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Wrong! yet again.

Originally posted on October 24, 2015

The concerned wife phoned her husband, who was out on the road: "Honey, be careful out there! The TV says someone's driving the wrong way on the interstate." The answer came back: "Somebody? There's hundreds of 'em!"

My entire life I've been told, in a variety of ways-- sometimes it's subtle, gentle, sugar-coated, cautious, but more often (because blunt works better) it's crisp and pointed:

"You're wrong."

This message, whether plain-spoken or ornately embellished, has come from all sides. From parents. From my brother. From the kids. From neighbors. Colleagues. Bosses. Employees. Strangers. From readers of this blog.

You know who you are.

And what's more, you've always been right! Sitting here, wracking my brain, going back through 70-plus years of memories, I struggle to recall an instance where you weren't justified in your criticism.

So ... thank you!

Over the years, this reality has shaped me, made me who I am. For example, even though you may think I'm in arrears in my apologies to you personally, I tend to apologize, early and often, to almost everyone else. (Some of you have shared with me that this practice of mine is itself wrong. One of my former bosses, Vernon Derr, put it this way in an exasperated moment: "Don't apologize! Your enemies won't believe you, and your friends don't need to hear it!' So of course, you all are right to say this as well.)

A second impact is that any and all vignettes on this subject, from whatever source, make an impression. I can't stop thinking about them. They become part of a store of memories. I then inflict them, repeatedly, on everyone I know.

Today it's your turn.

A week ago I was having lunch with a good friend, who is former military and today on the faculty of the National Defense University--one of the smartest people I know. He recommended a TED video, a few years old now, by Kathryn Schulz, on being wrong, based on her book by that title. Two aspects of her talk stood out. First, early on, she asked the audience what it felt like to be wrong. She got the answers you'd expect: "It's embarrassing. I felt ashamed. I felt wretched..." But she said, "No, that's what it feels like to know you're wrong. But to simply be wrong is to feel the same as it does to be right." She referred to the old roadrunner cartoons. The coyote would chase the roadrunner off the cliff, and be perfectly okay until the moment he looked down. Not much different from our friend driving on the interstate. She pointed out that no matter what our past history, we tend to live in a present, where, to our minds, we'll always feel we're right, no matter what we're saying or doing. Only when someone takes the trouble to bring us up short does our mind-set change.

But most often, not at first. Here's what Schulz had to say next:

She turned to the knowledge deficit model. You and I know this one. Scientists, say, reach certain conclusions about reality--doesn't matter whether it's how children learn, or climate change, or vaccinations, or genetically modified crops, or whatever--only to learn that policymakers and the public disagree. It's easy and natural for scientists to conclude that policymakers and the public suffer from a knowledge deficit--if only they knew what scientists knew, they'd be in agreement with scientists.

(By the way, husbands also initially think the same thing when they and their spouses are in disagreement: if she knew what I knew, she'd be on my side. And call me politically incorrect, but my experience has been, at least with my own spouse, and observing other relationships, that women are less prone to this kind of thinking than men. Maybe some reader has actual data to support or confute this perceived bias.)

So far, nothing new, at least to me. But Schulz carried this a couple of steps further. She said when we encounter someone with a knowledge deficit, then (irony alert!), out of the goodness of our hearts, our first response is to share with them the bounty of our surplus knowledge. To our dismay, we often find that this sharing fails to change minds. So, we reach a second conclusion: " Thanks to my generous sharing, this person now knows what I know, but still doesn't see things my way. Poor soul! He/she must therefore be less capable of reason." Once again, we generously share, this time the entire logical chain of our thought process. But according to Schulz, this often brings us a third level: "This person now has all the facts. This person now understands the rationale. This person still doesn't agree."

"We therefore conclude," she says, "this person must be evil."

Wow. Talk about the light bulb going on. Schulz is a journalist, a freelance writer, a popularizer. But this sure feels like expert social science. You and I see this polarizing process at work across our society. First, with respect to the major issues of our times: poverty, justice, religion, politics, and more. And then down to the specifics: Admissions practices at universities. Abortion. Race. Sexuality. Immigration. The Keystone pipeline. Coral bleaching. Benghazi. Gun ownership. Our dog. The neighbor's dog.

Not a shade of grey to be seen in any of these issues, or thousands more. They're all simple black and white.

Earth scientists might be inclined to be smug. We might point to meteorology and the prediction of weather, an inherently chaotic system. Our methodologies are all tentative, iterative. They're predicated on frequently, quickly detecting departures of forecasts from reality and reinitializing, starting over with our observations and numerical predictions.

But "smug" doesn't suit particularly well. Consider this Union of Concerned Scientists blog post on the "House Science Committee's witch hunt against NOAA's scientists." ( -halpern/the-house-science-committees-witch -hunt-against-noaa-scientists-934?) The UCS folks have a point. Demanding years' worth of documents be delivered in a two-week period is clearly onerous. And yet the path of causation seems to go back to an earlier letter from a small group of scientists suggesting that the White house consider using RICO statutes to go after climate skeptics. (The letter suggesting this was subsequently pulled after causing a small firestorm, but the damage had been done.) In fact, the path of causation extends back decades now, with all parties to the discussion having quickly progressed to Kathryn Schulz's third conclusion: the person who disagrees with me must be evil.

What's more, it turns out you and I don't have to be meteorologists to get in touch with this iterative, tentative, make-and-correct-errors way of approaching problems. We all do this every day when we get behind the wheel of our automobiles. We have destinations in mind, but at every moment in our journey we're correcting one of four mistakes. We're either going too fast, too slow, too far to the right, or too far to the left. We're wrong. We're expecting to be wrong, and we're constantly looking for early signals we're wrong, and making any needed adjustments. We're also not expending a lot of emotional energy on it. (Excepting road rage--another discussion. But perhaps given what we've been considering so far, completing that sidebar is left as an exercise for anyone interested.)

If we can have this awareness with respect to something as simple as driving, surely we're capable of holding the same approach toward weightier, more complex challenges that we're all facing together. With respect to every issue that polarizes, we could be less interested in assigning blame and more interested in collaborating in a search for truth.

We might make it our goal to try that approach for 24 hours. And then, if we like the results, another 24....

[Editor's Note: The following post is adapted from William Hooke's blog, Living on the Real World (www.livingon Hooke is the former director of the AMS Policy Program and currently a senior policy fellow.]
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Publication:Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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