I May Be Wrong
Ron Ellington, a professor at the University of Georgia Law School, recently spoke to the inductees of Phi Beta Kappa at UGA. His remarks deserve wider distribution. He points out how the smartest and wisest leaders of a previous generation were dead wrong on one big issue, and suggests how to recognize when we are wrong.
- Be humble.
- Be intellectually honest and strive for objectivity. Be open minded to evidence / facts that may challenge or run counter to your initial views.
- Look for anomalies.
The full text of Professor Ellington’s remarks appears below.
I MAY BE WRONG
Remarks at The University of Georgia
Phi Beta Kappa Induction Ceremony
April 29, 2008
C. Ronald Ellington
If you pass through the doors at the rear of the Chapel, turn right, and follow the sidewalk a few hundred yards, you will come to the main law school building, Hirsh Hall, which was constructed in the 1930’s. Behind the large double wooden doors of Hirsch Hall lies a magnificent Rotunda, with a beautiful spiral staircase. Adorning the walls of the Rotunda, are oil portraits of the three men who started the law school, Joseph Henry Lumpkin, Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb, and William Hope Hull.
These men were lawyers and among the best educated and most accomplished men of their times. They came from families of influence. They were foremost political, civil and church leaders.
Alexis de Tocqueville might have been referring to them when he wrote in Democracy in America that:
“In America there are no nobles or literary men, and the people are apt to mistrust the wealthy; lawyers consequently form the highest political class and the most cultivated circle of society. . . If I were asked where I place the American Aristocracy, I should reply without hesitation, that it is not composed of the rich, who are united by no common tie, but that it occupies the judicial bench and bar.”
For nearly 40 years, I have walked through that Rotunda and looked at those portraits. I want to share the lesson this has taught me, but first I want to tell you more about Lumpkin and Cobb. They are central to my lesson.
Joseph Henry Lumpkin grew up in Lexington, Oglethorpe County, 20 miles from Athens. He entered the University (then Franklin College) in 1816. It was a fledging school, but Lumpkin was studious and excelled in his studies. After two years, he transferred to Princeton where he graduated in 1819 second in his class. (Story has it that Lumpkin would have been the first honor graduate had he attended Princeton for a period longer than 18 months.)
Lumpkin returned to Athens, read law for a year, and was admitted to practice. He built a successful practice, was elected to the legislature, and in 1845 was named as a member of Georgia’s first Supreme Court. He became the Court’s first Chief Justice and served for twenty-two years until his death in 1867. Highly intelligent, extremely hard working and industrious, he wrote more than one-third of the nearly 4,000 opinions in the first 35 volumes of the Georgia Reports.
In 1859, Lumpkin, Cobb and Hull received a charter from the legislature to open a law school as part of a reorganization of the University. The Lumpkin Law School, as it was called, became the second school in the University, joining the Franklin College.
Thomas R.R. Cobb, 24 years younger, was a member of a wealthy planter family. By all accounts, Cobb was brilliant. He entered Franklin College at age 14 and graduated first in his class. He read law, married Lumpkin’s daughter and built a successful practice in Athens. He served as the Reporter for the Supreme Court, organizing, indexing and publishing its opinions. Cobb was prodigiously productive. He was the principle drafter of Georgia’s first Code of Laws, a codification of legal principals extracted from the corpus juris of thousands of published common law decisions covering the entire gamut of both civil and criminal law.
Justice Lumpkin and Cobb were law reformers, championing ideas for the improvement of the law and legal institutions. The Code project was particularly democratic in spirit. It was to condense and simplify the law so as to place it within the reach and comprehension of the citizens of the state generally. Lumpkin argued in sponsoring the project that, “It is right that every man should be enabled to read and understand the law – for himself – and for this purpose it should be divested of all technicality and intricacy, as far as possible.”
And yet, these men of learning, probity and accomplishment, lawyer-educators and public-spirited reformers were Wrong – about the most important issue of their time: slavery and secession.
In dozens of opinions, Justice Lumpkin justified African slavery as moral and just.
