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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  • RichardSRussell

    I’ve heard that intelligence is the ability to learn from your own mistakes, whereas wisdom is the ability to learn from the mistakes of others. Glib, but funny enuf to be worth repeating.

    As to your concluding question —
    How much of the Christian appearance is honest confidence and how much is hollow bravado?
    — I expect Cody and Norm will be along any minute now to assure you of their total confidence in their unshakable correctitude.

    • Greg G.

      I’ve heard that intelligence is the ability to learn from your own mistakes, whereas wisdom is the ability to learn from the mistakes of others.

      That pretty much makes me the Typhoid Mary of wisdom. I spread it without getting it.

      • RichardSRussell

        I know whereof you speak. I’ve often been in the vicinity of the comment that “It may be that your sole purpose in life is to serve as a bad example to others.”

        • hector_jones

          Wow, so you’ve been up before Judge Smith too?

    • Judy Thompson

      one thought: (probably) When you know something to be true (right down to your toes), as in, ‘stand in the rain, you get wet” you don’t need to convince anyone of your belief. It’s a given.

      Christians who really believe in what they believe don’t write books about it, they dont proselytize, they don’t shout at you. They work at their faith on a personal level, and let their own example show the way to someone else.
      The inward doubters, however, need to be shored up because some part of them is pretty shaky about all this heaven and hell stuff. They need the company of other believers to justify their own wobbly belief system.

      I won’t argue with believers of eitiher stripe, simply because it’s a waste of time in either case. But I do respect those religious folks who truly take comfort in their religion. I just can’t agree with it.

  • Kodie

    I was pretty sure it was going to turn out that you had scrubbed fine scratches into the glass using more and more abrasive sponges. I could see it coming a mile away that your revelation would be thus. I was very surprised that it turned out to be the outside of the glass.

    • If someone else got fooled as well, that makes me feel a bit better. (But then you didn’t spend the half hour trying to figure out why these fucking glasses aren’t getting clean …)

      • Kodie

        I’ve spent a lot longer doing things that turned out to be the stupidest way to do them or were ruined shortly by moving on to a task that should have been done before. Consider the time an investment in future dish-washing. If you stuck to your original belief, you’d still be washing that glass and never sit down for a drink out of it.

      • wtfwjtd

        And another thing Bob: if you keep scrubbing those glasses with an abrasive, they’ll eventually take on a cloudiness that nothing will remove, except by a buffing wheel. Just sayin’.

  • That is exactly the sort of personal anecdote I would have used in “extending the Wednesday night invitation” back when I would have done that sort of thing! Of course, I’d have had to find a different application.

    It’s still quite a shock to think of all of the years spent believing mythology, and to know that what I passed it on to another generation as truth was myth and legend. It’s a huge burden. I didn’t know any better, of course, but I really need to fix it. In a very real sense, I need to publicly express my repentance. Well, not so much “repentance”, but my regrets for a wrong done in ignorance, and my sincere desire to set it right.

    • You passed this belief on to your kids, I’m guessing?

      I agree that repentance won’t do a lot, but being an example for rational thought could be good. (There’s a Camp Quest in the Seattle area that I keep thinking I should volunteer for one summer. Maybe something like that?)

      • Yes, I passed it on to my kids. And I’m in the closet, still, except for my wife (who isn’t sure she believes me) and a few people I know who are atheists. Both of my sons preach when they get a chance, and one actually worked as a minister full-time for about 5 years, though he isn’t doing that now for various reasons.

        At this point I’ve about decided that I should have a goal of inoculating them, as Peter Boghossian says, from inside the closet. I may have a better chance getting them to realize that their faith is untenable if I’m not out, as they’re less likely to be on the defensive.

        There’s a Camp Quest in Austin. It would be wonderful if, in a few years, our younger son would be sending his daughter (born a month ago!) there instead of sending her to the Florida College Dry Creek camp, where he has gone as a camper and then as a counselor since he was 10.

        Yes, I just shared information that can be linked back to me.

        • One gentle approach might be to say, “Hey, I’m having doubts about this whole supernatural thing” so the burden is on you rather than the other person (rather than: “Your beliefs about Jesus? They’re wrong!”). That could initiate an ongoing conversation, hopefully amicable, where you model nonbelief as a respectable position.

        • Right now I’m leaning toward “why can we see stars that are more than 6000 light years away?” The typical hypothesis, “maybe God created the light in transit”, makes the young universe indistinguishable from one that’s 13.8 billion years old. I think it might be easy to bring that up in the presence of both of my sons plus my science-teacher niece, who also somehow believes in a young earth. There has to be tons of cognitive dissonance there.

        • The light-in-transit response makes God into a trickster. Some people say that that’s what fossils are: direct evidence against Bible literalism that God let Satan put in the ground. How can they go there?

        • MNb

          “why can we see stars that are more than 6000 light years away?”
          If this belongs to the core of your sons’ belief this displays aggression. If this becomes a subject of discussion with your sons just say “I think modern science way more convincing than the calculation of Bishop Ussher. I don’t believe anymore, so to me the Bible isn’t an authority on this subject.”
          I think it’s essential to adopt a non-confrontational attitude and to give your sons the opportunity to fall back on that attitude as well.

        • “If this belongs to the core of your sons’ belief this displays aggression.”

          I don’t really see it that way. I see this as something that could easily come up in conversation, and something that they’ve perhaps even considered before, but for which they’ve found an explanation that allows them to continue believing. I suspect they’d be more than willing to share their ideas.

          I do appreciate your reply!

