The Ignorant Side of History

Monday, September 23, 2019 - 07:18

Everyone knows the difference between right and wrong, right? Wrong. And this includes me. I have a certain level of paranoia that things I believe with 100% conviction will turn out to be utterly wrong in a decade. Only hindsight will confirm whether my sure bets were not delusional gambles. Until then, I try and live by the philosophy of Marc Andreessen of "strong opinions, weakly held." However, I'm human, and I have my blind spots. Maybe my belief systems have already been invalidated, yet I'm still unknowingly and unwittingly living on the wrong side of history.

The Right and Wrong Side of History.

In today's polarized political landscape, there are dozens of hotly contested issues where each side has a firm conviction that they have the moral high ground. And from this place of moral superiority, tactics of shaming the opposition are used. "Do you want to be on the wrong side of history?" The thing is, they feel like they could ask the same question back to the other person.

This reminds me of this beautiful parable in The Peaceful Warrior.

An old man and his son worked a small farm, with only one horse to pull the plow. One day, the horse ran away.

"How terrible," sympathized the neighbors. "What bad luck."

"Who knows whether it is bad luck or good luck," the farmer replied.

A week later, the horse returned from the mountains, leading five wild mares into the barn.

"What wonderful luck!" said the neighbors.

"Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?"" answered the old man.

The next day, the son, trying to tame one of the horses, fell and broke his leg.

"How terrible. What bad luck!"

"Bad luck? Good Luck?"

The army came to all the farms to take the young men for war, but the farmer's son was of no use to them, so he was spared.

"Good? Bad?"

The thing is, life is non-linear and unintended consequences are a real thing. I recently listened to the book The Coddling of The American Mind. In it referenced a scientific study published in 2015 that measured whether exposure to peanuts at an early age affected whether a person would develop a peanut allergy. Despite all of our efforts to try and protect kids from exposure (on the off chance they were predisposed to become allergic), the net effect of our protectionism results in a 6X higher likelihood of a kid developing a long term allergy.

So were well-meaning parents on the right or wrong side of history? At the time, there was a conviction that we were all doing the right thing because who wouldn't want to keep kids safe? And what kind of asshole parent would knowingly expose kids to things that could harm them? And yet the results show that exposure was the better approach... at least for now.

Now here's the rub. As the participants in this study continue to grow older, the trend might reverse. Maybe when they are 40, some other hidden factor that the study didn't measure will vindicate the parents that protected their kids from early exposure. So who would be on the right side of history then?

What's true is we are all on the ignorant side of history because it hasn't happened yet. We may find that our championed cause worked and was the right choice. Maybe we were on the right side of history. Or there's a chance that someone else's terrible idea may have been better (even though we were kicking and screaming the entire time).

Even things that feel obvious may not be so in hindsight. So while it's OK to have conviction and champion a cause, never lose sight of the fact that history we won't know until we do. And even then, new information and evidence may continually change our interpretation of the outcome.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.