Being Right

29 01 2016


“You just want to prove you’re right!”

That accusation gives me pause. Yes, I’m trying to offer proof for my way of thinking, and my adversary is doing the same. But it’s that word “just”. Is proving I’m right, like it’s merely a matter of ego, really all there is to this? And what gives me cause to think I’m right in the first place? As a philosopher, I need to unpack this.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” That adage, made popular by Mark Twain, highlights the treachery of mere facts. Compiling data and statistics are an excellent way to study some problem or assertion, to provide evidence that we are right (or wrong) about something. Science helps us to figure out how things actually are, as opposed to how we think they are. Is the Earth round or flat? Do evil spirits cause disease, or is it something else? Are the heavens perfect and unchanging, or is there a whole lot more going on? Science is the best way we have of answering those types of questions. But there’s much more.

Critical thinking is, well, critical. It’s how we tease out the truth from a sea of facts, and keep the statistics from lying. Has the data been cherry-picked? Was this study funded by an entity that has a major monetary stake in the outcome? Was this analysis of the data politically motivated? Is the authority cited credible? Have the results of the experiment been duplicated by many others? Has correlation been confused with causation?

Finally, wisdom comes in. Science can tell you how to build a better weapon. Wisdom tells you whether or not you should build it.

Acquiring wisdom is a long, complicated, difficult and nuanced process. It is fuzzy, elusive, based on assumptions and unprovable insights. It is damn near impossible to codify, although great minds over the centuries have tried. The best we as individuals can do is read the work of those great minds, see where they come together in agreement, and see how it resonates with our own experiences and knowledge. Many of us aren’t up for the task. We just want to be told what’s right and be done with it.

And there are lots and lots of folks who are happy to do so, particularly self-help gurus, politicians, and religious leaders. Plus assorted other powerful people who want us to believe and act in ways that benefit them. If we don’t arm ourselves with knowledge, critical thinking skills and as much wisdom as we can muster, we are easily taken in by celebrities and assorted charlatans who play on our weaknesses, ignorance, and baser impulses.

We all want to be right. We want to believe we have the truth, that we know what’s really going on. If someone challenges us, we bristle and defend our rightness. We try to prove it. But if we haven’t put in the work to understand why something is right, we won’t have the evidence and reasoning to mount a credible defense. We resort to saying things like, “That’s just what I think” or “That’s just the way it is.” As if an opinion based on gut reactions should have the same weight as an assertion derived from long and arduous work. Or, “It’s true because such-and-such or so-and-so says it’s true.” Appeals to authority are useless if that authority’s credentials haven’t been thoroughly examined and verified.

A person reveals the weakness of their position when, for example, they take it as given that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God and refuse to consider its limitations. Or claims global warming is a hoax, and refuses to acknowledge the science that says otherwise. For them, “being right” is something they have achieved, and sticking to their beliefs against all challenge is a point of pride. The flaws in this attitude are obvious.

Because “being right” is not a state of being. It’s a process. It’s all the steps I’ve described, including taking on all challenges. So, yes, when I assert that something is so, I am trying to prove that I am right. But that is not the only thing I am doing. I am testing that sense of rightness, that conviction that I’m correct about this. And if I am in the wrong, I want to know about it, because I don’t want to be misguided, deceived, deluded, or made a fool of. I want to be right.

Only by accepting the possibility that I might be wrong can I hope to achieve my goal of being right.




4 responses

29 01 2016

Thank you for this – sometimes people have said this to me, and I couldn’t figure out why it annoyed me so. Now I know why. Same reasons – and the annoyance that that someone assumes so little of me. Grr!

30 01 2016

Glad to have been able to articulate it for you. Aside from teaching kids how to find things out for themselves (as opposed to making them memorize lists of facts) I wish the fundamentals of argumentation were taught in the primary grades. And although I understand the impulse to do it, no parent ever should answer a question or protest with “Because I said so.” It sets the precedent that power equals being right.

29 01 2016
Mary Jolles

Some people do want to be right just for the sake of being right–it makes them feel competent, secure, knowledgeable and respected. These are all the wrong reasons to shout someone down in an argument or to stubbornly refuse to consider other points of view, but sadly, it is very common. Five-year-olds are generally anxious to follow rules and “be right” because it assures them they are accepted by the teacher. Older students ridicule peers who answer “wrong” in class and refuse to raise hands when unsure of an answer, because they don’t want to look stupid. As a society, we don’t do a good job of encouraging critical thinking because it involves admitting that we don’t know some things and asking questions.

30 01 2016

Agreed (see reply to previous comment). Of course, we all want to feel competent, secure, knowledgeable and respected. There’s not a thing wrong with that. But we need to make sure kids understand that merely appearing that way is very different from actually being that way, and there’s no short cut. You have to stick your neck out and challenge yourself all the time, constantly risking being wrong in order to feel secure with your rightness.

Even knowing this, I still have trouble admitting when I don’t know something, especially in the presence of those who do. I stay quiet and listen, hoping I can figure it out from context. Pretty cowardly of me! And counterproductive.

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