Cobb published a book on the Law of Slavery, arguing that it as good for both master and slave. Cobb championed and voted for the ordinance of secession to take Georgia out of the Union. He was the principal drafter of the Confederate Constitution. At age 39, Cobb, a Brigadier General, was killed in the Battle of Fredericksburg.
When I see the portraits of Lumpkin and Cobb now, I always think, “How could they have been so wrong?” And, that leads me inevitably to the question, “What May I Be That Wrong About?”
Being wrong neither began nor ended with Lumpkin and Cobb, of course. At present our country is in the fifth year of a war in Iraq – a war initiated to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, a war in which we would be greeted as liberators by the populace. How could our intelligence community and our political leaders have been so wrong?
Being smart, energetic, hardworking and earnest are no guarantee against being wrong. Lumpkin and Cobb were all those things.
There is no sure-fire way to avoid being wrong, but there are, I believe, some good habits that may help.
First, Be Humble. If history teaches anything, it is that you may be wrong. Always bear this simple and sobering truth in mind. Arrogance, hubris and self-interest distort clear vision and good judgment.
Second, Be Intellectually Honest and Strive for Objectivity. We have to make decisions in life, usually not as momentous as starting a war, but important in their own right. And, we cannot avoid acting out of the fear that we may be wrong. So what can we do?
Be open-minded to evidence/facts that may challenge or run counter to your initial views. This is very hard to do. In a recent book titled, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society,” Farhad Manjoo writes about research findings by Stanford psychologists who showed two groups of students (selected because they reported favoring or opposing capital punishment) contradictory studies about the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Rather than causing either group to doubt or tone down its original view, students on each side accepted the evidence that conformed to their original views while rejecting the contrary evidence. Moreover, Manjoo reports on other studies showing we have a tendency to seek out information that reinforces our initial beliefs while resisting information that does not mesh with our preconceived ideas. Avoiding mistakes requires open-mindedness and the capacity to confront contrary evidence honestly.
Third, Look out for Anomalies. What a person sees depends both upon what she looks at and also upon what her previous experience has taught her to see. In his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn describes how anomalies that normal science cannot explain can lead to paradigmatic shifts and a gestalt switch in the scientist’s view of the world.
Kuhn writes that since antiquity people saw one or another heavy bodies swinging back and forth on a string or chain until the body finally came to rest. To the Aristotelians, the swinging body was simply falling with difficulty. Constrained by the chain, it could achieve rest at its low point only after a tortuous motion and considerable time.
Galileo, on the other hand, looked at the swinging body, and saw a pendulum. How did Galileo see a pendulum with its regular and repeated motion where others for so long saw only constrained fall? Perhaps it was just an accident of individual genius, but as Kuhn shows, scientific revolutions often stem from the recognition of anomaly, i.e. that reality somehow does not conform to the present paradigm-based expectations. As he wrote, “Novelty ordinarily emerges only for the man who, knowing with precision what he should expect, is able to recognize that something has gone wrong.” (Kuhn at 65)
The recognition of an anomaly is a powerful force in the world of ideas as well as the world of science. Lumpkin and Cobb managed to close their eyes to the anomaly that they accepted a slave as a person with a soul capable of Christian salvation, while simultaneously justifying the legal order that treated the slave as property. For many others, this anomaly trigged a crisis and raised doubts about the received belief system.
And so, as you join the company of educated men and women and go about decision making of all sorts, I hope you will remember the lesson that you may be wrong and to strive to avoid that by being humble, being intellectually honest and open-minded and recognizing anomalies. Use the tools of heart and mind that have gained here. Your study of the liberal arts has positioned you to avoid, or at least to minimize, the making of mistakes. The Nineteenth-Century Eton schoolmaster, William Johnson Cory, lastingly articulated the purpose of a liberal arts education this way:
At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy . . . for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness. Above all, for self-knowledge.
I congratulate you on your scholastic achievement and for the arts and habits you have acquired. If you permit them to do so, they will stand you in good stead.