How Do We Know We Are Right?

This week’s (right?) question comes to us via reader Harold:

One of the problems we face in today’s society s that we live in a media bubble. From the blogs we read, to the TV channels we watch, to the conversations we have with friends, our own opinions are often reflected back at us, reinforcing our view of the world.

But what happens if that view is not accurate? What if my incorrect beliefs, my mistaken facts, have been repeated so often that I simply accept them as true?

I hold my truths to be self evident. But then again, people who believe the exact opposite from me think they are right just as passionately as I do. If they didn’t — or I didn’t — we’d change our minds.

If two people hold opposite viewpoints on things, at least one of them must be mistaken. Is there any way that I can make sure that it isn’t me? Or is it likely that we are both wrong, and the truth is actually somewhere in the middle of our beliefs? Does it matter?

It would certainly be an unfortunate turn of events if I hold the correct point of view, but due merely to lack of confidence I were to incorrectly concede. Instead, I barrel on in every circumstance, certain of my infallibility, despite copious evidence to the contrary. That would be fine of I were right about everything, but clearly I am not.

So how can we tell? How can we separate out truth from persuasive fiction? How do we know we are right? Or wrong?

Related questions: How can we encourage debate? What beliefs do you have that might be wrong? How do you know who to trust? How can we become better listeners?


4 thoughts on “How Do We Know We Are Right?”

  1. Truth is, much of what I believe is skewed by my perceptions, not based on a complete understanding of reality. It would be good for me to acknowledge that much of what I believe is colored by lenses my brain developed through experiences I had when I was a child or young adult. For these and other reasons, much of what I believe / know is to some degree inaccurate or incomplete. It is also hard to know a subject completely and objectively, and we haven’t yet found the correct language and / or tools to measure and explain all of what we observe.

    Therefore, it is really hard for me to know what is right. In that light, I should believe — to some degree — in doubt. Time allowing, I should question my assumptions and those of whom I follow and / or communicate with.

    But I cannot / should not incapacitate myself with doubt. I need to act. And so, I should do my best to be clear about my interests, lenses, and intentions when I get into serious conversations with people.

    So when do I know I am right? Often, I don’t. But, I can defend when I believe I am more right than someone else. I can, as already noted, weigh my interests, lenses, and intentions against another’s. In fact, in doing so, I may recognize a win, loss, or draw. I may — to the best of my ability — assess that I am still more right than someone else. Or, I may have to change my beliefs because I’ve been proven wrong. Or, I may reach the conclusion that neither of us has a clear ownership of the truth.

  2. Most of the time, most people simply assume themselves to be right. In large part because they consciously or unconsciously assume there to be only one right answer. Often people are content with simply believing there is only one right answer and they’ve got it.

    If it’s important to you to know you’re right, you have to not only be open to being proven wrong, but actually seek to prove yourself wrong. Whether you think of it as the scientific method, or statistical hypothesis testing, or grounded theory’s use of emerging themes, you develop a hypothesis (or your best explanation) and then you subject to a lot of other information by talking to other people, reading other explanations, etc.

    If your hypothesis survives, you hold it to be tentatively true until a better explanation comes along.

  3. Many years ago, my older brother John gave me some good advice. “When in doubt, listen to your wife.”

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