On being wrong

I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come. Lord Molson British politician, 1903-1991

“It is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire. Thucydides

Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes. George Soros

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know, that’s a really good argument, my position is mistaken,” and then they actually change their minds, and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. Carl Sagan

Those of you who are regular readers of my blog will know that a common trope is the prevalence of failure in our world. I have done pieces such as Classic cock-ups, Really terrible predictions and Creative destruction in the financial sector. Today I want to look at this topic but from a psychological perspective- how we react to being wrong. Psychologists talk about cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance argues that we do all we can to reduce dissonance. This can be done in two ways: We can change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours. We are loathe to do that and so the alternative is try to justify or rationalise them. I have no problem being wrong – we live in an incredibly complex word – but we should be able to admit these mistakes and go on from there. I want to look at different examples to show how we seek self-justification.

Surely one of the classics has to be what is known as The Great Disappointment. This refers to an incident in 1844 involving the Millerite sect of Christianity. The leader William Miller had set a precise date for the end of the world October 22, 1844. Followers gave their belongings away before the day. Here is one follower said:

I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come; – I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.”

You would imagine that his supporters would have been a bit miffed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reaction among many of Miller’s adherents was that nothing had happened because they had prayed. The term true-believer syndrome, which was coined by M. Lamar Keene, is perfect for describing this mentality. People will continue to believe in a paranormal event or phenomenon even after it has been proven to have been staged. In 1988, when the magician and debunker James Randi, coached stage performer José Alvarez to pretend he was channelling a two-thousand-year-old spirit named “Carlos”. Even after it was revealed to be a fictional character created by himself and Alvarez, many people refused to believe that “Carlos” was not real. Randi commented: “no amount of evidence, no matter how good it is or how much there is of it, is ever going to convince the true believer to the contrary.”

I also find the appeal of communism mysterious – I see it as a secular religion. In particular I detect a lack of self-criticism. Maybe, I haven’t found those articles or books. In his talk on the enigma of capital David Harvey did say something about Soviet communism not being dynamic enough, whatever that means. Of course next time will be different. There will be more ethical people in charge or they won’t make the same mistakes. And we will have heaven on earth.

Recent events in the world of finance have left some looking very bad. One of these must surely be Myron Scholes, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering work on valuing options. This should make you suspicious. Then he was involved in a hedge fund called Long Term Capital Management. It couldn’t go wrong but in 1998 it imploded losing billions. Nicholas Nassim Taleb argued that Scholes shouldn’t be in Washington lecturing on risk but in a retirement home doing Sudoku. But listen to the words of the great man himself:

Most of the time, your risk management works. With a systemic event such as the recent shocks following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, obviously the risk-management system of any one bank appears, after the fact, to be incomplete. We ended up where banks couldn’t liquidate their risk, and the system tended to freeze up.

Does this man have no shame? I particularly enjoyed his reference to “most of the time.

There are so many other things I could have talked about such as the war in Iraq where no WMDs were discovered, the US troops were not showered with flowers by locals, the enormous cost of the war was not paid for with oil revenues and Iraq is not currently enjoying Western-style democracy. There was some idealism in the Bush administration, when you compare it to the Kissinger style. But they seemed to dislike reality. Bush and his aides attacked the “reality-based community.” This was defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality… That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”  Unfortunately reality is not optional.

I have tried to show that no one religion, ideology or worldview has a monopoly on cognitive dissonance. Why do fail to see things as they really are? I think there are a number of reasons. First of all we invest a lot of time, credibility and self-image in our worldviews. It is extremely painful to admit that we may well have been wrong; holding these views gives us comfort. This is why I was so fascinated by what Alan Greenspan said when the financial crisis broke. He simply couldn’t believe what had happened- it went against everything he believed about how the world worked. I think there are also lessons for Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists. if you tell people that they are stupid, then they are not going to say “Oh you’re right. Everything I believed was wrong. From now on I’m going to be an atheist.” The world is complicated and our knowledge is imperfect. Solutions, if they exist at all, may well only be partial. We are going to go making mistakes and then trying to justify them.

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One Response to On being wrong

  1. Carlos says:

    haha nice one. loved this phrase:

    if you tell people that they are stupid, then they are not going to say “Oh you’re right. Everything I believed was wrong. From now on I’m going to be an atheist.”

    another good example is the surrending of hirohito after world war II.

    Anyways, i tend to think that those who have more problems with changing their minds and accepting that they were wrong are those who are/were more irrational. I couldn’t agree more with Carl Sagan’s quotation. I’m really used to agreing and disagreing with my mathematician collegues and we have no problem on admitting our mistakes if the arguments that others have given are better/true. I see and do that every day, because we believe in arguments, proofs and reasoning as the way of getting the truth. However, if we think we are right, we are the most stubborn people, and this could lead to things like the phrase i loved.

    This last thought may be a good idea for a new entry on your blog (which you could easily relate with this and the one about fallacies): “on being right”

    PS: i still gotta explain myself about reductio ad absurdum. i will. eventually

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