Admitting you’re wrong

It’s a hard thing to do – trust me, I know from experience. That’s why I respect people who are able to do it. Aaron Friel of UNIFI wrote an excellent post about why he was wrong about his previous opinion that you “don’t feel the trolls,” and why it’s important to admit when you’re wrong. This was prompted by the post written by his clubmate Keenan and my response (well, and a lot of introspection, of course). It’s long, but worth the read. I particularly relate to this back story:

I was the kid that teachers described as “precocious” and students described as “know-it-all”. That’s not a compliment to me, mind you. It took me most of my life to admit I was wrong. If I claimed knowledge I didn’t have, I rationalized it away later. This started to change in middle school, when surrounded by the bright students of Malcolm Price Lab, I had to articulate my beliefs and then actually defend them. I can easily say I’ve never cheated on a test, but I’ll admit now that I cheated on some arguments. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, I rarely relented. I’d rationalize away the flaws in my argument and persist.

I first admitted I was wrong privately, a small victory. It was after a mock debate on whether or not to allow a chemical plant to be built near a river. During that debate, I lied. I claimed knowledge I didn’t have to solidify my argument. I don’t even recall whether or not we won; the sting of realizing as I was saying something that I had no evidence whatsoever of its truth washed away the other memories of that day. I looked up my claim later online and I was … wrong.

Since first admitting I was wrong, I had a lot of catching up to do. At Cedar Falls High School, I opted to sit with people I didn’t know, and with whom I didn’t agree; once I sat with conservatives and people who quoted scripture in defense of their positions. I came away a better person for it. I learned better how to articulate an argument and to submit it to criticism. I also learned not to take personally some of the harsher remarks. Especially, I learned something akin to Hanlon’s razor and took it to heart. It became the one thing I would always fall back on in an argument. My preferred version goes a little like this:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by misunderstanding.

Sitting between Guy-That-Quotes-Scripture and Guy-That-Thinks-Iraq-Had-Nuclear-Weapons led to some very prideful arguments, if you’ll allow the understatement. Words were exchanged and the bell would sound and we’d return the next day, maybe with a printed off article or two to back up our positions. I’m not sure if we ever budged, but I learned not to interpret malice into their words. We didn’t see eye to eye, but there was no hate. I was often wrong even then, of course, but they’re no longer around to hear me admit it.

Learning to gracefully accept being wrong is my Moby Dick, I’m still working out the kinks.

At the same time, I think our community is, too. In the past six months we’ve had some prideful arguments. Unfortunately there’s no lunch bell to send us off to classes and give us time to think. We give ourselves no time to relax, and no room to recant our invectives before beginning another argument.

Our movement is predicated on the belief that we can and will be wrong. A lot. And that’s OK. When we admit we’re wrong, we grow as people, as a community.

Honestly, I went through the same thing. I was a precocious child. McCreights also tend to be tremendously stubborn – you should see our Thanksgiving dinner table “discussions” – which is a dangerous trait when coupled with smarts. It took me a long time to be able to admit I was wrong. I still have a hard time with it – ask any of my friends when we get into a debate about trivial stuff that I insist I’m correct about. I haven’t completely stopped (Jen’s friends: “Ha!”), but at least now I recognize that I’m being stupid.

And while the internet has the disadvantage of not having a lunch bell, I think it also has its perks. I would say learning about science is the most important thing that taught me how to be wrong – but blogging comes in close second. You’re constantly exposed to comments by people who disagree with you. Some of these comments are obviously incorrect or wildly silly, but plenty make me stop and think. I probably come off a lot more stubborn that I am, because a lot of my growth is behind the scenes. There are plenty of times where I start writing a post, stop, start, stop, and ultimately never post it because I know I’m unsure about what I’m saying. I also know I don’t necessarily agree with things I wrote when I first started blogging, and a couple of years from now I’ll probably disagree with some stuff I’m saying now.

And frequently, I am so thankful I didn’t start my blog sooner. I had some pretty ignorant or embarrassing opinions as recent as the beginning of college. I used to be adamantly anti-drugs and against underaged drinking. I thought sex was reserved for only when you’re madly in love, and casual sex was just for those “slutty” people. Even though I used the label “feminist,” I had some pretty backwards and frankly sexist views about women – especially feminine women. And I even used to be quite the tone troll when it came to atheism – I thought singing kumbaya was the only way of communicating. My first comment on Pharyngula was how PZ’s harshness was – if I remember correctly – “pointless dick-waving.” Stupid and sexist.

