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To be Right You Have to Risk Being Wrong

It’s OK if Your First Idea is Wrong

When you’re trying to solve a problem, there’s usually not a whole lot of difference between right and wrong answers.  More often than not, as long as you start somewhere, recognising that it’s probably wrong, and spend time tinkering, you’ll get to right.

Here’s an example.  I want to dominate next year’s amateur Tour de Snowdonia with its massive climbs and mountain top finishes.  So I figure I need to hit the weight room six times a week, and squat an extra quarter kilo each session to end up with stronger legs than The Mountain from Game of Thrones.

I can test whether my theory is right or wrong with some simple checks.

  • Completeness: Does my thinking cover everything important? Not here, because being lean is just as important as having super powerful butt and thigh muscles, just look at those skinny devils who win the big Tour de France climbs
  • Assumptions: Have I made correct assumptions? No again.  If you’ve ever been to the weight room and tried your hardest every day for 6 days in a row, you know you just get weak and tired.  You need the odd day off to recover
  • Valid reasoning: Does my reasoning make sense? And no again.  I don’t need the strongest thighs (or leanest body) in the world, I just need to be better than my opponents.

And there’s an essential final check to my solution: I’ve got the ability to test whether I’m right or wrong, by climbing on my bike and seeing how quickly I get to the top.

My initial thinking was wrong, but that’s fine because I can now tinker and make it better – I can take a bit of weight off, build in some recovery, and work out how good I need to be at climbing to win.  I can check all this by riding up the hills.  I needed to go through wrong to get to right.

If You’re Not Even Wrong There’s Nowhere to Go

Where I’m really in trouble is when I’m not even wrong[1]: when my thinking is so far off the mark that I don’t know where to start or whether to even bother testing.  You can tell when someone else is not even wrong by your immediate reaction of “Huh?  Say again.”  Here’s how to tell if you’re guilty of it yourself.

  • Completeness: Your thinking is narrow so you miss the critical points: “We should reinforce the returning planes in the wings, where the bullet holes are.” (How about where the holes might have been in the planes that didn’t return?)
  • Assumptions: I’ve made some monumentally naive or crazy assumption, probably because I lack subject matter expertise: “Clearly the best song is going to win Eurovision.”
  • Valid reasoning: My reasoning is so vague or twisted or odd that it’s hard to know what the reasoning is, or how to challenge it: “We’d be twice as democratic if we held a second referendum.”

If we’re not even wrong like this, we can’t build on our first answer and get to a better one.  There’s nothing to build on.  It’s best just to screw up the paper with our sketched solution, throw it in the bin, and start again.

Deliberate Not Even Wrong

The most heinous critical thinking crime of all is when someone is deliberately not even wrong, which happens a lot.  With deliberate not even wrong your immediate reaction is, “I see what you did there you sneaky little rascal.”

Leaving aside clever argument sophistry, there’s a whole list of everyday not even wrong tactics that we all employ.  Most of these are ploys to avoid being tested and, ironically, being wrong:

  • Excuses – “I would have been right about Kayley winning Bake Off if they’d given her the score she deserved for her 3-tier Waffle House.”
  • Hedging – “That 1 room Kensington apartment is a bargain, if prices keep rising by 10% year.”
  • Vagueness – “She’ll get the results her performance deserves.”
  • Circular reasoning – “It’s a close call, but I predict the winners are going to be the team that best rises to the occasion.”
  • Inability to disprove – “His desire for control all comes from his unconscious feelings about his mother.”
  • Downward sloping shoulders – “I’m happy with it if you are big fella.”

Of course, we shouldn’t be naïve.  If lawyers might be circling, then we need a disclaimer.

But if we want to have a good chance of getting to a right answer, we need to start with something that passes all our checks: it attempts to be complete, has decent assumptions and valid reasoning, and we can test it.  If we start out by being not even wrong, deliberately or otherwise, then we’re in a cul-de-sac to nowhere.


[1] This doesn’t apply to matters of faith, taste, intuition etc, it’s just where you’re attempting to be in some way rational or scientific

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