The Importance of Being Wrong

Often it seems to me that being wrong is a necessary state through which I must pass on the way to being right (or at least, less wrong). Partly this is to do with personality, and the way I instinctively engage with new problems, but also, I suspect, it’s related to the way learning occurs. This appears to be especially true when the idea being adopted is a complex one.

It is fairly well established in education that hard-won knowledge is more likely to be retained. The more a student has to work to take something on board, the less likely they are to forget it (this has a few disturbing implications for teaching technique, but that’s for another post). We all know the feeling of struggling with a new idea, the shuffling of all your old thoughts and prejudices as the mind tries desperately to make room for this unfamiliar concept. Then comes the aha! moment. You suddenly see what they were getting at, and wonder how it was you ever failed to grasp it. I think it is this rearranging, the fact that the new idea can only take hold when old connections and assumptions have been re-examined and re-shaped, that makes the learning effect so powerful. It is as if you have had to adopt a whole new framework for your thinking, so that all your old thoughts are now shaded with this new idea. It’s well and truly embedded, that awkward piece of furniture that was so hard to manoeuvre into place that you’re now prepared to build the rest of your life around it.

And that’s where being wrong comes in. Because typically, with new understanding comes a natural over exuberance. We seem to have an inbuilt taste for novelty. Watch a child’s short lived love affairs with new toys, or playground equipment or words. The new idea seems to have sprinkled its magic over our every thought, and we are so seduced by this feeling (and quietly chuffed that we have mastered it) that it is almost impossible, at first, to view it dispassionately. Not only do we insist upon wheeling our theory out at every available opportunity, but for a time we are blind to its weaknesses (I’ve just hauled this couch up three flights of stairs, don’t be telling me you’re not so sure about the colour). In time, if laziness or fear don’t consume us, we will come to see that the idea itself isn’t quite as bullet proof as we thought, nor as earth shattering, nor as universally applicable. If we are lucky enough to keep learning, we may even have opportunity to disassemble it, pick through the parts for that which is truly valuable, and throw the rest out to make room for the latest incoming life-changer.

That, at least, is one (rather mixed) metaphor for learning, and I mention it because an inevitable part of the process involves being wrong. Being over-zealous, under-critical, almost tribal in defence of a notion. And the thing is, I do think this is almost unavoidable. Much as I would love to move straight from tentative understanding to mature synthesis, it seems to me that it is the testing out of an idea against the world that is going to knock the rough edges off it. The process is inherently oppositional, in some ways you have to pitch your tent in the storm before you can discover its weaknesses.

There are a couple of concrete examples that come to mind for me. One of them is evolution. I came across this embarrassingly late in life. I knew about evolution, I didn’t doubt it, but I hadn’t got my head properly around the mechanisms. And when I did, when the notion of natural selection began to make sense for me, I became a huge enthusiast. Not only did I over-simplify the process of selection (slipping all too easily into that tautology of the survival of the survivors) but I vastly over-estimated the reach of its explanatory power. Even the worst excesses of evolutionary psychology slipped under my radar, and I consumed the works of unrestrained cheerleaders (Dennett’s, ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’, or Wilson’s ‘Consilience’) with my critical faculties turned down low.

Later, through reading alternative views and treatments, and just by watching my own arguments fall apart, I moved gently towards an understanding that is, I hope, more sophisticated, and hence a little less compelling. Now, lest there is anybody reading this prone to taking it the wrong way, evolutionary theory is absolutely awesome. If you don’t know much about it, you should. It is important, delightful, powerful stuff. It’s just, in order to reach a relatively mature understanding of what it does and doesn’t tell us, I had to go through a rather immature stage of thinking it told us everything. And what I’m suggesting is, this is a very common process. It’s part of how we learn.

Although we may not be able to avoid this enthusiasm for error, understanding how it works might provide some useful perspective. If there was one rule I’d draw from this, it’s this: it’s the times when I have been most certain about something, that I have been most likely to be wrong about it. And my best guess is that this applies to other people too. Beware the enthusiast, the one making the most compelling case. They’re seductive as all get up, because of their certainty, but you can all but guarantee they’re over-reaching. And, of course, if they are being an enthusiast about a field in which they are a relative newcomer(the biologist writing on theology, perhaps, or the linguist on evolution) be particularly afraid.

