The Sin of Pride (or On Being Wrong)

Anyone who knows me ought to instantly recognize something strange with the title of this article: I basically never use the word sin—not outside of mockery, anyway. The very notion of sin as a thing is deeply deserving of a thorough lampooning. It is a manufactured, illusory disease for which the only cure is said to be a treatment, equally illusory, administered by the ecclesiastic—it is nothing more than the adult version of cooties.

Thanks to contemporary culture, however, sin has begun to take on a secular meaning of “any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse,etc.” I generally prefer to avoid using even this meaning of the word, but today’s topic justifies a break from this tradition. When it appears in the form of hubris or conceit, pride is a truly reprehensible state.

* * *

That said, I my approach to pride is largely informed by a conversation in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge between Stor Gendibal and the First Speaker. (I wish I still had my copy so I could quote it verbatim.) When Stor tries to seem humble by denying well-earned praise, the First Speaker castigates him for it, noting that the most utilitarian approach for society comes when an individual accurately knows and represents their own abilities. The reason for this should be obvious: if no one knows what you can really do, how can your talents be used to their fullest? Those who have the highest proficiency should share their talents with those who don’t for the benefit of all. Looking down on someone for being skilled only encourages widespread mediocrity.

On the flip side, it’s equally important to know your own shortcomings. As one of my professors loved to remind his classes, it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you—it’s what you think you know. A firmly held erroneous conviction is far more dangerous than neutral uncertainty. In medieval times, doctors’ treatments often did as much (or more) harm than they prevented, so an entire industry designed around basically doing nothing and calling it medicine was able to thrive; in many cases, it would have been far better for patients to receive no treatment than to receive bad medicine.

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scientific Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although alternative medicines would have been the safer alternative back then, they’re now far more harmful than their mainstream counterparts (and infinitely less curative). What happened? How did this switch take place? The credit goes to the adoption of the scientific method by the medical community. Before this, the relevant metric was “least harm done.” Because so-called alternative medicines were often nothing but placebos, they won this contest. Now the metric is “most health gained.” The reason we were able to make this switch is that the practice of randomized double-blind clinical trials allows us to fairly reliably discover the actual effectiveness of a given treatment. People often vacuously parrot the line “science has been wrong before, so it might be wrong now,” but science isn’t a method for being right all the time; instead, it’s a method for becoming progressively less wrong.

That’s a pretty profound difference.

It’s one that we should seek to live by. Like everyone else, I don’t like being shown to be wrong. There’s a strong instinctual component there, I suspect. Being wrong in public is terrifying because it’s humiliating. Humiliation is stressful, and stress hurts.

But the pain we feel when someone demonstrates how wrong we are isn’t something to shy away from. Like the pain that comes from a good workout session, that burn is something we need to learn how to savor. Yes, being wrong sucks, but when you find out you’re wrong about something, you’ve taken the first step towards being right!

You just have to be a little graceful about it. Swallow your pride and take that step.

I love being wrong. Well, no, that’s not quite right. I love it when someone proves me wrong. If you have evidence that something I believe is false, by all means, throw it at me. Print it out, bring it straight over, and plant it squarely in my hands. Look me in the eyes and tell me, “You have got to see this.” Sure, I’ll probably argue with you about it. I’ll demand that you demonstrate how your evidence proves your position. I’ll demand that you demonstrate how it overcomes my objections. I’ll demand these things because we should always demand these things before developing beliefs—about anything. Sadly, we learn to believe things before we learn to question what we believe. By the time we reach adulthood, we’re just full of ideas that may or may not be true, and we don’t even think to question them until they’re directly provoked. Critical self-examination is perhaps the most important skill a person can develop. Following in close second is a bit of intellectual humility.

That doesn’t mean you should pretend to be mediocre about something you’re truly good at; that would be dishonest and counterproductive. What it means is that we should always endeavor to do two things: 1) believe as many true things as possible, and 2) believe as few false things as possible.

Your first instinct when presented with claims that contradict your beliefs is likely to be deeply treacherous. You may be tempted to double down on your position and close yourself off to the other person’s words. You must fight that urge. Let your mind absorb their argument, and then rationally assess the situation. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What exactly is this person trying to argue?
  2. Why does this person believe this is a good argument?
  3. What are my beliefs?
  4. Why do I believe them?
  5. How can I know if I’m wrong?
  6. What do I need to know to determine which position is right?

Once you have an answer for these things, you can begin to weigh the evidence for and against each position.

Screw feeling prideful when you’re right and the other person is wrong. Screw feeling embarrassed when it’s you that’s wrong. Being told you’re wrong is not a personal attack, nor is being proven wrong. If you don’t know the answer to a question, there’s no good reason for pretending you do. There’s no shame in admitting that you lack omniscience!

If you can show me why I’m wrong, I’ll only appreciate you more for it. Let’s all just try to be right about as many things as we can without getting caught up in the bullshit.

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