I don’t necessarily agree with Aaron 100% about the situation, specifically the part about “poisoning the well.” I think harshness has it’s place in communication – let’s not rehash the whole firebrand/diplomat debate all over again. And I think “tone trolling” is a real thing that distracts from the real issues being discussed. I have a feeling female bloggers are on the receiving end of tone trolling far more often since women are stereotyped as being nice and gentle, though it’s just speculation – I wish someone would do a scientific study of blog comments. And it’s also annoying how fellow atheists seem to employ arguments about “tone” when criticism is pointed within the group, rather than outside of it. Not as many people object to harsh words aimed at the religion (though obviously some do).

But while we’re admitting that we’re wrong, I will confess to one of my major weaknesses: I don’t always choose my words carefully when I’m angry. I get sloppy. When I point out someone is a “white male” or has “privilege,” I’m not trying to say that’s inherently bad. I’m not trying to say “You can’t weigh in on this discussion because of something you can’t control.” I’m trying to say that it’s patronizing when people try to tell minorities how they should feel and react to discrimination, even if they’re allies with the best of intentions. That sometimes you have to take a step back and think, “Maybe I don’t quite understand where they’re coming from.”

Trust me. There are times where I’ve read discussions about if something is racist, and I’ll have some pretty dumb opinions. I certainly don’t consider myself racist, but no one is perfect. I mean, come on, I’m from Indiana – my high school had 1400 students and you could count the number of black students on one hand. Lack of exposure breeds ignorance. But instead of writing an angry blog post about how black people are overreacting and should calm down, I recognize that I’m probably being dumb and that I should just sit and listen for a while longer.

And sitting and listening is the number one thing that’s made me eventually able to change my mind. This is especially true about feminism. Years ago I purposefully subscribed to lots of feminist blogs that I didn’t necessarily agree with. A lot of times they made me rage. But instead of unsubscribing, I kept reading and thinking. Eventually a lot of arguments won me over once I got over my stubbornness. And the things I still disagree about are now for real reasons that I can articulate, not ignorance.

Admitting you’re wrong is hard to do, but it’s also the sign of a good skeptic.


  1. says

    Thanks for your kind words, Jen. It means a lot.

    You’re right that it’s very easy to be misunderstood. It’s a failing of the internet – though a boon to some – that communication is reduced to glyphs on a screen, where intonation and intention can be lost. That said, I think we should have a discussion some time about the poisoning the well bit. I’d really be interested in having a discussion on how we should be reacting to criticism on blogs and social networks. Naturally, I disagree with you, but politely. :)


    Aaron Friel

  2. julian says

    And the things I still disagree about are now for real reasons that I can articulate, not ignorance.

    And that’s probably one of the best (if selfish) reasons to engage with views different from your own and to be mindful of your own ignorance. I used to be very ‘being anti-abortion is very anti-woman’ but I could never explain why.

    Couldn’t even explain what was wrong with being anti-abortion or why abortion is a right.

    I was (and am) right but my arguments were hallow, my views poorly thought out and I was a shitty representative for my own beliefs. I was Bill Maher. Bill Maher shouldn’t be Bill Maher. Don’t be Bill Maher, folks.

  3. CanadianChick says

    I’ve grown to enjoy admitting I was wrong – because doing so is an acknowledgment that I have learned something.

    It can still take a lot of persuasive evidence to convince me I was wrong though…*grin*

  4. Laura-Ray says

    Hahaaaaaaaaa that comment that you made about the dick waving PZ was doing? I had the same thought, and because of it, my boyfriend got me into Greta Christina (Atheists and Anger) and reading blogs in general, and like… THINKING and shit. And about how I was WRONG about things on occasion. I like to think that because of these blogs, I’ve learned how to learn, rather than just dig in my heels and bray. It’s hard to be wrong, because (at least for some people- certainly for me, and I have a feeling for A LOT of people in the atheist community) being right and being informed is really important, and tied tightly into a sense of self worth. Because if you’re wrong, you’re part of the problem. Which is scary.
    It takes a lot of strength to admit you said a wrong thing, especially if you think you might’ve offended someone. For that, I applaud you. Changing your mind is REALLY rough, especially when you only have people on the internet accusing you of stuff instead of someone who can calmly tell you “You may have done a wrong thing, but you’re a worthwhile person anyways! Now let’s get that wrongness taken care of.” It takes guts to let go of your ego and remember you’re still worthwhile even if you’re wrong sometimes.
    To that end, you are really smart, and really cool. And I respect you for this post.
    We’ll see if your peers can take a hint and be strong too (snark).

