Bakersfield is the Capital of California, and Other Facts I Made Up

AWSnapSQI have been wrong before, that is going to come as a bit of a shock to many people I know.  Not the fact that I have been wrong, but rather the fact that I am admitting it.

I like being right.

I like knowing more about any given subject than other people do.

I have, on occasion, enjoyed proving how right I am.

That is why admitting that I have been wrong is so difficult for me. It happened though, on one of the many trips my wife and I took between Utah and California during the early part of our marriage to visit family and friends. As you drive along Interstate 15 to Southern California you will pass an exit that you can take if you want to go to Bakersfield, California.

At some point after I married my wife, but before we took this fateful trip, I got it in my head that Bakersfield was the capital of California. To this day I have no idea how that happened, but it did, and it existed in a little “bubble of truth” for me. Now if I had never said anything to my wife about it, I may still believe that today. However on this trip I decided to be clever and say to her “Hey want to head to your state capital instead?”

My wife returned a very curious look… so I continued in an utterly ignorant effort to see if could fit my whole foot in my mouth by saying “…you know… Bakersfield.”

I got the appropriate blank stare from her followed by the equally deserved education on California Social Studies.

Spoiler alert…. Sacramento is the capital of California, not Bakersfield.

I did not like being wrong, check that, I hated being wrong. I hated it so much so that I spent the rest of the road trip, trying to see if I could put the facts together in some semblance of order that would prove that I was right and she was wrong. Unfortunately, for me, there is no way to use the facts for that purpose. I was just plain wrong, and for the past 13-14 years I have not heard the end of it.

The silver-lining in it all is that I learned a valuable lesson, sometimes you are wrong… and that is OK.

I find it important as a father that I challenge my children’s thinking so that they can learn this lesson early and have it inform their ability to think critically as they grow up. The reality is this being wrong once makes you more likely to be right in the future.  Thomas Edison wrote in an article once:

“But the student will find that experience is the best teacher. The reason why I get along with comparative ease now is because I know from experience the enormous number of things that won’t work. For instance, I start on a new invention to-morrow. From the great number of experiments I have made, and the vast amount of information I have stored up, I am saved a great deal of time and trouble in not having to travel over barren ground”[1]

If we can teach our children to readily question their beliefs and opinions when they are faced with facts that contradict them, we are preparing them to be right in the future, when it really counts.

In a world of Facebook Memes and 24-hour media sound bites it is very easy to be inundated with opinions masquerading as facts. We can create “bubbles of truth” with no foundation in fact. If we are not careful we can perpetuate them and build weak intellectual foundations.

Our children need to learn how to question what they hear.  They need to know that just because something is stated like a fact does not mean it is a fact. If they can learn to process what they hear independent of their personal bias, egocentrism, and sociocentrism, then they will be better communicators and better problem solvers.

Opinion has its place, and can be valuable in context.  My opinion is that Sean Connery is the best James Bond. I have formed this opinion based on watching every James Bond movie and having seen all 6 different actors who have played the role.  However I may have a friend who has seen all the movies as well and hold the opinion that Timothy Dalton was the best James Bond. We are both right because we are speaking on a subjective matter and our opinion is a fact for each of us individually with no bearing on the other. This can lend itself to a great debate over our rationale for how we formed our opinions. However, in the end, we cannot disprove either opinion as neither opinion is supported by any indisputable fact.

Now if I were to plant some corn seeds in a garden, but the package they came from indicated they were pumpkin seeds, no matter how much I want pumpkins or what the seed packet said I will not grow pumpkins. I cannot enter my corn in a state fair in the pumpkin category. I cannot make pumpkin pie from my corn.  No matter how much I believe my corn was a pumpkin or how strongly I held my opinion that I have grown pumpkins. I will have grown corn that is an indisputable fact.

Clinging to a belief or opinion because you don’t agree with a fact is an intellectually dangerous thing to do.  It prevents us from improving and becoming better.  It prevents us from solving the problems before us effectively, because the root of our knowledge is based on a falsehood. Like a seed when it bears fruit, it can only bear the fruit of the seed that is planted.

This is the lesson I try to teach my kids.  When they ask me if something is true, before I answer it, I try to have them process it.  I ask things like:

“What do you think?”

“Why do you think that?”

“Is there any way you can find out for sure?”

These questions force them to look at what they know, and push them to use what they know to learn more.  These types of questions will at times show them that their opinions/beliefs are wrong.  They will do so in a way that allows them to gracefully accept that they were wrong and embrace new facts that help them understand the world a little more clearly and correctly. Helping them learn one more thing that is a fact that will inform their thinking in the future.

In my case, had I not been disabused of my belief that Bakersfield was the capital of California, the worse thing that might have happened is that I might have planned a very embarrassing surprise trip for my family to the capital city.  Which would been a much more embarrassing story than the one than I have now.

As a critical thinker, I am able to look back at what I believed was true, compare it to new facts that I have been presented with and allow them to inform my understanding.  I now have more complete and accurate knowledge, and I can now effectively plan a trip to the state capital of California and actually get my family there.

[1] 1882 June 15, The Christian Union, How to Succeed As An Inventor by Thomas A. Edison, Quote Page 544, N.Y. and Brooklyn Publishing Co., New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)

(This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project )

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