Between the Rows: Wrong Again

Published online: Apr 02, 2021 Between the Rows
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This column appears in the April 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

Have you ever had to admit you were wrong? That you messed up? That you made a mistake? If you haven’t, you should give it a whirl. It’s incredibly liberating; I do it all the time. Of course, I’m probably — how to word this? — blessed with more opportunities to fess up to my wrongness than most of the population, but that doesn’t make me any less right on this particular point.

I recently listened to a podcast wherein the host, who has done a fair bit of voiceover work in Hollywood, discussed a phone call he got from some network executives. A few weeks after he had recorded some narration about the vastness of the cosmos for a documentary series, he was asked to come back into the studio to read a revised version of part of the script. Science being science, new information had come to light. It turns out, the execs told him, that the universe actually contains some 2 trillion galaxies — not the mere 200 billion he had originally told viewers. So our podcast host/narrator went back in and, with all the gravitas and certainty he had mustered in his original voiceover, made the correction.

A couple years later, he was called back in yet again, this time to change the number back down to “a few hundred billion.” Once more, he dredged up every ounce of certainty and authority he could to tell the viewing audience the latest version of scientific facts. The point he made was this: Whenever anyone tells you anything, they’re trying to convince you that they’re right. Almost always, they believe it themselves; that’s why everyone always sounds so definite.

Ptolemy knew Earth was the center of the universe. Columbus knew he had landed somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Government bigwigs knew in 1941 that the United States had little to fear from Japan. The folks at Ford knew the Edsel was just what America’s middle class was looking for. They were all wrong.

Just like Alan was wrong when he assured his 13-year-old son that he wouldn’t get pulled over dragging a spud planter behind a 500-horsepower tractor across town. Just like Jed was wrong when he thought he would be safe to stretch the time between his first and second Orondis applications to 14 days from the recommended seven to 10. And just like Steve was wrong when he assumed his new pickup could make it across the creek the morning after that good spring rain.

Does all this mean Alan and Steve, Ptolemy and Columbus were all morons? Does it mean they were liars? Does it mean they were failures? Of course not. It just means they were wrong.

“In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.”

        -Winston Churchill

I don’t think a guy ought to dwell on his blunders, nor that he should downplay them. It’s healthy to acknowledge them, but only insofar as it allows him to move forward with more data to make better predictions and decisions. 

We seem to live in a society where any mistake made (or even dissenting opinion expressed) at any point in a person’s life is reason to label him or her as a failure. “Cancel culture” has become an increasingly relevant buzzword. That’s a shame, because I think it causes us to miss out on all the great stuff people have to offer — warts and all. It might seem counterintuitive to trust any statement hedged with “Now, this is just my opinion, but…” or “Based on the data we have so far…” But if we expect absolute transcendence in everything, it seems to me we’re bound for a lifetime of disappointment.

The smartest, most informed astronomers and physicists in the world can be off on their galaxies-in-the-universe estimate by more than a trillion, and they don’t deserve to be fired or ridiculed or anything else. Those numbers will probably change again in the next few years. And they’ll sound just as certain then as they did the last time the figures were adjusted.

Likewise, the people you trust are going to steer you astray a few times in your life — and you’re going to do the same thing to someone who trusts you. Whether you’re a dad or big sister, a pastor or financial guru, a weatherman or congressman, an extension pathologist or the company agronomist, not every prediction or piece of sage advice is going to be spot-on. whatever your role, I’m willing to bet that you sincerely have other people’s best interests at heart. If you hold a place of trust in someone’s life, you’ve probably earned that seat through a lifetime of dependability, screw-ups notwithstanding.

We’re all idiots once in a while. If you can find someone with enough self-awareness to own up to that, you’ve probably found someone worth listening to.