The Right Kind of Wrong

In a previous entry, we looked at how our culture typically shames and criticizes people.  It is for this reason that some of us resort to putting on acts to get people to like us. Aside from feeling like we have to be the perfect human specimen, we are also often ashamed to admit our mistakes and failures.

As you can see in the following clip from Friends, Phoebe and Ross begin arguing about the existence of evolution. Ross’ career as a paleontologist depends on the theory of evolution, so when Phoebe reveals that she doesn’t believe in it, he has trouble accepting it:

Regardless of your own personal feelings toward evolution, Phoebe brings up an interesting point at the end. Scientific theories are constantly evolving. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world have been very wrong in the past, yet without their theories, it would have taken longer to come to the correct ones.

These theories are the subject of a current exhibit at Washington State University. “WSU exhibit features ‘Outrageous Hypotheses” from WSU News describes a few examples from the exhibit.

One old theory postulated that nearby celestial bodies all revolved around the Earth. While we know now that the planets (Earth Included) actually revolve around the sun, the geocentric theory was one of the first to propose the idea that planets moved through space and weren’t just stationary.  The existence of the geocentric theory is what ultimately led to the correct heliocentric (“sun” centric) theory.

In addition to proponents of geocentrism, another historical figure famous for being “wrong” was the Spaniard Christopher Columbus. Convinced that the world was round and not flat, he set out to find a new route to India. However, he did not sail far enough, and hit the Americas.  Despite being wrong about his destination, his trip was significant because it alerted Europeans to the existence of other lands and planted the idea of a round Earth in the minds of other brilliant people who were able to prove later that this was so.

“I was taken by how much our belief in what’s correct evolves over time,” said Washington State University Libraries archivist, Mark O’English.

“The materials we’re featuring in this exhibit were almost all accepted factual knowledge in their day, propounded by people who had the best of intentions and believed in what they were saying. With that in mind, you have to wonder what facts that we believe are right today would be featured in a similar exhibit 200 to 400 years from now.”

Sound familiar? (Watch the clip above now if you haven’t yet.)

The exhibit was inspired by TED speaker Kathryn Schulz, who published the bestseller Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. Her book discusses what leads people to err and why it’s not such a bad thing. The lessons we learn from making mistakes are much more powerful those imparted by a third party. Sometimes the only way to know which job, relationship, or house you want is to experience one that you don’t want first.

Finally, making mistakes, and owning them, shows our more human side. Bringing us back to a familiar theme, when we show our vulnerability, we invite more satisfying, deeper connections with ourselves and each other.

Speaking that Connects