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In Celebration of Errors

Making mistakes is out of fashion. To utter the wrong phrase or entertain an uncomfortable hypothesis is to risk both personal and professional ostracism. You might express an idea that is false, such as that the Earth is flat. Or you might say something that is true but nonetheless violates some taboo. A historical example is the assertion that the Earth revolves around the Sun, which once upon a time would have landed a person in hot water with the Catholic Church, as scientist Galileo Galilei learned the hard way in the 1600s. The content of what is unspeakable ebbs and flows over time as culture evolves and our understanding of reality improves. While defending Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection would once have elicited mockery, today, the opposite is (mostly) true.

It is irrelevant whether or not someone is correct when he initially expresses an idea. What matters is how others respond to an idea that they find unpalatable, as solving problems always requires correcting errors. Civilization has been in the game of solving problems for thousands of years. Out of the Hobbesian nightmare of the African savannah, humanity has been making progress in virtually every conceivable arena. The Human Progress website is a wonderful source of information about long-term trends that defy the bloody anecdotes of mainstream news outlets. Between 2001 and 2015, for example, the worldwide infant mortality rate declined by 38 percent, and undernourishment fell by 27.5 percent. These trends are nothing short of remarkable.

And this is to say nothing of the progress we’ve been making regarding our scientific understanding of the world, which is intimately connected to the trends in prosperity—the better we understand the world, the more we can bend it to our advantage. Since the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, humanity has come to understand the world in ways that would baffle our ancestors. We know about the molecule that codes for life and all of its requirements. We know how old the Universe is, and about its historical evolution. And, crucially, we’ve ascertained the process by which we may discover how reality works in the first place—the scientific method.

The man who worked out the logic of problem-solving is the twentieth century philosopher, Karl Popper. His philosophy of knowledge is technically called critical rationalism. We face reality and wish to understand it, but there’s no infallible guide “out there” with answers to our questions, so we have to guess the truth of the matter. We conjecture an explanation about some phenomenon in Nature. For example, that the Sun rises and falls every day is a regularity that people had wanted to explain for a long time. Humanity’s first guesses were what we now regard as myths—the ancient Sumerians thought that Shamash, their Sun god, awaited the eastern gates to open before traveling westward across the sky every day, only to travel through the Underworld at night so that he’d return to his original location for the next morning’s travels. Such a myth is a conjecture, or a proposed explanation.

The early heroes of science were those who found these myths wanting. That is, they felt that the myths, as explanations of the world, did not stand up to scrutiny—that they contained severe errors. They proposed what they thought were better explanations, and compared them to the myths that came before. It wasn’t enough to say that the gods did it, since such assertions can apply to anything at all. In this case, the error that Galileo and his contemporaries had discovered in mythological explanations was that they were arbitrary.

So when the titans of astronomy explained the motions of the Sun in the sky in terms of mathematical, testable laws, they set the agenda for what science was all about—finding errors in our best theories and correcting for them. Hypothesis, theory, explanation—they are all conjectured solutions to problems in our worldview. Because our explanations are conjectural, we can never be certain that they are correct, no matter how much they have stood up to scrutiny.

It is often the case that more than one hypothesis is proposed to explain the same phenomenon. We then subject all guesses to as much criticism as we can summon until there is only one hypothesis remaining. A well-known method of criticism is experimentation. When two theories yield different predictions for the outcome of a given physical process, we can test the theories against observations. A famous, if apocryphal, example is that of Galileo dropping weights from the Tower of Pisa (Galileo was a busy man). Aristotle’s theory of motion, widely accepted in Galileo’s time, predicted that heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects. Galileo didn’t think that the time it took for objects to reach the ground depended on their mass. His experiment of dropping weights from the same height was the perfect arbiter between his theory and Aristotle’s—each made a unique prediction about how long the objects would take to reach the ground relative to each other. Galileo was vindicated, and Aristotle’s theory was cast to the dustbin of history. Thus, progress was made.

