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That It Were Better to be Wrong for the Right Reason than to be Right for the Wrong Reason

By Wm. G. Smith, B.A., J.D.
Posted on: 4/18/2002

What's the point of being correct if the basis and logic behind your conclusion is no better than random guessing?

At first, one rejects the suggestion that it were better to be wrong for the right reason, than to be right for the wrong reason. Right is right, after all, and isn’t truth always to be preferred to error? What matters it then, how we arrived at the truth, so long as we grasp it?

But if you believe a thing that happens to be true only by chance, i.e. for the wrong reason, can you really be said to have grasped it? Not at all. Kepler believed that Mars should have two moons — the right answer as it turned out — although before we had telescopes he had no way of confirming it. But he also believed that Jupiter would have three and Saturn four because he felt the Solar System ought to be symmetrical and since he knew the Earth had one moon, the outer planets should have one more moon for each step outward from the Sun. Kepler was wrong because his method was wrong. That he got the right number of moons for Mars was a matter of pure chance.

Galileo was also wrong about the moons of other planets. He thought Jupiter had four moons. His thinking so was not a matter of logical necessity but one of direct observation. He was wrong. Jupiter has sixteen moons, we know now. [The count of Jupiter’s moons has increased to 63 — Ed.] But we know this in the same way and for the same reason that Galileo did: by direct observation. Galileo saw four moons in orbit around Jupiter when he looked in his telescope. Our telescopes are better than his, and we were able to send our space probes, Voyager 1 & 2, out to Jupiter to have a look around. We’ve even sent a probe named Galileo off on a visit.

Astrologers once knew rather a lot about the apparent motions of the stars, and their early work in this field provided a lot of useful data for Galileo and all the modern astronomers since. But they thought this data important enough to collect for the wrong reason. Somehow, the astrologers believed, the positions of the stars in the night sky at the moment of your birth could foretell all sorts of useful things about your subsequent life. One could forgive them for their error. The regular motions of the stars could foretell, to the careful observer, all sorts of useful things about the world.

By careful observation, one can tell when one should start planting, when the harvest will come, the approximate time for the arrival of the first frost, the migration of birds and other animals, the best season for a sea voyage and who knows what all else.

So naturally it would seem that the stars were a powerful sign of future events. And perhaps the stars don’t just accidentally happen to be in these positions when these recurring events happen. Perhaps, the fact that certain stars are always present for certain events means those stars cause the events. Orion is high in the sky all Winter. Maybe he causes the Winter. To the ancients, the stars were gods. If they influence human affairs so much that they decide the time to plant, the time to hunt and other important human enterprises, why shouldn’t they influence the lives of those who were born under their signs?

But now we know stars are not gods. They are balls of gas so massive that hydrogen caught in a star’s gravity well is subject to so much gravitational pressure that it fuses and turns into helium in a thermonuclear reaction of enormous power that continues nonstop for billions of years at a time. Further, we know these stars are not nearby in a sphere arching over the surface of the Earth, but enormously distant; that their distance is not uniform, but widely varying; that they are not fixed in position relative to the Earth, but racing around at a million miles an hour or more.

On the observable facts of apparent motion, the astrologers were often right, but ever since the discovery of astronomy, all of astrology’s theories about the meaning of the position and motions of the stars have been exploded.

Still, the astrological knowledge was useful enough while it was still possible to say that it was knowledge, so wherefore do we say it is better to be wrong for the right reason than right for the wrong reason?

If we make it a habit to draw only the inferences that might be allowed from the evidence we observe, and never go any farther, if we leave every question open and never claim to have conclusively settled anything, if we resolve to change our opinions the moment better evidence or reasoning becomes apparent, we will go wrong less often, and when we stray we will preserve for ourselves the means of our own correction.

But if we insist on clinging to ideas because we believe they are in some sense necessary, if we believe we already know the truth of the matter, we set ourselves up for ignoring the evidence of our senses. We give ourselves a built-in rigidity that refuses to change in the face of superior evidence and argument.

A few years ago, there was a wave of panic over the sexual abuse of children. We are still somewhat in its grip, but skepticism has made headway against it, and we may hope for further progress. How did this panic come about? Well-meaning people, convinced that sex abuse must exist, set out to find evidence of it. Many of these crusaders gained power and influence within their communities as a result of their investigations. Therapists and prosecutors gained reputation and advancement so their interest was to find more such cases.

Obviously, the sexual abuse of a young child is a serious matter and any right-thinking person would insist it be stopped at once and the perpetrators punished severely. The very vulnerability of the young child is what makes the crime so shocking and horrible. Often, the perpetrator is someone well known to the child: a priest, an uncle or stepfather. Any of us, from our own experience of childhood, can imagine how terrified a six- or seven-year-old must be when a trusted adult authority figure threatens her with dire consequences if she tells. Worse, credible young adults began to appear with stories of sexual abuse when they were children. How come you didn’t complain about it then, they were asked. We did, they replied. No one would believe us. This started a whole movement. “Believe the children” was their slogan. They should have paid greater heed to their own slogan.

Certainly a child who volunteers information about sexual abuse should be taken seriously. But the “Believe the Children” brigades were not content to let it rest there. Remember, these people are convinced that there must be a lot of children being sexually abused all the time. And their battle cry requires them to listen to the children even when the story is inherently incredible. But, for some reason, we are not to listen to the children when they deny any sexual contact. Those children need to be “encouraged” to “be honest.”

Not surprisingly, after repeated questioning by these crusaders, the children who were the subjects of these interrogations began to figure out what the right answer was: the answer the adult therapist or prosecutor required. All over the country, day care providers, school teachers, uncles and fathers were prosecuted and often convicted on such flimsy evidence. Only now are we beginning to see the damage that leaping to the wrong conclusion can cause.

Of course, some children were being abused, and at the peak of the frenzy no doubt many who were certainly guilty were detected and punished. But a method which assumes thousands of children are being sexually abused, regardless whether any children actually claim they have or not, is bound to arrest some abusers, if only by chance.

Galileo was wrong about Jupiter’s moons. But his method was sound.

That’s what made the difference. Relying on direct observation and drawing only such inferences as the data required, he reorganized the solar system, moving the Sun to the center and making Earth just one of six planets. He shattered the celestial spheres, and proved Aristotle wrong about the logical necessity that earthly motion must be in straight lines and that curved motion on Earth is a logical impossibility. To be sure he was wrong about the moons of Jupiter, the number of planets, and the rings of Saturn. But he established the methods by which he was proved wrong. He was right on the major points, wrong on the details. But we corrected the detailed errors using his method of direct observation coupled with niggardliness in granting inferences.

It is said that even a broken clock is right twice a day. But for my part, like Galileo, I’d rather have a clock that is a few minutes slow or a few minutes fast all day, every day than one that is exactly right once every twelve hours.

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