The Joy of Discovering You Were Wrong

British environmentalist Mark Lynas, apologizing for being wrong about genetically modified crops.

British environmentalist Mark Lynas, apologizing earlier this year for being wrong about genetically modified crops.

I haven’t always been near the center when it comes to politics. In high school, where I began to love politics, I was a religious conservative. My conservatism eventually became so powerful that I had to find a way to become more right-wing, and I became a passionate libertarian, in the style of Ayn Rand. Finding that too moderate, I even became an anarcho-capitalist, favoring no government at all. Despite myself, I sort of came back to the mainstream after a while, and described myself as a conservative with libertarian tendencies. Over the course of my two-year volunteering mission I lost a lot of intellectual prejudices, and I’ve ended up with the beliefs I happen to have right now, of neoliberal economic views and moderate social views.

So I’ve proven myself wrong many times. And if the pattern continues, then in a few months’ time, I’ll probably have changed my mind on a lot of things. I can’t be certain that I won’t be persuaded to approve of the minimum wage I spent my last blog post criticizing, even though at the moment I’m pretty certain it’s a bad thing. And I’m okay with this. I’ve had my mind changed enough times that I can’t with much confidence privilege my current opinions simply because I happen to hold them now.

The moment you discover you’re wrong is at first painful. I used to spend a lot of time and effort convincing myself that anthropogenic climate change wasn’t real, pitting my biased worldview against a huge amount of scientific evidence. I was able to create barely-plausible chains of reasoning that could preserve my rational disbelief. But eventually I had the thought, as I so often now have, that I might be wrong. Fortunately, I gave myself permission to explore that thought. When I realized my blinding bias, there came the hot, almost moral shame of wrongness. But as it passed, I felt clearer, elevated and freed to think without the mental restrictions I had created for myself. It really was joyful. I’ve had similar moments on issues like immigration, tax policy and health care.

British environmentalist Mark Lynas made a public apology earlier this year for being wrong about genetically modified crops. He recounted his own process of realizing he was wrong:

“Incredibly, at this time in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage.

Obviously this contradiction was untenable. What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because because it is marketed by the big auto companies?

So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.”

This isn’t to convince you about climate change or genetically modified crops, or anything else in particular. Because who knows when we’ve really arrived at the right conclusion? Even our moments of clarity can eventually turn out to be tainted with untruth, as my continuous shifts in political ideology show.

What I’m fairly certain of is that I shouldn’t take my conscious beliefs too seriously. I’m a human–not a machine that produces truthful statements or that even can always accept them healthily. This perspective makes me much more sympathetic to people who disagree with me. I don’t see our differences as a battle between good and evil or truth and untruth–just as the natural consequence of imperfect humans thinking about things. I really love the moments that correct my ignorant (or even willful) errors, because I feel it’s then I’ve been given a gift–of having a little more truth in my life.

Let me know about the times you’ve found out you were wrong, and whether you found the same kind of joy in the discovery.

2 thoughts on “The Joy of Discovering You Were Wrong

  1. I can’t say I like being wrong about relationships or financial investments, but I LOVE finding out I was wrong about ideas, philosophy and such. That doesn’t cost anything but time, and the joy of new learning is quite a thrill. And I know I’ll be wrong again, because history, culture and my own levels of understanding are always changing. Sometimes I’ll be in sync, sometimes I won’t.

    As far as the subject you describe, I call myself “post-political”, because I don’t believe the currently available labels adequately describe the complexity and nuance with which people react to issues. I find them counter-productive and unnecessarily polarizing in debate or discussion. So I try to approach the individual, ask directly, “What would you do?”, and ignore it if they try and put me in a box.

    • Great point; it’s not fun being wrong when there’s a heavy price to pay for it.

      I don’t mind political labels to the extent that they help describe my general outlook, so I don’t have to go into the details. The problem is when others take a descriptive label and equate it with being on a certain political team. For example, some people act as if a conservative can’t possibly agree with the Democrats on anything.

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