The entire procedure outlined above—notice errors in our worldview, guess candidate explanations, criticize them, and tentatively accept whatever survives—applies to far more than science. As far as we know, it applies to all possible problems, scientific or otherwise. Economic, technological, and moral shortcomings are also solvable via the method of critical rationalism. This is not to say that it is ever easy. But it is always possible in principle.

Diagrammatic representation of Popper’s critical rationalism. Discover a problem/unexplained phenomena (P1), propose several potential theories/solutions (TS1, TS2, etc.), criticize all potential theories/solutions until one remains, eliminate errors/explain phenomena by applying the surviving theory/solution, discover new problems (P21, P22, etc.), repeat.

In order to solve a problem, we have to understand the relevant error as such. For example, beating children cannot end as a cultural practice until it is understood why initiating violence is wrong, why children are moral agents with individual rights. Here, correcting for the error of child-beating necessarily involves understanding a whole host of ideas, and why particular actions are wrong in light of those ideas.

Shouting someone down for speaking a thought in public effectively ends the critical discussion. There can be no further exploration of why the idea at issue is wrong, or what kernel of truth there may be therein. The forced termination of the critical discussion implies that there can be no further errors, that all problems have already been solved.

But all problems have not been solved—not in science, nor in society at large. All we can do is discover problems, guess candidate solutions, and then criticize these proposals with all of the tools in our arsenal. If people are afraid to suggest solutions for fear of backlash, we lose all of those potential paths to progress.

Errors are oddly beautiful in their own way. They are inevitable and problematic, and yet they prod us into deciding which problem to solve next. It is as if they mandate their own destruction so that we may prosper.

A toast to errors.

 

Logan Chipkin is a Philadelphia writer and tutor. He holds a master’s in biology and a BA in physics. His writing focuses on science, philosophy, economics, and culture. You can follow him on Twitter @ChipkinLogan

Comments

  1. Spot on. The hardest thing is to put your ideas out there for others to critique, but without criticism we can’t find errors.

  2. There’s the political side. While I agree with the essay and its intent, there’s also an uncomfortable “Let’s try it” approval baked in that leads to things like social justice.

  3. I really enjoyed this article. The struggle lay in finding something constructive to say. I think that our current cultural problems reside in the fact that we are often unable to engage in critical rationalism in relation to our own ideas, whilst being perfectly willing to critique the ideas of others, in detail and at length. But the real problems come when certain concepts or ideological frameworks begin to gain religious qualities, such as ‘wokeness’- then the exercise becomes at attempt at religious conversion, is no longer susceptible to two-way criticism and is ultimately pointless.

  4. Well in the UK at least political debate as all but died out because of a fear of making an ‘error’ in this case of showing any inhomegenity of opinion within a politcal party. Many years ago it was understood and accepted that within each political party there was a spectrum of views and that disagreements about the policies and especially teh detail of policies was inevitable.
    The media started picking up on any real or apparent disagreement within politicl aparties as evidence of a ‘split’, disorganisation or lack of clarity and now all the major political parties enforce a rigid catious dogma on members who are scared in case they say anything inconsistent with the official position.

    Politics, real politics in which people are honest enough to admit that the long term effect of polcies is never certain and in which different options are discussed respectfully has almost disappeared.

  5. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the Fourth Estate in the US has been dead for sometime now, it’s just they don’t know it; so they continue to show up day after day molesting journalistic integrity with one emotive conjunction after another:

    I have privilege (sufficiently woke news anchor)
    You are a racist (white males, et cetera)
    He is Hitler (POTUS)

  6. Come on, chill; I have no desire to enter the Quillette inner-circle of commenters whose posts are all logical, fair, and devoid of any hyperbole. The Circle is much too “morally superior” to those that just calls it like he see it on a internet site.

  7. Exactly, which is why we are currently in this mess with things like Twitter, and with things like the current level of American debate. It is also why we are where we are in the University, as that has become the standard there as well.

