How to Know When You are Wrong

Today’s loudspeakers offer strong opinions. Many leaders, commentators, and friends display no doubt in their beliefs. We often greet them with relief and cheers. Who among us doesn’t need a bit of security and a boost to the righteousness of our cause?

Unfortunately, too many unwavering voices are wrong. What emotional and mental approach might lead us to the truth without going back to school?

Julia Galef, a Fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, wants to help us become more open to the possibility we are in error. To do so, she says, we must look upon the world with curiosity — take delight in discovering new ways of understanding what we thought we knew.

Whatever a member of our tribe proclaims from a pedestal must always be subject to question.

Galef offers us handy metaphors to aid our self-understanding. She calls one viewpoint the “Soldier Mindset.” The soldier has a difficult task to perform, offering no room for possible skepticism about the mission. When approaching combat, adrenalin-fueled emotions capture his being.

Time and thoughtful deliberation don’t characterize the duty he undertakes. The combatant aims to protect his side and his comrades, defeating their shared enemy by attack and defense.

If, instead, we think of how best to acquire new ideas and revise our conclusions, a militarily defensive or aggressive stance won’t fit.

The Scout Mindset” is the alternative Galef suggests. The scout’s job in the army is also essential.

The assignment is not to fight but to observe conditions as they exist. This man performs the reconnaissance needed to choose the best strategy. His commanders want knowledge of the armed forces’ position and the strengths and weaknesses of both sides.

His objective is to understand the reality of the circumscribed world he surveys.

Here, penetrating, analytical, well-honed inquisitiveness is paramount. Closed-mindedness and overflowing emotional commitment to fixed beliefs mean failure. Grasping the accuracy and completeness of the surrounding circumstances is the goal. The actuality of his time and place, not others’ assertions, count for everything.

I hope it is clear which of these roles will uncover the world as it is, not support our predetermined beliefs or confirm what others tell us.

The scout prefers searching to certainty. He prides himself on a willingness to learn, recognizing no one has all the answers. Immovable preconceptions are seen as obstacles to discovery.

In the TED Talk above, Julia Galef describes how personal insecurity and a shaky self-image make it harder to take a new standpoint, uncover a fresh perspective. When some in positions of supposed authority refuse to admit mistakes for fear of displaying weakness, they present poor models for the rest of us.

We, our children, and our grandchildren do well to identify misconception as a door to enlightenment.

If good judgment is sought, the sacrifice of awareness in the name of solidarity with our side is costly.

The Temple of Apollo in Ancient Greece featured three Delphic maxims inscribed on a column in its forecourt. Their guidance remains worthy of consideration:

  • “Know thyself.”
  • “Nothing in excess.”
  • “Surety brings ruin.”

The first of these is the most famous, but if we are sure of the validity of incorrect beliefs, we will neither know ourselves nor uncover who we are and what is right.

14 thoughts on “How to Know When You are Wrong

  1. I enjoyed the TED Talk. Thanks for sharing the link. Based on her definition, I consider myself to be of the “Scout Mindset.” It’s fascinating to learn what drives the “Soldier Mindset.” As I understand it, both mindsets are essential to our survival in times of crisis situations. How intriguing! It suggests that our success in taking joint action on our climate and ecological existential crises will depend upon better communication and understanding of the different roles of the two mindsets.

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    • At the end of her talk, Galef emphasizes the idea of yearning. As I understand her, she hopes we will be able to find an emotionally-driven basis for opening ourselves to new discoveries — new things of importance to the individual. The Ancient Greek philosophers, as well as more recent philosophers like Martin Heidegger, were always asking questions. That they couldn’t come up with answers didn’t discourage their curiousity. Galef, too, hopes we will take delight in new information and new understandings, rather than adopting a defensive posture, with the effect of closing ourselves to the truths that can be established. At least in this video, she hasn’t offered a way to communicate productively with those for whom enlightenment comes at the cost of something they value more: winning for their side. Thanks for reading and watching, Rosaliene.

