A phrase composed of three words has become the source of much trouble and suffering in this country during the past year. Those three words, “deeply held beliefs”, have led to heated political quarrels and advocacy for discriminatory legislation. Whether the “deeply held beliefs” are truly felt to be those of a spiritual nature or are the manifestation of bigotry, is an unknown assertion.
The other day, I stumbled across a Facebook quote by Issac Asimov that advocates for a more flexible mindset. “So the Universe is not quite as you thought it was. You’d better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can’t rearrange the Universe.”
After I verified that Asimov was indeed the source of this bit of pithy wisdom, I pondered the statement. Here was the idea that something other than “deeply held beliefs” are the source for the advance of humanity, a more humane approach to life, and even spiritual attainment. If Asimov’s statement is boiled down to a personal phrase, we will encounter the simple sentence, “I was wrong.”
These three words, “I was wrong” are truly three magic words. Whereas “deeply held beliefs” halts discussion and creates a wall of contention; “I was wrong” promotes further discussion and opens new lines of communication. These magic words are really quite liberating.
There is one major stumbling block with the three magic words, “I was wrong.” That is they are probably the most difficult words to sincerely say. It takes a fair amount of integrity and courage to publicly say, “I was wrong.”
When was the last time you heard a prominant politician utter, “I was wrong” in discussions of proposed policy and ideology? It’s been years since I’ve heard the magic words pass through the lips of a political candidate for any office. Our culture values unwavering belief and dedication to ideology and belief, no matter what. Public figures are ridiculed for “waffling” if they happen to change their minds. On the other hand, compromise and flexibility are core values in human relationships. These values are much needed at all levels of our global hierarchy.
The value of the three magic words has been repeatedly demonstrated in scientific research and experimentation. In fact, for a scientist to say, “I was wrong” enables a field of study to advance. The very concept of scientific trial and error depends greatly on the ability for researchers to state their errors, even after years of arduous effort and great sums of funding. If the data only leads down a dead-end alley, the scientific community must be told about it.
Cherry-picking data in order to prove the validity of a particular point of view or hypothesis does nothing to enhance the quality of our knowledge. When an esteemed scientist states that he or she is wrong, another barrier to understanding is cast aside.
One recent change involves the Dwarf Planet Pluto. Previous theories stated that Pluto was an inert ball of rock and ice. Close examination and photographic evidence from the “New Horizons” space probe have caused astronomers to say they were mistaken about the composition of Pluto. The new data show 3,000 metre tall mountains, evidence of seismic activity such as valleys and possible volcanoes. The new findings indicate faultlines and other tectonic features. Certainly astronomers no longer believe that Pluto is just a blob of rock and ice.
Because we humans are deeply, emotionally attached to our ideas, it can be excrutiatingly difficult to admit to our mistakes and opinions. Scientists are not immune to this problem. This is where peer review is extremely valuable.
Scientific advances depend upon replicating results. If a researcher does not publish sufficient data to allow other scientists to replicate the assertions and findings then that researcher is not engaged in legitimate science.
Some scientists readily adjust to new ways of looking at a problem, however, they are the exceptions to the rule. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many scientists will not admit their errors. Those scientists who welcome contrary findings by saying, “I was wrong”, help to advance the progress of their specialty or field of study.
Regardless of whether a person is a scientist, a theologian, a politician, or a regular citizen, we have great emotional attachments to our ideas. These attachments go by the name of, “deeply held beliefs”. We usually have some amount of investment in these beliefs and put plenty of effort into confirming them and defending them. We think that our reputations will be negatively affected if those beliefs are proven false. So it is very humbling to admit when we are wrong.
Think about the last time you needed to admit an error or a misdeed. What did it feel like when you came to the conclusion that an apology and an admission of error was necessary? The bigger question is, “How did you feel after you said, “I was wrong”?
This is why I admire people who are big enough to say, “I was wrong” and sincerely mean it. These three magic words allow the person and others to finally move forward.