Secure in Our Rightness

Posted on November 10, 2020

I used to love arguing on the internet. I do that less now, but over the years, my willingness to throw down has brought me to an understanding –

No one wants to actually be right about anything.

People just want to feel right about something. And, more importantly, they just want to appear to be right to other people.

The truth is that we’re just fine being wrong. So long as we can plausibly tell ourselves that we’re right, and other people perceive us as being right, then whether we’re actually right about an issue doesn’t matter in the slightest.

I watched a video the other day that laid out an argument about a sensitive social issue. I thought it was a compelling video – it summed up my personal feelings and it gave me a lovely dopamine hit because it made me feel secure in my rightness.

Feeling the strength of this rightness, I sent the video to a friend, with whom I’ve had debates about social issues in the past, and who I knew was on the other side of the issue. I framed it as “this is why I’m not wrong.”

My friend – who I respect greatly – had seen the video and responded with a rebuttal from a third-party. I read through that rebuttal and got anxious. I didn’t like the rebuttal because I had been secure in my rightness, and the rebuttal threatened that security.

So, I immediately set about finding a counter-rebuttal. I was sure one existed, because the internet can be a small place, and I’m sure the authors of the original video had seen the rebuttal and have no-doubt prepared responses to it.

But then I stopped – I thought, what was the point? I could find counter evidence and send it to my friend, but there’s no chance he would just accept it and say, “Huh. I guess I was wrong. Nice job.” I sure didn’t do that when he sent me his response. My friend would, of course, just go find a counter-counter rebuttal, and we’d be off to the races.

(Yes, yes – I never should have sent the video in the first place. I get that.)

I think anyone can form an effective rebuttal to about anything, especially when it comes to complicated issues. When arguing with someone, we look for “mic drop moments” where we can throw an indisputable argument on the table that leaves our opponent speechless. We want to be carried off the field after hitting a walk-off homer.

This is why political arguments are fundamentally unwinnable. The internet has given us so much content and so many talking heads that will agree with any viewpoint, that every political argument eventually devolves into “evidence trading.” I once debated politics with someone for almost two years. It was almost exclusively just us trading evidence about which side was worse.

And I recently started a similar debate with someone close to me. Already, we’re just sending each other links. Mics are dropping all over the place.

I’ve written before about how the US economy is so complicated that it probably defies any causal analysis in the short term. Lots of issues are exactly like this. A skilled and well-researched debater on almost any issue can dig into enough cracks to spin evidence in such a way to support any position.

(And if they can’t? Well, then they just point out how the other side is “just as bad” or expand the issue to a larger scope where they look better.)

So, in the whirlwind of information, we seek to simplify. When we find an argument that reinforces what we wanted to believe in the first place, we venerate it as The One True Evidence...and we stop looking.

And that’s the key – if we find evidence that disproves our belief, we keep searching because we know there’s a mic drop out there somewhere. When we do find the evidence that agrees with our position or values, we hug it close, pat ourselves on the back for being so well-informed, and then luxuriate in the security of our rightness.

(Better yet: someone takes this evidence – in total isolation of all other factors – and they make a meme out of it. Then we mic drop it on Facebook as if this is the sum total of all possible arguments, factors, and nuances into the issue.

There is apparently no issue in the world that words overlaid on a picture can’t explain. I have authored a one-page website about exactly this.)

Here’s a 14-second video. This woman is all of us.

(I don’t know how you feel about vaccines, and it doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. Substitute anything you want for that issue.)

This goes by a couple names:

One thing you find common in intelligence agencies like the CIA is the existence of “red teams.”

A red team is a group that helps organizations to improve themselves by providing opposition to the point of view of the organization that they are helping. They are often effective in helping organizations overcome cultural bias and broaden their problem-solving capabilities.

If an agency wants to make sure their thinking is correct about something, they form a red team whose job it is to argue the point from the other side. They play Devil’s Advocate and try to poke holes in the way the organization is leaning.

Bill Gates apparently used to the do the same thing. He would start meetings by asking for the bad news – he wanted to know all the things that were wrong with something.

We never do this as individuals. We want to be able to tell ourselves that we’re right, and we want to be able to plausibly deny any evidence to the contrary. If someone rebuts us, we just need a handy counter-rebuttal, and we’re good.

The scientific method would say that we should gather evidence, evaluate it, and work forward to a conclusion. But, in reality, we already know our conclusion, and we just work backwards to find the evidence to support that. Evidence that works against us, we disregard or seek to rebut; evidence that supports us, we relentlessly promote.

Imagine if a coach asked the referee: “Can you just extend regulation time until we have more points than the other team?”

We are that coach.

No one is wrong anymore. We just don’t yet have all the evidence to be secure in our rightness.

But just give us a little more time, and by God we’ll find it.

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