Wrong! Yet again.

The concerned wife phoned her husband, who was out on the road: “Honey, be careful out there! The TV says someone’s driving the wrong way on the Interstate.”The answer came back: Somebody? There’s hundreds of ‘em!”

My entire life I’ve been told, in a variety of ways – sometimes it’s subtle, gentle, sugar-coated, cautious, but more often (because blunt works better) it’s crisp and pointed:

“You’re wrong.”

This message, whether plain-spoken or ornately embellished, has come from all sides. From parents. From my brother. From the kids. From neighbors. Colleagues. Bosses. Employees. Strangers. From readers of this blog.

You know who you are.

And what’s more, you’ve always been right! Sitting here, wracking my brain, going back through 70+ years of memories, I struggle to recall an instance where you weren’t justified in your criticism.

So… thank you!

Over the years, this reality has shaped me, made me who I am. For example, even though you may think I’m in arrears in my apologies to you personally, I tend to apologize, early and often, to almost everyone else. (Some of you have shared with me that this practice of mine is itself wrong. One of my former bosses, Vernon Derr, put it this way in an exasperated moment: “Don’t apologize! Your enemies won’t believe you, and your friends don’t need to hear it.” So of course, you all are right to say this as well.)

A second impact is that any and all vignettes on this subject, from whatever source, make an impression. I can’t stop thinking about them. They become part of a store of memories. I then inflict them, repeatedly, on everyone I know.

Today it’s your turn.

A week ago I was having lunch with a good friend, who is former military and today on the faculty of the National Defense University – one of the smartest people I know. He recommended a TED video, a few years old now, by Kathryn Schulz, on being wrong, based on her book by that title. Two aspects of her talk stood out. First, early on, she asked the audience what it felt like to be wrong. She got the answers you’d expect: “It’s embarrassing. I felt ashamed. I felt wretched…” But she said, “No, that’s what it feels like to know you’re wrong. But to simply be wrong is to feel the same as it does to be right.” She referred to the old road-runner cartoons. The coyote would chase the roadrunner off the cliff, and be perfectly okay until the moment he looked down. Not much different from our friend driving on the interstate. She pointed out that no matter what our past history, we tend to live in a present, where, to our minds, we’re always feel we’re right, no matter what we’re saying or doing. Only when someone takes the trouble to bring us up short does our mindset change.

But most often, not at first. Here’s what Ms. Schulz had to say next:

She turned to the knowledge deficit model. You and I know this one. Scientists, say, reach certain conclusions about reality – doesn’t matter whether it’s how children learn, or climate change, or vaccinations, or genetically modified crops or whatever – only to learn that policymakers and the public disagree. It’s easy and natural for scientists to conclude that policymakers and the public suffer from a knowledge deficit – if only they knew what scientists knew, they’d be in agreement with scientists.

(By the way, husbands also initially think the same thing when they and their spouses are in disagreement: if she knew what I knew, she’d be on my side. And call me politically incorrect, but my experience has been, at least with my own spouse, and observing other relationships, that women are less prone to this kind of thinking than men. Maybe some reader has actual data to support or confute this perceived bias.)

So far, nothing new, at least to me. But Ms. Schulz carried this a couple of steps further. She said when we encounter someone with a knowledge deficit, then (irony alert!), out of the goodness of our hearts, our first response is to share with them the bounty of our surplus knowledge. To our dismay, we often find that this sharing fails to change minds. So, we reach a second conclusion: “Thanks to my generous sharing, this person now knows what I know, but still doesn’t see things my way. Poor soul! He/she must therefore be less capable of reason.” Once again, we generously share, this time the entire logical chain of our thought process. But according to Ms. Schulz, this often brings us a third level: “This person now has all the facts. This person now understands the rationale. This person still doesn’t agree.”

 “We therefore conclude,” she says, “This person must be evil.”

Wow. Talk about the light bulb going on. Ms. Schulz is a journalist, a free-lance writer, a popularizer. But this sure feels like expert social science[1]. You and I see this polarizing process at work across our society. First, with respect to the major issues of our times: poverty, justice, religion, politics, and more. And then down to the specifics: Admissions practices at universities. Abortion. Race. Sexuality. Immigration. The Keystone pipeline. Coral bleaching. Benghazi. Gun ownership. Our dog. The neighbor’s dog.

Not a shade of grey to be seen in any of these issues, or thousands more. They’re all simple black and white.

Earth scientists might be inclined to be smug. We might point to meteorology and the prediction of weather, an inherently chaotic system. Our methodologies are all tentative, iterative. They’re predicated on frequently, quickly detecting departures of forecasts from reality and re-initializing, starting over with our observations and numerical predictions.

