The Joys of Being Wrong and the Benefits of Humility

Note: This is the seventh and final installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.

Even if one has learned to separate personal identity and position, there may be some lingering discomfort with being shown wrong. It can feel somewhat embarrassing and you may feel like you are losing credibility and reputation among your peers. This delusion of prestige is very dangerous and may make us dig our heels in into an untenable position.

This is called irrational escalation (also known as sunken cost fallacy). It occurs when one tries to justify spending additional time, money and effort into something by noting that the amount of time, money or effort already spent. A popular example is playing poker with a big pot that one has made a substantial contribution to and realizing that the hand one has is not as good as one thought. If your hand is bad enough, it may be beneficial to lay it down despite having put a lot of money into the pot, if playing the hand to the end will cost you more.

Similarly, this may make us ramp up the rhetoric and intimidation to subdue our current debating adversary. However, we should keep in mind the following question:

Would I rather “win” a discussion, or know what is right?

I am using “win” here not in the sense of actually having the most reasonable position, but to win a discussion in terms of getting your way without actually necessarily being right. Now to be sure, “winning” a discussion, especially if you have the evidence on your side and you deployed it with slick rhetoric, metaphorically annihilating all opposition, can sometimes be exciting and entertaining. The dichotomy is really a false one, because you can do both. But if it comes down to it and you had to pick one, which would you pick?

To pick the option of winning a discussion without actually caring about what is reasonable is an abdication of intellectual integrity. It is a sacrifice of content for empty rhetoric. In fact, it may be a typical feature of pseudoskepticism. The alternative path is deciding to want to know what is correct. This is a form of humility, because it is a tacit confession that one does not have all the answers and perhaps that one is not even capable of evaluating them should they appear.

So, from this perspective, being wrong, admitting it to yourself and changing your ways is actually a good thing. You have been saved from false beliefs and the risk of slipping into pseudoskepticism. Admitting to being wrong should not make you loose prestige, but rather it is a strength and mark of a person with a lot of intellectual integrity. Being humble helps this process.

There may be many benefits with humility: it may make you more susceptible to accepting that you are mistaken, may make others see you as more rational and less arrogant and If you quickly yield when you are shown wrong, it may make others take notice when you do not yield.

So how do we sum up this series? There are anti-rational and pseudoscientific forces out there that may not have science on their side, but employ slick rhetorical skills to try and sway people who have not read up on the facts. How should skeptics attempt to counter this, besides just “explaining the facts”? First, by learning the methods of pseudoskeptics, using multiple counter-strategies based on the best available science both in the specific field under discussion, but also in communication, persuasion etc. However, rhetoric without substance is probably unhelpful. We also need to excise our own selective rationality as best we can, often divorcing ourselves from our beliefs, using the principle of charity, never think that we are immune to cognitive biases and know what it would take for us to admit that we where wrong. Admitting to being wrong is a good thing: it saves us from believing false things and it is a sight of intellectual integrity. A good way to make this process as efficient as possible is by humility. It has many benefits, such as making you appear more rational and less arrogant.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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