Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I Might Be Wrong

I signed up for chemistry my sophomore year of high school. I didn't much care for science at the time and felt out of place walking into a class with all juniors and seniors. I was a little nervous.

And I loved it! I loved the teacher, who was devoted to his teaching and to his family, who was always prepared and spoke respectfully of his students. I enjoyed the topic, which made sense of the world and finally kindled my interest in science. I grew to appreciate my classmates, who generally accepted and made space for me when I felt like the stranger among them. I'm not exaggerating when I say that my sophomore chemistry class changed my life. Not just because I went on to earn a college degree in chemistry and became a science teacher. More important than those was that I learned to think in new ways. It changed me not just academically, but personally. It impacted my character.

One of the first things I learned in chemistry was a core value of science: We might be wrong.

Science is filled with people examining the natural world and trying -- with curiosity, hope, determination, hard work, some frustration and some delight -- to figure it out. They develop models, test them out, and make adjustments accordingly. Someone may create a great theory that seems quite accurate and gains acceptance and is consistently useful in predicting what will happen, and even if the theory works really well for a long time, it's always open to being changed later if (when) new information becomes known. It's always open to question, because we might be wrong.

The process sounds cleaner than it looks, and happens more slowly than it sounds. There are jumps and starts along the way. New evidence isn't always as clear as we've been led to believe, and it takes time and work and ongoing conversation to convince the scientific community of new perspectives. It requires a fascinating balance, one that is dynamic rather than static, introducing new information and figuring out how it might fit within the current models and how it might pull beyond the current models. Established understandings are not simply accepted or rejected, but rather adjusted, seeking to keep the elements which are most true while making changes where appropriate. This process requires discussion of different ideas in ways that give sufficient voice to each. That is not to say that all theories are equally valid -- they're not -- but that even a really good theory isn't a perfect one, and the less accurate models often account for something that merits attention, something to figure out and include in whatever model is being developed.

We might be wrong. In fact, we assume that we are wrong, or at least not entirely right. If scientists believed the current models were perfect, and perfectly right, then they'd all go home because their work would be done. They could get new jobs waiting tables, or pursue new degrees in puppetry or packaging, or retire to Tahiti. But scientists still get up in the morning and go to work because there are new things to discover and understand about the world around us.

That's a pretty good perspective for the rest of life, too. Consider a life approach that leads to persistently and honestly being able to say this:  I've been watching closely, learning, discovering. I've thought deeply about this (interpretation of events, relationship, plan of action, or whatever), actively considering others' ideas and persistently open to new information and perspectives. I've tracked down errors in my understandings and corrected them. Because of all this, I've got a lot of trust in what I believe. And I might be wrong. Such a mix of well-placed confidence and appropriate humility is powerful. And, when followed by "what is your perspective?" and authentic, robust conversation, it has great potential for developing both strong understandings of the world and significant relationships with each other.

This possibility shapes my faith. It is foundational to conversations about matters of faith with others individually and in small groups. It is something significant I've appreciated about my Sunday School class this past year. Such conversations are so important in my relationships with people of other faiths, too, as we seek to understand and challenge each other, with love and encouragement, with a shared goal of discovering truth.

Relationships have been on my mind lately, too, especially misunderstandings and conflicts. Each person's unique self, combined with his or her unique life experience, leaves plenty of room for missing the boat in communication. Even listening really well leaves plenty of room for error as our assumptions influence our interpretations. Words like "He's a [insert category here]" and "I know how she is" betray a worrisome lack of I might be wrong-ness. It permanently stamps the other's character in concrete -- a foolish move, because not only might I be wrong in my previous interpretations, but there is diversity within every category already, and the other person might also change, too.

I might be wrong even about myself. An "I'm someone who..." statement pretty much always includes some truth in whatever comes next -- but not full truth. I am, after all, quite capable of self-deception. And my own nature and expression shift, too. I want to be cautious about defining myself too much or too permanently, because I change. Sometimes it is slow, sometimes by fits and starts, but part of being human is changing. And really, isn't that the foundation of hope?

I am becoming more attentive to the language I use, because it both reflects and shapes my thoughts. I want to speak truth-full-y and grace-full-y, leaving healthy space for both error and change. As I saw in chemistry class, true/false questions are easy to grade, but essays and story problems are a lot more worthwhile, and there's a place for giving partial credit where partial credit is due.

1 comment:

Nancy Brewer said...

I love how you think. I love how you explain what goes on in your heart and mind. Basically, I love you, and am so thankful that you challenge me to think beyond myself. You are a gift of God's grace in my life, especially today.