But “smug” doesn’t suit particularly well. Consider this Union of Concerned Scientists blogpost on the “House Science Committee’s witch hunt against NOAA’s scientists.” The UCS folks have a point. Demanding years’ worth of documents be delivered in a two week period is clearly onerous. And yet the path of causation seems to go back to an earlier letter from a small group of scientists that the White house consider using RICO statutes to go after climate skeptics. (The letter suggesting this was subsequently pulled after causing a small firestorm, but the damage had been done.) In fact, the path of causation extends back decades now, with all parties to the discussion having quickly progressed to Kathryn Schulz’s third conclusion: the person who disagrees with me must be evil.

What’s more, it turns out you and I don’t have to be meteorologists to get in touch with this iterative, tentative, make-and-correct-errors way of approaching problems. We all do this every day when we get behind the wheel of our automobiles. We have destinations in mind, but at every moment in our journey we’re correcting one of four mistakes. We’re either going too fast, too slow, too far to the right, or too far to the left. We’re wrong. We’re expecting to be wrong, and we’re constantly looking for early signals we’re wrong, and making any needed adjustments. We’re also not expending a lot of emotional energy on it. (Excepting road rage – another discussion. But perhaps given what we’ve been considering so far, completing that sidebar is left as an exercise for anyone interested.)

If we can have this awareness with respect to something as simple as driving, surely we’re capable of holding the same approach towards weightier, more complex challenges that we’re all facing together. With respect to every issue that polarizes, we could be less interested in assigning blame and more interested in collaborating in a search for truth.

We might make it our goal to try that approach for 24 hours. And then, if we like the results, another 24.

By the way, if there’s any community in touch with what it feels like to be wrong and know it, it’s the country-and-western community – the songwriters, and singers and listeners all celebrate what it’s like to be wrong and live with the consequences. My favorite of this genre is a hit song recorded by Deborah Allen back in 1984. You can find the lyrics here, but you’d really rather hear the song.


There was in world history one, and only one, figure who was acknowledged by all who knew him well to be perfect… a man who never was wrong and never did wrong. Those who experienced him reported that what they found most astounding was not that he was right all the time, but that he did not seem to judge others on the basis of his righteousness. Instead, according to accounts, he also seemed to be the man most willing – in fact, the only one willing – to extend grace and love and respect to everyone around him.

In a few hours, I’m leaving to spend a few days on this man’s home turf. Of course he lived there 2000 years ago. He’s not there any more. Or is he? According to many people he’s here, everywhere, with all of us and accessible all the time now, so there’s no need for any traveling.

In any event, I’m going to walk where he walked, and see what he saw. I’ll reflect on what he thought and what he shared with us. I’ll also see the churches and hotels and commercial establishments that have sprung up since he left. The fact is, people haven’t stopped talking about him, and the buzz is growing – more and more people are getting interested all the time. I’m hoping to get in touch with a Mindset that is all knowing, infinitely rational, knows I’m wrongheaded – and yet doesn’t see me as evil.

It just might change my life.

[1]Again, if you have actual literature to reference, please share.

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2 Responses to Wrong! Yet again.

  1. When having a discussion it helps to get the facts right. I think that using the RICO statute against Exxon Mobil would increase political polarization and get in the way of science communication, but Exxon Mobil is to blame for using tobacco company methods of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about global warming after their own scientists told them it was a real and present danger. No one is suggesting to use RICO against self-proclaimed “skeptics” for expressing their beliefs and opinions. Exxon management is alleged to have started the campaign to attack climate science to protect Exxon’s profits.

    Their is no good rationalization or justification for Lamar Smith’s attack on NSF, NOAA and the peer review process. The private communications of scientists are none of his business. He is abusing the privacy and first and fourth amendment rights of scientists. This is a gross abuse of the power of his position in government by a hypocrite who claims to believe in small government. Science is America’s engine of progress. Mr Smith’s malignant meddling in science is anti-science and anti-progress.

    • William Hooke says:

      To whom it may concern:

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment. You stress getting the facts right… and you’ve certainly made a start. Probably could have added many more if you’d had the time. Certainly using RICO against Exxon Mobil would increase political polarization and get in the way of science communication. We may be seeing the beginnings of those troubles already. Few would absolve Exxon Mobil from blame. These particular Congressional attacks on NOAA look more like bullying than a simple good faith effort to seek truth.

      Can you take this a step further? How would you recommend we move away from political polarization, impeded science communication, name-calling, and focus on blame and toward collaboration, open discussion, mutual respect, and focus on the common challenges we all face? What actions would you like to see all parties take?

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