Friday, June 11, 2010

Nothing wrong with being wrong

Get it right the first time.
Seems I have heard this statement so many times from people who work in customer services. It's far easier to take the time to do things the way they should be done at the beginning than try to clean up things later. Perhaps if a certain company in the news today had adhered to this mantra, BP would not stand for big problems. The thing is, getting it right from the outset in anything is not as easy as it sounds, especially when you are embarking on a journey into unknown territory. Scary as it may sound, experience is sometimes the only reliable teacher.

Many people claim to accept that trials and failures are necessary for learning but few seem to really take it to heart. We may remember the countless falls off the bicycle as children when learning to ride, but as adults we are consumed by a need to be always right, right away. We are so afraid of being wrong we will only admit we are at fault as a last resort. It is not only aimed at self, we are also reluctant to tell other people that they are wrong, Why? Because being wrong is just not socially acceptable. We feel pointing out a failure is a direct attack on a person's character and is rude; eliciting a fight or flight reaction. The response is either to lash back at a criticiser in similar manner and seek to discredit their judgement or whimper away with head bowed thinking that our worth as a person has been devalued by their words. Both these responses are seen as detrimental to society so we seek to avoid criticism in every sense.

Even in circumstances where feedback and critique is asked for, it is often just a pretense. I always have a chuckle to myself in restaurants. The waiter comes around and cheerfully asks if everything is ok. In almost 100% of circumstances the people I am eating with nod in unison, giving the "thumbs up" while wearing pleasant smiles. All seems well with the world until the waiter is out of earshot and I inevitably hear mumblings about spare ribs that are too dry or potatoes that weren't cooked enough. It's all just a ritual. The waiter must ask the question and the customer must say everything is great. In the few cases where I have been with someone who actually took up the waiter and gave criticism, the waiter has appeared generally uncomfortable and offset as if thrown completely off script. Doesn't this idiot customer understand the program? Why is he picking on me?

So, even though the talk is of honesty being the best policy, this is far from the truth. The unwritten law in our society it is, " Don't tell me ever that I am wrong." It is far more important to be nice than to be honest. In following this edict we inhibit our development. We lose the opportunity to improve; as a result a person, company or country can easily make the same mistake over and over again. Although people like to claim they are straight talking, nobody really calls a spade a spade. This is a real tragedy for humanity. All of us suffer as a result of the human obsession with sparing feelings. I don't think that this is anybody's fault it is just a trait that has persisted over the centuries probably because it carries with it certain species evolutionary advantages. A real honest approach will almost certainly lead to ostracisation from the tribe, any politician will tell you that.

This I think really is the crux of the difficulty when we come to discuss matters of religion. Being wrong is such an undesirable state that human beings do whatever they can to avoid it. Religion is the perfect answer to that insatiable drive to be right because once you belong to a faith, you cannot possibly be wrong. Your belief is unfalsifiable, no evidence can ever knock it down. Basically, you are always right by definition. I have so often told fundamentalists that no one can ever prove that the God they believe in is not real. Amazingly this comment leads to a knowing smirk, they think I am conceding defeat in the theological debate. They just don't get it.

Contrast this with the scientist who goes totally counter to society's philosophy of non critique. Religious people will not hesitate to tell you that science has been wrong many times in the past. Evolutionary biologists have been embarrassed by having to admit that what they thought was a vital link to our earliest ancestors was indeed just a tooth of a pig. But that is science, it takes the risk of being wrong in order to find out what is right. Hypotheses that are disproven can tell us much. Verifying a commonly held hypothesis is good , but true breakthroughs in science come when you actually find out that something you held strongly to be true is in fact in error. Indeed in science there is nothing more exciting that finding out you were wrong. It means you have learnt, you have made a discovery.

This is why it makes me laugh when believers suggest that if a God was ever found to exist atheists would run and hang their heads in shame. I think nothing would be more thrilling than acknowledging that moment when it comes. Any atheist that has left religion has had to admit to himself he was wrong and wrong in a really big way. But, for me I wasn't upset or embarrassed I was just excited to learn something new by honestly following evidence.

I think that as atheists we sometimes don't recognise the paradigm clashes when making arguments. We must sound like stuck records to the religious, responding to their reasons for belief with the words, " But is it true ?" The real issue is that truth is not what is most important to the believer. There is a reason for the phrase " brutally honest." Admittedly it is better if what makes them feel good is true but they are ok if it is not, on the one condition that they never conclusively find that out.

I remember watching a segment on CNN last year. A boy who had down's syndrome wanted to play football for a high school team more than anything, but just didn't have the skill level. One day at the end of the season where the result of the game was a foregone conclusion, the coaches of the two teams got together and decided to allow the kid onto the field . It was agreed that the opposing players would not try to tackle him, he would be allowed to run right down the field unimpeded to score a touch down. I saw the play and it looked impressive. The boy was delighted to score his touch down and the players on his team embraced him like he had just won the FIFA World Cup. He was lifted shoulder high by his team mates and the entire crowd at the stadium were in uproar. He had people rushing up to him hounding him for his autograph.

The media were excited by the story praising both the coaches and all the players for the gesture they had done for this young disabled boy. In their opinion they had made a dream come true for this youngster and the value of that could not be measured. I sat and watched and shook my head. Was I the only person in the world that saw something wrong with this? The boy was happy, friends and family shed tears of unadulterated joy but it was all a LIE!! Sure the boy felt great today but just imagine if he were to ever find out what really happened, that could really shatter him for life. How would we feel if we were to find out tomorrow that all of our achievements were just given to us by others out of pity to make us feel good? This boy undoubtedly has real talent in some area and could with effort and dedication achieve something far more spectacular than even his teammates could imagine. That opportunity may have now been lost.

That tv moment illustrated to me why it is so hard to beat that religious feel good "high". Happy falsehood always seems to beat sober reality, but I am an optimist. I think we can build a new paradigm in society based on honesty and criticism. One where everyone is encouraged to give and take it as much as possible. A world where we smile and say thank you when somebody calls us an idiot; as we revel in the opportunity to correct a mistake. A world where truly and honestly there is nothing wrong with being wrong.


  1. Hi, I believe we were raised to be supreme people pleasers, and Christians are supreme Jesus pleasers and we are raised to be politically correct, therefore we cannot possibly be caught being wrong, ever.

    People pleasing is a learned behavior, from the fear of ridicule and being a coward of standing up to honesty.

    If you criticize someone to their face, you must immediately be prepared for a negative response in retaliation to your critique. So it's so much less painful to just go with the flow and be as dishonest as you can and say to hell with the whole fucking

  2. Yes,it's like a gentleman's agreement. I refrain from criticising so I can be free from criticism. Self preservation is always a good motivator.