Our world is not binary. When it comes to experience, we frequently if not most of the time have more than two choices as to how we go about making decisions, for example. Why it is good to reflect the reality that in life there are more than two doors in our stories, and to learn to think critically, or with our own head rather than accepting what others dish out as absolute truths.
In an essay he titled The Relativity of Wrong, Isaac Asimov argues persuasively against the common belief that “‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.” Instead, he says, “it seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts,” and that certain ideas can be true in a sense, but still in need of further correction with new information.
Asimov was a very prolific American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. He was also a long-time member and vice president of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described some members of that organization as “brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs.”#
The essay was prompted by a letter Asimov received from a young specialist in English Lit who had quoted him in his work and believed, “that in every century people have thought they understood the Universe at last, and in every century they were proven to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about out modern ‘knowledge’ is that it is wrong.”
To build his argument, Asimov begins by dismantling the oft-cited story of Socrates' response to the Delphic Oracle, which earned him the label of wisest man in Greece:
“If I am the wisest man,” said Socrates, “it is because I alone know that I know nothing.” The implication was that I was very foolish because I knew a great deal.
let me dispose of Socrates because I am sick and tired of this pretense that knowing you know nothing is a mark of wisdom.
No one knows nothing. In a matter of days, babies learn to recognize their mothers.
Socrates would agree, of course, and explain that knowledge of trivia is not what he means. He means that in the great abstractions over which human beings debate, one should start without preconceived, unexamined notions, and that he alone knew this. (What an enormously arrogant claim!)
In his discussions of such matters as “What is justice?” or “What is virtue?” he took the attitude that he knew nothing and had to be instructed by others. (This is called “Socratic irony,” for Socrates knew very well that he knew a great deal more than the poor souls he was picking on.) By pretending ignorance, Socrates lured others into propounding their views on such abstractions. Socrates then, by a series of ignorant-sounding questions, forced the others into such a mélange of self-contradictions that they would finally break down and admit they didn't know what they were talking about.
It is the mark of the marvelous toleration of the Athenians that they let this continue for decades and that it wasn't till Socrates turned seventy that they broke down and forced him to drink poison.
Asimov then proceeds to tackle the question of where we get the notion that “‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.” It starts in school, out of convenience for the teacher:
It seems to me that this arises in the early grades, when children who know very little are taught by teachers who know very little more.
Young children learn spelling and arithmetic, for instance, and here we tumble into apparent absolutes.
How do you spell “sugar?” Answer: s-u-g-a-r. That is right. Anything else is wrong.
How much is 2 + 2? The answer is 4. That is right. Anything else is wrong.
Having exact answers, and having absolute rights and wrongs, minimizes the necessity of thinking, and that pleases both students and teachers. For that reason, students and teachers alike prefer short-answer tests to essay tests; multiple-choice over blank short-answer tests; and true-false tests over multiple-choice.
But short-answer tests are, to my way of thinking, useless as a measure of the student's understanding of a subject. They are merely a test of the efficiency of his ability to memorize.
You can see what I mean as soon as you admit that right and wrong are relative.
How do you spell “sugar?” Suppose Alice spells it p-q-z-z-f and Genevieve spells it s-h-u-g-e-r. Both are wrong, but is there any doubt that Alice is wronger than Genevieve? For that matter, I think it is possible to argue that Genevieve's spelling is superior to the "right" one.
Or suppose you spell “sugar”: s-u-c-r-o-s-e, or C12H22O11. Strictly speaking, you are wrong each time, but you're displaying a certain knowledge of the subject beyond conventional spelling.
Suppose then the test question was: how many different ways can you spell “sugar?” Justify each.
Naturally, the student would have to do a lot of thinking and, in the end, exhibit how much or how little he knows. The teacher would also have to do a lot of thinking in the attempt to evaluate how much or how little the student knows. Both, I imagine, would be outraged.
In The Other Serious, Christy Wampole examines some contemporary signature phenomena among which are how our lives contradict themselves and how exaggeration and excess seep into the collective subconscious. She says (page 231 - h/t Tim Kastelle):
“One of my pedagogy professors said an interesting thing once: teachers spend their time in the classroom teaching, while students, who you’d hope would spend the time learning, are actually studenting; that is, performing the gestures they’ve been taught to perform to seem like legitimate students.”