        • wtfwjtd

          Yes, you are in a tough spot. I grew up in a hard-core fundie family, but have had the luxury of backing away slowly for the past several years, but my wife and I still haven’t flat out told our families of our unbelief–yet. The subject of religion does come up quite a bit with them, but so far none has asked us point-blank about our lack of belief. If they do, I have resolved to be honest about it, although I’ll try not to do it in a confrontational manner. We still discuss religion with them when they bring up the subject, but we won’t lie about who or what we are anymore.
          I think there is some good advice here–I wouldn’t approach this from the angle that you need to try and de-convert anyone. Be honest, be open, be accessible, and let the evidence be your guide. Most people didn’t acquire their religious belief system based on reason, and taking the approach of trying to reason them out of it likely won’t be very effective. Take it slow and cautious, and just be yourself.

        • MNb

          First of all: as I have never been in the closet I never needed to come out, so I’m a complete outsider. From my viewpoint it looks like you got your priorities wrong.

          “getting them to realize that their faith is untenable”
          Wrong start. My female counterpart is a muslima and I don’t have the slightest desire to get her realized that her faith is untenable. Neither does she have any desire to convert me. If you begin your coming out to your sons with this you increase immensely the risk of a disaster, because they will perceive you as a serious threat.
          Obviously your sons have known you for a long time. I guess they have a strong emotional bond with you. You may trust them to realize you are not a completely other person once you have told them you don’t believe.
          So keep it simple. Tell them at a suitable moment that you just don’t believe anymore and that you’re fine with your unbelief. Give them a few reasons; when they start to object answer “well, I have thought about this and your arguments don’t convince me. If you like we can discuss them and my arguments in depth, but you shouldn’t assume you can convince me.”

          “It would be wonderful …..”
          Yeah, for you, but not for your son. From my own experience I can tell you that few things are as annoying as a father criticizing a son how he raises his kids. Bottom line: she is not your daughter hence you’re not in charge.

  • Greg G.

    Bob, have you considered that the film was on both the inside and the outside but you had to get the inside very clean before you could notice the outside residue?

    • Yeah, that’s the ticket! It wasn’t a waste of time at all, and my dogged pursuit wasn’t foolish but actually exposed the truth.

      (Thanks for the thought, but I’m going to stick with “what an idiot.”)

  • MNb

    It took me 20 years to get cured of the idea that homeopathy is an interesting and valid hypothesis. This is by far not my most embarrassing error; I’m not going to mention that one exactly because it’s way too personal. Then again, the first time I met your glass problem I solved it within a minute and I’ve never liked fireplaces with all that smoke and unequal heat distribution.
    It’s better to think like a child:


    On our way to the railway station Else, seven years old, sits on the carrier of my bike. She has all the time to look around with curiosity. Aloud she delivers a report on what she sees and on what she reads on billboards: “100 percent fruit, festival, open on Mondays, book market, wifi for free, Jesus lives.”

    Silence for a moment. Then highly surprised:

    “Does he live?”

  • avalon


    You clearly need to read your bible more:

    Matt 23:26 “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.”

    • Dang! Once again, the Good Book has the answer.

      • avalon


    • Kodie

      Are you kidding me or what. I was just going to tell Bob the lazy person’s way to wash dishes, and it’s already in the bible.

      • hector_jones

        The problem with the lazy person’s way to wash dishes is that anyone who truly understands it, is too lazy to pass it on.

        • Greg G.

          I get my dishes as clean as Soap and Water can get them. Here, Soap! Here, Water!

  • wtfwjtd

    I’ve read that “experience is a wonderful thing, that allows us to recognize our mistakes when we make them again.” Unfortunately, true more often than we care to admit sometimes.

  • Pofarmer I burn wood in an outdoor furnace that burns 100% smoke free within a minute or so of startup, and has a small amount of residual smoke at shutdown. (It cycles with a draft fan). My wife hangs clothes on the line within a few feet of the stove and there is no smoke smell in the clothes. This is by far the cheapest way to heat our home and utilizes waste products that would otherwise rot after they had to be moved anyway. Am I still deluded?

    • You’ll have to take that up with Sam Harris …

      The only point that I imagine he’d make is about the waste products that would rot. He’d say that that carbon would be better left in the forest rather than put in the air.

      • Machintelligence

        Actually, there may be a virtue in products that do not decompose readily. The carbon that they contain is sequestered and not able to be oxidized into CO2, thereby reversing the process of burning fossil fuels. It’s putting carbon back underground.

  • Kyle

    Add a cup of vinegar to the dishwasher just after the detergent is released. Works wonders on those films 🙂

    I find it satisfying to come across a blind spot of my own. It is never quite so satisfying when someone else points one out to me though. My sinful pride I suppose…

    • hector_jones

      If you really wanted to convince Bob that this works, you should have mentioned that the Ancient Hebrews first invented this trick. Ancient Chinese secret? Heck no. Ancient Hebrew secret.

    • MNb

      Just human.

  • Ron

    Fireplace Delusion? Whoa, hold up there!

    If fireplaces exist, then the objectivity of combustion is secured; but in the absence of fireplaces, that is, if fireplaces do not exist, then fire safety regulations are just a human convention; that is to say, they’re wholly subjective and non-binding. We might act in precisely the same ways that we do in fact act, but in the absence of fireplaces, such actions would no longer count as safe (or unsafe), since if fireplaces do not exist, objective sources of heat do not exist. Thus, we cannot truly be warmed without fireplaces. On the other hand, if we do believe that heat and warmth are objective, that provides radiant grounds for believing in fireplaces.

    Source: (non-functional link)