My Ignite Silicon Valley 2 Talk on How to be WrongPosted: November 4, 2010
Last night I gave a talk at the Ignite Silicon Valley 2 event down at Hacker Dojo in Mountain View. Ignite is an interesting idea: everyone presenting gets exactly 5 minutes to deliver exactly 20 slides, and the slides are set to auto-advance every 15 seconds. It definitely keeps the talks moving along, but it certainly makes ad-libbing a lot harder, so I ended up writing out my entire talk and then more or less memorizing it. The talks were recorded, but unfortunately the first half of the talks (which included mine) had no audio. So instead I’ve posted the text of the actual talk that I wrote, which matches what I delivered pretty closely.
If there’s one thing I want everyone listening tonight to come away with, it’s this idea: correctness is a collaborative effort, not an individual one. Being seen to be right by others is not the same as actually getting the right answer, and it’s almost always the right answer that’s the important thing.
I’m an engineer by profession, and this talk is most applicable to endeavors like science and engineering, but many of the ideas apply equally well to other areas, like relationships where the same truth holds that the “right” answer is most appropriately found through a collective effort.
Most of us, naturally, spend our lives trying to be right, and we hold our beliefs and opinions because we think they’re correct, not because we’ve chosen them randomly or capriciously. But everyone does this, even people we vehemently disagree with. They’re just as convinced that they’re right as we are.
When we’re trying to solve a problem or answer a question, then, we tend to have two subtly different options: we can try to convince everyone else that we’re right, or we can present our arguments and opinions in such a way that we try to move the group as a whole towards finding the correct answer, even if it’s not the one we ourselves proposed.
The first option, and what most of us do instinctively, is to try to convince other people that we’re right. I call that approach “being seen to be right,” because it has nothing to do with actual correctness, and everything do with other people’s opinions. Trying to be seen to be right often involves tactics such as rhetorical tricks to make things sound better than they are.
Those include strategies like appeals to emotion, false analogies, misrepresentations of alternative positions, logical fallacies such as appeals to authority or ad hominem attacks on people holding other viewpoints, or simply trying to win an argument by sheer force of personality.
Truly committing to trying to find the right answer, in contrast, requires putting aside our egos, recognizing our own fallibility and biases, making our arguments as clearly as possible, and opening ourselves up to the possibility of being wrong.
We can often learn as much from an incorrect answer as we can from a correct one; science is advanced just as much by proving hypotheses incorrect as it is by experiments that confirm what we already think to be true. A few tips, then, on how to work towards the right answer through a collaborative effort.
Tip #1 is to avoid rhetoric. Avoid appeals to emotion, false analogies, and clever soundbites that oversimplify complex problems. Avoid logical fallacies like appeals to authority or ad hominem attacks.
Tip #2: Make it easy to for someone else to pinpoint exactly where they disagree with you. Doing that involves clearly identifying your assumptions and facts as well as your reasoning and how you logically proceed from those assumptions and facts through to your conclusion.
Philosophy papers will often go to the length of giving numbers to individual statements that are supposed to follow logically from one another, so that if you disagree you can clearly state that you think assumption 2 is incorrect, or that point 3 doesn’t follow from 1 and 2. If someone disagrees with you, you want them to be able to pinpoint the exact points of disagreement, rather than just saying “I think you’re wrong.”
Tip #3: Be honest if you’re unsure about something. If you think an argument is weak, or if you’re not sure about a fact, say so. Doing so helps highlight the issues that are most in need of further discussion or enlightenment.
Tip #4: Anticipate and reason through criticisms of your argument and potential counter-proposals. Do it as objectively and as fairly as you can, and don’t gloss over them. Try to break your own argument to find where it’s weak, and legitimately try to adopt contrary viewpoints.
Tip #5: This is perhaps one of the hardest ones to do, but be willing to change your mind. You may find that someone else makes a convincing counter-argument, or you may find that if you honestly do your best to consider alternative viewpoints you like one of them better than your original opinion.
On a personal note, one of the hardest things for me to learn to do as a philosophy undergraduate was to throw out a paper that was 80% written when I found a counter-argument that I simply couldn’t refute. In that case I’d simply have to start over, building an argument that was completely counter to my original position.
Tip #6: Don’t bully people. Especially if you’re someone who’s used to being right, or someone in a position of authority or respect, it can be easy to steamroll people unintentionally. If people are overly-deferential to your opinions, you should do everything you can to make sure they feel like they can disagree with you.
Tip #7: Don’t take it personally. Everyone is wrong at times, and the smartest scientists, philosophers, or engineers you can think of have been all been incredibly mistaken about very fundamental things. It happens. Being wrong doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you.
Tip #8: Avoid a culture of blame. If the overall culture of a group or organization is one where people are punished or blamed for any small kind of incorrectness, it will encourage people to pursue being seen to be right at the expense of actual correctness.
Tip #9: You can’t win if you don’t play. Even if you’re not 100% sure you’re right, if you’ve got on opinion about something be willing to put it out there. You can still make a valuable contribution to a discussion without having the ultimate right answer.
Tip #10: Keep your eyes on the prize. The prize is almost certainly not simply having people think you’re smart. It’s more likely something like the overall advancement of human knowledge, the proper functioning of some system, or merely a happy relationship. Whatever it is, it’s a goal that’s best achieved collectively.