Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is it Righter to be Nicer than it's Nicer to be Right?

OK, so here is blog post the second.  Thought I'd explain the title of my blog.

There have been times during debates or arguments about things like politics or religion that I have been informed that it might be more important to be nice than to be right, and I want to address that sentiment here.

The choice of words for the title is inspired by a line from the musical, Pippin:

"It's smarter to be lucky than it's lucky to be smart."

I have always loved that line, comparing "luckiness" on a scale of smartness (as if it were a choice) to "smartness" on a scale of luckiness, and it suggests that if you had the choice, then the "smart" choice is to be "lucky" (rather than "smart"), because "lucky" means good results pretty much by definition.  Likewise it may not be so "lucky" to be "smart" because even the smartest plans of go astray. 

But what about "niceness" verses "rightness".  Is it more "right" to be "nice" than it is "nice" to be "right"?

The most correct answer is both obvious and cowardly:  "It depends on the circumstances."  But what about a general, though not absolute principle?  In that case, my answer (that partially evades the question) is:

It is not nice to be wrong.
What do I mean?  Certainly you can be wrong about innocuous things without doing much harm.  Making a mistake does not imply that you have intentionally done something mean.  However, being wrong, when it has consequences, can often do harm -- can often have results that are "not nice."

For example, suppose you believe the recent hysteria blaming vaccinations for autism.  Perhaps you refuse to have your children vaccinated, and you encourage others to do likewise, with some success.  The end result, is children dying of measles and other diseases that had previously been eradicated, and not one child saved from autism, because the claim of a causal connection is completely unfounded.

Another example.  What if you believe that homosexuality is a sin.  That it is a matter of choice or a sickness that can be "cured".  Children who grow up in your family or community, who happen to have same-sex attraction due to their genetics, and perhaps also have opposite-gender personality traits may hear your condemnation of what they are, thus destroying their sense of worth, making them believe that they are evil or defective.  Any wonder if among gays there is a higher suicide rate?

Another example.  What if you believe in the biblical apocalypse?  What if you believe that "signs and portents" mean it is imminent?  If you area voter or a elected official, this may seriously influence your priorities.  After all, if the earth is pre-destined in a matter of year to descend into chaos, then cleansed by fire (rather than flood), and then a kingdom of heaven on earth will be founded, do we really need to worry about global warming?  Do we really need to worry about nuclear disarmament?  Ah heck, maybe the nukes will be God's method of engulfing the world in flame. 

The preceding are "big" examples on "big questions".  But even in day-to-day life, being wrong can have very negative consequences for yourself and those around you. 

I'm not suggesting that we all need to feel guilty about our inevitable mistakes.  We cannot help but make mistakes.  None of us can be right all the time, and the requirements of just getting things done each day mean we cannot devote the time and energy to research and think as much as we would like on any particular topic.

But what I am calling for, and promoting, is a certain passion for not being wrong
In any disagreement, there is automatically the implication by the other person the you personally are wrong about something.  To be told you are wrong carries the potential implication that your mental faculties are not up to snuff, or perhaps that you are "ignorant".  In other words, mere disagreement has the potential to be insulting.  If the topic raises passionate emotions, the potential for perceived insult is even greater.  If  you find yourself uncomfortable or feeling insulted in the course of a discussion, disagreement, debate with anyone... if you find yourself offended by the opinions I express in my blog or anywhere else on the web, then I ask you to stop and think to yourself: 

"I could be wrong."
If a person passionately argues their point of view, even if they seem arrogant in the confidence with which they express themselves, please consider that perhaps rather than trying to prove you wrong and make you feel stupid, perhaps rather than attempting to just "win" the argument, they are in effect trying to save you from a mistake -- a mistake which might not affect your day-to-day life, but which might nonetheless have indirect consequences for your community or the entire world.  Then also tell yourself, "They could be wrong." -- after all, since you still disagree with them, you actually must think they probably are wrong.  And consider that defending your own viewpoint right back at them might help them correct a mistake.

I personally have a passion for not being wrong.  It has nothing to do with wanting to feel superior.  I cannot say exactly where that passion comes from.  it is a passion for science and critical thinking.  In my personal life, perhaps it borders on a paralyzing compulsion, where in some situations I end up "not acting" until I'm sure I know the "right" thing to do.  "He who hesitates is lost" as it is said.  But it is also said, "look before you leap."  So there you have it.

But the process of critically examining and re-examining any and all beliefs and assumptions is also what makes science work.  It is why science has the "peer-review" process, which is really just the second line of defense (the researcher own inner critical thinking is the first line of defense).  After results are published the 3rd, 4th, 5th... lines of defense are all the debate, experimental tests, attempts to reproduce results, more debate.  In this way theories are hammered on until we can confidently say "this theory describes what happens in the real world, and we know it because we can look for ourselves, and see."

I happen to think all beliefs, held by all people, about pretty much anything that is not a subjective aesthetic opinion, should be held to the same standard.  I'm not saying we should all publish our beliefs in peer-reviewed journals.  I'm saying that the spirit of allowing our beliefs to be scrutinized, criticized and tested by reason and evidence should be regarded as a high virtue in and of itself.  Not the only important virtue, by any stretch, but a virtue nonetheless.

Striving to be right can help make the world a nicer place.

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