You’re probably wrong

I want to begin this post with a simple thought experiment. It is not original with me, and unfortunately, I don’t recall where I first heard it, but I think that it is a useful exercise. I want you to think about all of the thousands of different views, beliefs, ideas, etc. that you hold. Think about all of the things that you think are true. Now, estimate the percentage of them that are actually true. In other words, if you are honest with yourself, you’ll have to admit that you are almost certainly wrong some of the time. It’s extremely unlikely that you are right 100% of the time. So how often do you think that you are right? 80% of the time? 90% of the time? 95%? Are you presumptuous enough to go to 99%? Regardless of what number you settled on, it was surely something less than 100% (unless you are hopelessly arrogant). You’re not correct 100% of the time, and neither am I, and neither is Stephen Hawking, and neither was Einstein, etc.

Now, having established that you are wrong about at least some of your views, I want you to divide your views into things you’re right about and things you’re wrong about. Go ahead and try it. You can’t do it, and neither can I. You inherently don’t know which of your views are wrong, because if you knew that a view was false, then you wouldn’t hold it as a true belief (as least I hope that is the case). In other words, we all hold the views that we hold because we think that they are true. So we inherently think that all of our views are right even though, if we are honest, we have to admit that at least some of them are almost certainly false.

At this point, we have established two fundamental and critically important points that should act as guiding concepts for you.

  1. Some of your views are wrong
  2. You don’t know which ones are wrong

The implication of those two facts is obvious and inescapable: you must always be willing to consider the possibility that you are wrong about any given topic. This is one of the guiding principle of skepticism, and it is one that everyone should take to heart. It does not matter who you are, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, and it doesn’t matter how well educated you are, you could still be wrong about any of your views. Therefore, you must always consider contrary evidence when you are presented with it (see note at the bottom).

In concept, this sounds simple enough, but actually practicing it is admittedly difficult. We like to think that we are right. We take comfort in thinking that we understand the way that the world works, and being faced with evidence that disagrees with our views is unpleasant. We don’t like being wrong. As a result, we tend to cling to any source that agrees with us, and blindly reject any source that disagrees with us. More often than not, when we are presented with a source or argument that disagrees with one of our views, we simply write it off as “fake news,” we claim that the author had an agenda, we invent elaborate conspiracy theories, we cherry-pick evidence to hurl back at it, etc. We are willing to do anything that it takes to avoid facing the harsh truth that we might be wrong. This is called motivated reasoning, and it is a very serious problem because it prevents you from actually considering evidence and making rational decisions. Fortunately, it is a problem that you can overcome.

You can train yourself to be skeptical. The first step in that is simply to admit that you might be wrong, and, following that, force yourself to actually consider contrary evidence. When you read an article that you like, don’t instantly assume that it is true and hit the “share” button. Rather, stop and think carefully about it. Look at the arguments that it is making, look at the sources that it is citing, fact check the article, read the opposing articles, talk to people who hold the opposing view, etc. Similarly, when you see an article that you disagree with, don’t automatically assume that it is false. Don’t assume that it is “propaganda” or “fake news.” Again, fact check it. There are lots of great fact checking websites out there, fact checking fake newsand you should use them. Try as hard as you can to find information from good sources that supports the opposing. In other words, you should try to disprove your own position. What most people do is simply look for information that supports their view, rather than looking for information that opposes it, and that’s a serious problem. Indeed, it leads to what is known as a confirmation bias. Most people “fact check” by looking for other articles that agree with them. They, of course, easily find them; then they instantly assume that those articles are true, and the existence of those articles further bolsters their view. Do you see why that is a problem? It is a feedback loop that will always leave you with the same view that you started with. There will always be other people who think you’re right, so if you only look at what they have to say, you will only ever see arguments that agree with you, and you will never have to actually consider the possibility that you are wrong. That is a monumental problem.

On that note, try to avoid echo chambers. Don’t unfriend everyone who disagrees with you, and don’t block sources that say you’re wrong. Rather, you should engage with those people and sources. See what they have to say, listen to their arguments, and always be willing to be wrong. I don’t want to get political here, but it politics present a very good example. In recent months, I have seen a large number of people reach the conclusion that only one major news company is trustworthy, and all of the others are agenda driven liars. Thus, they now get their news from only one source. That would be problematic regardless of which source they chose, but it is especially problematic since their chosen source (which won’t be named) is notoriously biased towards one extreme of the political spectrum. Thus, these people have created an echo chamber for themselves, where all of their “news” comes from people who agree with them, and any source that disagrees with them is automatically considered to be false. That is a tremendously huge problem regardless of which end of the political spectrum it falls along, and you should strive to avoid it. Get your information from multiple sources, fact check, and actually read/watch and consider opposing arguments. Also, make sure that the sources that you are using are actually legitimate sources. Although you shouldn’t automatically assume that a source is fake news just because it disagrees with you, there are, nevertheless, a lot of fake news sources out there, and you should be careful to avoid them. Similarly, be leery of sources that are known to have an agenda, because they tend to be biased.

