It’s OK to be Wrong

Allen Faulton
9 min readMar 23, 2022

An Article of the Modern Survival Guide

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

Let’s lay some cards on the table: I’m human, and you’re human. Right? Right. And it is human to err, right? Right. So from time to time I’m going to be wrong. So are you. We need to come to terms with that. Right.

This seems like a really simple concept for a series titled “The Modern Survival Guide,” where you might expect to see articles about hackers, bank transfers, and the constant threat of the zombie apocalypse, but the truth of the matter is that there are very few things that will screw you up more than refusing to admit that a decision, opinion, or action that you made, hold, or did was… wrong.

Folks, if you take nothing else away from this article, take this little tidbit from a rando on the internet: IT IS OK TO BE WRONG.

It is not OK to pretend that your wrong decision, action, or opinion is actually right. If you know that you’re wrong, that’s fine— but you need to make a change. Your decisions, opinions, and actions don’t have to be hills you die on, and it is not only OK but the preferred course of action to change these things if presented with evidence that they are incorrect.

Now, that sounds perfectly simple and very much like something we ought to be teaching kindergarteners, and it is. It’s also something that every adult needs to be reminded of on a regular basis, because it is so easy to always be right.

We live in a world of internet echo chambers, pandering politicians, sleazy religious figures, and curated friend lists. It is consequently very, very easy to fall into a place where you only ever hear one opinion; it’s easy to be “right” all the time, if you only ever hear that opinion. I have written multiple other articles on that subject, which are brilliant and insightful and absolutely without doubt correct in every respect (heavy sarcasm is something you should expect from me at this point, but I digress).

Falling into an echo chamber scenario is a serious problem, for all sorts of obvious reasons, but the one we need to consider here is that echo chambers do a lot of work to convince a lot of people that a factually incorrect (i.e., “wrong”) opinion is actually factually correct (i.e., “right”). This happens all the time, every day, for a variety of reasons ranging from comfort to overt propaganda. There are a lot of very, very wrong opinions wandering around out there as a result, but if that’s all you ever see then they look like they’re “right.”

My favorite example is global warming. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming is happening. It’s not in any serious doubt, nor is it in doubt that humans are causing some of it. Global warming has about the same level of scientific consensus as gravity. The estimates of consequences are all over the place, but they all scream “bad things” as a common denominator. Consequently, global warming should be treated as a real, serious threat to our survival in the modern world.¹

However, lots of people look at the concept of global warming and respond with “Bullshit, it’s liberal indoctrination/scientifically wrong/against my religion.” Those people are factually incorrect when they assert that global warming isn’t happening as a result of human industry, but if they’ve spent time in the wrong echo chamber it is almost impossible to convince them of this. They’ve seen too many people agree with their interpretation, and now it’s not an opinion, it’s a movement.

Partly that’s the fault of a nebulous and interconnected series of political and profit-based decisions by major corporations and institutions responsible for transmitting information, but it’s also something that each of us has to take accountability for — we can’t automatically trust people who tell us things, we might be wrong, and we need to admit that to ourselves about, well, pretty much everything.

The echo chamber doesn’t stop at FOX News’ doorstep, after all; society itself is one giant echo chamber, as is a nation-state, a socio-economic paradigm, a religion, or a political party. We are immersed in opinions, all the time, every day, many of which we parrot without thinking about it, some of which we invent. If it can’t be proven to be factually correct, and most of what we think of as “normal” falls into this category, it might be wrong. We might be wrong, about very basic things. All the time. Every day.

Let’s take another example; back in the day, in the 1940s and 1950s, people were just getting their heads around the concept of health problems from radiation. At the same time, nuclear stuff in general was in vogue; X-rays in particular were pretty cool, because they allowed people a view into their biology that literally had not existed before. It’s fun to be able to point a device at your foot and watch the bones wiggle. And that’s exactly what people did when they visited a shoe store, if the story had a shoe-fitting x-ray machine (X-Ray Shoe Fitter, Pedoscope, Foot-o-Scope, among other brand names) installed.

Now, a modern reader probably looks at that and thinks “Huh, an x-ray machine installed in a shopping mall with minimal safeguards… that’s probably not healthy for the customers or sales staff.” And that reader would be exactly right; there’s a reason why x-ray techs wear lead aprons and have children early in life. Radiation exposure is a Bad Thing. But if you were alive in the 50s, seeing one of these machines might have been a normal thing. It might feel weird to have someone say to you “these devices likely cause cancer, stop using them.” The shoe industry certainly felt that way, and continues to this day to deny that anything bad happened as a result of exposing thousands of salespeople to massive doses of ionizing radiation on a daily basis (while also comprehensively pulling these devices from stores worldwide).

Nonetheless, it is a factually Bad Idea to expose your unshielded self to x-rays on a regular basis.

