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"How do you know when you're actually right about something and it's not just hubris and confirmation bias?"

McKinley Valentine — 4 min read
"How do you know when you're actually right about something and it's not just hubris and confirmation bias?"
Photo by Elijah Hiett / Unsplash


That is a great question which all good people should wrestle with! But I actually think it breaks down into a few parts:

1. You never know you're right, you just settle into a state of "this is how it looks to me at the moment - I am open to being challenged (with new information, not with repetitions of the same arguments you've heard a billion times) but at this point am not going to proactively seek more information on it, it's not a learning priority."

2. So the factors that go into that are, obviously, how much research have you done already, and how serious would the consequences be if you turned out to be wrong - which includes the stakes of the thing itself and how much impact you personally have on it, like is your opinion affecting how you behave and decisions you make, or is it pretty abstract.

(I'm working on the assumption that you wouldn't be asking if your opinion was formed without doing a significant amount of research and thinking.)

3. If you can't be bothered doing research, you have to go with the option that's nicest to other people. If you're not sure if you're right or not, you have to be kind. (If you're pretty sure you're right but there's little consequence to you personally, go with the kindest option anyway.)

Okay but for how you know if you're roughly right... one think it helps is to be wary of things that would be good if true ("good" includes "makes you angrier about a thing you're already angry about". Two articles I read recently - one was something like "people who stay up late are more intelligent" and another was "rich people have less empathy than poor people" - one would be flattering to me, and the other feels vindicating. So you should be really really aware of what things would be satisfying if they were true, and be cautious about believing them.

4. Intelligent people need to be around other intelligent people or they turn into assholes. I mean often they do anyway, but if you have a long history of always being right (like, actually you are right) then thinking you're right becomes a habit, it's super-toxic.

5. I recommend a stance of "I'm NOT sure I'm right, but it's where I've landed right now, and currently I am focusing my learning on [the early days of the Russian Revolution]". Time is finite and you don't have to keep rehashing the same things indefinitely, you are allowed to prioritise (see 1 & 2).

6. Hmm, do a lot of smart, experienced people agree with you? That's a good sign but not perfect because smart people can be swept up in fads as well.

7. Do you have a lot of personal experience in this area? Do people who do have a lot of personal experience disagree with you? Again, it's not proof - anyone can be wrong about anything - but it's a clue.

8. Be your own devil's advocate. Try sincerely to think, like "what if the other person's opinion was correct, what arguments could I find for that". The reason I'm suggesting you do it yourself is because you want a devil's advocate who gets how your brain thinks and works and presents arguments in a shape that will be compelling to you. If you have a friend with a similar brain-shape that would work too. The problem with random googling is every correct position has idiots arguing for it for reasons that make no sense, and if you encounter those arguments you'll just be bolstered in your view of how right you are.

On a personal note to the Advice Solicitor who has chosen to remain anonymous - you know we disagree wildly on a lot of things, for example, "all of capitalism", and I obviously think you are dead wrong about it and you think you're right, BUT, I do not think you thinking you're right about capitalism comes from hubris.

I'm wondering if this is coming out of a specific accusation. People have a really strong tendency to... think their own position is so obviously true, that they don't believe that anyone could really, honestly disagree with them. So they accuse the other person of arguing in bad faith (that is, being insincere). So you don't disagree because you've thought and read a bunch and that's where it looks like the evidence leads (from your honest perspective) - you think that because you're being stubborn, or you're virtue signalling, or you're just defending them because they're a friend, or... and it's quite hard to prove you're sincere, and I think it's a shady accusation to pull on someone.

the idea of hubris means: you know you're wrong but you don't want to admit it out of pride, or
you're so confident in your own intellectual powers that you're incapable of giving dissident viewpoints a fair go. Do either of those statements seem true for you?

(I do think people are wrong because of all kinds of biases, but that's not really hubris.)

There is a certain type of person who will never, ever admit they were wrong... but then later they will quietly abandon their position and take up the other, correct one, and then also swear that's the position they've held since they were in the womb. I have no clue what's going on in the interior of these people, if they know they're doing it or not, but that I would call hubris-related.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #41 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

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