Felix Salmon

Helen Thomas, Christopher Hitchens, and being wrong

By Felix Salmon
June 7, 2010

The forced retirement of Helen Thomas is further proof, if any were needed, that it’s still unacceptable, in public discourse, to be wrong in one’s opinions. I find that sad.

Thomas gave voice to an opinion which she then, almost immediately, retracted; no one, in the subsequent debate, defended the substance of her remarks. She was wrong; everybody, including Thomas, agrees on that point, and no real harm was done to anyone but Thomas when the video of her remarks surfaced.

But if you turn out to be wrong, even temporarily, even only once, on a hot-button issue, that’s enough for effective excommunication from polite society. That, to me, is chilling: I’d much rather live in a world where people should be able to change their minds and should be allowed to be wrong on occasion. For surely we are all wrong, much more often than we like to think.

A couple of years ago, Tyler Cowen, in conversation with Wil Wilkinson, said something quite profound:

Take whatever your political beliefs happen to be. Obviously the view you hold you think is most likely to be true, but I think you should give that something like 60-40, whereas in reality most people will give it 95 to 5 or 99 to 1 in terms of probability that it is correct. Or if you ask people what is the chance this view of yours is wrong, very few people are willing to assign it any number at all. Or if you ask people who believe in God or are atheists, what’s the chance you’re wrong – I’ve asked atheists what’s the chance you’re wrong and they’ll say something like a trillion to one, and that to me is absurd, that even if you think all of the strongest arguments for atheism are correct, your estimate that atheism is in fact the correct point of view shouldn’t be that high, maybe you know 90-10 or 95 to 5, at most.

My view at at the time was that this was not only true, but was much more true of men than of women, and that women, being more rational and more sensible than men, tend to be less sure of their own opinions.

This morning, I had an interesting conversation with Christopher Hitchens, who’s in town plugging his memoir. He professed to be a man of few beliefs, political or otherwise: “my only commitment is to a group of skeptics who are not sure of anything,” he said. But when I asked him what he wasn’t sure about, he started talking about galaxy formation, of all things. He said that “my greatest delight is being proved right in my own lifetime”, and said that he couldn’t think of the last time that he was wrong about anything. In other words, he’s highly skeptical of others, but utterly incapable of interrogating his own opinions with the same kind of approach.

Hitchens, in other words, would make an atrociously bad trader. He has the cocky-and-arrogant bit down, to be sure — in order to beat the market you have to think that you’re smarter than the market. But you also have to be incredibly insecure, willing to change your mind and your opinions very quickly.

At the beginning of the conversation, Hitchens expressed a certain amount of intellectual pleasure in noting that the statement “Christopher Hitchens is dead” is false now, but will be true in the future. But that’s trivial. When it comes to the opinions he expresses in his columns and books, he’s much less willing to admit that any of them are anything but certainly and timelessly true.

I try hard to believe the opposite: that many if not most of my opinions are wrong (although of course I have no idea which they are), and that many of the most interesting and useful things I write come out of my being wrong rather than being right. This is not, as Wilkinson noted to Cowen, an easy intellectual stance to hold: he calls it “a weird violation of the actual computational constraints of the human mind”.

But I think it’s undoubtedly worth working on, and, as I say, I think it’s one which is more common in women than in men. And I think it’s a serious weakness of Hitchens’ that he places so much importance on his being right.

66 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I believe “Paul Krugman” can be substituted for “Chirstopher Hitchens” here without any loss of generality.

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Posted by ghosalisuli | Report as abusive

Females can be as stubborn in their opinions as males. What differentiates females from males is that females are more likely to believe normal things. If a female believes some normal, standard thing and someone shows her some evidence or arguments which to a rational person should suggest her opinion is in error, she will (compared with a man) be much less likely to believe the rational evidence. It is a noble trait to more think for oneself–to succeed or fail according to one’s own understanding–such a trait encouraging evolution of understanding, a special quality. By nature, though the vast majority are still largely conformist, males more tend to think for themselves, because females (and more particularly young females) are such that thinking for himself is unusually useful to a male in attracting them. Females don’t so much think for themselves unless a male ultimately forces them to, which fortunately males whose nature is such as to be loved by females tend to do because it is much more impressive to be loved by girls whose love comes from within rather than from having copied other girls, and of course males like to impress girls. It’s not so much that girls are such simple conformists as to want a male whom a scene wants, maybe just on account of some arbitrary decision made by some possibly clueless star maker at MTV or Disney. No, girls want a male who is with lots of girls who want him through thinking and feeling for themselves, and if girls get a sense that a male can’t convert the merely scene girls close to him into girls who love him for what he seems to their inner natures to be rather than just for his having a scene, it won’t take much for his popularity to crash like happened to Fred Flintstone in the episode, “The Girls Night Out” where he was mega rock star for a short time. Very rarely one might meet a girl who would think for herself just to be nice to a male she naturally loves, but she still probably would more respect the male she loves if he demands her being herself.