Now, imagine you’re a customer with a small child who is going in for a shoe-fitting x-ray. You like the shoe-fitting x-ray machine; it’s fun, and you think it helps you get better shoes. A scientist comes up to you and says, “Hey man, you know there’s a good chance that machine could cause stunted growth in your kid and give you cancer, are you sure you want to use it?” What are you going to say in response? That they’re wrong because the shoe industry said it’s safe? That they’re impinging on your freedom by pulling the machines out of stores or asking you not to use them? That you know more about x-rays than they do? Or are you going to nod and say “That’s interesting information, thanks for telling me, I will not use that machine.”

I ask because this is a great analogy for the current pandemic vaccine debate and anti-masking crowd. In case it wasn’t obvious, these types of scenarios never stop happening. Something that we think of as “normal” or “right” could be proven to be wrong at any given time. Wandering around a crowded space without a mask is perfectly normal when you’re not experiencing a worldwide pandemic caused by an airborne virus, after all. A new threat could emerge at any given time that completely upends our assumptions about what is “normal.” That’s life.

It’s OK to be wrong. We’re all going to be wrong. But that’s a hard pill to swallow if our identity is bound up in our belief in our “rightness” about something. The real trick is to separate our sense of identity from these concepts, and we are bad at that. Just because I hold an incorrect opinion doesn’t mean I’m a lesser person. It simply means I’m a human being, making the most sense I can out of the information available to me, and sometimes interpreting things the wrong way.

That’s our lesson: It’s OK to be wrong; it’s a human thing. But when I am wrong, and someone can prove it, it is incumbent on me to take that information and adjust my behavior accordingly. Being wrong is perfectly fine. Being a fool isn’t. The difference between a wise man and a fool, in many cases, is the ability to adjust our ideas to accommodate new information and respond with change. Being wrong just means you’re human. Being a fool means that you are deliberately increasing risk. Risk of what? Of whatever the consequence is for being wrong.

The shoe-fitting-fluoroscopy industry was wrong about the danger of radiation, and the associated risks of stunted growth, cancer, and death. The anti-vax crowd is wrong about the dangers of vaccines compared to the danger of getting a disease, and the associated risks of lifelong health problems, acute health problems, and death.

I keep repeating death. That’s because death is a very real risk from being wrong about lots of things, and always has been, especially if being wrong means that we disregard all the lovely safeguards that society puts in place between us and the Reaper. I mean, sure, lots of times being wrong doesn’t come with mortal peril, but where’s the fun in those examples? Usually they just mean that being wrong has a financial or social hit, and those aren’t as sexy, even if they are much more common and potentially very damaging to your lifestyle.

It’s OK to be wrong, provided that when we are given the opportunity to be right, we take it. So, for the love of God, let’s stop stigmatizing people for being wrong and start praising people who become right. And let’s stop pretending that everything we do, say, and think is always right. It’s not. It never will be, and it’s pointless to assume that being “right” is a ground state.²

What we should shoot for in life, in my humble (and possibly incorrect) opinion, is a ground state of rational skepticism. I’ve got another article coming up about that. We shouldn’t assume that we or anyone else are automatically correct, ever, and we should employ tools to ensure that things that we believe do, in fact, have some factual grounding. Blind trust is for children and fools; adults should know better.

When in doubt, be kind. Once you’ve been kind, be an adult. As an adult, know that you will be wrong from time to time. That’s OK, you have my complete support; I’ve been wrong too, and I will be again. But when you’re wrong, and you know it, it’s time to work on being right. If you can do that, you are well on your way to being a better person, a better citizen, a better partner; just overall better. That’s a pretty good goal, and it’s the best I can hope for myself. If you can be better, I’m proud of you.

If you liked this article, check out the Modern Survival Guide Volume I, and my current work on Volume II! It’s an utterly random assortment of things I think people ought to know; there’s something in there for everyone.

¹Because, even if the polar ice caps melting doesn’t flood the world as per a “Waterworld” scenario, changing where crop lands are located and/or raising the equatorial temperature by ten degrees or so would still cause vast migrations of people, supply chain disruptions, all sorts of economic consequences, changes to the availability of clean water, a rise in diseases, animal extinctions, and maybe even wars. We aren’t set up to deal with most of that in an efficient manner (read: somebody’s gonna get wrecked, it might be you). We live in a system that relies heavily on tomorrow looking mostly like today, and that’s a real problem if the estimate for tomorrow takes a sudden radical right turn.

²Incidentally, I am not right about lots of things, all the time, and so you should take all of my opinions with a gigantic grain of salt. I’m a rando on the internet, writing my thoughts on how to live. That’s it. That’s all. If you think I’m wrong, hell, I might be. But I will ask you to prove it.

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