How "Being Wrong" can be so right

Thumbnail image for Being WrongHave you ever been wrong? Well then, this book is for you. It's a trick question, because everyone is wrong all the time. A more detailed review after the jump, but the bottom line: read it. I'm barely exaggerating when I say that reading Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error by Kathryn Shultz should be compulsory for anyone and everyone that ever that has ever thought they know the truth, which is to say everyone. Drawing from history, philosophy, science, current events and a smattering of personal reflection, Shultz takes us through what it means to be wrong, why we get things wrong, how it feels to be wrong, and finally why understanding and embracing wrongness can be a good thing.

Part 1: The idea of Error I'm no philosopher, but it seems like an understanding that error happens has been around for a long time. But, as with many things, defining it is quite a burden and Shultz spends the first two chapters describing the problem. The idea of being wrong is inseparable from the idea of being right, and so questions of Truth, Knowledge, and belief must also be dragged into the discussion.

Shultz then describes her two models of being wrong. The "pessimistic model" is one that many people consciously adhere to: error is a terrible thing, to be avoided and eliminated at all costs. Everyone knows that being wrong, about politics, about people, or even about the bus schedule can irritating and at worst disastrous. But she also invokes an "optimistic model," Which acknowledges the joy, humor and sometimes the necessity of being wrong. From optical illusions, to literature to humor - Shultz makes the case that in being human, wrongness is a feature, not a bug.

My ego (and the ego's of many reading this blog I imagine) gets stroked a bit when she describes science as embracing the optimistic model as an approach to knowledge. Unfortunately, those feelings of superiority come from the certainty that we're right. She also manages to chastise that certainty, and reminds us that the power of science does not come from generating certainty, but from generating doubt (not coincidentally, generating doubt is also what gives this book it's power).

Part 2: The Origins of Error This was my favorite part of the book. It's an impressive accounting of the sources of error, from perception to cognition to the forces of society. I was a bit put off by the characterization of all forms of knowledge as "belief," but that's probably based on my proximity to the gnu atheist arguments. She makes a compelling case, and also acknowledges that some forms of evidence are more reliable than others. In the end, the argument is that ALL beliefs are subject to bias, misrepresentation and error, and I think this is a point well worth making.

The section ends with a chapter on "The Allure of Certainty," which uses the example of the Zealots and of the 2004 presidential election to demonstrate our passion for being certain and of the terrifying consequences when that certainty reaches pathologic levels. This chapter has my favorite passage [emphasis in the orignial, errors are probably mine]:

The psychologist Rollo once wrote about the "seeming contradiction that we must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong." Note that this is not an argument for centrism, or for abandoning our convictions -- and our conviction -- while jettisoning the barricade of certainty that surrounds them. Our commitment to an idea, he concluded, "is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt."

Most of us do not want to be doctrinaire. Most of us do not want to be zealots. And yet it is bitterly hard to put May's maxim into practice. Even with the best of intentions, we are often unable to relinquish certainty about our beliefs. One obstacle to doing so is the feeling of being right, shored up as it is by everything from our sensory impressions to our societal relations to the structure of human cognition. But a second and paradoxical obstacle is our fear of being wrong. True, certainty cannot protect us from error, any more than shouting a belief can make it true. But it can and does shield us, at least temporarily, from facing our fallibility.

Part 3: The Experience of Error This segment is my least favorite, and probably the least substantive, but that's only because it's in a book that's jam packed with substance. It documents (as well as it is possible) how it feels to be wrong, from the mundane errors of every day life, to the earth-shattering destruction of an entire world view, to errors that can destroy other people's lives. But this section is not a catalogue of different ways of being wrong, it's an attempt to sew them all together witha common thread, to give a sense of why being wrong often sucks, but also how it can convince us to be better people.

Part 4: Embracing Error The conclusion of Shultz's thesis begins with a paradox - embracing error as a way to eliminate it. She describes how corporations like Motorola and Ford, as well as the entire aviation industry, have managed to dramatically curtail error by acknowledging it, quantifying it, and actively and consciously eliminating it. The whole book is about the upside to error, but this chapter readily describes the disasters that can unfold as a result of mistakes. This seems to be the fulfillment of the pessimistic model of error discussed in part 1, but in a strange way it undermines it. The only way to understand and eliminate error is to understand it and recognize that it is inevitable.

Shultz concludes with the optimistic model - error is inevitable, yes, but it's also at the root of our humanity. It makes art and humor possible, and makes human cognition possible. "Our capactity to err," she says, "is inseparable from our imagination."

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PS - This is my first ever book review. Was it any good? Did I do anything wrong (ha ha) or anything right? Do you think you'll read the book?

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.