I just finished reading a great book called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. This book talks about the pitfalls of being wrong as well as how to do a better job at avoiding spectacular mistakes.
Here are a few tips to avoiding error that the book discussed and how they help us to avoid error:
- Embrace Doubt. The only way to avoid big blunders is to embrace your doubts, at least mentally. The book does not advocate letting your doubts consume you, give you analysis paralysis or cause you to become totally wishy-washy. But exploring why you doubt when you doubt can be a healthy way to understand your actual beliefs and their limitations. As Descartes discovered, at the bottom of all beliefs is an unfounded assumption (not because it is wrong, just that it has no actual foundation). IOW, whether we believe it or not, we are all acting on faith to some extent. Church example: We are told to “ask and ye shall receive,” and in order to ask, you have to have doubt. Also, our entire church came about because a boy had doubts, so doubts can’t be that scary!
- Acknowledge Fallibility. When we fail to acknowledge our own fallibility, we become arrogant, insufferable, and uncorrectable. When we fail to acknowledge another’s fallibility, we end up defending the indefensible. When we mistake authority for truth, authority will inevitably err and fail us from time to time. Church example: A funny saying we often hear is that “Catholics are told the pope is infallible, and none of them believe it; Mormons are told the prophets are fallible, and none of them believe it.” We should believe it, since it’s not doctrine that they are infallible, 14 Fundamentals notwithstanding.
- Have a Sense of Humor. Humor is very closely linked to both error and truth. In royal courts, jesters were allowed to speak truths that were considered too dangerous to be admitted. As the saying goes, there’s truth in all jest. Having a sense of humor about ourselves and our assertions also helps us to avoid error by remaining humble. If you can laugh at yourself, you can acknowledge your mistakes and not find them threatening. Church example: Many of our GC talks include humor and include self-deprecating stories.
- Seek Diverse Perspectives. Erroneous ideas are reinforced by several very powerful factors: 1) we tend to ignore (to the point of not even seeing it) evidence that contradicts our assertions, 2) we stockpile evidence that confirms our beliefs and give it extra weight, and 3) we associate with like-minded individuals who reinforce our views. By seeking out views that differ from our own, we can become exposed to the flaws in our own thinking. This should not be simply trading one group’s influence for another’s. Diverse perspectives can expose us to new evidence that we couldn’t see previously, can bring our own evidence under more scrutiny, and can broaden our thinking. Church example: Interfaith efforts expose us to outside perspectives as does serving in our communities. Deliberately soliciting female minority input in leaderships councils also helps as does building non-US leadership (and non-Utah leadership) into the ranks of the GAs.
Based on this list, I’m inclined to think that religion in general, including the LDS church, is probably pretty prone to error. While we do OK in some ways, we are especially vulnerable to error when we fight against these approaches. For example, here’s what “fighting against these” might look like:
- Stamp out Doubt. If we view doubt as a negative or even a character flaw, it’s difficult to be sufficiently critical about our own assumptions to avoid error. Voltaire said, “Doubt is uncomfortable; certainty is ridiculous.” Another proverb states: “Any belief worth having must survive doubt.” History shows that absolute certainty is the most direct path to error. Church example: The trend toward using “know” instead of believe, and many talks that refer to the pitfalls of doubt or that equate all doubt with apostasy.
- Imply Infallibility. Thomas Jefferson said, “The wise know too well their weakness to assume infallibility; and he who knows most knows best how little he knows.” When we believe ourselves to be infallible or fail to admit mistakes to ourselves or to others, or when we make the cost of mistakes too high to admit, we are more likely to err (because the cost of erring is too high). Church example: Lists like the 14 Fundamentals, songs like “Follow the Prophet” and unqualified admonishments to “follow the brethren”.
- Outlaw Humor. When we cease to laugh at ourselves and to see the paradoxes in our own beliefs or when we consider many things to be too important to laugh about, we are bound to make mistakes. Being puffed up with our own importance puts us in the position of the Emporer in the fable who was fooled into parading through town naked. He too believed he was above approach. Church example: People who simply have no sense of humor about themselves or fail to see the ridiculous in some of our Mormon customs and practices. Casting a wide net in what is “too holy” to be laughed at. Equating laughter with sin.
- Marginalize Diverse Perspectives. When we consider those whose views differ from our own to be completely misled or evil or foolish, we dismiss the views they hold and do not examine our own assumptions more closely. Church example: Check out the centerfold in the General Conference edition of the Ensign. Excluding female perspectives, being Ameri-centric or Utah-centric in our thinking, and lack of non-US and minority leadership. Making war with “the world” and “worldly perspectives” or labeling differing views as originating with Satan.
Despite these suggestions, another key message of the book was that we will still make mistakes, and we need to take the leap of faith to act, even when we are uncertain. We can’t be so stymied by doubt that we avoid doing anything. Life is about risks, about acting as if we know what we are doing even when we don’t really.
So what do you think about avoiding error? Which of these do you personally have a hard time avoiding? Do you think these are good tips to reduce the magnitude and impact of our errors? Discuss.