  5. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Admitting when we’re wrong is the most important thing that any of us can ever do. Even if we selflessly spend years trying to make the world a better place, without the ability to admit error, we may very well be making the world worse if we can’t admit error.

  6. PDX_Greg says

    I certainly have learned alot about sexism from this blog, which shocked me since I’d always considered myself a staunch feminist. It has taught me to consider the perspective on the other side much more deeply.

    The elevatorgate issue was a hard lesson for me to learn but I played it back and back in my mind. I am not the type to ever proposition anyone on an elevator (at 6’8″, I have always feared intimidating strangers anyway), but I did not see the guy as traing to be an A-hole. I understood the fears of the woman on the elevator and thought that the guy was being pretty inconsiderate and insensitive, but not acting out of a sense of malice, which is my generally my threshhold for calling name-calling.

    But I digress … as a white male, the elevator thread DID teach me about while male privilege and give me a whole new framework that I was missing to evaluate the perspective of those I interact with, and that was a BIG lesson that I admit took me a few days to completely inhale. I am definitely a better person for it, and I probably still have lots to learn. I don’t remember if I posted anything on my initial reaction to the elevator post, but if I did, I was very much likely to be in the wrong, and if so, I am sorry (I don’t see any posts in that thread from me, but just in cased I missed one …).

    Thanks for the new perspective; that’s why I keep reading. (Well, okay also for the rational-righteous snarking).

  7. PDX_Greg says

    Wow, lots of typos! I posted before I proofread. I meant to say “trying to be an A-hole”, “white male privilege”, and I meant not to say the extra “my”. Plus, an extra comma should be inserted after the “okay” in the last sentence.

    I better go before I spot more!

  8. Brian F says

    I often remind myself that it is inevitable that some of the things I believe are wrong. My goal is to be wrong for as short a time as possible and the only way I will to that is by remaining open to input and to the possibility that this is one of the cases for which I am mistaken.

  9. Carlie says

    You think you had bad ideas when you were younger? I used to be a fundie. Thank goodness there was no internet, because I’d have a crapload of bloggy crap that would never be erased ever that I’d be totally ashamed of.

    This is a great post, though. Learning how to accept that we’re wrong is one of the hardest things to do. Even cracked has a list of why your brain tricks you into thinking you’re right all the time.

  10. julian says

    You think you had bad ideas when you were younger? I used to be a fundie.

    I used to be post-racism.

    ‘Affirmative action is the true racism! Whites are being oppressed by guilt ridden liberals! Racism doesn’t happen anymore! Fuck you, teach, I don’t need no scholarship exclusive to my race!’

    Then I had a unpleasant conversation with reality. She set me straight. Well, straighter. Still stuck with a lot of those prejudices.

    Sadly much of my stupidity is out there under previous screennames.

  11. piero says

    Your post reminded me of a proof by Raymond Smullyan that you (in the sense of “anyone”) are either inconsistent or conceited. Unless you are conceited, you know that sometimes you make mistakes. So you know that at least one of the things you believe is, in fact, wrong. Yet you believe every single one of the things you believe! Hence, if you are not conceited, you are inconsistent.

  12. piero says

    This is my first visit to your blog, and I’m happy to say I found it very stimulating. This post in particular was cathartic: I too am guilty of having feigned knowledge in order to win (whatever that means) an argument.

    Unfortunately, “precocius” kids can all too easily grow into “smartass” adults, and be forever prisoners of their own cleverness.

  13. tfkreference says

    As someone with a teenaged son, I argue with my old self everyday, and I lose to his logical fallacies (my fault for teaching them by example when he was younger). I don’t really argue anymore. Instead I just point out that he’s moving the goalposts or using a red herring or whatever (tu quoque is his favorite) and hope that he sees the proverbial light sooner than I did.

