One of Us Cannot Be Wrong (I Told You So)

You know you’re listening to something pretty magnificent when both Ira Glass and St. Augustine […]

David Zahl / 1.17.12

You know you’re listening to something pretty magnificent when both Ira Glass and St. Augustine get a nod. Kathyrn Schulz’s TED talk from 2011 is precisely such an instance. Her subject is one that we know (too) well: human fallibility and the art of being wrong. Up until a year or so ago, she chronicled her findings over on the Slate “Wrong Stuff” blog (which is where her interview with Ira Glass first appeared). Suffice it to say, her insights could not be more relevant to our project here. Very much worth the 17 minutes, ht DT:

The book she references in the talk is Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, which came out last year and you can find a wonderful excerpt from the first chapter here. She was interviewed about it on NPR by Neal Conan after its release and had a number of relevant things to say. Probably the most sympathetic section, both in terms of our propensity for self-justification and the nature of confession/contrition, would be:

Ms. SCHULZ: You know… when we’re really attached to a belief, we will come up with unbelievably wild theories to justify it. And although we can kind of scoff at these ancient scientists for thinking, well, you know, maybe there are these 13 celestial spheres that move like this in order to preserve this idea that the sun rotated around the Earth, the truth is we all do this from time to time. We get so committed to a belief that we will come up with some really wild theories to support it.

CONAN: And even when we are proved to be wrong, as you point out, there are two expressions that almost immediately follow those three little words: Either, as I mentioned, “but,” or the expression “mistakes were made.”

Ms. SCHULZ: Exactly. And I love that one. It’s so classic. On the surface, it’s an acknowledgement of error. But when you really think about it, what is that expression doing, mistakes were made? It is explicitly failing to take responsibility for an error. There is no agent in that sentence. There is no me committing the mistake.


CONAN: And this is something that’s so typical of human nature because, as you suggest, it’s so good to be right.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right. We all really love to be accurate about things. In fact, although this is a book about being wrong, I really started out by thinking about being right and by reflecting on why it is that we all relish that experience, and why it’s so fun and pleasurable to be right and the consequences of that, you know – what it means when we’re so attached to being right that we can’t entertain challenges to our theories and more to the point, even that we can’t really treat people who disagree with us with perhaps the respect that they deserve.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. People who have different belief systems, well, clearly they are inferior, as you see in the attitudes of a lot of, you know, colonialists.

Ms. SCHULZ: Yeah. I think we often rush to make a series of assumptions about people who disagree with us. And the first assumption is that they’re ignorant. They just aren’t in possession of the same facts that we have, and if they were, they would obviously come around to our viewpoint. And when that doesn’t work, when they have those facts and they still don’t agree with us, we decide that they’re idiotic. They know the information, but they just don’t have the brains to interpret it. And when even that doesn’t work, when they prove to actually be kind of clever, well, then we just conclude that they’re probably morally bankrupt. So basically, people who disagree with us are ignorant, idiotic or evil.

CONAN: There’s also different kinds of things that, as you point out, we believe in. Some of them, we believe in stuff we couldn’t possibly know -that we believe in the Big Bang Theory, for example, or that, you know, probably the tide patterns in the Gulf of Mexico will eventually bring the oil around into the Atlantic Ocean. Neither you nor I have studied these things, but we believe them.