This applies to everyone, regardless of what views you hold and what degrees and qualifications you posses.

This applies to everyone, regardless of what views you hold and what degrees and qualifications you posses.

In short, you should always consider the possibility that you are wrong, carefully fact check everything (especially if it agrees with you), listen to opposing arguments, avoid echo chambers, get information from multiple sources, and even try to discredit your own views rather than trying to support them. I realize that this isn’t easy to do. It is against our nature to be that willing to dismiss our views, but in our modern age of misinformation, this type of skepticism is invaluable and you should strive for it in all areas of life (science, politics, religion, ethics, etc.). I doubt that anyone has ever achieved perfect skepticism (I certainly haven’t), and we are all prone to confirmation biases (myself included), but this is something that you can get better at. You can train yourself to be a skeptic, and as with most things, the more that you do it, the easier that it will become. Make fact checking a habit, rather than something that you only do when you want to disprove someone, and above all else, be willing to be wrong.

Note: Some people may challenge my thought experiment by pointing out that not being able to know which of your views is false is not the same thing as not being able to know that some of your views are true. In other words, you could argue that it is possible to divide your views into things that you are 100% certain are true and things that you are less than 100% certain about. I agree that you can be more certain about some things than others, but I disagree that 100% certainty is ever possible. There are lots of philosophical reasons for this, some of which I discussed here (for example, look up Descartes, the brain in a vat argument, etc.). More practically, however, I think that claiming 100% certainty is the epitome of arrogance. By claiming that you are 100% certain about something, you are saying that you are so knowledgeable, intelligent, and infallible that it is impossible for you to be wrong on a given topic, and that is a rather extreme claim to make. I don’t care who you are, you aren’t perfect enough to achieve 100% certainty. It is always possible that some piece of evidence has alluded you or some cognitive bias has crept in. Thus, you should always be willing to be wrong. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you can’t be highly certain about some things. You can reach strong conclusions based on the available evidence, but you should always be willing to challenge those conclusions when presented with new evidence (to be clear, I mean actual, proper scientific evidence, not anecdotes, assumptions, conjecture, conspiracy theories, etc.).

Note 2: As several people have pointed out in comments, mathematics are a legitimate exception to my statements regarding absolute certainty (as are the rules of logic) because they are abstract and do not rely on observations of the physical universe. In other words, 2+2 must always equal 4 even if we are living in the matrix, being deceived by an evil genius, etc. Nevertheless, that is clearly quite different from the types of views and beliefs that I was addressing in the post.

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10 Responses to You’re probably wrong

  1. eriray says:

    If I say I know with 100% certainty that I will die someday does this mean that I’m arrogant because I could be wrong? Just curious how that fits in with the thought experiment. And by the way I love your bog and I have read many many posts. Keep up the great writing .


    • El Rico says:

      I would say that you could be wrong about believing you won’t die. With information technology’s exponential growth trend, there’s no telling how we might be able to regrow parts of the human body and keep any one person alive indefinitely. Alternatively, we could easily discover a method of integrating your brain with a computer so that you could “upload your mind” to a server and live indefinitely as a digital extension of yourself. You may disagree that this is likely but you can’t claim you are 100% certain that these possibilities won’t occur in your lifetime.


    • Fallacy Man says:

      I would say that you could be wrong based on philosophical grounds. It is possible, for example, the you are actually in immortal being trapped in some form of Matrix-like reality (i.e., the brain in the vat argument). So I don’t think you can actually be 100% that will die (also, El Rico makes a valid point). Having said that, if someone claimed 100% certainty about their eventual death, I probably wouldn’t label them as “hopelessly arrogant” in that one particular instance.


    • Darren says:

      Perhaps it depends on ‘certainty’ means. Is certainty related to or synonymous with truth?

      Mathematical logic e.g. 1+1=2 can be agreed upon by everyone. There are other facts that are also undeniable: jumping into a lava-filled volcano will kill a human, humans cannot fly etc. There are certain limits or conditions which help us to know what is certain. For example, horses run faster than humans. This will be true if we set (or assume) specific conditions. 1.Both species run as fast as they can. 2. They are fit and healthy…

      Although there are many grey areas in life, there are some things which are black and white. But I might be wrong. 😉


      • Fallacy Man says:

        I think that mathematics are probably a legitimate exception because they are immutable and stem directly from the rules of logic. In other words, they are abstract and are not based on physical observations. Your other examples, however, I would say require the assumption that we are actually living in a real physical world, and once again, there are philosophical reasons why we can never be certain of that assumption. Similarly, they assume the reliability of your observations. For example, perhaps you are actually insane and horses aren’t really faster than humans, but in your delusions they are. Now, that is obviously unlikely, but it is difficult to be 100% certain that we aren’t all experiencing some form of mass delusion.

