The Secret to Never Being Wrong!

Q: Is there anything you don’t know? Lol” - Tiff J.

A: Ha! Of course!

Obviously, your question is very tongue in cheek (as is the title of this post), but it actually brings up a very important point. As important as “knowing things” is, it’s just as important to know what you don’t know. Or, to put it more precisely…

Know the difference between what you know, what you think, and what you don’t know.

This is one of the most important lessons we humans need to learn, but not something I’ve ever heard addressed anywhere. I learned a long time ago that I can’t trust what anyone says just because they say it. It’s gotten me in trouble in school, but I realized that teachers were just people like the rest of us who are wrong about a lot of things.

The truth is that everyone is wrong about a very large percentage of what they think. That’s never going to change. But, over time we are able to determine who we can trust and who we can’t, not by how often the things they think are wrong, but by how well they can differentiate between these 3 important categories…

#1 – What we don’t know

You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but it’s not. Most people don’t seem to know what they don’t know. I think the main culprit behind this problem is “pride”.

Most people seem to equate ignorance with stupidity. But, they are two very different things. Ignorance is nothing more than a lack of information. Everyone is ignorant about most things. There are just too many things out there for anyone to know more than a small fraction of them.

That’s why we all have different strengths, weaknesses, and passions. In a collective community the knowledge is spread out over a large group of people. I don’t know much about fishing or woodworking because that stuff doesn’t interest me. And that’s okay. It’s okay to not know something. It’s okay for someone to know something you don’t.

It would be nice if we could just trust people to say “I don’t know” every time they didn’t know something. But, they don’t. When asked a question, many people will either guess or say what they think. But, instead of classifying their answer as such, they answer as if they actually know. This is not good. Because of that, we can’t trust what they say even though some of what they say may be true. And because there are a lot of people we can’t trust, that prevents us from being able to trust anyone. There’s no way to tell who we can trust and who we can’t without getting to know them really well.

#2 – What we think

There’s a huge difference between things we think and things we know!

Another unfortunate quirk of the human species is that we tend to place waaaaay too much credence onto what we think. When we come up with ideas on our own, it becomes permanently linked to our pride. So, if the idea turns out to be less than 100% correct, it means that not only is the idea wrong, we are wrong! It not only says that the idea isn’t correct, it makes a value judgement on our ability to come up with correct ideas. The idea becomes a part of who we are and thus any threat to the idea becomes a threat to us.

We see this happen all the time in the science world. Scientists who come up with theories tend to become so irrationally attached to them that they will fight to the bitter end, even when all the evidence seems to be going against it. To their credit, however, they usually give in when it finally gets definitively proven wrong. But, the average person won’t change their mind even if you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are wrong.

But what about ideas and “facts” that we didn’t come up with ourselves? We might not be as personally attached to them as the ideas we came up with, but we still get really protective over them. Why? Well, the very fact that we made the choice to believe it means that our pride has become involved. We don’t want to believe we are the kind of person who would be duped into believing something that isn’t true. No one wants to feel like a fool.

Indirect attachment

Sometimes the ideas/facts become indirectly attached to us. Say I believe something that I was taught in college. I might become very defensive if one of the things I learned is challenged, even though I can’t be faulted for believing something I was taught by a college professor. Why? Because the information represents the validity of the school. And if that college degree has become a source of pride for me, then the information is indirectly connected to my pride. If I used my college education as a way to give myself credibility, then I would feel my entire credibility in danger of being destroyed!

As much as we don’t want to admit it, we all have that strong desire to be able to look down on other people and to avoid having others look down on us. Because of that, we subconsciously seek and latch onto anything that allows us to fulfill that desire. A lot of people use religion for this purpose. Others use education. Money and status are probably the ones most often used. Anything that allows us to look down on others and prevent others from looking down on us will be almost impossible to let go of. We’ll choose to live in a delusional world of denial before giving it up.

Too invested!

Many psychological experiments have proven that the more we invest in something, the more attached to it we become. Seems obvious, right? Well, it turns out that it doesn’t take much investment at all for our beliefs to significantly be affected.

If you have a college education, then you have put in a ridiculous amount of money, time, and energy to earn that degree. That’s an unbelievable amount of investment! No wonder so many people become defensive when something they learned in college is attacked.

