For several months now, I’ve been plagued by the thought that certain ways of “being wrong” are different from others. I’ve wondered whether I’ve confused any thing by not mentioning types of error and distinguishing between them. For example, there are errors of fact and errors of opinion. (It’s one thing to be wrong in thinking that 2+ 2 = 5, or that Idaho is further south than Texas, while it’s quite another to be “wrong” about whether Gwyneth Paltrow or Meryl Streep is a better actor.) Meanwhile, different as statements of fact may be from statements of opinion, all such propositions have in common that they are declarations about present reality. Not so a third type of error – judgmental errors about what “ought” to be done. Should I accept my friend’s wedding invitation? Should I apologize to my brother? Should we build a wall on the Mexican border? I might be wrong in my answer to all such questions, but how is it possible to know?
Is there a difference between matters of opinion (Paltrow is better than Streep) and ethics (it’s wrong to kill)? Many would say there’s an absolute moral standard against which ethics ought to be judged, quite apart from questions of personal preference; others would argue that such standards are themselves a matter of personal preference. I’ve thought a lot about how different types of error might be distinguished. But every time I think I’m getting somewhere, I wind up deciding I was wrong.
One of the ways I’ve come full circle relates to the distinction between past and future. It’s one thing to be wrong about something that has, in fact, happened, and another to be wrong about a prediction of things to come. Right? Isn’t one a matter of fact, and the other a matter of opinion? In doing the research for my recent novel, Alemeth, I came across the following tidbit from the Panola Star of December 24, 1856:
The past is disclosed; the future concealed in doubt. And yet human nature is heedless of the past and fearful of the future, regarding not science and experience that past ages have revealed.
Here I was, writing a historical novel about the divisiveness that led to civil war. I was driven to spend seven years on the project because of the sentiment expressed in that passage: that we can, and ought to, learn from the past. (Specifically, we should learn that when half the people in the country feel one way, and half the other, both sides labeling the other stupid, or intentionally malicious, an awful lot of people are likely wrong about the matter in question, and the odds seem pretty close to even that any given individual (that includes each of us) is one of the many in the wrong. And importantly, the great divide wasn’t because all the smart people lived in some states, or that all the bad people lived in others: rather, people tended to think as they did because of the prevailing sentiments of the people around them. Hmnnn…)
Then, an interesting thing happened in the course of writing the book. Research began teaching me how many pitfalls there are in thinking we can really know the past. We have newspapers, and old letters, and other records, but how much is left out of such things? How many mistakes might they contain? Indeed, how many were distorted, intentionally, by partisan agendas at the time? The more I came across examples of each of those things, the less sure I became that we can ever really know the past. I often can’t remember what I myself was doing ten minutes ago; how will I ever be able to reconstruct how things were for tens of thousands of people a hundred years ago? Indeed, the more I thought about it, I began to circle back on myself, wondering whether the opposite of where I’d started was true: Because the past has, forever, already passed, we’ll never be able to return to it, to touch it, to look it directly in the eye, right? Whereas, we will have that ability with respect to things yet to come. If that’s true, the future just might be more “verifiable” than the past. I get dizzy just thinking about it.
Anyway, an idea I’ve been kicking around is to ask you, WMBW’s readers, to submit nominations for the ten greatest (human) blunders of all time. I remain extremely interested in the idea, so if any of you are inclined to submit nominations, I’d be delighted. But the reason I haven’t actually made the request before now stems from my confusion about categories of wrong. Any list of “the ten greatest blunders of all time” would be focused on the past and perhaps the present, while presumably excluding the future. But I’m tempted to exclude the present as well. I mean, I feel confident there are plenty of strong opinions about, say, global warming – and since the destruction of our species, if not all life on earth, may be at stake, sending carbon into the air might well deserve a place on such a list. Your own top ten blunders of all time list might include abortion, capitalism, Obamacare, the Wall, our presence in Afghanistan, our failure to address world hunger, etc., depending on your politics. But a top ten list of blunders based on current issues (that is, based on the conviction that “the other side” is currently making a world class blunder) would surprise few of us. It seems to me the internet and daily news already makes the nominees for such a list clear. What would be served by our adding to it here?
My interest, rather, has been in a list that considers only past human blunders, removed from the passions of the present day. I believe such a list might help remind us of our own fallibility, as a species. I for one am constantly amazed, when I research the past, at our human capacity for error. Not just individual error, but widespread cultural error, or fundamental mistakes in accepted scientific thinking. My bookshelves are full of celebrations of the great achievements of mankind, books that fill us with pride in our own wisdom, but where are the books which chronicle our stupendous errors, and so remind us of our fallibility? How could nearly all of Germany have got behind Hitler? How could the South have gone to war to preserve slavery? How could so many people have believed that disease was caused by miasma, or that applying leeches to drain blood would cure sickness, or that the earth was flat, or that the sun revolves around the earth?
