Being wrong, and a partial list of ways I’ve been wrong

A variety of somewhat big-deal econ bloggers have written about things they now believe they were wrong about. Looking back on changed opinions (which is a slightly more polite of saying “I was wrong”) is a useful exercise in intellectual honesty—a trait most people lack. I might be among them but like to think that I’m more intellectually honest than I actually am.

Still, here are some (unsorted) opinions on topics about which I’ve been wrong or at least not as right as I could be:

1) I basically believed that the stock market’s average rate of return would remain 10% per year over reasonable time periods. That it will still average somewhere close to 10% per year still seems probable, but the “reasonable time periods” (like two decades or so) no longer does, and in the long run, as a famous economist whose name escapes me observed, we’re all dead.

2) Like McArdle, the “Great Moderation” seemed real up until the last six months or so.

3) There are some things I was wrong about that turned out well: I didn’t think we’d see a black president in my lifetime. In 2004, if you’d told me that a black man would be president in 2008, I probably would’ve laughed at you.

4) I didn’t get why people liked Jane Austen until I read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, with its description of free indirect speech, and his examples from Austen. Now I do.

5) The iPhone? Nice, but a fad. I didn’t think it would be as important as it has been, or that other phone manufacturers would be so slow to respond.

6) I didn’t think Facebook would become and stay as popular as it is; I signed as an undergrad chiefly as a quick way of figuring out which girls already had boyfriends. Now I seldom log on, but evidently I’m in the minority.

7) I used to believe that it was possible to have rational discussions about religion and/or politics with most people. Now I don’t. Both subjects is are seldom subjected to empirical tests, so no feedback mechanism can demonstrate when or if a belief is wrong. Politics are (slightly) more subject to such tests, via election, studies, and the like, but the broadest political beliefs aren’t really. See Paul Graham’s “Keep Your Identity Small” for more on this subject, along with “What You Can’t Say.” At best one can have meta-conversations about religion and politics (“Why do people need religion?”)

8) During the ramp-up to the Iraq war, I was in college, and many of my professors were virulently against the war and thought that the government was perfectly capable of dissembling and distorting the debate about weapons of mass destruction; some had lived through Vietnam, with its phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the later Iran-Contra hearings. I hadn’t and thought it wildly implausible that so many people and institutions would be hoodwinked by faulty information, so I was more or less in favor of the war, like a lot of my equally gullible compatriots.


9) On first reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, I didn’t appreciate many of its most impressive qualities, especially regarding the narrative, the dialogue, and the extent to which the novel combines post-modern games with immense readability. Now I do.

10) I used to think that the sexual double standard was primarily due to misinformation, the cruel application of religious principles to individual lives, ignorance, and malice. Now I think the sexual double standard is primarily due to daughter-guarding by parents and parents’ influence on culture, female efforts to guard men through slandering their potential competitors’ reputations, general female competitiveness, the fact that the choosier sex is always the one that invests more in offspring, and differing economic and pleasure incentives acting on children than their parents.

These forces help explain a great deal of our culture’s confusion about sexuality and its mixed messages—especially among the young. I used to think this confusion would eventually devolve into a more laissez-faire, I’m-okay-you’re-okay attitude, which it still might, but now that day seems very far off.

(See my essay “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more” for details.)

11) A student question from two years ago prompted me to realized that, although I used to believe something close to the classical economic model of man in which behavior automatically reveals preferences and if someone does something, it must be because they rationally believe it will benefit them, now I’ve realized that context, framing effects, peer pressure, time preferences, and the like have a far greater effect than I once gave them credit for. Reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and The Time Paradox, Neil Strauss’ The Game, and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life contributed to my change in views.

It might not hurt for you to try this test for yourself: if you can’t think of anything you’ve been wrong about, does that mean that you’re consistently right about everything, or does that mean something quite different? If you need help, there’s an entire book on the subject by Kathryn Schulz named Being Wrong: Adventures on the Margins of Error, although I haven’t actually read said book yet.

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