Eran Aviram is editing, writing, designing, communicating and gaming

Don’t be right, be smart

Or: Talking is a free action, but a conversation requires rolls

I’m a skeptic, which to me means that figuring out what is true is important to me (in other words, I care about my epistemology, “how I know what is true”). This has led to me knowing a lot about fallacies and biases, about false stories and the reasons people might believe them.

And this has led me to conversations in which I talk with someone who brings up something that isn’t true.

“I don’t know, have you heard of the mummy’s curse?”

“You shouldn’t eat those, there’s chemicals in them”

(These are true yet obscure quotes)

My immediate response to such statements, and I suppose yours is too (unless yours is to avoid confrontation), is to state the fact that is true.

“There’s no such thing as a mummy’s curse.”

“Sure, but there are no dangerous chemicals in them.”

In other words, my immediate instinct is to correct the incorrection. The problem is, that this leads to a competition. We both know that we are right, and therefore, we both now feel the need to defend our positions. Their mind perceives an attack, and it’s not wrong about that, even if I didn’t mean to start an assault. I did, and they will now return the favour, and my mind will raise the fortifications.

This can lead to many places, but it’s unlikely to lead to a great resolution, such as any of us learning anything true. And if that’s the case – then why even say the true statement in the first place? We wanted to correct, but no correction was done. This is folly.

I might be wrong

Here’s what I’ve been trying to do instead, and when I do manage it, it works well.

When I feel the urge to correct, I remind myself to assume I might be wrong.

This is not the same as assuming I AM wrong, or that I am NOT right. Instead, it pushes at the Utter Truth sense I have about my statement. With this statement I’m gonna give, AM I really able to “correct” them? I might be wrong, so I’m not at all sure there’s gonna be a correction here. So instead, I should be careful, and investigate.

“I heard about the curse, yeah, I actually looked into it. From what I know, it’s a very interesting case of media sensationalism around survivor bias. “
Survivor bias? But they all died.”
“So actually just a few died, and, not at all in regards to the curse? The papers at the time were pushing headlines on this, because of how popular it was, but…” (for more info, listen to this great episode)

Or,

“What chemicals specially are you worried about?”
“I donno, it’s all artificial stuff”
“I don’t think artificial stuff is inherently bad? I mean almost all food everyone eat has been handled by some man-made thing. And people are generally much healthier today than in the past.”
“That’s wrong, people are more sick then ever, there’s a Science article about this”
“If that’s true, that’s quite something. I follow a few epidemiologists on Twitter and sometimes I see some interesting graphs about various “healthy stuff”, and in general, they all seem to say that things are getting much better. May I see that article?”

This becomes a mutual enquiry, which goes on as long as both of us are interested in it. Many times, they aren’t all that interested in the first place, or the explanation on my part threatens to stretch so long that they’re bored and no longer care. So it’s very possible that I won’t change their mind.

Which is just fine, because that shouldn’t have been my aim in the first place. As a professional “convincer of people”, who studies this topic vigorously, I have come to learn that it’s extremely rare that I manage to change anyone’s mind with a single conversation, and I’m a professional. Usually, people are convinced of a fact after being exposed to it multiple times, from different angles. And different people are convinced by different means.

So what IS your goal, when engaging in an inquiry to correction? You do you, but here are mine.

  1. Someone else who is exposed to this might be convinced. Maybe it helps them on their journey to develop a new understanding. Maybe this specific method of explanation resonates with them.
  2. I might learn something new. Perhaps I am wrong, my sources are incorrect, or my memory is faulty.
  3. It satisfied my need to provide some answer to an incorrect statement. Even if my conversation partner doesn’t wish to continue the inquiry, I did my part, and that’s enough. It’s no longer on my shoulders.
  4. As an added bonus, it teaches my partner the epistemological tools I use to figure out what’s true. Or even better, if their tools are better, I get to learn them.

But what about the ego?

This is not a sarcastic question, the ego really is very important.

I have some self esteem issues, and feeling corrected sometimes makes me very angry. On the opposite end, correcting others can make one feel very good with themselves, superior. I dislike feelings of superiority and I also think that this is bad epistemology – if maintaining your healthy ego depends on you constantly feeling superior, it pushes you to keep believing that you’re right, and away from believing someone else might have the answers. Or in other words, it is detrimental to accepting you might be wrong.

But the ego deserves a solution. I believe it’s important for us all to have a healthy ego, to feel worthy.

My suggestion is to disengage worthiness from being right. Or in other words, just because I know stuff, that doesn’t make me more or less worthy. This means that if I am then discovered to be wrong, this doesn’t make me less worthy.

When I indeed manage to believe this – and it takes practice and effort – than I’m in a pretty good place. My ego is no longer in the way when I try to figure out what’s true, to have a conversation with someone. Instead, it sits to the side, ambivalent. My ego is already ambivalent about my knitting skills, so it’s not like it’s impossible.

This has many useful consequences. For example, it means that ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. We are all ignorant of many things, and the reason I am less ignorant about some things is mostly due to my incredible privileges and circumstances of my birth and upbringing. I don’t think I should feel proud for things that are out of my control, and so, people should not feel ashamed for their own situation. No question is a “dumb question”, and no question requires a “I feel stupid for asking this, but”. All questions are welcome! They show you wish to learn!

The things that are worthy of pride or shame are effort and desire – I am proud of my willingness to try and be smart instead of right, and I’m proud of writing this article. I could have played some game instead.

In conclusion

I try to be smart, not right. I did not come up with this, it’s actually an idiom in Hebrew, that I’ve taken to heart. I also didn’t come up with this way of conversation; I’m a student of the subject, as I mentioned above, and I’m happy to recommend places like Street Epistemology or this book list, which I didn’t read but I keep seeing many of them mentioned by personalities I follow and learn from.

To sum up, I think it’s important to learn the truth, I think it’s important to develop the best tools to help you to do so, and I think that it’s better for me not to exempt conversations from these tools. When I speak with others, I should be, as I always should be, careful about what I perceive as true. I have the privilege to have the state of mind and spoons to do so on a pretty regular basis, and I personally see it as my responsibly to do so. If you’re in the same boat, I hope this has been helpful; I am, obviously, open to corrections.