My Ignite Silicon Valley 2 Talk on How to be Wrong

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.

Here goes:

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.


2 Comments on “My Ignite Silicon Valley 2 Talk on How to be Wrong”

  1. Marcus Ryu says:

    I admire and share in the view you articulate. No doubt our politics, communities, and economy would all be better off if more people embraced it. But there are many preconditions for rational discussion: (1) a venue in place and time for iteration on ideas; (2) participants who don’t have political or personal stakes in specific outcomes; (3) participants roughly equal in status and deliberative capability; and (4) shared (or at least reconcilable) criteria, objective functions, time preferences, and risk tolerances for what constitutes the Right answer.

    If you consider our national politics on a subject like economic policy, none of those conditions are met. In most business settings it’s difficult to have more than one or two of the conditions met on a given topic. So even a generally rational and well-intentioned company needs to adopt certain simplifying heuristics to get decisions made.

  2. Cameron Crockatt says:

    That is a very interesting opinion which I share and have been trying to encourage others to adopt. (Mostly by bullying naysayers and taking it personally if they disagree 😉 )

    I think there are a few outcomes that can encourage people to adopt a quest for truth instead of personal recognition and immediate gratification.

    I view this issue as a balance between a greater future recognition versus a more immediate but lesser reward. A specific example is a single person that tries to be seen as correct and in doing so feels satisfied that others regard them as valuable. The problem with this is the future, when the idea they championed fails. In order for this to actually be a detriment, there must be people that will remember and explain how the original idea fell and must undo the recognition that was originally bestowed upon the person that was seen to be correct.

    Alternatively, if all contributions to an idea are recognized and the truth is sought by all then the strength of the idea endures and while the immediate recognition for any particular person is diminished, there should be greater total value and reward as the idea itself is stronger. Ideally recognition is equally received according to the contributions made.

    As there is less reward at a specific point in time for a person willing to be wrong, and people need to feel recognized in order to be a happy member of the herd, it is more important to recognize positive contributions as opposed to complete ideas. In essence this is a culture of recognition instead of blame.

    This leads to why I believe that this attitude is not prevalent: people do not inherently think to the distant future (if we focused on the distant future at the expense of the present we would be extinct, we have time sensitive needs such as resource replenishment etc…). In order to build a strong future, we need a strong base so that we can focus on the future knowing that our present needs are met. As this relates to self-deference; people need to have healthy self-esteem in order to be able to be humble, in order to be able to be wrong, in order to be able to wait for a greater reward.


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