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  2. Very interesting video. My question, wouldn’t many with the “Soldier Mindset” have gotten to that point by starting with the “Scout Mindset” and after what they consider to be objective review of all facts, come to a certainty about their conclusions? Come to such a certainty that they are self-assured enough to fight for that truth in the “Soldier Mindset” group? Don’t most of us, after listening to Ms.Galef, judge ourselves to be in that “Scout Mindset” category?

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    • If Galef is correct that the “Soldier Mindset’ can driven by personal insecurity and a fragile underlying self-image, then the soldier can be formed, to some extent, by early life. Think of childhood neglect or mistreatment, sibling rivalry, and the jealousies and vulnerability to criticism evident in kindergarten.

      As to the belief that we are rational in drawing our conclusions, the research clearly indicates we are not. Jonathan Haidt’s work points to how we arrive at opinions on such things as political issues. Emotions drive us to rapid conclusions and then, a split second later, we muster reasons to support our position. The brain also plays the trick of having us believe the reasons came first!

      Another example would be the fact that more than 50% of drivers believe they are better than average, something that is clearly impossible. Yet the belief is self-serving and so rests easily even in many poor drivers because if feels better to think this way than to face the reality of “the truth.”

      Certainty and a willingness to fight is within the capability of the scout and well as the soldier. The difference, Galef might say, is that the scout is persuadable and curious, open to enlightenment. The soldier is not as open.

      As to your final point, you may be right that most of us judge ourselves as reasonable and our judgments thoughtful and objectively correct. If we were this reasonably and reasoning, however, I’m guessing our political world would not be the tinderbox it is.

      Thanks for your thoughtful questions, Brewdun.

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      • Seems to me that most of us are often vacillating between the two mindsets described. You can be the “soldier” fighting for one side but then take on the “scout” role of open mindedness, find yourself changed to the opposite side and then take up the “soldier” role that now is contrary to the “soldier” you were before the “scout” reversed your outlook. If you are always the “scout” and never the “soldier” then where do you ever stand on anything?

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  3. I wouldn’t characterize it as vacillation, though it may seem so. On some issues many are stuck. The door to new knowledge is bolted shut. Take an issue like climate change. Those who (correctly) observe the overwhelming scientific concern about this existential threat can maintain openness to new data, but it must be integrated with the large body of knowledge already present. They can still be scouts, as all scientists must always be, but remain confident in what is known. A soldier would come to a conclusion and close the door to anything new.

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    • “We all have 2 lives; the life we learn with (Scout mindset) and the life we live after that (Soldier mindset).” Bernard Malamud “The Natural”

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      • I hope Malamud (a great writer) did not mean we should stop learning. In my opinion we must learn as we live, not learn and live “after.”

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      • I took Malamud’s words to mean that we continually live 2 lives, always learning then readjusting. The tricky part is figuring out what sources to use in the learning/education process. “News” today is mostly opinion or stilted to fit an organization’s agenda.

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      • You are a bright lady, Brewdun. You can get past most of the trickiness. Some news outlets do an excellent job of keeping opinion separate from information. Some fact checkers are unbiased. Most of us with average or better intelligence can do a pretty good job at finding reliable sources of information. Part of or challenge is to recognized our own biases. If we keep questioning, I think it is possible to be informed: neither misled by others or the misdirection of our internal wiring. Not always, but most of the time.

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  4. I would also add that too many believe that the growth of knowledge is a steady line upward. It isn’t. Take medicine. The advice for many years was that many of us should take a baby aspirin every day. Within the last few years new data caused a change in this advice. Now some of us are told not to. A scientist not open to revision of what is thought to be true is not a good scientist. Does this mean we should stop taking the advice of doctors and researchers and listen instead to celebrities or a tv know-it-all? I hope not.

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  5. This reminds me of a quote by Albert Einstein, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing”. One thing I like about science is that even when theories have been proven correct, if something comes along that challenges that, it’s explored.

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