Less wrong

Once upon a time, people believed the world was flat. If you sailed West from Europe, you'd fall off the Earth.

They were wrong.

Some time later, people believed the world was round. If you sailed West from Europe, you'd reach Asia and India.

They were wrong too.

Today, most people believe the world is spherical and if you sail West from Europe, you'll reach the Americas.

They're still wrong.

The Earth is actually an oblate spheroid. It's flattened at the poles and bulges at the equator so there is no single radius from centre to the crust.

The first three beliefs about the Earth were wrong. It might even be the case that the oblate spheroid belief is wrong too.

But just because none of these beliefs are 100% correct, it doesn't follow that they are all equally wrong.

Some beliefs are less wrong than others.

More than 50 shades of grey

Humans have a tendency to see the world in dichotomies - of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil.

Dichotomous thinking is easy.

When we see the world in only two ways, our minds don't have to do as much work, and uncomfortable contradictions like good people doing bad things needn't bother us.

Unfortunately the real world isn't black and white. It doesn't consist of distinct categories that allow us to orgnaise things into neat little piles.

As it turns out, there are a lot more than 50 shades of grey - there's 256 in the RGB colour model alone.

The real world is messy.

Perfect is the enemy of good

When the limitations of human cognition meet the fuzziness of reality the result is as obvious as it is inevitable. We are going to be wrong about things.

A lot.

And that's fine because we don't need to be perfectly correct about everything to go about our daily lives.

When you fly a plane, you don't need to start on the exact bearing to your destination. Flying in the general direction and adjusting course as you get closer is good enough.

When you write a book, you don't need to know the entire plot and story line before you being typing. Beginning a draft and editing as you go along is good enough.

Unless you're a brain surgeon or rocket scientist, approximations of reality are fine. And even if you are a scientist or surgeon, you'll still be using approximations - it's just that your approximations will be a lot more precise that most peoples.

Good enough is .... good enough.

Be less wrong

Just because it's hard to be right however, doesn't mean it's ok to be wrong.

Wrong, like life, comes in degrees.

Even though they aren't 100% correct, people who believe the Earth is spherical are less wrong than people who belief the Earth is flat.

If having accurate beliefs about the world are important to you, then being less wrong becomes very important. Flat Earthers will have a much harder time sailing around the world than others.

It's common to hear people who can't justify their beliefs say things like "well, your belief has problems too". As if the flaws of others can make up for their own flaws.

But this is total bollocks!

That one theory's has imperfections doesn't make other theories correct. That a competing idea has faults doesn't justify your own.

You being wrong doesn't make me right.

The difficulties in being right don't excuse us from being wrong. The limits of knowledge mean it's impossible for us to have certainty about most things.

But we still need to strive for have better beliefs.

So don't worry about being right so much.

Just focus on being less wrong.

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Dave Kinkead

G'day, I'm Dave!

I work at the intersection of philosophy and technology. I'm a computational philosopher at the University of Queensland where I teach critical thinking, research digital pedagogies, and manage the UQ Critical Thinking Project. When I'm not thinking about thinking, I'm working on becoming a millionaire ski bum.

So far I've nailed the ski bumming bit.