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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Being Wrong

Last Sunday, I was invited to speak at the Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church in Parker. My topic was the wise and extraordinarily well-written book Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz.

My "sermon" (you may call me Reverend LaRue) doesn't quite follow her own fascinating structure. But here's the talk.

How does it feel to be wrong?

  • You say you feel sinful, lazy, stupid, foolish, inadequate.
  • But you're wrong.
  • It feels just like being right -- or (as Schulz says in her Ted talk), it's like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff in pursuit of the Roadrunner. At that moment, he does not feel wrong. It's only when the clouds of dust disappear and he realizes he's standing in space that he realizes he's wrong. And only then does he fall.

Being Wrong and Childhood: The Sally Ann test
  • Sally and Ann are in a room.
  • Sally puts a candy bar in a basket, closes the lid, and leaves the room.
  • Ann takes the candy bar out of the basket, and hides it in the cupboard.
  • Now ask a child (4 or 5 years old): when Sally returns, where will she look for it?
  • Before a certain age, the child says "in the cupboard." Why? Because it reveals a fundamental human orientation. We think if it is true, we believe it; if we believe it, it's true. There is a correspondence between our opinions and reality.
  • But at some point (around 5), children spontaneously realize that they are wrong (the candy bar isn't where it should be) and that Sally just has no way to know where it is. This is the "theory of mind" -- understanding that not only are limits to both your knowledge and that of others, but that you may not see things the same way as someone else.
Another change: the introduction of the hypothetical or conditional
  • In language acquisition, there is an age when the child goes from the binary Yes or No, to "Maybe."
  • From black or white to shades of gray.
  • To a world where you're far more likely to be wrong.
A third childhood change: remembering your error
  • Give a child box with a picture of candy on it. Ask what's inside.
  • Most will say "Candy!"
  • But it's pencils.
  • 20 seconds later, ask what they thought was in the box.
  • Before that magic age: they say "pencils." Again, adjusting beliefs (and self-image) to facts.
This is almost everything you need to know about people in three anecdotes.

Discovering you're wrong

  • First, it's total denial. I'm NOT wrong. YOU are.
  • Then it's, "well I was almost right" (except for that one part where, you know, I was wrong).
  • Then, "I was misled."
  • Finally, "I never really believed that."
  • And so we edit our memories to make life a little more ... bearable. I always thought it was pencils in that box. Or I never really believed in a literal hell, or despite the fact that no one ever marries thinking that it won't last, somehow I knew....
When other people are wrong
  • You start with generosity: "you just don't know the facts that convinced me. Once I explain, you'll agree with me."
  • But when they remain unconvinced, you turn a little judgmental: "you must not be very bright."
  • And when they persist in their folly, and exhibit signs of intelligence in other ways, you feel threatened: "you must be evil."
  • That arc of argument encapsulates much of what passes for religious and political debate in our culture.
  • Even though under Theory of Mind we should just admit that we don't actually know half of the things we're sure of. To put it another way, certainty is not correlated with knowledge, and may in fact get in the way.
What's actually going on here?
  • We're just trying to figure out what is real. To survive, to predict events.
  • As a consequence, we reason from too little evidence.
  • But sometimes perform real miracles of insight and judgment on that basis: research into a card game with a "poison" deck. The galvanic skin responses know something is wrong long before the statistics support it. We may not be entirely rational, but we're not unreasonable.
  • Nonetheless, we do make mistakes in our gut-judgments and blink responses pretty much every day.
What's right about being wrong?
  • Being wrong is the foundation of science. Test and disprove, adopt a new theory. That's what took us from believing the world is flat to landing smart SUVs on Mars.
  • Nothing concentrates the mind like public error. Such a motivation to improve!
  • At what time of life are you most wrong? When you're a toddler. You can't talk, can't control your bowels, you literally fall over.
  • And yet the average 4 year old laughs some 300 times a day. Adults only laugh 15-20.
  • Isn't that funny? And in fact, being wrong is both the root of comedy and of compassion.
So remember....
  • Human beings are amazing.
  • We extrapolate so much from so little.
  • Eventually, we can learn to imagine ourselves inside the lives of almost anyone - hence our incredible response to the power of story.
  • We can change our story - getting smarter with every error, and looking better with every edit.
  • Mostly, finally, remember to laugh. Really, would that be so wrong?

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