I was wrong
January 10, 2015
January 10, 2015

In one of my classes, a classmate of mine got into a debate with our professor. After a while, a few students started to join in, and it became a back and forth between us students and the professor. Eventually, we moved on from the debate without really deciding on who was right, but then during the next meeting, the professor comes in to class and basically says, “I thought about it, and I think you had a point.”

John2

Now this professor, he was a long-tenured professor, a Ph.D. holder, and is someone who I personally regard as one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. So for him to come in and basically tell us that he was wrong and we were right, that left a big impression on me.

One of the things I’ve noticed in college is that a lot of people aren’t interested in being wrong. Of course, no one wants to be wrong, but this has debilitated our ability to exchange ideas. Because we don’t want to be wrong, we often don’t listen to ideas that contradict beliefs we already hold; sure, we might hear the words and make sense of them, but it’s not really listening if we don’t give these ideas a genuine opportunity to be right. Just as damaging, perhaps, is our hasty acceptance of arguments that support our existing beliefs.

And this is usually how debates go. You choose a side and you defend that side stubbornly. You break down and try to find a fault in your opponent’s arguments, rejecting the argument the moment it’s brought up. You’re never really considering whether the other person could be right. It’s like when people cheer for their favorite sports team, and every win is ‘well-earned’ while every loss is the result of match-fixing.

This is perfectly illustrated by the reaction of people towards the QS university rankings released earlier this year. When news came out that DLSU slid in the rankings, and that we were behind our peers over at Diliman and Katipunan, there were a lot of people who began to scrutinize the methodology behind the rankings. But when another ranking this year (it might have been a bogus one, if I recall correctly) came out with DLSU ahead of our Diliman and Katipunan counterparts, the critical comments were instead replaced by cheers of “Animo La Salle!”

There’s nothing wrong with being critical. We all have the capacity to be such and I really can’t emphasize its importance. In fact, I agree with the objections to the QS rankings. However, the problem is we often lack consistency in exercising that capacity to be critical.

In psychology, they call this phenomenon confirmation bias, and it says that people tend to favorably interpret or notice information which confirms their beliefs while disregarding those that oppose it. There have also been several experiments that have people exhibit this bias.

In one experiment done by psychologist Peter Wason, he would introduce subjects to a three-numbered sequence, usually “2-4-6,” which had an underlying rule. Now subjects could introduce their own sequence, and Wason would confirm if it was consistent with the rule. Most subjects would offer sequences like “8-10-12,” thinking that the rule was to have any sequence of numbers wherein the middle number was the average, but in fact, the rule was to have any sequence of ascending numbers. So instead of trying sequences that would check if their hypotheses were wrong, people would mostly offer sequences that fit the rule in their head. This approach, however, doesn’t really bring them closer to the truth (there are YouTube videos that have people trying out this experiment for those interested).

And I’ve recently come to understand that in science, that great paragon of inquiry, a lot of progress is made by trying to prove things wrong. Theories like gravity are held true only until they have been falsified. Some of the greatest discoveries in science have come about because the discipline has allowed itself to be wrong: the Ptolemaic model was eventually replaced by the Copernican model; The earth was eventually accepted to be round; the Newtonian laws of physics were forever altered by Einstein’s theories of spacetime. Indeed, progress happens when we allow ourselves—or try to prove ourselves wrong.

But we don’t practice this in our daily lives, possibly because we’re too prideful to allow ourselves to lose. It hurts to lose because we often have a personal stake vested in our opinions, but this hinders us from creating better opinions, and it keeps us from listening to others.

We often talk, talk, talk to share our opinion, but we often forget that communication is a two-way street. Aside from giving our opinions, it’s important we listen, and that’s not just hearing the vibrations in someone else’s vocal cords, but it’s also giving the other side a legitimate chance of winning us over.

I talk about this topic at the risk of being a hypocrite; looking back at my own college life, I’ve probably been one of the biggest offenders of not allowing myself to be wrong. But more recently I’ve been trying to be self-conscious of listening to others and trying to accept when I’m wrong. Admittedly, it’s still a work-in-progress.

Though in the short time that I’ve been trying, I’ve found that it’s so much more productive to discuss ideas when my ego doesn’t have a vested interested in my opinion. As a result, I feel like my ideas are opening up and my beliefs are getting stronger.

I’ve also found that it can be extremely liberating uttering the words, “I was wrong,” and “You have a point.” It can be hard at first, but it’s something I feel we all need to work on.

After all, if some of the greatest minds in history can be proven wrong, then what right have we to act otherwise?

John Sarao