— There are 25 letters!
— No, 26
— 1… 2… … 25!
I distinctly remember my first argument in grade school.
Mrs. Howard, my kindergarten teacher, had asserted the number of letters in the American English alphabet (26).
Quickly counting through the letters, I challenged this claim, perhaps with a particular animus for the letter
Eventually, I learned the alphabet and the corresponding number of letters. However, I was a wily child—and teenager, and adult—who challenged many assertions and claims that came my way. In the 4th grade, I clashed with my teacher when she banned a book I was reading (Zombie Butts from Uranus, truly a vaunted fare of American literature). As a high school sophomore, my biology teacher (whom I adore) bore the brunt of these challenges.
I don’t mind being wrong. I don’t enjoy being wrong, but I don’t mind. Instead, I am incensed when I don’t have evidence for, or can’t understand, a claim. Of course, how upset I am or how little I understand a claim is independent from how true it is. But I still get mad. Really mad.
Granted, I can’t fact-check every aspect of my life. Sure, sure, everything I know about the world comes from my perception of the world. But I have a very practical existential philosophy. Even as a kid, I still accepted the word of my parents, teachers, etc., but not because they were authority figures. They were trustworthy.
Their trustworthiness came from my perception of two criteria:
- Their ability to learn and accurately retain information
- Their genuine intent in reporting information
I generally assume most people satisfy criterion 2. But criterion 1 is hard to quantify and only comes from repeated interactions. (If I knew something about statistics, I’m sure I’d invoke something Bayesian.) Of course, I don’t go around explicitly judging people and their trustworthiness. Instead, I wanted to reflect over how I felt about learning information from other people. And how sometimes, their information contradicts my information.
For me, that’s the hardest part of disagreeing with someone. If we have a difference in values, then perhaps we’re both right in our own way. But if we disagree on the facts, then one of us is genuinely wrong. And there’s no particular reason why either person would a priori be correct. Though, if I were disagreeing with Kurt Gödel, I wouldn’t.
Here’s my experience so far with wrongness: Being wrong has its stages, starting with the stage where you don’t even know that you’re wrong. Eventually, you’re right when you “update” or change your mind. This interstitial period can be very long. The length of this timeframe, of when you’ve realized you’re wrong and have not accepted it, is what defines the distinction between “stubbornness” and “principled.”
I was wrong a lot in college, and I’m wrong a lot in grad school. I’ve tried to shorten my “stubbornness” period, hoping to eventually do away with it. I do want to point out that stubbornness should not be conflated with “unconvinced.” Maybe you’re not sure that you’re wrong about something, and have yet to decide. You’re not wrong, just yet.
So, here’s what I know about wrongness:
- You can learn that you’re wrong from other people, which is about trust, not authority
- It’s probably best to skip the stubbornness period when you’re wrong
- I don’t know how many letters are in the English alphabet
… let’s hope I’m not wrong about that.