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How To Be Wrong

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How To Be Wrong

You know that sinking feeling you get in your stomach? The moment when your mouth dries out and your head spins a little? That is the feeling of realizing that you are wrong—that you have said something that is incorrect, untrue, completely false. I am beginning to think that one of the reasons it’s so hard for people to admit that they’re wrong owes to the sheer shock of the event—the disbelief and embarrassment that comes with being called out for saying something that is contradicted by evidence. Still, even if that is the case it seems that most people can’t get past this brief moment of psychological paralysis and admit their mistake. They must fight on, never surrender, and never give quarter or ground to the people they’re up against.

You have no doubt seen such people. They will yell, scream, change the subject, knock the sense out of words, and cast aspersions on the source of the facts that contradict their position—they will, in short, do anything to never, in their mind, be wrong. Such performances are the norm in politics, but with the rise of social media it is possible to see just how common it is for ordinary people to refuse to admit when they’ve been defeated on a matter of fact. Indeed, people often confuse matters of fact with matters of principle. This often happens when the latter are closely aligned to an ideology—which can ensnare even the brightest minds into a web of ideas and concepts so strong and expansive that it crowds out common sense.

Much is made of the fragmentation of media and how it allows people to go to news streams, blogs, and other sites to get information that confirms their views. However, the phenomenon is not limited to news and politics. Entire communities composed of interrelated groups and virtual sites can be entered into by individuals who seek to define themselves by a certain lifestyle or by a particular identity. Such communities tend to focus on issues that affect only their members. If you join one, you will be bombarded by facts and figures generated with the sole aim of causing outrage and anger. The information may seem detailed and precise, but it rarely contains the whole truth; and when you debate the matter with people outside your group, you will inevitably run up against someone who has a more comprehensive grasp of the facts and is able to give argument that essentially refutes your position.

You should join a cause or a lifestyle group if you are moved to, for solidarity is an innate human instinct. However, you should develop good practices for responding to the times when you’re proven wrong. You can begin by acknowledging the psychological effects that I discussed above. Know that this will happen and learn how to best cope with it. You may need to walk away from the person or the computer screen, as the case may be, to absorb the shock of the moment.

Next, you might acknowledge that what you stated was incorrect and gather facts from a much more reliable source to make the same point. I was in this situation a few months ago. I used a quote that was erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson and was called out on it. I did my own re-verification and it turns out I was indeed wrong. I then went to a much more solid source of scholarship and was able to find another document in which Jefferson conveyed the same ideas in different (his own) words. I then acknowledged my error (on FB), took down the original quote, and put up the new one. You can also take the route of acknowledging your error and then adding a dose of humor (about yourself) to add levity to the moment. It’s never good to take yourself too seriously.

Being wrong won’t kill you. There are many ways to do it without getting down on yourself. The most essential trait for acknowledging error is intellectual integrity. That is, the ability to respect truth no matter where it comes from. It is not something you’re born with; it is something that you must work to attain. Once you have it, however, you will learn how to be wrong with grace, dignity, and minimum loss of face.

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About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.

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