Summary: The Falling Drill is intended to practice being wrong in a comfortable practice environment, intended to help us handle being wrong out in the world easier and with less stress. 

Tags: Small, repeatable 

Purpose: The first thing you learn in martial arts is the ability to fall. The corresponding rationalist skill is the ability to realize that you are wrong. Since modern western society (and possibly most human societies) discourage admitting you’re wrong, it can help to do it repeatedly and get used to it. 

Materials: A device that can connect to wikipedia. A list of partial statements such as “The population of Boston is. . .” and “the melting point of mercury is. . .” A suggested list is here, and we suggest writing the questions down on individual cards before the meetup so each person only sees one card at a time.

Announcement Text: One of the most important parts of intellectual progress is learning to change your mind. The first step of changing your mind is realizing that you were wrong about something. Today we're going to practice that often painful realization, in a small way and in a low pressure situation. Without this skill, how can you debate an important issue or confront a challenging topic? You might argue long after it's clear to others that you've lost, because admitting it feels like defeat.

The first lesson any martial artist learns is often how to fall. There are ways to make the landing easier, but they all start from the knowledge that falling isn't the worst thing in the world.


1. Read one of the statements, then complete it as best you can. "The population of Boston is four hundred thousand."

2. Look it up on wikipedia. If you’re wrong, then announce to the room “I was wrong about the population of Boston. It's over six hundred thousand.” 

3. Hand the questions to the next person in the circle, and the process begins again.

Variations: Practice saying “I don’t know” when you’re asked the question. 

Practice saying your answer loudly and confidently, such as "The population of Boston is four hundred thousand! Only an idiot would think it was higher than five thousand!" It is good to know what you do not know, but it is also important to be able to back down from a strong claim. 

Practice doing this with confidence intervals. "The population of Boston is between four hundred thousand and six hundred thousand! I'm ninety percent sure of it!" It's embarrassing to get a range like this wrong, but note that this variation won't be immediately clear to people unused to intervals.

Practice working this into discussions. Allow a debate to develop, either in conversation or during something like Double Crux In A Box. Mid debate, when you make a claim and someone asks to check it, state your claim as confidently as you can and then practice being wrong.

Practice this for a common field. If your group shares an interest, such as neuroscience or computer engineering or football, make statements about the subject you think you know a lot about. You don't technically need other people to be experienced in the subject since they can check you with the internet, but it helps.

Harder variations involve the other participants giving fake mockery for being wrong, changing your mind, or "flip flopping."  I strongly discourage starting with that; start without mockery and if people continue to actually feel comfortable, suggest introducing that.

Notes: In particular, I suggest spending the most time practicing the version that you’re the least comfortable with, except for the mockery variation. That one I suggest practicing once you're mostly comfortable with the other versions.

New Comment
3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:53 PM

Neat, I like "first thing you do is learn to fall" comparison.

We tried this exercise in the Freiburg, Germany meetup a few days ago. We were 12 people, divided into two groups of 6.

The martial arts analogy with falling works really well and was well received.

Most people, myself included, felt that the exercise did not work as well as we were hoping. As a participant one is aware that the setting is artificial and admitting you are wrong is therefore quite easy. We even tried the harder variants with "making fun" and such.

One suggestion made in the feedback round was to ask participants to also provide confidence intervals. Then making fun could also be about having chosen those to be too wide.

I feel like it would be necessary to find questions people think they know the answers to and use those. Then admitting you are wrong would be more painful. Maybe a list of common misconceptions and people provide answers before knowing what the game is about. Then during the game people read their answers aloud with as much conviction as possible.

Updated with some variations around using your field, or doing this mid discussion.