  14. Jurjen S. says

    In fairness, there is a lot of pointless dick-waving that goes on in the atheist and skeptical communities. It’s a large part of why I don’t bother reading the JREF forum anymore.

  15. PDX_Greg says

    Actually, it is quite fitting. I’ll vouch for your interpretation and claim it was my original intent.

  16. says

    While I don’t completely agree with you, I do agree with the central premise. Being wrong is a learning process, and I’m a lot like the guy you quoted – which is made worse when I misremember things.

    Luckily, the Internet allows me to fact-check a whole lot of things, which means I’m wrong much less often. (Unless I get caught in a debate away from it, which brings my terrible memory back into consideration. Ah well!)

  17. Svlad Cjelli says

    Hah! Fools! Pitiful, mortal fools!


    I’m at an entirely different level. Your pride is just a hopelessly inferior breed. I used to claim knowledge I didn’t have – and still do sometimes – only to find out I was mistaken.

    The next day I’d hunt people down and forcefeed them my updated information.

    I am right.

    I will be right.

    There is no escape.

  18. Kevin says

    I remember there was one time where I thought I was wrong, but it turned out I was right all along…

    Seriously, I think the past few months have taught me to always, always, always check your facts. It’s OK to have a difference of opinion, but if your opinion is based on faulty knowledge, then you’re quite likely to not be taken seriously by anyone. Even if your opinion is “correct” (otherwise logical and supported).

    When I was younger (pre-blog world — when was that, exactly?), I used to get angry and write the most vituperative e-mails imaginable. Thankfully, this was always an exercise for me to blow off steam and they were never sent. I always intended to, but never did.

    Except that one time when I quit that job…that one, I intended. And I was right, too. The company didn’t last 6 months without me.

  19. F says

    I probably come off a lot more stubborn that I am

    Probably mostly to people who can’t admit they are wrong and religiously cling to their argument or ideas in the face of contradictory evidence.

    Learning (or re-learning) to recognize when you are wrong is teh awesome. Also, taking another’s admission that they were wrong on some point without using that to dismiss every other point they have made is awesome. It’s liberating.

  20. Retired Prodigy Bill says

    Allow me to present anecdotal evidence that precocious children love to be proven wrong. In the 5th grade our class was combined with 6th graders. One day we debated what should be done with the Panama Canal, and a 6th grader bested me in the argument. The class voted the debate a tie, but I went up to him afterwards saying, “You actually won that one.”

    He replied, “I know,” and we became best buds.

    I was thrilled to meet someone that I couldn’t run over with rhetoric, someone who could demonstrate that I was wrong.

  21. DaveDodo007 says

    Sorry if my comment comes across as confrontational but it’s just my style, It certainly doesn’t win me any friends, though politeness bores me

    Care to share these feminist opinions that you used to rail against and now find so compelling, a simple title of said arguments would be of help. No offense but without context how is anybody going to evaluate your claims. This whole post is more of a plea for the loyalist to show their support for you than you showing how you were won over by said arguments. In the skeptics community good arguments that change peoples views are like gold dust so sharing them should help the skeptics community at large. The whole point of posting something on your blog is to make that point, though without substance then the article is meaningless.

  22. Svlad Cjelli says


    “I thought sex was reserved for only when you’re madly in love, and casual sex was just for those “slutty” people.”

    You’re welcome.

  23. Great American Satan says

    Oh yes, I was homophobic in middle school, anti-drug/alcohol into my early twenties, and in my late twenties said “A certain amount of misogyny is healthy for my self-esteem, y’know? Reject them that reject you..”

    I’ve heard it said fundamentally people do not change and that may be true in a lot of ways. But it’s important and awesome that we can change our positions about important issues, in light of new evidence and awareness.

  24. Skepchild says

    But PZ’s harshness IS mostly pointless dick-waving.

    See his reaction to the gelato incident, for instance.

    I fully agree with you that it takes courage to admit you are wrong and apologize. But you don’t need to apologize for being right !

  25. Hibernia86 says

    I agree that we should spend more time listening to the minorities and those who have historically been out of power. But at the end of the day, it is the facts of the case that matters, not a person’s gender or race. It doesn’t matter if a person is privileged or not. The only question that we should focus on is “did they support their argument with facts?”

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