The Power of Wrong

For centuries, being wrong according to authorities has been punished.  Often the authorities are wrong and seek to protect themselves by destroying new ideas.  In the end, there are really three types of “wrong” to consider, all of which should offer tremendous learning potential if the world would recognize their value.  The three types as I see them are:
– Wrong as a result of misinterpreting data
– Wrong as a moral or ethical opponent of “right”
– Wrong by being inconsistent with accepted views

The first version is probably the most common in terms of sheer volume.  Whether acting on incomplete, inaccurate data or making incomplete, inaccurate judgements based on any amount of data, this type of “wrong” can typically be explained in a classroom, in an essay, or by demonstrating how the results of “wrong” are not what the person behind it expected.  Since most students do not have all the information about a given subject, and they are all missing unique aspects of the whole picture, putting their “wrong” on the table one at a time and filling in the missing pieces is ultimately the most complete and comprehensive dialogue that can take place in a learning environment.

The second type I mentioned, where “wrong” is an intentional opposition to the locally accepted “right”, the learning opportunities her run much deeper into the foundations of belief, faith, morality, and ethics.  How was the “right” conceived?  How was it proven?  Who shares the same views?  Then the interesting part; how was the “wrong” conceived?  How was it proven to those who believe it to be “right”?  Who else has formed a similar opposition to the locally accepted “right” and why?  Answering these questions can bring understanding between opposing viewpoints.  It is possible for opposing viewpoints to coexist without conflict once each understands why what is “right” for them does not work for others.

The third type of “wrong” shows up time and again throughout history, and though it is unusual to see a new “right” emerge that completely displaces previous beliefs these occasions are worthy of study.  It is not enough to know that Galileo was “right” compared to the Pope, or to learn all of Galileo’s ideas and the ideas that supplanted them in later generations.  The most important thing to study about change is the resistance to the new ideas.  What prevents intelligent men and women from accepting new knowledge that must inevitably replace ideas that were taught to them as truth?  We only need look as far back as far as Pluto losing its status as a planet and becoming just another Kuiper Belt object.  This change caused anger, resentment, and chaos among those who had grown up knowing there were nine planets.  None of these people have seen Pluto, been there, or own real estate on the surface.  They have zero vested interest in the classification of a giant rock on the outer edge of our solar system.  So why the resistance?  It all stems from the way our educational systems presents most material as fact, rather than as the prevailing opinion based on available information.  Anyone who put down “8” as the answer to how many planets were in our solar system back in 1990 would have been penalized for it.  Now children come home from school and say “we learned about all 8 planets today” and their parents are stunned.  If we presented information on disoveries as “probable” and saved the term “fact” for information that will never change (which really isn’t much) then perhaps our society would be better equipped to deal with all the advancements of science and technology. 

To summarize, the examination of “wrong” is a valuable addition to the study of the accepted “right” because it helps clarify why the “right” exists within boundaries.  It also can reveal weaknesses in some of the defining elements of a subject so that further study can find ways of either supporting those elements or discarding them as needed.  Learning from mistakes is about more than replacing a “wrong” answer with a “right” one, it is about finding all gaps in ones understanding of the subject and filling them, and applying that process to everyone involved.  This is why individual testing can only ever be a confirmation of learning and not a genuine teaching tool. 

So next time you disagree with someone, don’t just try to prove your viewpoint is more accurate, find out how the other party came to their concluson, share your own thought process, and then together explore a variety of alternatives to improve the knowledge of BOTH sides of the discussion.


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