#3 – What we know

So how do you know if you actually know something? The key is knowing why it’s true. Think of something that you think you know is true. Right now, go ahead.

Got something in mind? Now, think about how you know that it’s true. Is it something you’ve heard somewhere? Where did you hear it? Did someone teach it to you? If so, who was it? What credibility do they have? Is it possible they could be wrong? Have you tested it out for yourself? Can you verify it? Is it something you have a significant amount of experience with? If so, is it possible that your experiences are misleading? Could you be extrapolating too general a principle from a more specific set of experiences?

If you can’t remember exactly where the idea came from, then you don’t know it, you just think it. If you can remember where the idea came from, but the source isn’t 100% reliable and/or you can’t independently verify it, then you don’t know it, you just think it. Period.

So what should we do?

When I was younger I had a really bad habit of getting too attached to what I believed. And I never wanted to admit that I didn’t know something. It’s a really good way to not have any friends! I had to learn that it took a lot of strength and security to admit ignorance. Eventually I got to the point where I felt pride from being able to say that I didn’t know. That was a radical paradigm shift!

I also had to learn how to sort through what I believed and separate what I actually knew from what I just believed. Then, I had to learn how to tactfully express my ideas in a way that didn’t turn people off.

Cite your sources

I think the easiest way to make this shift for yourself is to start “citing your sources”. Instead of just spouting off everything as fact, try to always include why you believe it to be true.

For example, instead of saying “A dork is another name for a whale penis”, say “I got an email forward one time that said a dork in another name for a whale penis”.

[As it turns out, the whole whale penis “fact” is a myth. It’s not true, it’s been thoroughly debunked (Do a quick google search). Sorry to burst your bubble, but most factoids that get passed around like that are either debunked or impossible to verify. Thank you and Mythbusters!]

If you can’t remember where you heard it from, then just say that. “I can’t remember where I heard this, but…”

If it’s something you came up with or believe, but can’t cite any proof or experiences that back it up, then just say “I think…” or “I believe…”. If you do have proof or experience that backs it up, then share it. Go into detail about how you know firsthand of its validity.

Not only will people respect what you have to say more, you’ll start detaching yourself from the information you give. Say you tell your friends that a dork is another name for a whale penis, and someone disproves it. If you didn’t cite your source, then you became the primary source for that information. So, if it is proven false, you take the hit and look stupid. But, if you specified that you read it in an email forward, then the email becomes the source and you don’t look stupid, the email does!

Unfortunately, when the information is true the credit for the information will go to the right source instead of 100% to you. I think this is why most people want to just spout things as fact. They want to be the primary source. But, that’s not really all that fair, is it?

Now, if you have a legitimate expertise in something and the information you are giving came from your education and/or years of experience, and everyone knows this, then the source is already implied. When a doctor or lawyer gives information relating to their area of study, it’s implied that the information came from their education and experience.

But, if you are a doctor and the information you are giving came from an email forward, it’s very important to specify this because otherwise they will believe it came from a more reliable source! Similarly, if you are a mechanic and the information you are giving came from something your car buddy told you and you haven’t personally verified it, you need to specify that. Otherwise it will be assumed that you know it from personal experience.

What about when other people give information?

It would be nice if everyone followed the above advice, but obviously they don’t. So, anytime someone spouts information, simply ask them how they know. Now, you have to be careful here, because you can ruffle some feathers. Pick your battles. If the information is irrelevant to you, then just let it slide. Who cares?

But, if it’s information that you might possibly use someday, don’t just take their word for it. Ask them. If they don’t give you an adequate answer, press them for details. You don’t have to do it confrontationally, just ask as if you are really interested in what they are saying. People love that! If they don’t give you a good answer and it’s fairly obvious they don’t really have a good source, then just write it off as rumor and move on.

If you are in school and your teacher or professor tells you something, don’t be afraid to ask them how “they” know. Good teachers and professors love this, bad ones hate it! The reality is that a lot of what your teachers tell you isn’t true. Most of it hopefully is, but not all of it. Teachers are wrong sometimes, and the source of their information is wrong sometimes. Trust me, I know from experience. I’ve done my own research and proven many a teacher wrong in my time. (They hate that!) Don’t just take everything they say for gospel.

So, there you go, Tiff. The secret to never being wrong! (sort of)

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Go see for yourself! ;)

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- Jim Graham
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