Jeremy Côté

I Could Be Wrong

As a physics student, I’m taught over and over again that science is about checking to see where we have made incorrect assumptions. The goal of science is to correct our assumptions about the world, and find better descriptions for what is going on. Of course, this is a distilled version of the goal of science (and I imagine some would disagree), but my point is that science aims to perform a consistency check on our hypotheses and ideas.

If not, we would just be giving opinions all the time.

That being said, I think there’s a pressing need to remind ourselves of this message over and over again. Whenever we think something is true, it’s worth appending our thought with the words “but I could be wrong”.

I’m not just talking about science here. Every day, we tell ourselves stories about how the world works, the motivations of other people, and why certain things happen. We aren’t mind readers though, so we definitely can’t tell what another person is thinking. Sure, we can guess, but we won’t know for certain unless we ask them. Similarly, we can observe a chain of events and ascribe some sort of causality behind it, but we often don’t have the full picture. Instead, we merely have a slice of it.

Have you ever declared something to another person, only to find out that your assumptions (which you depended on) were wrong? When this happens, we have to grapple with the fact that we don’t understand the world in its entirety. We might be correct from time to time, but on the whole, we are merely making educated guesses.

This isn’t to make you feel bad about yourself. Rather, I want to encourage you to understand how many things we paper over in an effort to give ourselves some consistency and rhythm to our lives. If we start out a conversation arguing one position, we might not want to back down and change our mind, even if internally we know it’s the right thing to do. Instead, we declare our beliefs to the world and don’t even entertain the fact that we could be wrong.

I think this is worth repeating. I could be wrong. I might be right, but I should always leave the possibility of being wrong on the table. Without it, I’m simply being closed off to change.

There’s a lot more to say about this topic. In particular, you want to get to the point where this isn’t merely lip service. In an ideal world, when you say “I might be wrong”, you actually take the time to reflect on the possibility. This process reminds you to slow down in your thinking. It’s easy to get caught up in the stories of our lives and forget that the world isn’t always transparent. There’s a lot going on that we think we understand but really don’t. A good education helps us see this.

I am now trying to walk around the world with this phrase in mind. No matter how knowledgeable I think I am for a given topic, I could be wrong.