    This doesn’t mean that this is not important. Discussing errors is absolutely critical to do. However, when you do it, you have to do it in a properly mediated forum. I am not necessarily talking about this one, but there are certain rules in place in a proper forum about debate and criticism of this sort. When it’s done right, there is a civility to it, an understanding that it’s not personal. Take a look at Russell Brand and Jordan Peterson, for example. Did they disagree? Yes. Was it civil? Extremely. They followed the Norms in this style of debate.

    Now let’s take a look at Cathy Newman. Was she civil? Barely, and was constantly trying to lay verbal traps. She acted disingenuously and treated him as an enemy. Was there disagreement? Oh heck yes, even though there might have been common ground found. The fault in that really lies on both sides, although the fact that one side started this in really bad faith really does make it difficult. Jordan Peterson and the interviewer from GQ had a similar problem, although he was more forceful and grumpy with her that he was with Cathy Newman.

  8. I’ve watched both interviews in their entirety. I may be mistaken, but I think the Newman thing came first. I think he was truly bewildered by her tact, and was probably wondering if she was on crack for most of it.

    By the time GQ came around, he was on to them. You kinda know, when they start with “isn’t it true that…”, that what follows will be crap.

  9. Preach it, brother.

    I grew up in NYC, and still live reasonably close by. I have to interact with woke types a fair bit in the charity work I do, as I do it in the city. Oh boy…

    The older people in the charity tend to be more realistic and more grounded, but the ones who are in their 20s and early 30s… It’s bizarre, especially to one who grew up in New York City in the late 70s and early 80s, when it was a fairly dangerous place to live. It still has its dangers, but nothing like what it used to. A lot of these kids are just not connected with a lot of the practical realities of life. Things like violence are alien to them, whereas to me, having grown up in this same city a few years earlier, I’m quite familiar with them. It makes it very hard to talk to them, especially since I’m a white male, and therefore should not be talking about anything in particular. Education, knowledge, solid job, expertise… Never mind, you’re not acknowledging your whiteness.

  10. Nice article. I do wish that political and social questions would be handled more like scientific questions. We have a couple hundred countries whose culture and policies we can compare, a similar number of American districts for a tighter comparison… Why aren’t we addressing the relative superiority of policy by making a thorough comparison of their results across all these natural laboratories? This should be the focus of a few university departments, but it seems they are too ideologically-possessed to undertake the project.

    It’s often said that socialism has failed everywhere it was tried. I’d like to see that expanded to an examination of the effect of watered-down socialist policies on relevant economic and social metrics, for instance.

  11. When did growing up and being useful become the new counterculture?

    That I’m asking this unironically, should give cause for concern.

  12. @Peter

    The article also appears to insinuate that the one who points out the error has the correct solution. “I have proven you wrong” does not always equate with “therefore I am right.”

    Take Climate Change for instance, there are only 3 possible scenarios 1. Global warming is not occurring 2. Global warming is occurring but by natural processes and not mankind 3. Global warming is occurring due to mankind. Let’s suppose that number 3 is correct and numbers 1&2 are erroneous. That does not necessarily follow that the proponents of number 3 have hit upon the correct solution. Furthermore notice that proponents of number 3 only have a 1 in 3 chance of being correct yet insist they have the solution.

  13. Actually, I think the traditional conservatives, the ones who are under control and can actually manage a rational debate, are really cleaning up out of this. They’re actually having a rational debate with those in the center who are unable to get one, and with those on the central left who have gotten over their Terror.

    Come on over and join our party, the debate will be stimulating and we won’t attack you for your ideas! It won’t be personal, and we’ll have a great deal of fun!

  14. Or a mix of two of the three, where it’s happening, and some of it is due to us and some of it is not. There are also fine details that matter quite a bit in Solutions like this.

    The one that bothers me the most is when people start going after the nuclear industry. Look, if you want to maintain anything close to the style of living that you obviously do, we need electricity from somewhere. We cannot get enough of it from Green sources to do what we are going to need to do. Chill on the nuclear already.

  15. “only have a 1 in 3 chance of being correct yet insist they have the solution.”

    I dunno Farris, the odds are not determined as the simple fraction of the number of possibilities listed.

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