Helen Thomas, Christopher Hitchens, and being wrong

By Felix Salmon
June 7, 2010
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.

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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.

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