Being Wrong

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Transplanting Kidneys in Tehra... Pete Geddes on the American Pr...

Journalist Kathryn Schulz, in Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, describes how very uncomfortable, and indeed how very difficult it is for we humans to be wrong. (You can watch Schulz' TED talk on being wrong here.) Indeed, she argues, we revel in being right. Further, we generally associate being wrong with being ignorant, indolent, morally degenerate, etc. But, says Schulz, we make a "meta-mistake;" we are wrong about being wrong. She writes, "Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage." Why, them is admitting we were wrong so hard?

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A remarkable part of this week's EconTalk episode was when one such moment came to light. Tina Rosenberg described how, over the course of her research on the Iranian kidney market, she changed her mind. Prior to this project, she says she held two assumptions that she no longer holds. She says, "And one of them is that paying donors is necessarily exploitative. And the second one is: There are serious moral and ethical reasons not to pay donors. I no longer believe either of those things." Our hats are off to Rosenberg; such an admission takes courage.

But what we're interested here are examples from your own experience. Have you ever experienced a change in a belief you held very strongly? What was it? And more importantly, what precipitated the change? We'd like to hear about your experience. It could become a future EconTalk Extra, or perhaps even part of an episode. Please share your story with us via email at by noon EST on Monday, September 28. Thanks in advance, and we look forward to hearing from you.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Adam writes:

I used to believe that talk, ideas, reasoning, and beliefs didn't matter, and that human history was driven entirely by bigger structural forces and the former set of things were too "soft" or nominal to matter much.

Starting with Deirdre McCloskey but moving on to many others, I've learned about how immensely central those supposedly "soft" things are to the human experience and how we accomplish things together. Moreover, they aren't cleanly separable from the structural forces---in many ways we get the economy and political system we have as a result of persuasion and beliefs, but there's a two-way feedback there.

Jonny Love writes:

I like to think that I'm amenable to the viewpoints of others, but often find that their arguments are baseless talking points and therefore I can't be swayed (or proven wrong).

Lacking in our modern information culture is the philosophical reasoning for a viewpoint. We may feel a certain way, but it's superfluous and doesn't transcend that point (i.e., the application of the person's perspective can't be applied to other similar topics without resorting to an ideology stated by others).

I've been proven wrong multiple times by listening to econ talk. Most recently was the "Effective Altruism..." podcast. I've always been a naysayer toward "for-profit charity drives," but this podcast really opened my eyes to how much more the professional solicitors of donations can accomplish for the charity versus a "100%" amount to the charity that is negligible compared to what they really need.

Altruism is great, but so is organization and marketing.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Before I knew the name "Scott Sumner", I thought fiscal stimulus during a recession was obviously a good idea.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

Have you ever experienced a change in a belief you held very strongly? What was it? And more importantly, what precipitated the change?

I have experienced a host of changes in my belief structure since childhood, and even more since early adulthood (i.e., my twenties and early thirties). It's my contention that one "inherits" strong ideological predispositions based on the ideological environment one identifies with most strongly. This "inheritance" typically manifests itself as a child or young adult and is derived from family origin, religion, and the dominant culture one lives in, particularly in ones "formative years". This explains why (at least to my satisfaction), throughout the world, there is such strong correlation between ideological and religious self-identification and "inherited" attributes like race, nationality and ethnicity.

However, it is quite possible for that initial predisposition to "evolve" as one becomes aware of other viewpoints, one begins to understand the historical contexts of ideology and religion, and one becomes acutely aware of how ideologies and religions themselves have "evolved" over time. I'm hoping that my ideological convictions, that I admittedly hold very strongly and very passionately, will continue to evolve.

One illustration of a change in belief that was held quite strongly but has since been changed (very radically) would be belief in god and the belief in the inherent "goodness" of the US political process. I was raised in the US as a "fundamentalist" Christian who was taught to patriotically "pledge allegiance" to the US government and that the US, its "democratic" government, "brave" people and culture of "freedom" was "the best" in the world.

As a young child, one is very vulnerable to political, cultural, and religious indoctrination since, as children, we take our "cultural cues" from the adults that surround us. Since, as a child, one can not select this community of adults, and one can not choose the churches or schools one attends, one is likely to exposed to only a very narrow spectrum of political and ideological thought. Children are ill-equipped to detect or combat indoctrination and children are naturally inclined not to question authority. Worse yet, all churches and all schools are structured to reward conformity to opinions and beliefs of the dominate authority, and to punish or marginalize those that will not conform. I believe now that indoctrination the primary, if not sole, function of both churches and schools.

As a result, the bulk of humanity remains enthralled with whatever religious, national and ideological "inheritance" they were initially offered as a child. Some, however, choose question that inheritance.

My "break" with religion began fairly early (8-9 years old), and with each passing year, with increased understanding of history, and a more sophisticated understanding of human nature, that break has become deep, total and irrevocable. The fact that, no matter ones religious persuasion, the majority of mankind has not followed that religion, never have and never will, and instead strenuously insists that some other religion is "the true one" serves as a red flag for me (among several thousand others). Religion is to me now merely an absurd fraud and the religious indoctrination of children tantamount to child abuse.

