I’m Right. You’re Wrong.

As someone who spends a great deal of time trying to understand scientific disagreements, and to some extent political ones, I’ve contemplated a possible explanation — that people often care more about feeling right than being right.  No one falls conveniently on either end of the spectrum, and understanding this distinction doesn’t offer a  recipe for unanimity — there are still too many unexamined cognitive biases.  It does however provide a starting point to pursue — not iron clad, irrefutable answers — but what is likely true based on collective efforts toward understanding.

The threshold for feeling right is low.  An emotional appeal.  Cleverly worded invective aimed at your ideological enemies.  Feeling right demands little evidence and starts with a conclusion, while ignoring contradictions — selectively seeking validation and plausible sounding premises.   There is a reason for the popularity of bombastic voices that present cleverly packaged half-truths.

An impassioned focus on being right — and pursuing a shared framework that will lead to what is probabilistically true — is more demanding.  It requires context.  It requests a willingness to admit error and change directions.  It demands our assertions are presented in a way that falsification is possible.  If our views can’t be wrong — we are trapped in an ideological bubble, reluctant to step outside into a world of discomfort, but also an environment of progress.

Feeling right can happen within seconds.
Caring about being right demands something deeper and more time consuming.
Feeling right is as easy as painting with broad sweeping brush strokes.
Being right takes fine, meticulous brush strokes — and patience.

I have two young children growing up in a society where identity trumps truth and where manufactured indignation is presented as evidence — and it’s disheartening.  How do I teach them to think critically in a world where emotional resonance is frequently venerated over logic?   How do I counteract the onslaught of voices selling a brand of intellectual relativism — or the belief that my confusion is as valid as your clarity and that gut feelings trump expertise?  How do I recognize when I’m guilty of chasing the feeling of being right — or even of appearing right — rather then treading the uncomfortable path of following evidence wherever it leads?

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