Bottom Line: I wish more people (myself included) would tell others they’re correct and incorrect instead of “That’s right!” or “I think you’re wrong.”

Right [rahyt] (noun, adverb, verb, adjective):

  1. in accordance with what is good, proper, or just: right conduct.
  2. in conformity with fact, reason, truth, or some standard orprinciple; correct: the right solution; the right answer.

Wrong [rawng, rong] (adjective):

  1. not in accordance with what is morally right or good: a wrong deed.
  2. deviating from truth or fact; erroneous: a wrong answer.

I think that respectfully disagreeing with somebody is difficult enough as it is without having the words we use to do so imply that the veracity of their position is a matter of morality. I realize that words like correct and incorrect already have some uses that insinuate morality, but I don’t think it’s as robust as the associations with right and wrong. I think this world would be a better place if people weren’t so afraid of being “wrong” — if people could take a discussion about vaccines or politics or parenting and discuss it as if they didn’t have a dog in the fight.

I really think that’s the key issue — personal stake in the argument. To me, much of it may even be a form of a logical fallacy called appeal to the consequences of a belief. Basically, the consequences of a belief are probably independent of the truth of that belief. For example, if people are arguing about vaccines and autism, I can imagine how easy it would be to connect dots between “If vaccines were to cause autism, then having vaccinated my kiddos might have put them at risk. Putting my children at risk is bad. I am not bad. Therefore, vaccines do not cause autism,” or “If vaccines do not cause autism, having prevented my children from being vaccinated may not have protected them from autism, but may have put them at risk of other diseases. Putting children at risk of disease is bad. Therefore, the belief that vaccines do not cause autism implies that I am bad, and by extension, people that believe vaccines do not cause autism think I am bad.”

When put in this format, it’s easy to see how irrelevant this line of thinking is to the truth of the subject matter. The truth of vaccination and autism risk is as amoral of a question as any topic in mathematics or physics. There is no “should” about it, it may as well be a programatic evaluation of equivalency:

if [[ $vaccines == 'cause autism' ]]; then
echo "sure do."
echo "nope."


2 + 2 = 5. Nope, no morality about it.

One of my favorite articles on the topic is by Sam Harris. It’s really an excellent piece, I encourage you to take a few minutes to read it. One of the strongest points he makes (and vividly, in my opinion) is that even the most skeptically minded of us have a very instinctive and highly conserved response to being told that we are mistaken about a subject that is important to us — we fight it. At best, we often immediately reject the idea, leave the context of the discussion, take it home, mull it over, research the topic, and allow ourselves to begrudgingly accept that we were “wrong.”

Anyway, I was impressed this morning at how intertwined the association is between correctness and morality, that even the terms “right” and “wrong” can be indistinguishably used to describe correct / incorrect or good / bad. No wonder it’s so difficult to admit when we’re in error.