How to be Wrong — Part 1 of 4

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

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: A Third Approach to Gender Equality
Looking Past the Bright Sun of Crazy
Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois
Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
  • MrCheese

    Nicely put. It’s more impressive that someone with your background turns out a good person, as you are, than when someone with a relatively good upbringing turns out well.

  • jamessweet

    Perhaps “Skinnerian dullard” was a bit much, but I think there is plenty to criticize about the radical behaviorist viewpoint and no need to feel one is wrong there. Fair enough for the commenter to point out that the “stereotype…of robotic behaviorists” is unfair an inaccurate. I don’t think behaviorists are emotionless robots, I just think they are very mistaken! :)

  • autumnrook

    This is an excellent post. I think most people have their weak-spots. I only started studying feminism and learned about slut-shaming a couple of years ago, and I’m still trying to retrain myself not to use slurs that are demeaning to women. I’m sure there are a lot of other things I need to work on, but that one is a major goal for me.

    Looking forward to the rest of the entries on this topic.

  • Daniel Schealler

    Here’s one that I prepared earlier:

    The greatest catch-22 in life is this:

    1) Being right feels good.

    2) Finding out you have been wrong feels bad.

    3) Being wrong and remaining ignorant of the fact feels indistinguishable from being right.

    If 2) and 3) were switched around the other way this world would be a much better place.

    So question everything. Don’t be to hard on yourself when you realize you were wrong about something – in fact, try to learn to feel good about such realizations. That’s what learning feels like.

    - What Facts Should Every Atheist Know

    • machintelligence

      Kathryn Schulz has a great TED talk on just this topic. She points out that (until you realize it) being wrong feels just like being right.

      • Chris

        Thank you both! I’ve been looking for a reputable talk on just that topic, and not only is it a talk, it’s a TED talk!

        Hank, great article. I’ve only been reading your blog since you came over to FtB, but I stand in complete solidarity with you in terms of upbringing. You write with genuine honesty, sir; I completely dig it. Keep up the great work on posts dealing with self-reflection.

  • judykomorita

    Well said, Daniel.

    Hank, if you can’t help yourself from looking back at where you came from, at least look at how far you’ve come. You are sensitive and wise, and you care deeply. That doesn’t change even when you say things “wrong.”

    Don’t feel alone in having foot-in-mouth disease. I have a terminal case of it, as well. It doesn’t seem to go away, and I think it has to do with not being socialized well enough.

    Btw, the word-image of that kitten made me sick to my stomach. I’m sorry I read it, but I’m sorrier that you witnessed it, and sorriest for the kitten who had to endure it.


  • inflection

    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.

    A fascinating line dropped in a random discussion on a role-playing forum I frequent was from someone in a discussion of how you could roleplay someone with a very low intelligence (for instance, the typical “big fantasy bruiser” with most of his game resources in muscles). He said that to play stupid characters he had found that it worked very well to just do the first thing that popped in to his head. I regard this as quite a perceptive comment on the value of executive function in being (or at least looking) intelligent, and I like to mull it over to remind myself of it frequently.

    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!).

    Augh! Augh! Oh, that just makes me itch in sympathy!

  • Tom McCann

    Hank, PZ may be usually right about things (don’tcha just hate that?) but you have a good record of writing posts that make me (and I presume others) think about things in a different way. Self examination is challenging and necessary. I confess that I stopped reading you for a while because an occasional post would stop me in my tracks and force me to think through an issue with myself. That has been confronting and even painful at times, but I have become more aware of my own hubris and ignorance as a result.

    This is going to be one of those posts isn’t it? I will bravely soldier on this time. I mean it as a high compliment that you have made me think more than any other blogger over the years (I read you before FTB). In short, keep up the good work. I really appreciate your challenges and insights.


    • Tom McCann

      p.s. I’m so sorry for the kitten, for you, and even for them (for going through life as idiots).

    • Hank Fox

      Tom, thank you! I had to read that one out loud to my roommate. ;-)

  • anthonyallen

    These Phil Ossify posts are the ones that I most look forward to. I like them because even though I speak academia, it is not my first language. I expect that we’re alike in that way.

    A lot of times, I just don’t get some of the other folks around here are trying to tell me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m dull-witted, or because I don’t have a very good reading comprehension skill. Probably a bit of both.

    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.

    This describes the way that I handle being wrong pretty well. I look forward to my lesson.

  • stuartvo

    I just found myself sobbing at the story of the kitten. I tried hugging my cat (who was sitting on my lap at the time) but I freaked her out and she left in a huff.

    I cannot comprehend what goes on in the (alleged) minds of people like that, and I admire the strength of character that has resulted in you being not just sane, but a better person than most of humanity. I’d have been scarred for life.

    Back on topic: Sometimes it’s hard to even realise you’re wrong, especially in relationships.

    I’ve got being wrong, wrong, many times. Usually I assume I’m the one in the wrong, and try to take all the blame and try to patch it up. And then one day I get all resentful after letting it build up for too long and I lash out. Only to find that I was the one in the wrong this time. Which makes me so contrite that I work especially hard at being nice the next time there’s any sort of conflict. And so the cycle continues.

    Or maybe it’s just me. There probably is something wrong with a middle-aged man who bursts into tears at a blog post…

    • Nepenthe


      If crying at that image is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

  • stuartvo

    And more on the subject of being wrong, and how reading FTB challenges one:

    The whole Rebeccapocalypse has opened my eyes to a lot of shit that had never occured to me before. And even before that, reading Pharyngula challenged my views on sexist insults (insulting guys by calling them female body-parts, for example). And I used to think that the term “ableism” was just political correctness run amok, and should be laughed at. Now I’m a lot less certain.

