How to hold on tightly… and let go lightly
It’s hard to admit when we’re wrong.
Our educational system taught us how to be right. Our teachers told us to choose a position, find evidence to back that position up and then defend that view to the death (or at least, until the end of the paper). They missed out on a crucial piece of the puzzle: the part where we gracefully learn how to change our minds.
The problem with being right is that it’s limiting.
Once you’ve decided that a thing is conclusively true and that you’ll brook no argument, you create a dead zone into which nothing can venture. It’s also an illusion. Our senses take in only a fraction of the available information in our environment, and our brains consciously process an even smaller part, which means we’re guessing anyway. Every year, new research from the fields of psychology and neuroscience also shows us that even if we did have all the available information, our biases would prevent us from evaluating it properly.
And yet everywhere we look, people seem to be digging in even harder. Political beliefs tend to be particularly resistant to change. When was the last time you conceded a point to someone from the other side of the political aisle? Strong political beliefs aren’t new of course, but they’re amplified by 21st century connectivity. We’re exposed to more information and different points of view than ever before yet instead of making us curious, or expanding our ability to step into the shoes of others, it’s making us angry. How can those [insert political affiliation of your choice] be so pigheaded, so obviously wrong and so incapable of seeing how much damage they’re doing?
That’s the problem with certainty — it leaves you in a constant state of simmering anger.
And the more angry we feel, the more we insist on being right.
Science, practised properly, doesn’t do this. Unlike politics or religion, which rely on ideological signalling to create ‘groupness,’ science insists on self correction. When presented with reproducible, contrary evidence, scientists are forced to change their mind. Admittedly they’ll marshall all their intellectual resources and use every trick they know to argue their side. Sometimes it gets ugly. And sometimes there won’t be enough evidence to settle those arguments in their lifetimes. But the point is that they’re comfortable with uncertainty and when they’re wrong, they concede with grace. Paul Saffo has an expression that really captures this:
“Strong opinions, lightly held.”
Here are two examples where I’ve tried to put this principle into action.
The first is basic income. Like many tech enthusiasts, this used to be an article of faith for me. I knew the robots were coming, I could see the welfare state in Anglo-Saxon economies was in crisis, and it didn’t seem like any political leaders were trying to do anything to prepare for the shock.
Cue the brilliant, ‘disruptive’ solution of paying everyone in society enough to live on, regardless of their means. People from both sides of the political spectrum liked it, the impact on a country’s bottom line seemed positive and most importantly it felt like a new, social progressive policy solution designed for the 21st century. To me, it seemed crazy that anyone would argue against it. I enthusiastically spoke about basic income at talks, read all the thinkpieces, retweeted them and celebrated announcements of new pilot programs from around the world.
But then I read an article by my one of my favourite Frenchmen, Nicolas Colin. It’s the one of the most intellectually rigorous, devastating economic policy critiques I’ve ever seen. He patiently explains the origins of the social welfare state, recounts how hard it was fought for, and shows how basic income is a top down approach that distracts from the ongoing grassroots efforts of progressive labour activists. His conclusion is that “it’s impossible to implement, politically suicidal, nobody’s ready to die for it and even if it existed, it would probably trigger extraordinary political tension and the highest level of inequality in modern history in Western countries.”
The argument is so elegantly made, so persuasive, it forced me to question my most deeply held beliefs about an issue that was dear to my heart.
I changed my mind.
The second example is diversity in tech. It’s an issue that’s received a lot of airtime, and it’s about to receive a lot more, with extremist groups planning protest marches against Google in nine cities in the US. I have an opinion on this, however — and this is the point — throughout the debate, I’ve been genuinely open to the idea of being wrong. I read James Damon’s original memo, got informed on all the science and then read as much as possible from the other side, from stuff on Breitbart and the Daily Caller to more scientific arguments by people like Scott Alexander. Throughout, I was deeply committed to the idea that I might be wrong.
At the end of that process, having submitted my beliefs to a genuine, rigorous cross examination, my position hadn’t changed. It’s perhaps best summed up by Deb Chachra: Right now, given two hypotheses, “we live in a world that is systematically unequal on the basis of gender” and “we live in a world that is equitable but women are less well suited to [insert field of choice here], and all the people who suggest otherwise are deluded”, it turns out that, while the latter is internally consistent if you’re willing to paper over the cracks, the former has a lot more explanatory and predictive power. Like a lot.
And while the latter hypothesis is not exactly falsifiable (it’s hard to run controlled experiments on society), there is certainly an accumulated weight of evidence undermining it, once you get over your biases enough to go look. Turns out that trying to change a world that’s shaped by gender bias takes unceasing effort.
There’s a lot to be said for navigating the world using this, “hold on tightly, let go lightly” approach. It’s a useful default perspective to adopt in the face of any issue fraught with high levels of uncertainty. Try it the next time a controversial topic comes up on your feed, or at a party.
Don’t say “I’m right, and you’re obviously wrong.”
Say “at this point, given all the evidence I’ve considered and having made a genuine effort to try and see if from the other side (point to some examples), the balance of the argument seems to rest on this side for these reasons, so for now that’s what I am going with. If new evidence, or a better argument comes along I am totally willing to change my mind about this, and I’ll also be pleased because it will mean I’ve gained a deeper understanding about the world.”
Once you adopt this approach, you’ll discover the real secret.
If you’re genuinely committed to being wrong about something, you get to have a stronger opinion about it. Having dived into the thick of the arguments against gender diversity, for example, and having considered them as graciously as possible, I feel more strongly than ever that Google was 100% right to fire the guy that wrote that memo.
I have strong opinions on all sorts of other things too, using the same logic: artificial intelligence (overhyped); climate change (holy shit); CEO pay (excessive); free trade (more please); blockchain (underhyped); Nazis (WTF America); migration (great for the economy); clean energy (the greatest disruption story of all time).
My advice therefore, is to be open to everything (OK, maybe not the Nazis). Sift gently, but comprehensively. Make sure your evidence is gold-plated. Assume nothing. Question everything. Hold opinions tightly, let go of them lightly. No one makes progress by standing in the same place, and we didn’t get to where we are by always being right.