The beauty of being wrong

Being wrong is one of the most critical facets of our progression towards more truth. The more we are wrong, and we are sure we are wrong, then the more we should rejoice because we are getting closer to the truth! As explained in this article, once we discover we are wrong we proceed to modify our worldview to make it more accurate.

I think rejoicing in the truth is congruous with rejoicing in being wrong. We should love the paradigm shifts that come to us as we progress in knowledge.

A deeply touching story of being wrong

One thing I deeply love about science is that it does not even purport to have all of the answers. Scientists who are true to the concept of science readily admit the limits of their knowledge and the large realms in which they are yet to enter, as well as knowing exactly what it would take to convince them otherwise.

While reading the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, I was deeply touched by the following story that he relates. This is also told briefly in the documentary YouTube link below:

I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was
an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artefact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said – with passion – ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’ We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal – unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a lump to my throat.

He briefly recapitulates on this experience in the below video (skipped to the right index)

I do remember one formative influence in my undergraduate life. There was an elderly professor in my department who had been passionately keen on a particular theory for, oh, a number of years. And one day an American visiting researcher came and he completely and utterly disproved our old man’s hypothesis. The old man strode to the front, shook his hand and said “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you, I have been wrong these fifteen years” and we all clapped our hands raw. That was the scientific ideal, of somebody who had a lot invested, a lifetime almost invested into (a) theory, and he was rejoicing that he had been shown wrong, and that scientific truth had been advanced.

I am deeply touched and rejoice in that story. Thank goodness for folks like that who move science forward, I wouldn’t be writing on this blog with the modern technology that we have if it were not for people like that.

Edit: Here’s an awesome TED talk that speaks about being wrong

Conclusion: What would it take for you to be wrong?

What would it take for us to believe we are wrong about something? Do we know exactly what that is?

If we haven’t thought this one through then that might imply that we simply don’t want to be wrong or proven wrong — which is analogous to a state of ignorance; believing we are right and not willing to face up to any remote probability that we are not.

I have not yet defined exactly what it would take to prove me wrong about my beliefs in the church and God. It’s not an easy thing to define. But I think it is reasonable for me to at least admit that it is not impossible that I am wrong about them. I think anyone of reason should be willing to concede that we might be wrong about something, and try to understand what it would take to prove us wrong about it.


  1. robert

    Hey Shawn! Another great post, and I completely agree with yours and Dawkin’s thoughts on the beauty of being mistaken. It was also a great example by Dawkins! It is not always easy to live this way, especially with questioning of deep assumptions held a lifetime.

    Based on what you wrote, I came to wonder what it would take for Dawkins to believe in God. Visual evidence might not be enough. Does he talk about this somewhere? Perhaps he does not want to take up the issue because he is worried he would be misinterpreted , and he is sure there is no God, so no point even taking up the issue. But isn’t that exactly the lack of epistemic fallibility which can be an issue? I think it would be very open and honest, and trusting of thought-through people to share what it would take that he would change his mind about God. Perhaps the audience that he trusts is not the one he is writing to in the God Delusion. If so, has he ever mentioned what it would take for him to change his beliefs? I know he has previously said he is agnostic, and he explained that very well. I learned some important distinctions from what he said on how he calls himself an agnostic; that he is not certain in his non-belief, that is more like a long scale rather than a 3-point option of theist, atheist, or agnostic. But I have not come across him mentioning what it would take for him to change his belief. That would be a very interesting read!

    Then the question comes to me now; if I ask it of others then I should also ask it of myself. Could I ever change my belief? The question you have about the feelings-spirit link is extremely important! Personally, I feel I have found an answer which I am likely to hold on to, all things being equal. However, if there was a closure from heaven (or more likely if I closed myself off from heaven, and I am only talking about myself here), and not feel spiritual inclinations anymore, then I would certainly be more likely to believe that there is no God. Then I would more likely claim it is only the world we see and nothing else. I wouldn’t change my beliefs straight away, but there would be slowly fading memories, until they seemed ridiculous and I wouldn’t remember how I could ever have believed what I believed! I have experienced this before when I was a teenager, and I can see that it could happen again.

    Thanks again for another GREAT post!

    1. shawn (Post author)

      Hey Bob, thanks for your comments and participation!

      Interesting speculation, I could expand that to two very interesting pieces of speculation:

      1. What would it take for Thomas Monson to become atheist? Does he know?
      2. What would it take for Richard Dawkins to become theist? Does he know?

