April 22, 2024

It’s alright to be wrong

I freely admit that I have no idea what it is to believe something on faith.  Everything I used to believe about God, ghosts, psionics, ectoplasm, extraterrestrial encounters, or cryptozoology -was presented to me as a factual account which was said to have been verified according to whatever pseudoscience documentary I was foolish enough to believe as a child.  The problem is that I wasn’t satisfied with simply believing what I was told; I wanted to understand more about it.  Of course you don’t have to research these things very deeply before “understanding” them means not being able to believe them anymore.  I have never believed anything that wasn’t positively indicated -even if the reasons sometimes turned out to be faulty or fraudulent.  I can’t be compelled to believe something if there is nothing to compel me, and I don’t understand pretending to know things that I logically can’t know or understand.  That said, it seems to me that beliefs based on faith require a desire to pretend, and to encourage the desired delusion by association with those who are similarly deluded.  Another factor is of course to avoid inquiry or analysis.  Ultimately it seems that such believers won’t permit any condition wherein they can be proven wrong.

Several years ago, I remember proposing a thought experiment which involved a hypothetical form of eventual technology capable of detecting and confirming the properties of God.  Surprisingly the believers in that discussion were outraged at the very idea that anything they believed might ever be objectively verified.  They complained that every aspect of God must always lie outside the reach of science, and must always require faith instead.  Their reason seemed to be that if anything could be proven about God, then that also meant that what some people believed about him might be disproved.  Beliefs based on faith must never be falsifiable.  It is as though everyone has a right to believe whatever they want, and that no one should ever be told that anything they believe is wrong.  We’re supposed to respect everyone’s beliefs -even when they’re baseless, biased, bigoted pseudoscience nonsense.

A couple years ago, I challenged a church congregation on the point that something could not be ‘truth’ if it was not ‘true’.  For them it didn’t matter that tonight’s speaker from Answers-in-Genesis was lying to them for the last couple hours.  Regardless whether I could show that his claims of fact were false or not, they were determined to believe him anyway.  I couldn’t get these guys to accept that it was ever possible to prove anything if they didn’t want to admit it.  Thus one would never have to confess to believing a lie.  The example I used was, “are there chairs in this room?”  The answer I got was in the form of citations from David Hume, and the rejection of my question as requiring a “totalizing statement”, whatever that is.  The dementia rampant in that room gave me the impression that I had wandered into an asylum.

A couple days ago, I had a two hour discussion with a brain-washed minion of Ray Comfort’s.  We argued for an hour-and-a-half over whether or not it was ever possible to prove anything objectively.  The boy I was trying to reach was unfortunately acting as the puppet of a presuppositionalist, who’s intent seemed to be to render reality itself indistinguishable from the delusion that he needed to believe.   He and I may never have another conversation.  Many times, believers have confessed to me that they don’t care what the truth is; they wanna believe what they wanna believe, even if they already know that it’s indefensible unsupported unwarranted assertions told to them by known and convicted frauds seeking undeserved tithe.

Over the last six or seven months, I have been involved in an online debate with a young-earth creationist talk radio show host.  Let’s call him Pastor Bob Enyart of Denver Bible church.  This guy has a website dedicated to the claim that science has confirmed the discovery of “undecomposed dinosaur blood and other extant original biological material”, proving that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.  He presented to me several peer-reviewed journals examining large well-insulated fossils which included enigmatic microscopic tissues that were found to be ‘soft’ after being demineralized in an acid bath.  Some of these articles said they could have actual proteins, but that they might also be no more than their chemical break-down products.  One of these articles confirmed the existence of heme, (an iron-based compound) but not actual blood.  There was not one article which confirmed the existence of any “original biological material” that was “extant” or that hadn’t been decomposed.  I and a panel of reviewers explained this to him several times over the last few months, but he simply will not accept it.  He won’t correct any of his claims, and I just don’t understand that.  A common definition of sanity is the ability to reason and to be reasoned with, and these people don’t fit that definition.  I know how hard it is to explain something to someone who’s salary depends on his not understanding it, but then I also know a few honest pastors involved in the clergy project.  So it is still possible to be honest even then.

