Being Wrong in Public is Useful

Per previous posts, every day in February 2018 I am posting one essay. These essays don’t have lead time, not much editing time, and are pretty much the product of one sit-down session each. Unlike an extended editing and revision process, this accelerated timeline makes it much more likely that I’ll write something I didn’t fully think through, the result of which is that I will be outed as wrong publicly.

Being wrong never feels great (well it sometimes does, but that’s a different essay), but it’s useful. It’s even more useful, in certain respects, when it’s public. If you have publicly staked your position and are subsequently proven wrong in public, you can’t say, “I never said that.” Obviously you did; it’s a matter of record. If you still try to renege, then you lose the esteem of a certain kind of person. I would contend that that kind of person is really the only kind whose esteem is worth anything anyway.

If you make a claim/do a thing that turns out to be wrong, either in your head or to someone who doesn’t care about correcting wrongs, then it’s all too easy to simply pretend that you never did it. Psychological pressure builds up to just forget about it, or to blank it out.

My life philosophy explicitly prohibits this kind of behavior—pretending no wrong was done or contended if it was not witnessed—but I still feel the aforementioned pressure to blank out. Even when I am doing my conscious and conscientious best to recognize my errors, it is still helpful to make my assertions public. In that case, there’s no reneging, at least for me.

This is the same reason that scientists should publish their predictions of what will happen in their experiments before they run them. And the same reason that computer coders should predict how their code will act before they run it (I got that example from Eliezer Yudkowsky, but for the life of me can’t remember from which of his works). If you state your premises in a way that you can’t take back, you’ll be forced to hunt through them for errors if you’re proven wrong.

The result of this process, which is a mental version of Ulysses tying himself to the mast, is a better self-improvement and cognitive correction mechanism. Everyone makes mistakes and errors—my goal is to do the best job of recognizing and correcting them that I can. Part of the reason I’m writing every day in February is to get better at exposing my thoughts and contentions to the public—this means being prepared to defend them if they’re right, and accept if they are wrong. And this is different than in person-to-person discussions.

I’ve written several longer pieces, and those serve a similar function, especially Dear Wayne County, but I only produce a book perhaps every year or two. I need to fill in the cracks.

^That was going to be the end of the essay, but after some brief thinking I need to add two addendums.

  1. It occurred to me that what I was saying wasn’t “being publicly wrong is a stop-gap against me blanking out errors.” It was, “I should put something on the line when I contend something. Contending things in public means I am specifically putting the esteem of others on the line should I default on rationality, and that often works as a deterrent against blanking out for me.” There are, in fact, a whole lot of ways that you can put something on the line to ensure that you don’t renege on rationality. Stating things publicly can work in certain circumstances, but in other circumstances betting is wonderful. Laying money on the line really forces you to consider whether you really believe something you’re saying. I first encountered this view of betting from Less Wrong, which you will find at the previous link, and had forgotten about it until now.The conclusion of this addendum is: lay something on the line when you make a contention. Publicly contending it (and putting esteem on the line) is a particular instance of this, and it can work, but it might be necessary to go further and throw down money/whatever to really ensure that you aren’t tricking yourself. (You could always pull a “Well I said that, but what I really meant was…” rabbit out of the hat otherwise.)
  2. I appreciate the smart people who post their thoughts on Facebook and other platforms all the time. I get the enormous benefit of watching ensuing debates play out, and I learn a lot from them. I don’t post that often on Facebook mostly just because I don’t prefer to use it with equal frequency, but part of it is definitely the if-I-say-this-it’s-public deterrent. I don’t think I’ll be a frequent poster, but I’ll be a relatively more frequent poster.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

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