      Based on the content of this article, the beauty of being wrong and the willingness to admit it when we are wrong, in theory both of those individuals should have some kind of criteria with which they feel confident that they could be proven wrong, such is the heart of science when adhered to properly.

      For me it’s tough. After thinking about it for a long time I can see that as a race man lacks sufficient evidence to persuade us either way “for sure”, that’s why we are so divided.

      I think the ultimate evidence for me would be post-mortal experience. There is only one way to know for sure, and that is at the judgement bar I reckon. Naturally, if that ever comes by then it would be “too late”. I wish God saw fit to give us more solid evidence to work off so we could have a firmer foundation for our obedience, so that we could choose obedience or disobedience, instead of the natural complexities that belief and disbelief add into the equation.

      Thanks for commenting as always!

      1. robert

        “For me it’s tough. After thinking about it for a long time I can see that as a race man lacks sufficient evidence to persuade us either way “for sure”, that’s why we are so divided.” I couldn’t agree with you more! That’s why I am such a strong believer in active choice being a part of faith. Existential philosophers, like Kierkegaard, are relevant in this case as they talk about the great freedom agency gives us (and that we generally want this freedom) and yet how psychologically ‘heavy’ (scary, overwhelming, etc.) it can be for us to realise we are responsible, not only for our actions, but also our beliefs. The postmodern approach to choosing faith is saying that any claim is as good as any other, and even more radically that any criteria is as good as any other (beauty and empirical for example), because we cannot know Truth, how we can we say one theory or criteria is better? I know of people who have used this kind of reasoning to save their faith, since atheism and theism are just two theories and we can choose as we wish. I don’t subscribe to this view. I also don’t agree with those atheists (or theists) who assume science (or religion) has the Truth, and therefore choice is not needed, a position in philosophy of science called Direct Realism (sometimes derogatorily called Naïve Realism). I accept the postmodern argument that we do not get Truth (the whole truth and nothing but the truth) and therefore choice is necessary, but I still accept that some theories, and criteria, are better than others. I accept, or choose to believe this (I can only CHOOSE to believe if I realise I may wrong) because of experiences in my life; one way gets me to where I want to go, the other road does not as a very basic example. So I accept some criteria as better than others, but I am still in the research process of searching for good reasons to accept them (which also means looking into reasons NOT to accept them). hehe, so these are some of my thoughts on choice when we cannot know for sure…

        Yes, it would be interesting to read what President Monson would see as criteria to make him not believe, if he has any! I agree with your article, I think it is a good thing for ALL people to be aware, at least sometime in their life, what might change their beliefs.

        “I wish God saw fit to give us more solid evidence to work off so we could have a firmer foundation for our obedience, so that we could choose obedience or disobedience, instead of the natural complexities that belief and disbelief add into the equation.” I know the feeling!!!!! And it is so emotionally (even physically) draining in the seesaw part of life (which can last for a long time). One of the best evidences for me that God exists, and further that Heavenly Father exists and wants me to keep the commandments because He loves me, is from the insights of Terry Warner. He founded the Arbinger Institute, which wrote Leadership and Self-Deception. Warner also gave this talk I also sent you previously, in relation to your book project, Warner’s article What We Are (there are two versions: one freely available on the internet through the arbinger institute, the other costs $1 at BYU Papers. It is the latter article which mentions the relation between his psychological theory and the gospel, well worth the one dollar). I would love to hear your thoughts on some of these messages, if you find time 🙂

        For me, when I understand the Gospel through this perspective (which is also incorporated in talks by President Uchtdorf and Elder Gay), then the revelations/promptings I receive are truer than my previous belief, let’s say…98% of the time (once in a while I don’t understand what happens, but that is rare, and because it almost always works and I know I have more to learn in life, I choose to believe that in time I will understand what happened within this paradigm…I could be mistaken of course). I feel prompted to do something I had no conscious idea even to consider, let alone that it would be best outcome, and yet it is so. And I can even get insights which go against what I know to be the case, and then the thing which I knew not to be the case, but which I felt should do, was actually correct. I literally have one worldview and that is all I see, but I feel invited to act against this and according to another worldview, which turns out to be truer 🙂 OK, enough of the trailer, if you want to know more about it I don’t want to spoil it 😉

        1. shawn (Post author)

          Will review 🙂


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