I can understand not wanting to find out that something I believed was wrong.  I don’t like the indignity of admitting that I have been duped.  I don’t like the taste of humble pie.  I don’t like having to post erratas or recant a position I once defended passionately.  But I have done all of these things again and again in my life, because my position is NOT based on faith; I want to be seen as a reasonable and an honest person.  That means that accuracy and accountability matter more than whatever I would rather believe.  Also I have never grown or improved so much as when I discovered -and discarded- some point of prejudice or ignorance that I never noticed or knew I had before.  So it doesn’t matter what I want to believe if it includes errors needing correction.  Consequently I would rather suffer the humiliation of being proven wrong than to forever be wrong and never know it.

55 thoughts on “It’s alright to be wrong

  1. Not long ago I was duped by the NRA and their gun paranoia. Then I began to notice how the Freedom First magazine presented the same articles with the same accusations over and over again; only the names were changed. Humble pie was scraping that sticker off my car window.

      1. I support the Second Amendment, not the NRA. Except for the gun safety of course. Too many from the NRA don’t know why America has the Second Amendment even when using it as a rallying cry.

    1. *applauds*

      I admire anyone with the courage to admit that in public. (Well, to be a former moon-landing denier. Current deniers don’t seem to have much trouble.)

  2. Yes, this. The ability to admit error and change one’s mind might be the most underrated of virtues.

    1. BTW, since we’re doing the embarassing confession thing, I used to be an Objectivist. As in Ayn Rand.

  3. Living in England I don’t get the chance to have any real conversations or debates about God or faith, maybe I should try harder to find them. Occasionally a Jehovah Witness comes to my house asking if “have you heard the truth?” She (the JW) knew the many contradictions in the bible, knew that it is written by men, decades and centuries after the events. Yet she still thought the bible was perfect. After about an hour of her avoiding my questions I asked her if she believed in the bible over reality (a desperate move on my part) and she replied “Yes, of course. The bible is my reality” She gave me Watchtower magazines to read, I gave her a spare copy of the God Delusion.

    Far too often it is impossible to have a decent conversation or a debate. I see the awesome people at The Atheist Experience struggle week after week and I can barely get through an episode, yet I see many people on Youtube and here who go on fighting for us. How do you go on doing it, how do you not get too tired and frustrated suffering the same stupidity all the time? You all have my respect and appreciation, thank you. x

    1. Watching the AE as a download, save me much frustration. It’s so easier to hit mute and tab to some other web page, until I think I am able to continue watching.

      And the same goes for Andy aka Aronrahahahaha, he is not even poe.

    2. I’ve had a few conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses but they’ve never been very fruitful. But I was incredibly pleased to hear a door-to-door Witness ask “Jesus is the answer but what is the question?” and be able to give the Stewart Lee inspired response “Is it, how do you complete the name of the band who released the album Psychocandy – The ‘blank’ and Mary Chain?”

      1. One of my favourite anti-war protest placards (I forget where I saw it) read ‘If war is the answer, it must have been a very stupid question’. Maybe we need to formulate something similar for ‘Jesus’.

  4. Consequently I would rather suffer the humiliation of being proven wrong than to forever be wrong and never know it.

    But being wrong and never knowing it feels just like being right.

    1. And hence follow many tragedies.

      But I’ve always found it very difficult to maintain a pristine state of ignorance. I keep catching little hints of evidence out of the corner of my eye, which makes it very cognitive-dissonance-y and thus uncomfortable.

  5. A common definition of sanity is the ability to reason and to be reasoned with…

    Please post this over at the Rock Beyond Belief and Thunderf00t blogs; certain people there might benefit from same.

  6. The first thing I thought of at seeing your title is an unrelated issue: Prejudice. I was looking for Dawkins talks on Youtube some time last year and found the lady ahead of him was more interesting. I don’t recall her name, only that she was an atheist with Zoroastrian parents, I think from India.

    Anyhow, she was saying we are all prejudiced and this can be scientifically determined. Also, that once you are aware of your prejudice, you can do something about it. It was the first time I’d seen that issue framed that way.

