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 areĀ sure of the validity of incorrect beliefs, we will neither know ourselves nor uncover who we are and what is right.