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.