    Normally, this sort of discussion is all name-calling and defensive jackassery. The name-calling is right – you don’t want to sugar-coat a response to misdeeds to the point where it doesn’t land at all. But it’s good to give the wrongdoer an out. Before I saw that video, it hadn’t occurred to me that

    It’s alright to be wrong, as long as you are willing to say “my bad” and do something about it.

  7. You’ve done an excellent job of putting up with Pastor Bob, Aron.

    It must be tough, considering the fact that he won’t own up to his mistakes, but you have done a damn good job trying to reason with that man.

  8. I used to argue that outlawing Muslim female headwear was a good way to save Muslim women from being forced to wear it. After being convinced how ineffective that would be even for those who wanted to stop, on top of the implications for personal freedom, I think it’s the first clear opinion I’ve ever been fully aware of reversing. It hurt a bit, but now I’m just sorry I hadn’t thought it through.

    1. That’s a really important discussion. I still tend to be in favor of outlawing certain types of headwear (does hijab count as headwear in your book?), and I would like to hear arguments against it. The two points against it I could think of are that – it might make it impossible for women from extremely fundamentalist muslim families to leave the house at all because they are forbidden, whereas before they were at least able to do so under these constrained circumstances. And secondly – that such bans are often a political vehicle for racism and xenophobia. On the other hand, a ban would finally highlight the treatment of these women as the criminal behavior it actually is, namely coercion and deprivation of liberty.

      1. One problem is, the women who wear these things are not themselves doing anything wrong. It’s the people/culture/institution making them wear it who are in the wrong, and the women are their victims. If it wasn’t for those outside pressures, the hijab would just be an odd fashion decision. So if we ban this clothing, and catch a woman wearing it anyway, what do we do? Arrest the victim? Look around for the nearest man and arrest him – and then somehow prove in court that he picked out her clothes that morning?

      2. A major problem with outlawing the headgear is that a large number of Muslim women, possibly a majority but certainly lots, really want to wear it. It may be because of indoctrination and pressure from the men and older women in their lives, or out of sheer tradition, but that’s irrelevant; if you prohibit the gear you stop a lot of people from voluntarily doing something which doesn’t hurt anyone. On top of that, you make a law which effectively only restricts women’s freedom, since men don’t wear the gear anyway. I can’t justify it.

        What you really want to do is stop Muslims from forcing other Muslims to cover their heads, but this is practically impossible to do legally. Just think how difficult it can be to detect and punish simple, physical domestic violence. No, it has to be a social change.

    2. The answer is to fully go after the men who oppress these women. Show women that they have governmental support to the right to choose. I know only a few of the bravest (and hence usually youngest) women will be in a position to take advantage of it, but “we got your back” does alot of good

  9. “Why then are you proselytizing? It the truth doesn’t matter, how can your truth matter?”

  10. Today there were two 8th grade girls trying to read the lines on the palm of my hand. I teach English in a junior high school in Japan. I let them read my future, then after that I had them pull out their science books from their desks. I asked them to show me which chapter talked about palm reading. It wasn’t there for a reason, I told them. It’s not science. It’s a bunch of superstitious bunk. I said its the same for ghosts, demons, and even all of those thousands of Japanese ‘good luck’ trinkets you get suckered into buying at every local festival. The look on their face was priceless when they realized what I was saying! It’s not always about what you know, it’s about asking the right questions!

  11. I’m a bit sad to read that you couldn’t reach that kid. I remember briefly talking to you about your first encounter with him during the AA convention. You were very positive that you were getting through to him. Brainwashing is a very hard thing to shake off once it takes. Hopefully you’ve planted a few seeds of doubt at least. Will the conversation be put up on YouTube, or was it agreed to be a strictly private conversation?

  12. beliefs based on faith require a desire to pretend

    That’s not clear to me: it seems more likely that beliefs based on faith are consequent to commands given to one by an authority figure, generally in childhood. Your authority tells you what you are to believe, to think (and what you must not think!), and to do.