Actually, allow me a second rule: opposition is important. It’s very easy, for reasons of politeness, to slip into the mode of accepting other’s views without question. Sure, we might not agree, but each to their own, right? They’re entitled to their beliefs. Except, I’m not. I want to be challenged. Indeed, I need it. Otherwise I’m going to get stuck in zealotry, and that’s a bad place to be. So, somehow, we need to cultivate the habit of respectful, probing disagreement. It’s a tremendously difficult skill, and I don’t pretend to be much good at it, but it’s ever so important.

I said I could think of two main examples in my own life. Evolution is one, the other is Karl Popper’s treatment of scientific method. But to explain how I got that one wrong will take a whole other post. So that’s next week.


10 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Wrong

  1. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Another very interesting and stimulating post – thank you.

    While you describe a process of gradually filtering out error (or taming over enthusiasm), I imagined looking, say, at a new landscape and seeing it first in very broad strokes. Here’s maybe a wooden area, there a few houses, mountains farther away, and so on. At this stage, only the larger structures are evident. Then, with time and more observation, details become visible and we realize, for example, that in what appeared at first like a simple patch of trees there may be a trail and, almost hidden from view, a small cottage. And so on.

    I think this is perhaps similar to what you’re saying with, in place of filtering out errors I emphasize a process of “focusing”, making more details visible with time (and thus “correcting” the oversimple initial impression).

    Concerning your evolution example – I don’t know about “Consilience” but I have read some Dennett and I wonder what your main criticism of “Dangerous Idea” would be.


  2. Hi JP

    Good to hear from you.

    It’s a little while since I read Dangerous Idea, and there was much I liked about it, he’s an engaging communicator with a great knack of hitting the right example. From memory though, I thought the idea of universal acid, as he called it, was over applied, and so important areas where the selection metaphor is less powerful, like the way cultural capital develops, were brushed aside too easily. His attack on Gould and the notions of spandrels felt mean spirited, and for me he missed an opportunity to show how two different metaphors could illuminate the same phenomenon, because he was so focussed on the slap down. And the game of life (is that what is was called, the emergence of apparent complexity from the square pattern rules) felt overhyped. As always with Dennett, the role of the observer in the apparent emergence of behaviour was glossed over.

    In general, I think he prefers to dismiss rather than engage with alternative points of view, and I’m always a little suspicious of that.


  3. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Thanks for your answer.

    The attacks on Gould I remember mostly from Dawkins and I never quite understood what was going on – was this something personal I wonder? I always felt the best way to look at these differences was, like you say, as two different ways of looking (or metaphor) at the same phenomenon, each one interesting in its own way.

    I’m not sure what you’re referring to by the glossing over of the role of the observer in the apparent emergence of behaviour (which you say happens often).

    As for Conway’s game of life (and, yes, there was too much of it), I think it’s a very remarkable fact that such a board, suitably populated, constitutes a universal Turing machine. That, essentially, it can do anything a digital computer can do (I can’t think of anything simpler that can do this). If we someday develop really intelligent computers/robots, we could run their programs on a game of life board.

    So, it’s not just apparent complexity we’re talking about but something totally real. And, while this does not show how such a complexity could arise, it shows how it can exist on an extremely simple substrate. In a way, this may seem common place but it may have been an important point to make at the time.

    • Hi JP

      Yeah, I think there is something sort of gobsmacking about the Turing machine aspect of the game of life, it’s a most striking image.

      What I had in mind with the emergence thing (and this is a topic I get quickly bogged down in, I don’t entirely understand it) is that from memory when Dennett speaks of certain behavioural characteristics emerging in the game (gliders, eaters? I forget the terms) it strikes me that a crucial part of the emergence is the observer seeing gliding (as opposed to simply seeing squares activating and de-activating) so that emergence is as much an act of the imagination as it is of the game. A little like the way a drama series emerges from the pixelated colourings of the television screen.

      This relationship seems to me to be particularly important in Dennett’s pet topic of consciousness emerging from neural activity. Here, somehow, the capacity to imagine emerges through the act of imagination, if you like, and while I don’t believe that’s an impossibility, it’s always struck me that Dennett makes too little of the work required to establisht he viability of such a self referential loop. That this is the point at which he is most prone to indulging in a litlte hand waving.

      Perhaps this is unfair, and I haven’t yet understood him fully.


  4. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Thank you – I see what you mean now. This is a fascinating question: what/where are those patterns we perceive in gliders and the like?

