suppose you were brought up in the Bible Belt in America and you used to believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old, that humans do not share a common ancestor with other apes, and that the eye is too complex to have evolved. Then in a particularly enlightening day someone manages to show some good evidence why all three of those propositions are false.

In being shown to be wrong, you have learned at least three new things - the real age of the earth, the process by which natural selection can bring about eyes through a cumulative ratchet process (I once blogged about this here), and how our understanding of DNA demonstrates common ancestry (I once blogged about this here). Being shown how the old you was wrong ought to be positively embraced, because it also shows the new you how you are right.

It's not that difficult in life to be self-assured in your views and argue with confidence in debates, exposing your opponents with all the aplomb of a sniper picking out targets. You just have to follow these guidelines: be wedded to facts and truths, not emotional feelings or in-group biases. Also, don't seek security in the consensus - it doesn't mean these people are right just because there are a lot of them.

Consider bookmakers as an illustration. Bookmakers' odds are about probability of outcomes before the event. They are, in a sense, the pre-fact likelihood of future facts - asking who will win an upcoming horse race, presidential election or football match. The odds a bookmaker offers on a sporting event are not based on a general public consensus, they are based on the consensus of a proportion of the population that knows about sporting probability, and on the behaviour of people who are willing to bet money on these outcomes.

The bookmakers don't always get their odds right, but on average you'll find they do - where on average means over the long term they get a lot more right than they get wrong. That the betting public get on average a lot more wrong than right means the bookmakers stay in business.

Learning how to be right is a bit like this - it's about playing the long percentage game and not being taken in by any fads or hyperboles. It is about mastering methods of thinking that can hold you in good stead in front of any proposition. Of course, in a civilised society it is often good that our democratic views are implemented - be they views on which party should govern us, whether we should be in or out of the EU, and so on - but that should not be confused with empirical investigations.

Just because the majority of people think we should not frack or that London needs rent controls doesn't matter one jot if there are good logical and evidential reasons why the consensus is wrong. “Have you ever noticed when you’re driving that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” observed the comedian George Carlin. It's a nice bit of awareness-raising, because one thing you must forever keep at the forefront of your consciousness is that in being human you see the world through a series of you-centred biases, and those biases shape how you think, the views and beliefs you have, and how you formulate arguments.

I wish everyone always had that at the forefront of their minds, because instead of thinking everyone wrong and themselves right about everything, they could perhaps consider more readily that they might, in fact, have plenty to learn, and plenty of ways in which a change of mind will be good for their arsenal of reasoning. I’m not immune to that criticism either – it’s always good to be self-critical, however confident you are that you’re right.

I think the thing that gives me such confidence when I write as I do is in part because I’ve thought about these things a *lot*, and always tried to put myself in the place of the opposition and argue well for their side of the argument (a good tool to use in any debate). But the other major factor, in my view, is that I really don’t care what the results are as long as it’s true, logical, evidential, and conforms to reason.

I have no need for denial, no dog in any fight, no in-group or tribal affiliation, and no concern for whether what’s true is thought true by the majority, by some people, or by hardly anyone – I’m only interested in what is correct. If a genie appeared and showed me where I was wrong about x or y I’d be genuinely fascinated and delighted at this fresh illumination. That’s the only way to be, and why, as the title suggests, the best way to be right is to not care about being wrong.

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