    You must believe this: you must not believe anything to the contrary. You must think this : you must not think anything else. In particular, you must never allow your beliefs to be challenged, neither by yourself nor by anyone else.

    IOW, there is no ‘god-shaped hole’ in the human mind — there is an obedience-shaped hole that religions have been constructed to fit into.

    One might outgrow the childhood instructions — but that requires growing up, and discovering the joy of having been wrong.

  13. It is always difficult to admit when you were wrong about something.

    I used to be a young earth creationist (in the UK, which is relatively unusual, thankfully!).

      1. It is possible not to.

        I’ve known Aron’s name for some time, but until he arrived here I had only rarely watched any of his stuff. I don’t have his voice established in my memory, so I don’t hear it when I read this.

        That will change soon, I’m sure.

  14. Being an atheist doesn’t necessarily mean that you hold no beliefs that are fundamentally wrong. I had been an atheist for well over a year(and still quite an angry one) when I was sucked in for a minute by the Ancient Alien theorists.

    I just appealed to me because the basic idea of life on earth being started by an alien intelligence seemed plausible. That with all of the false and exaggerated “proof they provided had me hooked.

    Thankfully my “need to know” and access to the internet led to places like FTB and others that quickly dispelled my enamorment, and showed it as the bunk it really is.

    1. I have probably been an atheist all my life, but I used to be seriously into the Ancient Astronaut theory too. I only got over that about a year ago when watching the TV series Ancient Aliens. Georgio was talking about Moses and how he was abducted by aliens and described the Earth from space (the part where this happened in the bible was never mentioned and I couldn’t find it). That led me to actually read the bible, you know how it goes from there. Now I only see AAT theory as many other conspiracy theories, as really boring. Far too much speculation and jumping to random conclusions. Still it would be awesome to find out that many ancient gods where actually aliens. I can’t want to waste time with Erich Von Daniken or Giorgio Tsoukalos when the internet has Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman and the sexy BBC documentaries for us.

    2. When I was a kid I *devoured* pop-sci books like popcorn. I bought every one I could, borrowed every one possible from the library and read as much as I could of every remaining one in bookshops before I got thrown out. Bookshops frowned on that kind of thing in those days.

      Inevitably, sometimes pseudoscience books slipped through the net. I was just a kid and I didn’t always know the difference. I could usually tell when reading the pseudoscience books that there was probably some kind of rabbit away, but I didn’t have the critical thinking skills to help me reliably decide what was true. Some books were somewhere in between: clearly science in essence but making claims that didn’t quite seem justified. There usually seemed to be a bit much *pleading*, but I didn’t feel confident that I was making the right decision.

      That was my route into skepticism. I wanted to know how I could tell the difference. In other words, for as long as I can remember, I had a nagging realisation that it wouldn’t take much to fool me and this led me to find people like James Randi who taught me many of the skills I need to be skeptical.

      So my message is this: as a young kid I could kindasorta tell that I could be fooled by bullshit and took steps to make it less likely that I would be. There seem to be vast numbers of people who think they can’t be fooled or haven’t been fooled. I don’t think it’s just that they lack the critical thinking skills to examine things properly, but that they lack that nagging sensation that says “wait….am I sure about this?”

      Some of the many religious people I know say they suffer from doubt, which would seem to be the same thing. But that voice seems to nag them to eliminate the doubt rather than to work out whether it is justified.

  15. Shade, I hear his voice, clear as day, as I read Aron’s words. As a speech therapist, I’m somewhat enamored with Aron’s voice, not in a weird way, but the frequency, no glottal frys, the somewhat monotone, punctuated by occasional intonated stream of information, and yes, sexy!! The human ear evolved to recognize voices to the level of fingerprint individually. Never stop talking Aron, it’s music to my ears. And if you ever lose your wonderful voice, I’d be happy to teach you to sign!!!

  16. Those who never fail are those who never try anything difficult.

    I actually like to be shown I am wrong, I learn much more from finding out I am wrong than validating what I already know.

    1. For one thing, we sometimes learn that our criteria for deciding what was right was wrong. Pretty cool when that happens.