    Perhaps the pattern, as such, is entirely in our mind, in the sense of being part of a model we built of reality. (Of course it is not arbitrary: we can match the abstract model to “stuff” happening out there.) I am not sure at all what it would mean to say the pattern is “in” the Life world. Also, isn’t it the same thing with every pattern we find in nature? “Where”, strictly speaking, is Newton’s law of gravitation if not in our mind?

    As for emergence in general, I share your difficulties. I thought (naively perhaps) that emergence would be another name for the appearance of higher level of organization which would not preclude some form of reductionism. A mundane example would be file systems on a computer, reducible to physics but necessitating a higher level of modelisation to understand fully.

    However, I gather philosophers see this differently and want to oppose emergence and reductionism (even to the point of saying that chemistry is not reducible to physics). Frankly, I don’t understand what this is about (I have a feeling it is more about theories or descriptions than about reality itself). I would be interested to know what you make of all this.

  5. Hi JP

    Yes, there’s something confusing going on with the term emergence. I often think I have a handle on how it is being used, and then read something that appears contradictory.

    I agree that patterns, or metaphors, exist primarily in the mind. And because they are employed to describe and interact with reality, they are constrained by whatever the true facts being described are. And emergence, as I understand it, describes nothing more than the creation of new metaphors: so from physics emerges chemistry, and from chemistry emerges, perhaps, a bunch of people at a swimming pool.

    So, depending upon the metaphor, or level of analysis, different implications of the reality might be drawn. At the chemical level we might detect harmful microbes in the water, not available to the viewer of the pool scene, and at the level of the pool we might understand the behaviour of the boy showing off on the high board in a way that it would be tremendously difficult to read off from the basic physics. None of that seems to me to be controversial.

    But, like you, I feel it’s a cheat to say that because I might only be able to observe things at a higher level of analysis, that this level isn’t reducible to the lower level. It seems to me that there is no reason why in principle the hormonally charged behaviour of the teenager couldn’t be reduced all the way back to physics. It’s just that this is computationally intractable, whereas the rough and ready reckoner of folk psychology yields a remarkably efficient tool.

    In this sense then, perhaps all that ever ’emerges’ are new models and perspectives. Some seem keen to argue that sometimes aspects of reality emerge that are simply irreducible (the wetness of water, say). I’m unconvinced by this, it seems to me to be an unnecessary introduction of the mystical to describe something that may be rather more mundane.

    Of course, all of this implies that emergence, such as it is, is dependent upon conscious observation. And that makes the claim that consciousness simply emerges from certain neural arrays more difficult to establish, I think (or alternatively, as people like Hofstadter think, will provide the key clue to how it works).


  6. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Yes, to be able to say that a model (or theory) is not reducible to another one makes perfect sense – by necessity, some or the entities described by a model must be “atomic”, much like primitive terms are used in mathematical logic. Being so, they are by definition irreducible to much fundamental entities. But this is a limitation of our models, not a fundamental property of reality (if we can talk of such a thing).

    However, I’m not sure what it means to say emergence depends upon conscious observation. Primitive organisms certainly interact with their environment at high (emergent?) levels of organization without being conscious – “bees” interact with “flowers” and these two entities certainly exist in some objective sense. Or, more simply, stars and planets (high level objects) existed way before any conscious being.

  7. Hi JP

    The truth is, I don’t think I understand this fully enough to push the conversation along much. My instinctive question, with an example like bees and flowers, is: what precisely do you mean has emerged at this higher level of organisation? Is it that there are interactions occurring between bee and flower that can not in principle be explained by analysing a lower level of interaction (say the interactions of the very many molecules involved in the bee flower transaction), or is it rather that by seeing this as an interaction between an insect and a plant, the human observer is better able to comprehend the situation? The second type of emergence is a function of the conscious observer, whereas the first isn’t. However, in the first case, I don’t think I understand what is claimed to have emerged.

    Sorry if this doesn’t make much sense.


  8. Hi there, really enlightening and thought-provoking piece (that goes for the the comments too). The following statement in particular feels like wisdom to me “it’s the times when I have been most certain about something, that I have been most likely to be wrong about it.”

    I left the church a long time ago and many of the good things I learnt there unfortunately got thrown out with the bath water. The scripture “pride goes before a fall” comes back to me just now, which seems to echo a similar sentiment to yours.

    Great blog by the way!

  9. Thanks Nadine

    Yes, always intersting, and tricky, trying to rescue the valuable from disgarded world views.


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