Being Wrong but Useful

Alyssa Wright reflects on how creating value and being right don’t always align. Beliefs shape lives, but the utility of those beliefs is often more important than their truth.

We all want to be right, to have a true understanding and right perspective on the world around us. We look around at different perspectives that clash with our own and think those people are ignorant, stupid, or evil. We look into the past and see all the times people were wrong and laugh at how stupid they were.

But in the future, people will look back and laugh at us and how stupid we are. Are, as in right now in this current moment. We are wrong about a lot of things, and don’t even know it. Probably a majority of what we believe to be true isn’t.

In some cases, our wrong beliefs have a functionality. If they have enough sense, they cohere with the rest of our understanding of the world. In science, models are simplifications of reality. In the past, models for atoms were incorrect or an oversimplification. But in high school chemistry class we still learn about Bohr’s model of the atom before we learn about the more complex, more current models. Because there’s a usefulness in the wrongness. The model is inaccurate, but it helps simplify the concept so it is comprehensible.

For this post, I’m drawing from two videos. “On being wrong,” a TED talk by Kathryn Shulz, and “You have no idea how wrong you are,” a video I watched during Praxis last month.

We’re wrong, a lot. Kathryn Shulz said in her talk, “Being wrong feels like being right.” And it does, until or unless we realize we’re wrong. But in the realm of religion or philosophy or etiquette or any number of other things, we will never know if or that we’re wrong. We can change our minds, sure, and think we used to be wrong in what we believed, but we can’t know.

For example, I don’t believe in any god or gods. But a lot of people do. I used to. I don’t know if I’m right or if some of the people who believe in a god or gods are right. I could very easily be wrong. They could very easily be wrong. Everyone is probably wrong. And we’ll never know what’s right. But what we believe is right shapes our lives.

That most of what we think and believe is true doesn’t entirely matter. Most of it is probably wrong. Whether it works and makes sense in relation to what we know and understand of the world matters. Though most of our understanding is probably very wrong. But it works, just like Bohr’s model of the atom. It has a utility.

When we can relate to the world and to each other in a way that makes sense and use that relation to create value, we can succeed. Even if a decade, or century, or millennium from now people look back and think we’re stupid for how wrong we are. If it works and we can use it to create value and improve people’s lives, including our own, we’ve succeeded.

How right we are doesn’t matter. How much value we can create does.