  17. I used to be a creationist, brought up Southern Baptist will do that to you. I just loved dinosaurs too much and studying about them convinced me that creationism was fundamentally wrong.

    I used to be a climate denier. I changed by doing research to support my views and realized that the evidence pointed the other way, so I did too.

    I used to believe in Rand’s concepts as well. Atlas Shrugged made a lot of sense. Then I looked at what was going on in the real world and changed my mind.

    I used to be Republican and think that Democrats were socialists that just wanted to spend all our money. That got cured pretty quickly once I started actually studying American politics.

    I still have some ideas that aren’t popular in these parts, but they are minor and I can see the cultural imprinting on them. Maybe I will change my mind about those too.

    Changing one’s mind is not ‘wishy washy’ or ‘going with the flow’. As long as you’re changing your mind for the right reasons. If a preponderance of the evidence points a certain way, then that’s the way you should probably point. If you’re really hardcore, then start doing experiments and research to help yourself and others make a decision one way or another.

  18. I’ll admit: I used to believe in UFO and 9/11 conspiracies.

    I’m grateful that my doubts about religion lead me to apply skepticism to all of my accepted beliefs.

    The overarching lesson for me is that skepticism is not instinctual; I had to learn it, and somebody had to teach it to me.

  19. I used to be a christian. I used to be a climate change denier. I used to be 9/11 conspiracy believer.

    Thankfully I was also curious and (trying to be) reasonable. Researching information to support each of those beliefs lead to discarding the belief instead. I don’t know how to do otherwise, even when it sucks. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.

    I’ve never learned how to bury my head in the sand and ignore when someone can demonstrate flaws in my reasoning or believes and, as much as I detest being wrong, I hope I never do.

  20. I used to believe in all sorts of New Age woo. I even thought I’d personally had mystical experiences (OBEs, seeing ghosts, that sort of thing). I’ve since been diagnosed with severe chronic migraine with aura.

    What’s really interesting is that after my migraine diagnosis, I continued to have these experiences, but they became much less detailed. The shadows in the corners of my vision no longer have human shape, they’re just flickers. The whispering sounds I hear are just sounds, I can no longer make out specific words. The only aura-related symptoms that haven’t lost detail are my olfactory hallucinations, which still smell like burning grease.

    I suspect that before understanding my illness, I was prone to confabulation. Once I understood that my brain was manufacturing these sensations, I no longer had to (unconsciously) create a narrative to make sense of them.

  21. In my experience, it’s not just being wrong about something that makes one grow personally, it’s admitting it in public. As I’m sure we all know, online debate forums are notorious for everyone being the foremost expert in everything. It’s amazing to see the reactions you get when, after you realize you were wrong about something (no matter how small), you admit it and move on. The people you were debating will jump up and down like school kids and taunt you like crazy. I typically respond with something like, “What, did you previously think I was infallible and perfect?”

    As far as being absolutely dismayed and dumbfounded by people who won’t admit even the possibility of being wrong on anything, I think my watershed moment in that area came when a YEC told me that even if he dug up and held a certain type of fossil in his hands and saw it with his own eyes, he would HAVE to conclude that it didn’t really exist. When I asked why on earth he would do such a thing, he answered that if “God’s word” told him it didn’t exist, then it can’t exist and his hands and eyes must be deceiving him.

    How in the heck do you have a conversation with such a person? The only answer I have is that you don’t….don’t even try.

  22. When I was younger, I used to read a lot of woo woo stuff. Ancient astronauts, cryptozoology, lunar landing fake photos etcetera, you name it. I don’t remember if I actually believed any of it, I think I just thought it was neat, like imagining magic is real. But those days are long past now.

    The only real ‘debating’ I do with the religious, is with my brother. And like pastor Bob, from what I gather from the posts above anyway, he’s beyond reasoning.

  23. Presuppositionalist arguments are among the toughest to deflate because you have to stop them at their very first premise.

    * Assume there is a god.


    * Because for the purposes of this discussion, we have to assume there is a god.

    No, we don’t. You have to prove there is a god first. Then we can move on.

    * But in order to prove there is a god, you have to first assume there is a god.