What really interests me is not just how often we’ve been wrong, but how ready we’ve been to assert, at the time, that we knew we were right. The English explorer John Davys shared the attitude of many who brought European culture to the New World, before native Americans were sent off to reservations:
“There is no doubt that we of England are this saved people, by the eternal and infallible presence of the Lord predestined to be sent into these Gentiles in the sea, to those Isles and famous Kingdoms, there to preach the peace of the Lord; for are not we only set on Mount Zion to give light to all the rest of the world? *** By whom then shall the truth be preached, but by them unto whom the truth shall be revealed?”
History is full of such declarations. In researching the American ante-bellum South, not once did I come across anyone saying, “Now, this slavery thing is a very close question, and we may well be wrong, but we think, on balance, that…” In the days before we knew that mosquitos carried Yellow Fever, scientific pronouncements asserted as fact that the disease was carried by wingless, crawling animalcula that crept along the ground. This penchant for treating our beliefs as knowledge is why I so love the quote (attributed to various people) that runs, “It ain’t what people don’t know that’s the problem; it’s what they do know, that ain’t so.”
My special interest lies in blunders where large numbers of people – especially educated people, or those in authority – have believed that things are one way, where the passage of time has proven otherwise. My interest is especially strong if the people were adamant, or arrogant, about what they believed. Consider this, then, a request for nominations, if you will, especially of blunders with that sort of feel
Yet be forewarned. There’s a reason I haven’t been able to come up with a list of my own. One is that, while not particularly interested in errors of judgment or opinion, I’m not sure where the dividing line falls between fact and opinion. Often, as in the debate over global warming, the very passions aroused are over whether the question is a matter of fact or opinion. Quite likely, what we believe is fact; what our opponents believe is opinion.
The other is the shaky ground I feel beneath my feet when I try to judge historical error as if today’s understanding of truth will be the final word. Remember when we “learned” that thalidomide would help pregnant women deal with morning sickness? Or when we “learned” that saccharin causes cancer? That red wine was good for the heart (or bad? What are they saying on that subject these days?) What about when Einstein stood Newton on his head, or the indications, now, that Einstein might not have got it all right? If our history is replete with examples of wrongness, what reason is there to think that we’ve gotten past such blunders, that today’s understanding of truth is the standard by which we might identify the ten greatest blunders of all time? Perhaps the greater blunder may be when we confidently identify, as a top ten false belief of the past, something which our grandchildren will discover has been true all along.…
If this makes you as dizzy as it does me, then consider this: The word “wrong” comes from Old English wrenc, a twisting; it’s related to Old High German renken, to wrench, which is why the tool we call a wrench is used to twist things. This is all akin to the twisting we produce when we wring out a wet cloth, for when such cloth has been thoroughly twisted, wrinkled, or wrung out, we call it “wrong.” Something is wrong, in other words, when it’s gotten so twisted as to be other than straight.
But in an Einsteinian world, what is it to be straight? The word “correct,” like the word “right” itself, comes from Latin rectus, meaning straight. The Latin comes, in turn, from the Indo-European root reg-. The same root that gave us the Latin word rex, meaning the king. Joseph Partridge tells us that the king was so called because he was the one who kept us straight, which is to say, in line with his command. The list of related words, not surprisingly, includes not only regular and regimen, not only reign, realm and region, but the German word Reich. If the history of language tells us much about ourselves and how we think, then consider the regional differences in civil war America as an instance of rightness.. Consider the history of Germany’s Third Reich as an instance of rightness It seems we’ve always defined being “right” as a matter of conformity, in alignment with whatever authority controls our and our neighbors’ ideas.
Being wrong, on the other hand? Is it destined to be defined only as the belief not in conformity to the view accepted by those in charge? Sometimes I think I’ve got wrongness understood, thinking I know what it is, thinking I’m able to recognize it when I see it. But I always seem to end up where I began, going around in circles, as if space itself is twisted, curved, or consisting of thirteen dimensions. I therefore think my own nomination for the Ten Greatest Blunders of All Time has to go to Carl Linnaeus, for calling us Homo Sapiens.
If you have a nomination of your own, please leave it as a comment on this thread, with any explanation, qualification, or other twist you might want to leave with it.
I’m looking forward to your thoughts.