Asimov says teachers are also pleased by the act of minimizing thinking, perhaps also happy to perform the act of teaching. This dynamic resulting in learning theater. Another intriguing example on the relativity of wrong from Asimov:
The teacher asks: “Who is the fortieth President of the United States?” and Barbara says, “There isn't any, teacher.”
“Wrong!” says the teacher, “Ronald Reagan is the fortieth President of the United States.”
“Not at all,” says Barbara, “I have here a list of all the men who have served as President of the United States under the Constitution, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan, and there are only thirty-nine of them, so there is no fortieth President.”
“Ah,” says the teacher, “but Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms, one from 1885 to 1889, and the second from 1893 to 1897. He counts as both the twenty-second and twenty-fourth President. That is why Ronald Reagan is the thirty-ninth person to serve as President of the United States, and is, at the same time, the fortieth President of the United States.”
Isn't that ridiculous? Why should a person be counted twice if his terms are nonconsecutive, and only once if he served two consecutive terms? Pure convention! Yet Barbara is marked wrong—just as wrong as if she had said that the fortieth President of the United States is Fidel Castro.
Therefore, when my friend the English Literature expert tells me that in every century scientists think they have worked out the Universe and are always wrong, what I want to know is how wrong are they? Are they always wrong to the same degree?
He then proceeds to use how the theory of the shape of the Earth has changed through the centuries as an example to demonstrate how:
In short, my English Lit friend, living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the Earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after.
What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend if with a greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.
Even revolutionary ideas stem from incremental discoveries and refinement in our thinking. Moving from one scientific example to the the two great theories of the twentieth century he then discusses relativity and quantum mechanics. Asimov says:
Newton's theories of motion and gravitation were very close to right, and they would have been absolutely right if only the speed of light were infinite. However, the speed of light is finite, and that had to be taken into account in Einstein's relativistic equations, which were an extension and refinement of Newton's equations.
Again, where the prequantum view of physics fell short was that it didn't allow for the “graininess” of the Universe. All forms of energy had been thought to be continuous and to be capable of division into indefinitely smaller and smaller quantities.
This turned out to be not so.
Since the refinements in theory grow smaller and smaller, even quite ancient theories must have been sufficiently right to allow advances to be made; advances that were not wiped out by subsequent refinements.
Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense of my English Lit correspondent, but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.
This is valid for science, and for business. Learning Theater is what allows businesses to perform gestures they've been taught (incentives are a big part of what creates culture) to perform to seem like they are productive or advancing improvements through behaviors that are easy, thus encouraged.
In organizations inertia wins and takes its toll. Because making mistakes and learning from them is often frowned upon in companies, it is then easier for people to go for the path of least resistance and look busy on things that may not move the needle.
Due to a lack of proper metrics, companies may just measure what to reward rather than reward what can reveal potential. Hence people learn to manage the risk of being on the wrong side of incentives. The metric black hole means that knowledge workers in fact don't advance knowledge at work. For innovation, for example, Kastelle says maybe there is something like “innovationing: performing the gestures that we’ve been taught to perform to seem like legitimate innovators.” He calls it Innovation Theater.
Learning Theater then leads to Work Theater and it is no wonder that the life span of S&P 500 Companies from 1937 to 2012 has decreased from 75 years to just 15.#
Right and wrong are not absolutes, and mistakes are an important aspect of learning -- they teach us to learn better, too. We should make learning (including through mistakes) a habit in organizations.
Today, it is very much up to individual contributors to create an environment where we put more faith in people and create more opportunities for them to improve themselves and achieve more at work. This is one of the reasons why I started Learning Habit weekly last May.
Of course, the aim is to be less wrong and improve our odds as we navigate life with more confidence. But the idea is to close the gap on making sense of things, seeing examples of making do with where we are right now, and thinking about what making it means.
There's still time to subscribe this week -- it goes out Sunday morning. Learning Habit weekly includes new posts, articles around the web, and books I’m reading on topics ranging from business, technology, culture, creativity, philosophy, and psychology.