Sunday, February 20, 2011

Righting Wrongs

            “I was wrong.”
            We don’t hear that statement very often. At least not that directly. Sometimes it comes veiled in a superficial or automatic apology, or supplemented by rationalization. Even those brave enough to say it often give a shrug of the shoulders, faces red with embarrassment. So when we hear someone say this with a genuine ownership, it jars us. We’re taken aback, disarmed in whatever may have been the disagreement. We forgive the other person. We even develop greater respect for her or him. “I was wrong” is a powerful statement.
            So why do we have such problems with being wrong and accepting it?
            I recently started reading Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. I’m not far into it—perhaps 25%. It’s a fascinating book, a wonderful mix of far-reaching epistemology and cultural history with wonderful current references and humor. It’s also a slow book in the best sense: I find myself stopping rather frequently because I have to rethink some ideas I’ve held as the answers to this question. This post will synthesize some of Schulz‘s general points and my own, as they are aligning in some key ways.
            Human beings like to be right. It seems part of our DNA. From little kids raising their hands and shouting, “Ooh! I know!” to politicians filibustering on Capitol Hill, we want people to know that we know. I want you to read this blog and believe I have some secret understanding you might be able to grasp. Such is the human ego’s hunger for fulfillment. Conversely, there is the human fear of rejection—not just for being wrong, but even for disagreeing with the norm. Comfort comes with being right; we feel affirmed as part of a community of believers. If we were unable to live with the confidence that we are right about most things, we would become paralyzed with doubt, like a modern Hamlet questioning our own existence and unable to act.
            Too much certainty clearly produces problems. Few of us like a know-it-all, particularly one who might rub it in our faces. Smugness and arrogance hold little appeal. At worst, certainty becomes zealotry. Schulz illustrates how this leads to a purely binary view of the world, with something being either right or wrong. Taken to an extreme, this zealotry becomes the sort of fanaticism associated with Nazis or the Taliban. “Rightness” then takes on moral overtones and fuels the imperative to wipe out “wrongness.”
            While the above is dramatic, in our daily lives this can have severe consequences. My favorite line from Schulz’s book thus far: “…certainty is lethal to two of our most redeeming and humane qualities, imagination and empathy” (Note Loc 2644, Kindle edition). Imagination—as reflected in human creativity in every sense--is perhaps the most vital quality behind human progress. Without it, we would see no possibility other than that which has been “known.” To use Sir Ken Robinson’s quip in making this point, “Without human creativity, you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Largely because you wouldn’t have a bed to get out of.” As for humans having less empathy, aren’t our relationships already complicated enough?
            We also like to be right because our educational systems stress that more than anything else. Curricula have long been structured around content, and mastery is measured by the percentage of items answered “correctly.” Standardized tests are accepted as signs of intelligence and knowledge. (A relevant aside: I remember even as a child looking at multiple choice and true-false items and thinking, “Well, sometimes, but what about..?”) Essay writing is often reduced to following a formula, yet the five-paragraph essay seldom appears outside school. We have moved far from the roots of the genre, the very name of which denotes an attempt to understand.
            Therein lies the real challenge that schools have to embrace. We have to help young people realize that they don’t know, but that they believe. And that that’s okay. We don’t want cynicism or nihilism, but we should nurture healthy skepticism. We can foster the attitude that power does not come from pure knowledge. Instead, power comes from knowing what and how to question. It’s all about the ongoing struggle to understand. To move closer to possibly being right, we first must be able to say, “I was wrong.”

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