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The Dangers Of Being Right

We humans are a tribal lot. We can take the subtlest difference and drive it into a wedge seemingly worthy of anger, intolerance and violence. While there are situations where differences appear between people (or whole cultures) that demand lines be drawn, for the most part the fractures we create live in our heads.

I was reminded of this last week while writing my post on scientism and Steven Pinker. In following the response to both Pinker's original essay and my own post, I was struck by how quickly people draw swords over their positions. Looking at essays across the Web and the comments they provoke, it's clear that most of us think we are right, as in RIGHT.

But what does it mean to be right on issues like this? What does it cost?

In science or math the distinction between right and wrong really means the hard dichotomy between factually correct or incorrect. One likes to think such clear lines exist everywhere in human experience. But the reality is that those perfect contours are often illusions and they can, if one is not careful, become new definitions for our tribalism.

Please, don't mistake what I'm saying. We must take a stand against evil when we recognize it, pure and simple. But how about the reality of scientism, the relationships between science and human spirituality, even the relative ethics of veganism? What kind of wars, metaphoric or real, are we willing to start over these, based on our being "right."

The danger of being right, of certainty that one's position is rock solid and demands a full-on defense, was beautifully captured by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai in his poem "The Place Where We Are Right." He writes:

The place where we are right

is hard and trampled

like a yard.

Amichai understands the problem with our certainty. It deadens the vibrancy of life, its true mix of yes and no. Then he writes:

But doubts and loves

dig up the world

In other words, behind our certainty is a doubt we often hide from — a half-spoken understanding that our positions are no more than a place defining a perspective. And love? Think of the certainty of the Capulets and the Montagues. Romeo and Juliet were clearly wrong, were they not?

In the end Amichai reminds us that that the dangers lie in what being right can destroy, not build:

And a whisper will be heard in the place

where the ruined

house once stood.

So he leaves us with the question: can we know the difference between being wise and being right?

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

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