Sunday, May 08, 2011

Are You Wrong Or Right? How Do You Tell?

 Kathryn Schulz' TED talk looks into the idea of differentiating between abstractly understanding that humans are fallible ... and in the moment where we live, assuming that we are always right.


Kathryn Schulz: On being wrong

There is definitely wide appeal to being "right" - even when we are not. Sometimes it can seem as though we would rather cling to the idea that we are right, instead of learning and being able to update our knowledge to the facts.

Then of course some things are not right or wrong. They are subjective and where this is the case, we need to remember to respect the perspective of others. Unfortunately there seems to be a trend toward treating objective issues (evidence is available) as though what we want to believe is so and that the objective issue is a subjective one. You'll have seen this in action with the current 'debate' on climate change. Here's more on that in this recent article:The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science

Rushing To Judgment

All this need to feel right could be said to be a factor of our skill at taking scraps of information and filling in the missing pieces with bits that we make up so that we can derive a meaning for what we see. While that is useful in some contexts, it can lead us to effectively hallucinate elements that just are not there. If our need for meaning is greater than our interest in veracity then we can rush to judgment without having sufficient data on which to make an elegant opinion based on all the relevant aspects.

Our language can work against us in this regard, since the way we communicate - the way we organise our thoughts, can lead us into leaving out important elements. We delete bits of information (or fail to notice them), think in shorthand ways that take up only the things we notice, not the things we see but don't notice, and discount things that don't fit with what we already hold as an opinion.  Opinions too, are often a collection of personal biases and wish-this-was-so positions, with no evidence to support their validity. When we add this together we have a perfect brew to create situations of emotional turmoil and misunderstanding.  Perhaps the best start to getting more useful skills in this area is to learn to change perceptual position. That is to not only see the situation from our own point of view, but to also imagine what must be so to make true the opposite view. To do this though, we need to be able to suspend judgment long enough to really observe cleanly without adding our own baggage.

Imagine yourself in a place without judgment. Observing. Noticing. Not creating meaning, just seeing without judgment for now.  Let's call this Nerk-Nerk. A place of Not-Knowing.


Todd Epstein in Pragmatics, dreamed up Nerk-Nerk as the name of a fictitious space alien who has the exact same nervous system and physical characteristics of human beings, but none of the perceptual, linguistic or cultural assumptions. Nerk-Nerk has studied and is familiar with all forms of human language, but is incapable of making the deletions, generalizations and distortions that most human beings do habitually while communicating verbally with one another. Nerk-Nerk is only able to understand and respond to fully specified sensory based descriptions and instructions.

Not-Knowing can be uncomfortable. It is sometimes said that men have a tendency to want to provide answers to women when they are just venting. This can irritate women, and confuse men. Surely if someone is talking about an issue that is distressing them in some way, then they must want a solution. This is not necessarily the case. It should be noted that this happens the other way around too and men don't necessarily want a solution, or need one from the person to whom they are venting. Keep that in mind. Not knowing doesn't have to be a permanent state. Ultimately we are able to navigate effectively through life by making judgments. We need to be able to do this to function fully. Making judgments in itself is perhaps not the problem. It is when we get attached to the judgment - rather than to understanding what is really the case, that we create the bother.

It feels good to be right. It feels much better, and is much more useful to be informed and right. For now. Given what we know so far. 

Context really is Everything.

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