The joy of being wrong

In the early 1990s, physicist Andrew Lyne published a blockbuster paper in the journal Nature – one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. In the paper, Lyne claimed to have discovered a planet orbiting the neutron star PSR 1829-10. If true, this would have been the first discovery of a planet orbiting another star.

After publication, however, Lyne discovered a small, but significant error in his calculations. The error completely invalidated his findings. There was no such planet. Shortly afterwards, Lyne was scheduled to give a speech at a conference about his paper. Lyne went ahead with the engagement, but instead of speaking about the paper, he used the opportunity to frankly own up to his error, and retracted his findings.

The room responded by erupting into a standing ovation. The president of the American Astronomical Society at the time called Lyne’s talk “the most honorable thing I’ve ever seen.”

Adam Grant, the legendarily productive professor at the Wharton School of Business, tells this story in his fascinating book Think AgainHe also tells a similar, albeit less dramatic story about the Nobel prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman.

In addition to being the creator of so-called “prospect theory,” for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Kahneman is the author of the brilliant best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow, a classic in the field of cognitive psychology.

In Think Again, Grant recounts the time he gave a speech and Kahneman was in attendance. The speech was about Grant’s research related to his book Give and Take, which analyzes people based upon the categories of givers, takers, and matchers.

As Grant writes: “[Kahneman] told me afterward that he was surprised by my finding that givers had higher rates of failure than takers and matchers—but higher rates of success, too.” At which point, Grant adds, Kahneman’s “eyes lit up, and a huge grin appeared on his face. ‘That was wonderful,’ he said. ‘I was wrong.’”

Grant later asked Kahneman about the apparent delight he took in finding out that he had been wrong about something. “He said that in his eighty-five years, no one had pointed that out before, but yes, he genuinely enjoys discovering that he was wrong, because it means he is less wrong than before.”

One sometimes – and, I sometimes worry, increasingly – encounters a puzzling attitude to the effect that there is something untrustworthy and otherwise morally questionable about a person who changes his mind frequently. I call this puzzling, because experience suggests that the truth is, if not the opposite, very nearly the opposite.

“Very nearly”, I say, because there is a seed of truth here. Obviously, there is good reason to distrust someone who frequently changes his mind on matters of principle. To change one’s moral beliefs as easily as one changes one’s clothes suggests someone who is either unscrupulous or dangerously unmoored.

But when it comes to matters of fact, not only is changing one’s mind frequently not a sign of cowardice, it is quite often (as in the case of Andrew Lyne) a sign of courage. At a minimum, it is a sign of someone who is striving to ensure that his beliefs are formed by reality, instead of falling prey to the temptation to try to squeeze reality into the shape of his a priori beliefs.

On questions of fact, we ought to be willing to change our minds as quickly and as often as the evidence changes. Which, given the enormous complexity of this world, and the constantly shifting information landscape, on most practical matters is constantly.

This principle might seem obvious when spelled out this way. But if there’s anything that we’ve learned over the past two years, it’s that most of us are terrible at doing this. For whatever reason, we tend to integrate our beliefs about purely factual matters into our personal identity with astonishing rapidity. The consequence of which is that we tend to interpret information that casts doubt on our beliefs – even beliefs that we only came to mere hours or days ago – not as a welcome opportunity to update those beliefs to better reflect reality, but as an attack on our very selves.

Take, as a random example, the question of whether or not Covid is airborne – a  question that, in the early days of the pandemic, urgently demanded an answer. Clearly, this is not a moral question. Given which, even if someone originally believed, in good faith and based upon the best evidence available at the time, that Covid was not airborne, the only proper response to new and better evidence showing that Covid is airborne was to update their beliefs.

However, on this and a thousand similar matters we have repeatedly witnessed the truly strange spectacle of even highly credentialed experts responding to new evidence not with curiosity or gratitude, but with resistance and even anger. And if we are honest, we will admit that we all have, at some point or another, reacted to new information in a similar way – by digging in our heels and fighting backAs if we felt that we had some sort of a moral responsibility to be loyal to our prior, less-informed beliefs.

Which, clearly, we don’t. Indeed, the one and only moral responsibility we have in such matters is to do our best to get out of the way and allow our minds to be molded by things as they really are.

The truth of the matter, as we have so often learned over the past two years, is that there is very good reason to distrust people who don’t change their minds often: who tend to stake out a view, and then preach that view with the uncompromising zeal of an evangelist, projecting an attitude of certitude and treating any attack on their position as an attack on their integrity and on “The Truth™”. Who commit themselves so completely to a certain belief about a matter of fact, that they leave themselves not an inch in which to maneuver, should the data subsequently change. Who gather about their feet disciples who look to them not so much for truth, as for the comfort of clarity and certainty in the midst of confusion. And who, should the data come to contradict a publicly-stated position so thoroughly that persistence is no longer viable, quietly drop that belief without acknowledgement or correction.

On matters of moral principle, the world is urgently in need of more prophets. On matters of fact, however, it sometimes seems to me that we are suffering from a surfeit of self-appointed oracles – a surfeit that only seems to be accelerating the more we allow our ideological boundaries to calcify, and the more (as a consequence) we subsume purely factual matters under the flag of belief.

As the world grows increasingly complex, we must learn to look for experts like Kahneman: experts who carefully qualify their prognostications in caveats, who openly and in good humour acknowledge previous, erroneous beliefs and predictions, who spend as much time speaking about the things that they do not know as the things that they do know, who change their minds as frequently as the evidence changes, and who find pleasure in being proven wrong.

There are, after all, no bad truths. Even when a truth challenges our prior beliefs, or is deeply inconvenient for “our” side, the only sane response is Kahneman’s: to rejoice in the good fortune of being given the opportunity to be a little less wrong than before, and to change our minds accordingly

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