Posts Tagged ‘method’

You’re Probably Wrong About That

Monday, September 19th, 2011

I spend a great deal of my day being wrong about things. How about you?

You and I know a great many things. We know, we hope, how to do our jobs, how to get from point A to point B, how to survive from day to day. But there is a lot of our personal store of knowledge that is suspect, incomplete, and simply wrong.

I’m going to go out on a limb and generalize for a moment. Take any given person and examine their understanding of subjects. Take history, for example. You’ll find that almost every individual has an incomplete understanding of human history and what they do claim to know is either filled with gaps, errors, and misunderstandings, or is utterly fictional. It’s a rare person who’s both well informed and curious about the world to the extent that they are willing to explore and think, to question their own assumptions, and to continually revise their understanding about the world, the universe, virtually everything. And even they are wrong about many things.

Pick an individual at random and ask them about the basics of science. How, for example, does the sun burn and not exhaust its fuel? What is petroleum and coal and where do they come from? How does one catch the common cold? You’ll find that the answers to these questions run from the simply incomplete to the fanciful and frustratingly dangerous.

Let’s take the common cold, for example. Many people still believe that you can catch it from being cold or wet. Benjamin Franklin knew that this isn’t the case (but the man was insatiably curious about everything and was willing to test his ideas). Colds are caused by viruses. Being cold or wet has nothing to do with it.

Or take the topic of history. Why, for example, is the U.S. closely allied with England and suspicious and cold towards France when the U.S. fought two wars against England and France helped the U.S. win its independence? I have an theory that’s based upon a wide reading in history, but it isn’t a simple answer. There are a lot of factors that contributed to the relationships between these three countries over the last 300 years or so.

To most of these questions and many others, the knowledgeable person might start with, “it’s complex,” and that’s true. But that shouldn’t be one’s excuse to being misinformed or mistaken. Lots of things in life are complex. Complexity isn’t something to be backed away from. It should be explored and puzzled over.

I sometimes look at the general public and sigh in despair. Not only are many, many people wrong about the fundamental ways the world works, from the physical sciences to human interactions, but they hang onto their ignorance and mistaken knowledge desperately and will respond by attacking if one attempts to correct them or question what they think and believe. This ignorance isn’t without cost. Wars, the economy, even our environment are all in the balance.

I judge people, but not on the current state of their knowledge. I judge them on their willingness to learn, to think, and to change what they believe to be true. I think that is the fundamental philosophic difference between the scientist and the believer. The scientist should always be willing to say, “based upon new information I am willing to re-evaluate.” The believer often shuns information that contradicts what they “know.”

While, as I said at the top of this article, I may spend my days being wrong about things, I’m always questioning, always looking for ways to get just a little more “right.” “Hmm. How about that?” is a common experience for me. And it feels good to say, “Well, I was wrong about that, but now the world makes just a bit more sense.”

I may be wrong about this, but I’m willing to accept new information, to debate, and to think. Are you?