A version of this post can also be found on the Robbins Library blog.
Humans are amazing. But we are very often wrong when we think – when we know – we are right. The example above easily illustrates how our powers of perception can mislead us. (Click on the image to see the proof and explanation.) This example is cited in the book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schultz, but there are hundreds of other examples, and optical illusions are only one way in which our perception of a thing can be inaccurate. We can be wrong – even when we think we’re right – in hundreds of ways, dozens of times a day. Comforting thought, isn’t it? It could be, if we accept Schultz’s assertion that “errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it.”
“That our intuition could lead us astray is troubling in direct proportion to the degree of trust we place in it.” -Leah Hager Cohen, I don’t know
If Being Wrong disturbs you, try Leah Hager Cohen’s book I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance and doubt (except when you shouldn’t). At just over a hundred pages, it gives a great return for time spent; in fact, I could easily see it becoming required reading for students entering high school or college. Cohen writes about learning to admit when we don’t know something, and goes further, asking, “but what about all those times we don’t know we don’t know?”
Both Schultz and Cohen warn about the danger of belief hardening into certainty, and emphasize the importance of doubt. Cohen writes, “Real civil discourse necessarily leaves room for doubt. That doesn’t make us wishy-washy…We can still hold fervent beliefs. The difference is, we don’t let those beliefs calcify into unconsidered doctrine.” She continues, “Fundamentalism of any kind is the refusal to allow doubt. The opposite of fundamentalism is the willingness to say ‘I don’t know.'”
For a quick, high-energy take on the same material, Hank Green (brother of John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, etc.) has a four-minute video entitled “Towering Mountains of Ignorance.” He says, “I’m glad that we have the desire to understand the world, that results in all sorts of great stuff. We want to know everything, we’re curious….But I think a lot of the time we end up mixing up thinking something with knowing something.”
Watch the whole video by clicking below.
Hank Green: “Now, I know that I don’t know, but somehow everyone else seems to know. They all know differently from each other, but they all seem to know. When you look at all deeply at this, you realize that people aren’t basing their opinions on what they think is the best course of action or the actual best explanation, they’re basing it on their values.”
“What I’m saying is nobody’s opinions are correct…and yet it’s impossible not to tie your opinions to your concept of self.” -Hank Green
In Being Wrong, Kathryn Schultz puts it this way: “The idea of knowledge and the idea of error are fundamentally incompatible. When we claim to know something, we are essentially saying that we can’t be wrong. If we want to contend with the possibility that we could be wrong, then the idea of knowledge won’t serve us; we need to embrace the idea of belief instead.” Call it what you want – knowledge, belief, opinions, values – it/they are “inextricable from our identities,” which is “one reason why being wrong can so easily wound our sense of self.”
The two books mentioned above, Being Wrong and I don’t know, are nonfiction, and I highly recommend them both to anyone and everyone. But fiction, too, can be useful, in that it allows readers to see from the point of view of someone different. The link between fiction and empathy is real (Scientific American, New York Times, this blog), and reading fiction, especially books where the narrators or main characters are very different from us, can help us break down what we think we know – especially what we think we know about other people.