But actually, to be strictly correct, with respect to virtuous girls it is not so much that they don’t think for themselves or acquaint themselves with their own natural feelings, but just that they ignore those feelings if odd, behaving under the assumption that general opinion is more correct. For it’s the most effective way of judging character surely to see whether others can judge oneself (and more particularly, in those respects that are different from those in other girls), and it’s a pretty standard opinion that such a procedure is a good way to go, and so pretty much all girls want to be understood as they are, they just don’t typically want to be what they are unless they are forced to be so. Anyway, since a good girl wants to love him who understands her, it pretty much forces her at least to understand herself sufficiently to be able to evaluate this understanding.

Some might say that, what since mostly girls naturally are conformists, a girl is properly imitative when she is true to herself. But there is nothing complicated or intricate about imitating others. A gene causing a tendency to be imitative is probably a little more complicated than (say) a gene causing toenails to be present, but it is closer to a toenail gene than to a gene governing important traits such as thought or the totality of genes that govern those natural inclinations not involving conformity. Saying that a girl can be herself while obeying the conformist part of her is, therefore, like singling out some small part of her that is far from special and saying that is what she is. Indeed, when someone is conformist she isn’t all the special things that otherwise she can be, but only a very small and unimportant part of herself, and she is turning off all the special parts that more constitute her being and (on average) preventing those special parts from evolving well inasmuch as their success will less depend on their characteristics. Unfortunately, people have evolved largely to be conformist because mostly a gene doesn’t care about risking to evolve to the extent it should inasmuch as gains in other genes will not be shared for long and yet gains in itself must be shared with all the many alleles of other genes that its descendants possessing itself will contain; the conformist part of the genome has evolved a power beyond its worth, because the other genes mostly don’t get in its way.

Posted by step314 | Report as abusive

Certain wrong opinions will get one cast out of polite society/punditry. I challenge you to name one pro-Iraq-War pundit who can no longer get printed or invited onto to the political talk shows.

Posted by DRickard | Report as abusive

HBC, the issue isn’t with her freedom of speech. Just like you she has the perfect right to hold stupid, clearly false opinions and articulate them on a regular basis. The issue is that she has a position of trust as a journalist, a gatway holder to the news.

As for pumping in settlers they still represent less than 5% of all Israelis and virtually all the growth has come from the religious section who have lots and lots of kids and given that since 1982 the one-way trend has been for Israel to give up territory, bit hard to argue that relentless land-grab claim for the tiniest “empire” in human history. Luckily, you live in a free country where you can spout nonsense freely.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

If I were ever unfortunate enough to need to be interviewed by Mr Salmon in order to further my career, I would experience an unconquerable urge to take the Michael.

Perhaps we should try to assign a probability to the proposition that Mr Hitchens succumbed to the same urge?

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

Helen Thomas should not have apologize for speaking her mind i.e. exercising her right to speak freely against zionist murderers.

The UN, in 1947, did not have the right to partition Palestine or assign any part of its territory to a minority of alien immigrants for the purpose of establishing a state of their own, without the consent of a Palestinian majority. In international law, only the soon to be illegally dispossessed Palestinians could give israel legitimacy and recognition.

The UN resolution in 1947 was non-binding, unless or until it was approved by the Security Council. This partition plan was pure propaganda.

Attacking a humanitarian convoy of ships with excessive force without irrefutable proof of smuggling weapons into Palestine is murder. Point blank and simple.

To hell politeness, decency and delicacy when criminals feigning righteousness, take all the passengers video equipment and believe they are the only ones who have right to use force. Zionist murderers and their supporters are the only ones who are to trusted. The rest of the world is inhabited by children.

All I have to say to zionist bullies and apologists is if I see you on fire, I going let you burn. You are not god and your not immortal. That means you are not mightier than anyone else. Which is way your bullying punk murderers sustained injuries.

When you kill on the sneak netanyapunk, you fornicate with your family every week to make you feel good. The only way to shut me up is to do the aforementioned.

Posted by obamamurders | Report as abusive

DRickard, and being wrong about the Surge apparently gets you elected to the most powerful post in the world… Guess life isn’t fair.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Wow, what a pathetic hack job.

It started as a criticism of social shaming of unpopular ideas, and turned into a social shaming of atheism/skepticism.

Please ask the Catholic church about the certainty of their beliefs, or ask a Mormon about the certainty of their faith in Joseph Smith as a prophet.

Instead of questioning the obvious peddlers of certainty, you attack those that question a widely believed hot-button issue (god) and do the very thing you are criticizing.

Salmon, I am a big fan of your writing, but this was just plain hypocritical and bad.