    (I still think “differently abled” is a stupid term and is nothing but another step on the “euphemism treadmill” that leads us nowhere.)

    For an example of sexism: Right after my previous self-pitying post I had an epiphany: What did I really mean when I implied that there must be something wrong with “a middle-aged guy” for crying? Wasn’t I just saying that “crying is just for kids and chicks”? Wasn’t I being unthinkingly sexist?

    It’s either ok to cry, or it’s over-sensitive, but age and gender should have fuckall to do with it.

  • Anne C. Hanna

    Hank, this is a great post and I appreciate it, but the book-burning made me shudder and the kitten story is making me feel sick. I used to think the people who put “trigger warning” at the top of posts with nasty stuff in them were being unduly hypersensitive, but the thing about the kitten… man, that was a pretty awful shock even to just read about it. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been up all night and my emotions all jumbled from sleep deprivation, but it’s just such a baldly horrifying story that I’m going to be seeing it in my mind’s eye for hours. I am amazed that you are not a screaming psychopath with shit like that in your childhood.

    I don’t know if I really have a point here, but I’m just trying to stop this thing from reverberating around in my head any longer.

    • Hank Fox

      Anne, I hadn’t intended this to have such a negative impact. If it helps any, my little mantra for dealing with such stuff is “It’s all in the past; all the pain is gone and nothing can ever hurt her again.”

  • judykomorita

    Yeah, it’s still reverberating in my head, too, from yesterday. Hank’s stepfather must have been a psychopath. No wonder Hank clung so faithfully to the cowboy who befriended him. I would have, too, if I had survived such a childhood.

    • Hank Fox

      I had a father, a step-father, and a Dad (the cowboy). The kitten thing was with my father. I don’t think it was because he was a really bad person. It was more that he grew up during the Depression, a cruel time for poor people, and there was only so much empathy to go around.

  • spacecadet

    I don’t know if anyone is innately good, but from what I’ve read from you over the last few months, you are good. I knew that from one of the first posts of yours I read- “The Fate of the Broken People”. Only someone who is good would take the time out of a busy day to help that broken shopper. It’s a little thing, helping someone in need, serious need or otherwise, that helps determine if someone is indeed a good person, in my view. And you are, Hank.

    • Anne C. Hanna

      I gotta agree. I might’ve thought to be polite to the guy and maybe humor him briefly, but it never would’ve occurred to me to really make his day the way you did.

      • Anne C. Hanna

        Apologies, I was thinking of another post apparently by someone else that I read here on Freethought Blogs, but not on Blue Collar Atheist. This Broken People thing is a completely different and also amazing story that I hadn’t read before. Thanks for the pointer, spacecadet.

  • Anne C. Hanna

    Right now the mantra I’m repeating is, “My students will lose all respect for me if they look up and see me crying while I’m proctoring their exam.” ;P

    It’s funny how putting it in that particular light makes it seem sad instead of simply horrible. Still emotionally impactful, but a different emotion.

  • David Bishop

    Hank, you’re a good man. But now I need to go home and hug some cats…

  • rapiddominance

    After reading your kitten story last night, I felt terrible for criticizing you for the content of your Amish beard story.

    The images that the kitten story rendered absolutely took over the stage in my mind. Nothing could compete; especially not an Amish man having his hair forcibly shaved against his will. I felt like shit for whining over such a small story; especially after all YOU have been through.

    But I couldn’t apologize. And I wouldn’t. Because I remember reading THAT story. The problem wasn’t a joke about wanting Amish neighbors (and you know that). What some readers were turned off by was your ability and willingness to enjoy the details of that event. For anybody who internalized the amish story from the viewpoint as a victim, there was a sense of horror and violation that wasn’t amusing.

    Of course, its kind of hard to capture that same effect after thinking about a damn kitten hung up on a power chord. I’m sorry about the evil you had to endure.

    And anyhow, you’re not the only person who has ever made a joke out of someone else’s painful moments. What was the NASA joke after challenger exploded? You get the point. You’re not forever villafied in people’s minds because of that story. Its OK. Take care.

  • Andrew Hall

    In the second Matrix movie Smith tells Neo that, “…something in you must have crossed over to me.” That’s what’s it’s like growing up with wolves. When you’ve finally grown up and escaped that insanity one can easily find that your default setting is set to a##hole.

  • george.w

    A few years ago I pitched for a technical project at work. It turned out badly and wasted time and effort and worst of all, our credibility with the college we support.

    Then this year I pitched another project and my boss said; How is this different from that earlier project? And I said “Well I was definitely wrong about that project. I’m asking you to shoot holes in this one up front.” And he did and we didn’t go ahead with it. Which is a perfectly fine outcome.

    Just now I went and found my cat. He’s old and I know I won’t have him much longer. Almost wish I didn’t know that.

    Also wish I could be reassured that the kitten story is “in the past” because some damn part of my brain knows there cruelty lurches on, and there are animals and people suffering everywhere. So sorry you had to witness that as a child.

    Please don’t be so hard on yourself; we’re just doing the best we can down here.

  • khan

    Something I’ve noticed is that some people (creationists are big on this) can not even admit they have spelled something wrong.

    • Daniel Schealler

      Yeah, theys people really get on my nervess.

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