    No, we don’t.

    And on and on. It’s an infinite loop.

    They cannot — or will not allow themselves — to entertain the null hypothesis.

  24. The concept of believing something without any evidence is beyond my ability to understand too. I’ve believed some stupid things in my time, but never without evidence. Sure it might not have been good evidence or I might not have critically evaluated it for whatever reason, but there was always evidence. Case in point: when I was a kid I was fooled by a godbot into thinking the world’s most famous basking shark was really a plesiosaur. The guy had photos, and it sure did look like a plesiosaur! Humble pie, of course, came later with the realisation that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and a possibly-faked photo (I didn’t realise the thing was real and a basking shark until quite recently) didn’t qualify.

  25. Just listened to Sye Ten Bruggencate’s one-hour primer speech to a hall full of Christians the day before they all went to the Reason Rally. It’s on the Multimedia page of his own site if you want it.

    Presuppositionalist proselytising depends entirely on two presuppositions which follow on from Biblical literalism: that all nonbelievers are really believers in denial, and that truth and other basic elements of reason come exclusively from God.

    This means they’re probably not going to connect meaningfully with atheists at all (unless they luck out and actually find a believer in denial), but both points are immensely reassuring to Christians, which explains Bruggencate’s popularity and also hints at the likely true purpose of the technique. I think it’s Christianity’s way of “turtling”.

  26. Great blog! I found that you encapsulated many of the things I had experienced for years, and your conclusion summed up my own: I’d rather find out that I was wrong (which would logically lead to a search of how to correct the error), than spend who knows how long defending a fallacy. While it may be true that most Christians would argue that my (eternal) life would hang in the balance, being “right” about something isn’t nearly as important as being correct. I have a problem with people who, when confronted with facts, are willfully obdurate, and who refuse to even entertain the possibility that maybe – just maybe – they could be wrong.

  27. I was christian for far too long…I went from believing in everything, (literally! god, illuminati,conspiacy theories,magic, ect,) to being skeptical about most things, and I wouldn’t want it any other way! Aron, you are one of the people who have helped me to value facts over beliefs, and for that I thank you! The main issue I have now is when I try to share some of the facts with friends and family…I’m treated as if I’ve lost my mind! It’s very discouraging that my children are mistreated because I’m a non believer. God forbid my kids know any scientific facts!!

  28. This:

    Many times, believers have confessed to me that they don’t care what the truth is; they wanna believe what they wanna believe…

    I have actually seen this argument made. Because she knew all research is slanted and false; because of conspiracy, the only thing that mattered were her OPINIONS (that’s how she wrote it – all caps). For too many, belief trumps reality.

  29. The strength to admit to being wrong is one of the best superpowers out there. And I’d much rather be proven wrong than continue believing a lie; it makes life so much more livable to know what’s really going on rather than ignoring reality, even if the facts are uncomfortable.

  30. I used to believe in NWO conspiracies. Kind of. My discovery of the nutty-schisophrenic version of history some people promote coincided with my first real attempt to thoroughly study social sciences. This led to a few nerve-wrecking months, where one day I was planning for inevitable dystopia and another day I was sneering at my credulity and ignorance. Thankfully, attachment to scepticism and cold reasoning led me through the crisis. Those mood and worldview swings thought me a lot about the process of adapting beliefs. It helped me relate to other people by allowing to recognise which steps one takes in the reasoning process to arrive at conclusions.

  31. I have a million shameful things I used to believe in. The worst one was that dinosaurs were dragons and lived with mankind. I was homeschooled and we had a textbook with a lot of Kent Hovind crap in it. Like the story of the Scottish man who saw a baby dragon in his backyard in the 1800’s (if he had been Irish that story wouldn’t have been published).

    I used to rationize it all to my public-schooled friends. I even thought that the reason they couldn’t find the Loch Ness monster was because it migrated to the Bermuda Triangle during the winter. Woooooh! I could call George Nory with that one.

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  33. Lots of interesting comments above.

    Regarding the idea of a technology that could prove/disprove God: as a theist I have no problem with this, I really wonder where you’re finding your debaters.

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