I look forward to your attack on the certainty of religious belief.

Posted by GenericHuman | Report as abusive

60/40 so if there were 41 different logically sound arguments against your belief you would have to give it up.
Fair enough. Provide me with 41 logically sound arguments that God exists and I will recant my heathen ways and embrace theism.

Posted by pastblast | Report as abusive

Please be careful in generalizing across gender with no real data or research. I’m not even sure why you felt the need to address the gender issue here (it is certainly not central to your point), but you might want to look into studies like the one I link to below before you make sweeping generalizations. In short, this study finds that on a group level, women rate their own IQ lower than it actually is, while men rate their own IQ higher than it actually is. This effect could explain why you feel that women are more flexible in their opinions. On a group level, they are less confident that they know enough to be correct.

However, the authors of the study make clear that this effect is not driven by differences between all the women and all the men in the study. In fact, most of the women and men rated their own IQs in very similar ways, but a few women rated their IQs way below the true value, and a few men rated their IQs way above the true value, causing what looks like big differences between the two groups, but is actually just big differences between a few select members of each group. Most women are very similar to most men. Some women and some men behave very differently from each other, and this makes us all see a giant chasm between these two groups of mostly similar people.

Wide generalizations give people excuses to dismiss each other as stereotypes, when in fact most of us simply don’t conform to those stereotypes.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob =ArticleURL&_udi=B6V9F-3Y6PG3W-1X&_user= 10&_coverDate=02%2F28%2F1995&_rdoc=1&_fm t=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=& view=c&_searchStrId=1367088298&_rerunOri gin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_ver sion=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=e679 ad6c2b189efdc9d62f50359aa67d

Posted by LHM | Report as abusive

Thank you for an interesting article. i enjoyed pondering the issues being raised but have difficulty seeing what the real objective is here.

If we strip away the side issues of gender and theism, the central argument appears to be that it should be acceptable to be proved wrong. Being proved wrong, and being prepared to change that view if better evidence comes along, is a sign of capacity to grow, and that should always be encouraged.

That is the case when considering factually correct/wrong issues but it is difficult to take the argument any further, as attempted in this article. If correct/wrong cannot be proved then we are dealing with opinions, and in that area emotion will count as much as any degree of logic or validity of propositions.

Introducing side issues of belief (theism, deism, atheism or any other ‘ism’) and gender we encounter broad generalisations that cannot be proved. In the case of belief there can only be opinions on any angle of the argument. Gender issues will always be open to statistical interpretation or misinterpretation.

On this basis, perhaps the objective of the article is to identify a possibility that Christopher Hitchens is ‘wrong’ somewhere or everywhere and that he should admit this? If so, this cannot be successfully tackled using the arguments raised.

Somewhere in amongst this is a good story to tackle further – but to be used correctly in this instance, you’d have to prove that Christopher Hitchens is wrong first or at least identify areas where he could be.

Posted by iambemused | Report as abusive

Hitchens seems to object only to the implications of religious belief when it is misunderstood. I don’t think he imagines that he is smarter than Moses and Jesus, does he? Heaven help him if he does. The original ‘desert storm’ would make continental breakfast for the multitudes out of him. The only reason he has not been struck by lightning so far (that I can think of) is that he helps to enlighten infidels who have run even further afoul of God than he has.

Posted by oldyeller | Report as abusive

Felix, you apparently didn’t read Christopher’s memoir; in it he mentions several times when he discovered he had been wrong about things and changed his views. He discussed those experiences in detail. One of the important points of his book was that it’s folly to take a stand until you understand all the relevant issues, and in most cases it takes a lifetime to understand all the issues.

I strongly suspect you misunderstood his statement that he couldn’t remember the last time he was wrong. He was not denying ever being wrong; he just literally couldn’t think up an example. Try it yourself and you’ll find it’s not an easy task; the human mind erases memory structures that led to mistakes, so as to reduce the chance of making those mistakes in the future.

Posted by gh1 | Report as abusive

The issue isn’t that she’s wrong, the issue is that she was wrong and advocated the relocation of 7 million people from thier homeland– a crime against humanity. If someone denied the holocaust and then took it back, would you be so forgiving?*

If I recall, a while back there was a big Republican politician who advocated that Palestinians in the West Bank move to Jordan, which is a lot less drastic than what Thomas advocated, even though it was still ethnic cleansing. He got hell for it, and probably should have gotten more, but the difference is he was an established politician and Thomas was a reported who was at retirement age anyway.

*(Unless you happen to be a member of the PA and would elect such a person as president.)

Posted by ZPT | Report as abusive

Being right at the cost of united balance is not only dangerous in business or politics, it is short sighted and arrogant. Learning together through shared communication that remains open and honest is the key to a healthy outcome regardless of situation.


Posted by AlbertSparks | Report as abusive

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