In Which I Learn From a Mistake

ChristianityA detailed description of a household chore doesn’t usually make for interesting reading, but stick with this one to see if you fall into the same trap that I did. I’d like to share how yours truly doggedly stuck with a hypothesis without pausing to consider if it were wrong.

I do a fair amount of the chores around my house, and our everyday glassware was looking cloudy. The dishwasher was apparently leaving a film on them, so I scrubbed the inside of each glass with an abrasive sponge, rinsed them, and put them away. But the problem remained. Now, the top third was clear, while the bottom was still cloudy—better, but now more obviously dirty looking since the top was nice and clear.

The cause of this new effect was easy to find. I had scrubbed the inside up and down but then scrubbed the rim laterally by squeezing the rim with the sponge. Each glass has a ribbed texture on the inside, so I figured that by going laterally on the rim, I had gotten into the valleys on the inside that I’d missed with the up-and-down strokes.

That’s easy to fix, so I got into the habit of holding each glass up to the light before putting it in the dishwasher and scrubbing it laterally if they needed it.

But the problem remained. How tough was this film? One day I decided to get serious. No cleaning chore was going to get the better of me, so I tried a more abrasive sponge. I tried cleanser. I tried chemicals that dissolve lime deposits. I looked up the problem on the internet. No progress.

Oddly, when I finally thought of the right way to view the problem, it didn’t hit me in a “What an idiot!” kind of way. I tenaciously held on to the idea that I understood the problem and was simply not hitting it aggressively enough. But I gave this new insight a try and, yep, that was the problem.

Glasses have an outside as well, and that’s where the film was. I’d been focused exclusively on scrubbing the inside. What an idiot.

Our blind spots

This wasn’t an error of a wrong solution but misunderstanding the very problem. It’s particularly annoying because I’ve done it before, and I should be quicker to step back to consider alternatives. But simply being aware of an error is no guarantee that I won’t make it again.

In five minutes we can see flaws in others that we don’t see in ourselves in a lifetime. Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast says that after he concluded vitamin C had no effect on colds, it took a year to wean himself off the habit of taking it, just in case. Greta Christina admits that she took a long time to accept the evidence that glucosamine was ineffective for her joint pain. Sam Harris introduced the Fireplace Delusion to challenge us to appreciate that recreational wood burning is unjustifiable.

Knowing our own fallibility helps when we try to understand errors in other people.

Do you turn away from errors or embrace them?

Admitting that I wasted time on a home chore isn’t that embarrassing. However, it’s quite a bit more embarrassing to admit that you’ve wasted decades of your life clinging to a flawed worldview and apologizing for a god that wasn’t there. The ego investment may be so much that admitting the error is impossible. People faced with evidence of such an error often double down and continue with renewed confidence—at least superficially.

We see this with the Seekers cult, which predicted the end of the world on December 21, 1954. The true believers expected to be saved by a UFO at midnight the night before. They sold everything and quit jobs and waited for the end. After midnight passed, eagerness for the adventure turned into anxiety. Would they be destroyed with the rest of humanity? And then: had this all been a fraud?

A last-minute message reported that their earnest faith had saved the world from destruction. Yep, they’d been right all along!

We see this with other predictions of the end from religious groups such as the Millerites in 1844, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1914, and Harold Camping in 2011. Some true believers doubtless walked away from their group, but incredibly, many did not. Their faith was intact despite enormous evidence that it was misplaced.

How much of the Christian appearance is honest confidence and how much is hollow bravado?

A belief which leaves
no place for doubt
is not a belief;
it is a superstition.
—  José Bergamín

Photo credit: Pedro fp

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About Bob Seidensticker