I’ve had some pretty grandiose ideas for this blog. I could examine the issue of wrongness from the point of view of history, of psychology, of religion, and more. I’ve had ideas for blogging on so many aspects of wrongness. So I’ve been struggling with the decision: just where should this blog about wrongness begin?
Then something happened on Friday. It was one of those moments when the nature of Wrongness spoke to me from the simplest of places — from the ordinary. The everyday. It was the type of thing that seems so inconsequential, so obvious, we take it for granted. And that, I decided was why my first blog had to be about the decidedly not grandiose thing that happened on Friday.
My friend Tony and I were playing golf. From the tee stand, we watched my ball sail up the right side of the fairway and land twenty or thirty yards short of the sand trap there, near the cart path. Tony and I agreed that my ball had landed a good distance short of the trap. A moment later, we watched Tony’s ball sail in the same direction as mine, but further; it landed twenty or thirty yards ahead of mine, just a few feet from the sand trap. So close, in fact, that we discussed whether or not his ball had rolled into the trap, or had managed to stop just a foot or two short of it. We then got into the cart to drive to our balls, to hit our second shots. As we approached, reaching a ball that lay thirty yards short of the trap, Tony (who was driving the cart) let me out, saying, “Well, there’s your ball; hit yours while I go ahead to look for mine.”
What we both believed we would see — my ball, in that exact location — we did see. (It’s what the psychologists call confirmation bias.) Tony’s statement that the ball was mine confirmed my understanding that the ball in question was mine — an understanding I’d reached when I first saw it there, twenty or thirty yards from the sand trap, close to the cart path. Watching him go off in search of his own ball further confirmed what was already clear to me. By this point, there was no doubt in my mind that the ball in question was mine. In fact, there had never been doubt. And because there was no doubt, I didn’t consciously ask myself the question, “Is the ball mine?” Rather, I failed to consider the possibility at all. I failed to examine the ball to be sure it was mine, because, to use the familiar expression, I just “took it for granted.” I didn’t even think about it. I just hit it.
When we discovered (later) that I had hit Tony’s ball by mistake, rather than hitting my own, I accepted the appropriate two-stroke penalty for my mistake. But let me ask: did I make one mistake, or two? Arguably, I made two: the first was to interpret what I had seen and heard as indications that the ball in question was mine. But the second – and potentially the more serious of the two mistakes – was that I failed to do what golfers are supposed to do, and what I usually do: check to make sure that the ball in question was mine. Check that it was my brand, and that it had my personal mark on it, before I hit it.
There are likely lots of explanations for the first error, but what about explanations for the second? Why did I fail to check the ball, to make sure it was mine? Why did I “take it for granted”?
After reflecting for a moment on what had happened, I summed up my view of the situation for Tony. “The more ‘obviously correct’ something is,” I said, “the less we are prone to question it; the more easily we are to accept it; and the easier, therefore, it is for us to be wrong.” That, I have come to believe, is a fundamental principle of human cognition, and one of the most fundamental aspects of human error. It’s when something is “obviously true” — so obvious, in fact, that we fail to question it — that it sometimes proves to be the biggest untruth of all.
Anyway, that’s the sort of experience I’ve encountered day after day, week after week, in the routine business of my life. The more “obviously true” something is, the greater the chance we’ll be blind to the possibility it’s not. The earth is obviously flat, right? The sun rises in the morning, right? Up is up, and down is down — right? Throughout history, mankind has looked its most foolish when there’s been massive agreement about something which — later –appears ridiculous.
The experience of wrongness is something I encounter constantly in my reading about the history of mankind. It is something I encounter constantly when I read books on cognitive psychology. (Science tells us we’re prone to make errors a large percentage of the time, and for good reason: our species could not have survived if we had had to be certain of everything before we decided what to do.) The human tendency toward error is something many (most?) religious and philosophical schools of thought emphasize. It is something I can’t help but feel when I look up into the heavens at night, and see the immensity of things vaster and more powerful than myself. Once I began to consider the prevalence of human error, I started to see it everywhere. Confirmation bias, again? Maybe so. It’s hard to tell.
And yet, if I watch TV, or read a magazine, or walk into a bookstore, or browse the web, I don’t see reminders of our extraordinary human capacity for wrongness. On the contrary, I see accolades to the great achievements of the human race. I see billboards, sound-bytes, self-help gurus, advertisements and mass media blaring out messages like, “Have the courage of your convictions!” and “Be willing to stand up and fight for what you believe in!” We preach this message to our children so strongly it sometimes seems to me we’re saying that unless they’re ready to take the streets to fight for what they think is right, they are somehow not being good Americans. We’re told that we human beings are the pinnacle of evolution, at the top of the heap of all creatures, just below God and the angels. Stephen Hawking declares how lucky he feels that he was born at a time when science is on the verge of discovering “The Theory of Everything.” Fair enough, I say to all of that — and possibly true — but how many times have we heard someone on a soapbox begin a sentence with, “Let there be no doubt…” Best I can tell, most people feel quite certain about almost everything they believe.
We’re trained, meanwhile, from an age at which most children are incapable of understanding what an “oath” is, to place our hands over our hearts and swear such an oath, pledging “allegiance” to our country. I wonder what we’re doing. Does it really make sense to require a six year old to swear allegiance to a particular system of government, a particular concept of nationhood, a particular nation? If we call it “beginning to acculturate the young,” it seems fine; but what if we call it brainwashing?
I look around me, in the schools, and in the media, and I see certainty, conviction and allegiance held up as high virtues — and I wonder how much of it is right, and how much of it just may be wrong. The world many cherish seems different from the one I’ve encountered. In my world, our representative government seems as capable of error as we, the represented, are. In my world, our species seems as capable of error as we, its individual organisms, are. Everyone I know claims to be”open minded,” but I wonder how many of their friends would agree? And how many of their enemies? Indeed, I wonder, what does it even mean to be “open-minded”?
More later, my friends. Welcome to “We May Be Wrong.”