How to be Wrong — Part 1 of 4

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I’ve been reading PZ Myers’ blog since his first weeks in business, and I’ve disagreed with him, that I can recall, exactly once.

It was a very small disagreement, a matter of opinion about a minor subject. (The cloning of pets, to be precise. And I’ll probably be revisiting the subject in a blog post someday soon, so kindly save any replies on that topic.)

But more than once, after reading one of PZ’s articles, I’ve come away in such delighted, newly-enlightened agreement that I have to ask “How the heck does he DO that?? How can you be so good, so accurate, so brilliant, so thoughtful, so RIGHT all the time?”

Of course to say that, I’m comparing him to me. I make blunders, large and small, all the time.

I’ve concluded that Paul Zachary Myers is two things: One, someone extremely bright. Two, someone who happens to be, apparently effortlessly, a genuinely good person.

Whereas I probably am not. Bright, possibly, but maybe not all that good. Not innately so, I mean. If I let myself go and just say or do the first thing that pops into my head, I can easily be wrong – bad wrong, sometimes even mean wrong.

Thinking about it, I suspect that being right and good doesn’t just come naturally to me.  So I have to concentrate on it, think about it, work at it.

Growing up where and as I did, oh boy, do I have to work at it.

I grew up with racists. Gender nazis. Anti-gays. Animal abusers. Godders. People who thought ignorance was okay, and even to be admired. A stepfather who assumed, without giving it any thought at all, that it was okay to burn hundreds of books (on Science! Philosophy! History! Nature! Mathematics!) when my favorite uncle died, simply to keep from having to bother with giving them away (to ME, you stupid worthless dogshit sumbitch!).

Insular, pig-headed bastards who thought everything they did was right, everything anybody else did, if it was different, was wrong.

And people who, more than once, took away or killed my pets when I was a kid. Horrible example: Sometime in the late 50s, my father came across the family kitten (MY kitten!) thrashing around behind the refrigerator, jaws locked after biting into an electric cord, and he took the time, chuckling all the while, to stroll into the living room and call the rest of us to the kitchen to see the hilarious spectacle. BEFORE pulling the plug. The kitten lived for fucking days with half its face burned fucking black, before someone took it to the fucking city animal impound to be fucking euthanized.

Son of a bitch, shit almighty damn.

Anyway …

When you grow up in manure, even with the best of influences on the sunny side of the dirt – teachers and mentors who want something better for you – you might be well fertilized but you still end up reeking, possibly for a lifetime, of shit.

Example: Not long back, I tossed this phrase into the post When Coyotes Danced:

I’ve never even asked a biologist about it — maybe for fear I’d get a Skinnerian dullard who’d make them out to be biological drones, mechanically responding to some chemical urge with no hint of choice or joy about it.

I got an email from a reader, who gently corrected me on the “Skinnerian dullard” bit, saying, in part:

Just thought I’d let you know that I actually am a Skinnerian—or rather, a radical behaviorist (like Darwinists, Skinnerians don’t so much exist in reality as they do in mythology).  I’ve never seen coyotes dance, but it is precisely the astonishing beauty of such scenes that leads us to study what we do.  The stereotype (and, for the record, it is an actively propagated stereotype, such that education is not a sure cure for it) of robotic behaviorists could not be further from the truth, as often is the case in anti-science stereotypes.

And then not long ago I poked fun at terrorist beard-cutting among the Amish — Warning!! Vicious Hate Crimes Described Herein!! — joking that I’d like to have those people for neighbors, if that was the meanest they got.

A few readers laughed at the joke, many more pointed out that the Amish lifestyle has its share of brutality and even sexual abuse. And that none of it was funny. Most were gentle in the correction:

I strongly disagree that this is humorous or trivial. No physical assault is ever funny, least of all one intended to humiliate the victim.

… but one was quite a bit more intense.

The whole package together made me want to write this, a post on … well, How to Be Wrong.

Because it seems to me there’s a need for it.

Most of us hate to be wrong so much that plenty of us can never admit it, even after it’s been pointed out to us repeatedly and in no uncertain terms. Those who CAN admit to being wrong are usually somewhat clumsy about it. They don’t always apologize for it or fix it, possibly because in today’s world not all of us know that it takes more than a politician’s weaselly “I take full responsibility” to actually heal a breach we’ve created.

And even those on the wronged side (as Ellen Degeneres says “Not us, but … others.”) can be heavy-handed in response.

So: How do you ‘be wrong’?

Let’s start with this generic slice on the subject of wrongness – my take on the nature of an apology.

[ CONTINUED:  Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4  ]

Beta Culture: Dealing With Conservatives
Beta Culture: The Poison of Stories
Musings on the Nature of Mind
Beta Culture: Beyond Veterans Day