        Nevertheless, that is clearly quite different from the type of practical skepticism that I was addressing in the post.


  2. Al says:

    I imagine most people would be perfectly happy to humbly admit that the chances of some of their beliefs being wrong are high; but as you point out, asking someone to recognise the chances of a specific, deeply held belief being wrong may get a very different response. There are people who have studied homeopathy, reiki, etc. to diploma level (or beyond) – sometimes in respectable institutions – and as such they’re adamant that that they’re more likely to be right than anyone who hasn’t (no matter how informed, or medically or scientifically literate), and that their belief in those treatments being effective is highly reliable (and, ironically, they will call anyone who disagrees with them “arrogant”). You’ll struggle to persuade someone that their diploma was worthless, especially if you don’t have the same diploma yourself!

    Then there are people who’ve practiced an unscientific medical discipline for decades – they may happily admit that they might be wrong about something insignificant to them, but they simply can’t conceive of having been fooling themselves in their work all this time.

    I guess these people are largely write-offs, but I’d be interested to hear whether you’ve had any success talking them round.


    • Fallacy Man says:

      People like that are admittedly very difficult to reach, but I wouldn’t consider them total write-offs. I have not managed to change the opinion of someone with a degree in pseudoscience (at least not that I am aware of), but I have had several people contact me to tell me that they had been a creationist or climate change denier, and found the arguments that I and other skeptical bloggers presented to be persuasive, and they ultimately changed their minds. There is also an excellent blog called Naturopathic Diaries that is written by a former naturopathic doctor who realized the errors she was making. It is worth reading.

      I think that the key in all of this is that people have to be willing to be wrong. If someone is not willing to consider that possibility, then no amount of evidence or logical reasoning will ever persuade them.


  3. Jason says:

    I’m 100% sure this is a great post 😉


  4. Frank Cross says:

    This is a most interesting article and I am posting a rlevant extract:
    Past climate data

    “When we talk about global temperature records, we are generally referring to the period starting with 1880, because that is when we had sufficient, real-time measurements from around the world to confidently state the global temperature. However, we do in fact have climate data going back much, much further thanks to things like ice cores, the ratios of certain chemicals, etc. So although we may not be able to confidently state a precise global mean temperature before 1880 that is directly comparable to our modern measurements, we still have a really good understanding of what the climate was like. For example, Martin et al. (2005) used the Mg/Ca ratios of benthic foraminifera (a marine protist) to trace ocean temperatures back for 90 thousand years (which is substantially longer than 130+).”

    We are all in agreement, I guess, about climate change but the real issue is that of whether or not man is responsible.

    I have been told that in the Devonian period circa 500 million years ago there was fifteen time more carbon in the atmosphere than at the present time. There were no humans around at that time so would you please explain this anomaly.

    Thank you



    • Fallacy Man says:

      It think you may accidentally have commented on the wrong post since your extract comes from this post

      That’s fine, I don’t mind answering it here, I just thought I’d direct anyone else who reads this thread to it. Also, if you haven’t read that post in it’s entirety, I suggest that you do so, because it does answer your question (though perhaps not directly or clearly, so I’ll elaborate).

      There are lots of natural sources of CO2, and it has been higher at some points in the past. As I explained, one of the major ways that this occurs is that a small amount of warming will cause the oceans to release CO2 (warm water holds less CO2 than cold water), so that increases the CO2 in the atmosphere, and that increases causes major warming. So there have been periods in the past with more CO2 than we have now, but those cases actually support man-made warming rather than refuting it, because they show that CO2 does drive climate change.

      Now, if we jump forward to the present, we find that once again the CO2 levels are quite high, but this time we know that it is from us. There are basically two ways that we know this. First, because of the amount of it that we produce (it has to go somewhere). Prior to us the earth was in balance and just as much CO2 was removed each year as was produced. Now, however, because we are producing CO2, more is released then removed, therefore it accumulates. Second, as I explained in the post that ratio of carbon isotopes in the atmosphere is different than the ratio in fossil fuels. Therefore, if the extra carbon in the atmosphere is from us, we should see that ratio shift to be more like our fossil fuels, which is exactly what we find (more details on both of these here So CO2 can increase naturally, but in this particular case, we have very clear evidence that the increase is from us, not natural sources.

      In short, yes, there have been times with more CO2 because there are plenty of natural sources of CO2. However, those situations are actually really useful comparisons, because the show that increasing CO2 does drive climate change. In contrast, we know that the current increase in CO2 is from us, so based on the past data, we logically expect that it will cause a temperature increase (which is exactly what we are observing).


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