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The Benefits of Being Wrong

May 28th, 2004 · No Comments

Amitai Etzioni makes a point about public intellectuals that’s occasionally flitted through my head, with respect to the academic as well as the punditocratic realm. It seems that, from the point of view of establishing a reputation, you’re sometimes better off for being interestingly wrong than exactly right. I think part of Rawls’s fame has to do with there being so many intriguing little nooks to poke into and tweak or poke at. And certainly, Nozick’s not well known because very many other academics thought he was right—but it provided a rich source for liberal writers looking to prove him wrong, again, partly owing to the dense layering of provocative tangents and intriguing thought experiments. To take a wider view: consider how much less controversial scientific findings are than philosophical arguments. Then try to think of a science class where you actually read a paper more than a few decades old—Newton’s Principia, say, in the original the way you still read Aristotle or Kant in philosophy classes. Within philosophy, the less controversial an idea is, the less apt it is to be associated with its originators: A student in a logic class will often not even hear the names Frege or Wittgenstein, except perhaps as a brief aside.

It makes pretty good sense: Something that’s agreed to be right gets absorbed into our background knowledge and forgotten. There’s not a lot more to say at that point: “That sure is right, Bob.” “Sure is.” There’s probably a potentially interesting memetic analysis here about different clusters of memes “reproduce” differently, may be worth thinking about and returning to later.

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