I might be wrong, but…

I’m very aware that anyone can be mistaken in just about any of their beliefs. That includes myself. This whole article isn’t about me specifically, of course. I’m referring to myself just as an example — though this is also something I sometimes want to tell people about the status of my own beliefs in the discussion at hand and why I may not change them. So, anyway: I could be wrong. I could be wrong even where I think something is perfectly clear and people who think otherwise are grossly misinformed. I could be wrong where I have the impression that something is firmly scientifically proven.

An important part of this is what I’ve called “information cancer”: that you’ll find lots of claims of evidence and seemingly reasonable arguments for even the false answers, because people keep creating them to defend their position and that starts a vicious cycle where even more of such material is created.

So, if I disagree with you, yes, it might be that I am wrong and you are right. In matters where I have an impression about how things are but really know little, I tend to acknowledge this; I might change my mind or not, but I normally won’t get into an argument defending a particular view when I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I’ll also listen to different views and make a note of them.

Of course, there is a continuum in how certain I am about a given view. The next step up is where I already have an opinion based on some sources, though I do not have a deep understanding on the topic and I do not know a large variety of sources. Yet, even then, because of information cancer again, I might be wrong. It might be that what I’ve read, for example, was rubbish or propaganda and I just didn’t notice.

But hold on a second at this point. Suppose I’ve looked into a controversial topic a bit, read articles from different sides and a book that seemed reliable and clearly took one side, affecting my opinion. I might still be wrong, certainly. But have you actually done more than that? If yes, that’s fine. But say you’ve only read articles from one side. Yet, you have an idea you know how things are, so you think the book I read must not have been reliable after all and the other articles were propaganda. And you think I ought to believe you since I am clearly wrong.

Why? Why should I believe I am wrong based on your opinion? Again, in a case like this I certainly could be wrong. After all, I’ve only read some articles and one book (or whatever). I don’t know everything. …And you know only a fraction of that, maybe even only things I’ve already heard.

Incidentally, this also applies when, after you’ve only seen one side, it seems obvious that no spin the other side can put on it can make things seem different. Things often seem so just because of information cancer and sheer dishonesty — but when you start really looking into it, you’ll see that one of the ideas that convinced you was utterly misrepresented, another was just a plain lie, a third was a strawman argument… not to forget all the details one side just didn’t tell you about that change the whole thing. What I said about how “I” might be wrong about even things that seemed clear goes both ways.

I may not know enough, but if I know more than you do, then there’s no reason for me to start disbelieving the information I’ve determined to be most likely reliable, just because of what you think.

Then there are cases where I know even better: Where I’m an enthusiastic long-time amateur student of the topic (for me, say, evolution) or even at expert level in my own right (some areas of philosophy). Even there I may be wrong, but I’m certainly not going to take someone’s word that most of what I know is wrong if that someone only has a fraction of the familiarity with the topic that I do, as most people will. A good enough logical argument could shake me and make the relative levels of knowledge irrelevant, but so often it comes down to matters of fact, not argument. So no, I have not done a sociological study of scientists to determine that there is in fact a consensus among biologists that evolution is a well-established scientific fact — and not a “theory in crisis” as politically and “religiously” motivated people have apparently been claiming for decades — but I’m not going to start believing all the dozens of books and articles and a few university courses that I know said so were wrong because someone who doesn’t even know what evolution actually is tells me so.

This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that people should always believe whatever view those who have studied a given topic more have. People who’ve studied a topic a lot can still be wrong, for reasons including but not limited to information cancer. Please just respect that such people may not have reason to change their minds because of what you say — and please listen to their views and consider them.

So: I might be wrong. But so might you. Remember to respect that and the information that others have. Also remember to look at things from the other person’s point of view before you start judging them for their views. Personally, I’ve had just a few occasions of people thinking I’m dogmatic because I won’t just believe whatever they say and instantly forget everything else I’d heard, and that was quite enough.

 

See also

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