Others Being Wrong Does Not Mean I Am Right

I’ve often held views with remarkable levels of confidence given how little I knew about a given topic. The difference between the strength of my evidence and arguments and my felt conviction has been laughably large. (No doubt this remains true on many topics.)

How do I end up making this error? Certainly part of it comes from a leap that feels so intuitive I’ve found it easy to miss. It goes like this:

Person A says something I (think I) know to be wrong; they miss certain facts or misunderstand a concept. Now the leap: because I’ve identified where they’ve erred, I can both dismiss their point and also feel more confident that my beliefs on the topics are right!1

  • But this doesn’t make sense. For a given topic, one should expect that there are many more incorrect claims than true claims. There are many ways to be wrong, and only a few ways to be right. So encountering a view which seems wrong is not really evidence that my favored view is correct; it’s just evidence that the given view has flaws.

  • And, it’s often very difficult to explain one’s views on the spot. So it could be that I dismiss an actually legitimate viewpoint for aesthetic reasons. (I’m sure I’ve done this many times.)

  • Or, a viewpoint could be 70% wrong and 30% right, so it wouldn’t be advisable to adopt in full. But the 30% may be incredibly useful! So noticing that a view is “wrong” does not mean that there is nothing to be learned.2

I suspect that my true credence that any particular view I hold is correct, for views which aren’t based on thoughtful, in-depth reasoning, should be something like 55%. That’s a scary level of uncertainty to live one’s life by, so it’s much easier to treat things in a black and white way. Integrating this way of thinking into my day-to-day actions seems difficult, but probably worthwhile.

  1. I first encountered this framing from Buck Shlegeris’ blog post ‘Other people are wrong’ vs ‘I am right’

  2. This view I take from Ezra Klein on the Ezra Klein Show, though I don’t know in which episodes he explains this framing.