David Heinemeier Hansson

March 9, 2022

You could be wrong

We recorded an episode for the REWORK podcast yesterday on the essay "Making the Call is Making Progress", which encourages training those decision-making muscles to be stronger so you can forward quicker. It included a discussion of lowering the price of making decisions by setting yourself up for cheap reversals. If making a bad call isn't ruinous, you won't be so afraid of making one in the face of incomplete information (upon which all decisions are ultimately made to some degree). What if the same holds true for opinions?

I think one of the reasons my post on being wrong about crypto took off to such an extraordinary degree (the tweet was seen five million times; it was the most read thing ever posted to HEY World) was exactly because it seemed like a very expensive reversal. I had spent a decade advancing a universal case against crypto, so to publicly eat that hat provided a rare illustration that even minds that have dug in deep on a question can occasionally find their way out.

From this I took away a broader thesis: By enticing people around the world to publicly commit to one side or another on a million hard questions every day via social media, we've dramatically raised the cost for society to collectively change its mind about anything. This is nothing short of a catastrophe, and it's making societies less responsive to adjusting to reality as it evolves.

Opinions you hold in your head are easily malleable. There's no social price to pay for changing your mind on ideas that never left that mind in the first place. The price is slightly higher for those ideas you've discussed with a few friends, yet still low. But for ideas or opinions you've filled a whole social timeline to advance? Very damn difficult.

Perhaps no topic over the last few years has highlighted this problem as much as the pandemic. From masks to lab leaks to natural immunity to vaccine injuries to variants, we've time and again had our ability to call it correctly challenged. That's not a criticism of the best efforts in trying to do so, but a reminder that even the smartest people – be they scientists, journalists, or activists – get reality wrong all the time. Especially when the calls have to happen in real time, lives are at stake, and we just don't know yet.

These are exactly the circumstances were we should be most circumspect about believing we've settled The Science. Where the chief contribution of science is a method not a conclusion. Where we build the best models we have given the data we got, and the unceremoniously discard them when they fail to explain or predict.

It's also the circumstances where we should be most open to divergent theories, viewpoints, and experiments. Where we need to make the long-term investments in credibility with modesty around our certainties, and tolerate the short-term cost of acknowledged ignorance.

The deeper you've dug your position, the harder it is to advance. So how do we stop digging so many ditches both now and next time? What societal technologies help or hurt the effort? We gotta find that out.