How to Succeed by Being Wrong

November 19, 2012

By Matt Palmer

There are days when I feel like I know a lot about being wrong. Having kids does that. Exploring the story of energy often leaves me questioning the validity of my beliefs. That has turned out to be a good thing for me.

Back in 2004 when I began working on the documentary about the oil sands called “Pay Dirt”, I questioned whether I was doing the right thing. I didn’t really know much about the oil sands at the time, but what I knew was mostly negative.

On my first trip to Fort McMurray, I did a helicopter survey of the major projects, and upon the first sight of the mines at Syncrude and Suncor, I felt a huge ugly pit in my stomach. The size and ugliness of the oil sands mines overwhelmed me. Was I wrong in trying to tell the story of the oil sands from an honest and as balanced perspective of the issues as possible? I felt I was wrong.

It was not a good feeling. But, I  learned that being wrong about my initial impressions, while hard, opened possibilities,  freeing me creatively and intellectually. It is a lot of pressure to feel like you have to be right, and that there are always clearly defined right and wrong answers to complex issues. The oil sands are a good manifestation of this principle.

While I felt a lot of internal conflict after my first visit to the oil sands, as I stepped back, and began to understand how a project of this scale originates, the ingenuity and innovation required to solve complex problems, I did begin to feel a bit of hope.

There are a myriad of complex problems that must be solved as oil sands development continues. We need a better understanding of cumulative impacts, particularly as production continues to ramp  up. But I do continue to have hope that these issues can be largely addressed. Over the past few years, I have attended events, and talked to many people who understand the urgency, and have a sincere and urgent desire to solve the problems. Oil sands companies are spending a lot of money on the problems. More is needed. Can they be solved fast enough is a big question.

Many people want to see the oil sands shut down immediately. I get it. I understand it. We know that human activity on the planet has impacts. But we have a system we have created, that we all live within, and that it is going to take great effort, and unity to transition to a new system. Making this about good versus evil is not going to solve the problem.

Whether for or against something, it is prudent to understand the rules of the system. How the system works. Why do we use oil? Do most people understand this? We can have a healthy discussion about how oil is manipulated within the economic system, but that does not excuse the basics of why it is used in the first place, or why we will continue to need it.

We can also have an honest discussion about alternative energy systems and what the challenges are to implementing sources like wind and solar on a global scale. Issues like energy density, power density, and battery storage play an important role in the narrative. The lack of a breakthrough in battery storage has not been because of some vast conspiracy to keep wind and solar back , for example, but rather it is due to issues of physics.

Last week, I discovered a great article in Scientific American called “They Key to Science (and Life) Is Being Wrong“. Most of us hate being wrong, and will often do whatever we can to ensure that either we are not wrong, or at least are not perceived to be wrong, even though deep inside we know we are wrong.

Mitt Romney’s post-election comments, blaming Obama for giving “gifts”, is a great example of this. The double down on being wrong. The ability to see our failings provides opportunities for growth. It can be a humbling process.

If we look at the energy debate, there are two polarized sides entrenched in their belief that they are right. What interests me for my documentary is not which side is right, but how can we find the most prudent path to the future, given that the right answers, as we will understand them in the moment, are dependent many different and interconnected factors. History is filled with wrong assumptions. The history of science is littered with failed theories, that for a time were taken as gospel.

Intransigence is a dangerous thing. In the TED talk that I posted above self-proclaimed “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz makes some interesting observations about our internal sense of rightness. It leads to treating each other badly. The need to be right leads to polarization, as evidenced in the debate between fossil fuel and alternative energy proponents.

In the energy debate we see clear examples of Ms Schulz’s three dangerous types of assumptions that occur when the internal sense of rightness takes over. The ignorance assumption, the idiocy assumption, and the evil assumption. Oil companies are evil. Environmentalists opposing oil are either heroes or ignorant idiots, depending on your viewpoint.

Decisions for the future of the planet around the future energy mix, must be made, using the best available information, and hopefully using a decision-making processes that takes a healthy, pragmatic and balanced approach to the problems. Systems thinking is an essential tool for any policy process, along with the ability to challenge assumptions, verdicts, and commitments.

We are in a race against time to solve energy issues that are already impacting the health of the planet. True success in mitigating global environmental impacts from energy production and consumption will not be understood or measured for years to come, but that success will be as dependent on our ability to be right, as it is on our willingness to admit when we are wrong.

How willing are you to be wrong about something you believe regarding the future of energy?


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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2 Responses to How to Succeed by Being Wrong

  1. Interesting post Matt. The oil companies think they’re right in their view that they need to develop the oil sands at break neck speed or someone else will beat them to market. My worry is that if they’re wrong they’ll have exposed us to environmental dangers that could have been avoided. I’m not sure how to resolve this but until we know more about the environmental impacts of these large scale projects I err on the side of caution and slow down.

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