You’re Wrong

You may think you’re right, but you’re wrong about that too.

But what was I wrong about in the first place? you might ask. That’s a good question, but not important. The point here is just that you’re wrong.

This may seem like a ridiculous claim. A person can’t just be wrong; s/he has to be wrong about something in particular. You’d be right about that, except for just one problem: you’re wrong.

But I’m not wrong, you might say, and I can prove it. I say you can’t. You say, Well, how about 2 + 2 = 4? I’m not wrong about that, am I?

And the reply is, yes, obviously. Because 2 + 2 can only really equal 2 + 2. You can define 2 + 2 to be equal to 4, but that’s where you start to go off the tracks. Because defining 2 + 2 = 4 leads, pretty quickly, to strange creatures like division by zero (which cannot be defined in this number system), and irrational numbers, and numbers that cannot exist, like the square root of minus one. You can define yourself as being right, by defining 2 + 2 = 4, but that’s like defining yourself as Bill Gates and then living as if you were rich. It doesn’t add up.

Try again, if you’d like. The sky is blue? Which part of the sky? Where? Does the person blind from birth agree? Would you care to compare it against a color chip from the paint store, to make sure it’s not actually aqua or periwinkle?

The point here is not that everyone is always wrong about everything. It’s that it is hard to be right, and even harder to stay that way. When I say you’re wrong, I’m just generalizing, because you usually are.

Well, how about me, you might ask – am I not wrong too? Good question. If you think it’s important, I encourage you to get your own blog and write about it. But you’d be wrong – it’s really not important.

So, to clarify: yes, you can define 4 to be 2 + 2. You can define blue to be what a certain part of the sky is, at a certain place and time, as if it were possible to preserve that lost moment. You can carve out bits of being right, from a larger world in which you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

The reason you’re wrong is that being right tends to be a matter of contingencies and particulars, the tentative and usually temporary result of concerted effort in the face of a general reality of being wrong. On 3 + 9, you nailed it, but only because you had already given yourself that trophy, starting with your definition of things like 2 + 2. On that little spot of blue, congratulations, and big deal.

But surely you know things more important than that. Or do you? Example: you think your kids love you. Do they? Maybe. Janie, down the street, loved Jimmy, and that’s why she shot him. Do your kids love you like that? No, of course not. So you see. You have to define the word the way you want, and keep tweaking it until it doesn’t fit any of the situations that you don’t want to include. Your knowledge isn’t an apple that just falls off the tree into your hand. It isn’t an apple at all. It is a creaky little gizmo that you invented out of bits and pieces, and then tried to glue together. It takes work, the result looks awful, and it wants to fall apart.

Well, but doesn’t being right about lots of little things add up to being right on the big level, about some pretty impressive problems? Good question: does it? You’re right, in some ways, about things like hemoglobin, and viruses, and the body’s immune system, and somehow it all adds up to a polio vaccine. But (a) you, yourself, weren’t right about those things; invariably your path required reliance on other people, sometimes finding truths contrary to what you might have expected, and (b) what you were right about is still not keeping up with what you were wrong about. Among other things, polio is back. Again, congrats.

Collectively, the things you are right about are like the time when my brother’s wife got a job in a department store. They were always having sales. She would come home with new merchandise, telling him how much money they had saved. He said to me, Ray, I saved money yesterday on a new microwave. Last week I saved money on new drapes for the windows. I’m saving so much money, I’m going broke.

You are so right, these days, about so many important things, that humanity is at the point of jeopardizing its own existence, in a world that is on its way to becoming unliveable. If you were any more right, we would all be dead already. So keep it up – you’re doing a heckuva job.

* * * * *

See also this Kathryn Schulz excerpt and my own later post on the arrogance of experts.

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