My "break" with the "civic religion" of the State took longer since that particular set of ideological beliefs is much more "universal" in US culture, and it is much more subtle, sophisticated, and insidious. Most US Universities and public schools, for instance, have broken almost all ties with Judeo-Christian theology, yet they remain the main advocates of the Statist "civic religion". While criticism of the actions of the State are permitted (even encouraged, if the action is administered by Republicans), questioning of the necessity of the State is not. On most US campuses, questioning the virtue of the welfare state (or "public education" or "Social Security", etc.) or questioning the necessity of the vast bureaucratic superstructure administering those programs, if not impermissible, it will result in immediate marginalization. Most public schools are clumsily transparent in their efforts to indoctrinate children to become "good citizens" (i.e., useful pawns).

There has been a deliberate blurring of the concept of "regime" versus "the administration of the regime" by our "educational" and "cultural" superstructures. Our "freedom", such as it is, is to select which of the two dominant political parties will administer the regime. "We" are not free, however, to change the nature of the regime, let alone change regimes. The US political system has been designed to alternate administration of the regime without risking a fundamental change in the nature of the regime. This political stability serves the ruling elite, politically and economically, that actually controls the regime.

My complete "sea-change" in opinion with respect to the State was precipitated by living outside of the US for a period of time on several occasions. It gives one the ability to see the world as a complete "outsider", completely detached from the government, people, and culture that surrounds one. I've never lost that "outsider" feeling, even upon returning to the US. "Americans" are no longer "we", I see only "them". The US government is not longer "we", it is only "them". American culture is no longer "mine", it is "theirs". I am a self-described sports fanatic, but unlike before, most of my interest is directed around the world (towards "the beautiful game") rather than just the "National" American sports.

One way overcoming the indoctrination one receives as a child is to physically break away from the culture one was initially exposed to and expose yourself to other cultures. This doesn't necessarily make one like the other culture (I didn't grow up around US "liberals" but have since been surrounded by them--I still find them utterly repellent) but it might (I love going to European football matches and discussing "footy" with anyone who shares my passion for the game). It may very well help you to understand that the culture/ideology/ethnicity/religious card that you are dealt as a child is pretty random draw.

Todd Kreider writes:

This topic would make for an interesting show. Simply starting to study economics in classes from 1995 to 1997 made me realize that quite a few of my previous liberal views were overly simplistic and and times misguided, and I shifted to one of those rare "left-leaning libertarian types." Part of the fun in economics (and continues) is seeing where I have been wrong.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

One of the things I appreciate most about EconTalk is how open Russ is about having been wrong about all sorts of things he would have no reason to know. For example, he mentioned being surprised that Broadway theaters don't come with lights, which is actually completely unsurprising given the range of different lighting instruments available and the extent to which different shows will use different equipment.

I think most people wouldn't lead off discussions by saying how uninformed they'd previously been, and it's a great part of the tone of the podcast that Russ is so explicit about having previously not known things. It's much more common for people to present true information as if they'd always known it, or at least that they previously had no thoughts on the subject and then came directly to the right answer. So I think Russ also gets credit for creating a space where Rosenberg's statement isn't out of place, not just by mentioning how important being wrong and changing your mind is, or by soliciting this sort of statement, but by producing these statements spontaneously himself.

Martin writes:

In 2014, while pursuing a PhD in the humanities, I recognized that I was wrong. Like many humanities students I was educated in a left-wing tradition and in particular a Marxian tradition. I devoured Marx and other major left wing figures like Gramsci, Lenin, Foucault, Derrida, Zizek...the list goes on. I thought this view was impenetrable. We had the moral high ground and were the only one's (or so I thought) concerned with inequality, exploitation, and other issues afflicting society. However, in the middle of my PhD I became increasingly unsatisfied with the closed minded approach that dominate the left. It was impossible to entertain, let alone engage, some key issues that I felt were left unanswered and ignored. So I started reading and in some cases re-reading figures who were detested by the left beginning with the classical political economists (Smith, Ricardo, etc.) to Hayek and Milton Friedman. What astonished me while engaging these thinkers was that they were concerned with the same issues that I was. They were not the opportunistic evil self-interested figures that I was taught but people who were deeply concerned with making society more just, it was just in a different direction. As a result, my views started to shift and I left my PhD program. In short, leaving was me admitting I was wrong and embarking on a path towards figuring our what might be right.

Russ and many of his guests have been hugely influential in shaping my current views and forcing me to recognize that the market is not the problem but a part of the solution.

Richard Fulmer writes:

Between 1972 and 1976, the death penalty was declared to be unconstitutional in the United States. The left's world view was ascendant as was the belief that "society" was to blame for crime. As a result, murderers were let out of prison only to murder again. I supported the restoration of the death penalty, reasoning that at least executed killers couldn’t kill anyone else.

What changed my mind was the story of a man who had pled guilty to murder and was imprisoned for many years, only to be proved innocent based on DNA evidence. When asked why he admitted to a crime he didn’t commit, he said that he was threatened with the death penalty if he didn’t confess to the crime. I no longer trust the government with capital punishment - or with much else.

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