David's Reviews > Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz
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Jul 07, 10

bookshelves: read-in-2010, disappointing
Read from June 30 to July 07, 2010

I am not a particularly violent person. But there were so many places in this book where I wanted to sit the author down, smack her briskly and scream at her "What were you thinking? It started with the very first word in the book, freshly minted for the occasion by the author. You read it and experience an involuntary recoil of revulsion at the sheer tin-eared ugliness of it. For God's sake, Kathryn Schulz, please don't title your opening chapter "Wrongology". If the first word in your book already makes my flesh crawl, that's hardly a good sign.

I chose this book based on a fawningly positive NY Times review by Dwight Garner, who obviously suffers from some kind of unhealthy crush
on Kathryn Schulz. According to Dwight, KS "flies high in the intellectual skies, leaving beautiful sunlit contrails". Now, I get off on the ozone rush of huffing a beautiful intellectual contrail as much as the next reader, but I'm afraid in this case Dwight is letting his slobbering fanboy worship cloud his judgement. Kathryn Schulz is not stupid, but she's certainly no intellectual goddess. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem, but given the direction she chose to take her investigation in this book, the reader begins to wonder if her choice was a wise one and (I hate to say it) if she really has the intellectual chops for the task she sets herself.

I think it would have been a perfectly straightforward matter to come up with a reasonable working definition of "being wrong", one would that cover the great majority (say 95%) of situations that are of practical interest. Had Kathryn Schulz chosen to adopt this kind of pragmatic approach, she would have written a considerably shorter book and, I think, a much better one. Unfortunately, she has chosen instead to wax philosophical about epistemological difficulties in coming up with appropriate definitions of concepts such as "knowledge", "being right", "error", and if one wants to bump it up a meta-level, knowledge of errors (one's own and those of others). Not surprisingly this turns out to be a rabbit hole, and not a particularly interesting one. Schulz's choice to explore these questions has the immediate effect of lengthening the book considerably and burdening whole sections with the kind of jargon only a professional philosopher could love. A case in point: the First Person Constraint on Doxastic Explanation , which is apparently the phrase philosophers use for the phenomenon that anyone pressed to defend his/her beliefs will say that it's because they are true. Flawed logic, conflict of interest, reason clouded by emotion -- these problems may be immediately evident to other people, but we are notoriously bad at detecting them in our own thinking. To her credit, the author acknowledges the clunkiness of the philosphical jargon; I just wish the replacement she proposes - the 'Cuz It's True Constraint didn't set my teeth on edge with the faux-folksiness of that 'cuz. But this reflects a problem with Schulz's style that bothered me throughout the book. Maybe it's a consequence of her time as a reporter for Rolling Stone, but she never seems to find a consistent register. As she flips back and forth from discussing scientific results to illustrations from popular culture, this failure to establish an appropriate register becomes jarring. Whether it's her choice to write "fuck up" when "screw up" would clearly have been more appropriate, or sentences like this one, about Hamlet: "It's not as if the prince dillydallies for fourteen scenes over whether to order the BLT or the chicken salad", I just did not enjoy Schulz's writing style.

Which is a shame, really, because buried in there among the superfluous philosophical baggage and the rambling mess of her own prose, she has some genuinely interesting points to make. In particular, her observation that making mistakes is an intrinsic part of human nature, and is an essential component of scientific enquiry, is important, if not particularly novel. However, Schulz is not the first person to have considered the questions in her book. A considerably clearer, more focused, discussion can be found in the excellent "Mistakes Were Made" by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The rambling undisciplined character of Schulz's writing prevents me from giving her book more than two stars. The disappointment is that, with some decent editing, she could have written a far better book.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Nick (new)

Nick Black "wrongology"?!?! i hear my culture collapsing all around me, egads!


message 2: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell 'wrongology'

whut


David Sadly, I did indeed pay money for it. I blame it on the NY times review: skywriting with iris .

With the benefit of hindsight I should have known not to trust that reviewer.


message 4: by Judy (new)

Judy Cox David, while your reviews could be harsh, they're delightful to read and brilliant!


message 5: by Ellen (new)

Ellen "I am not a particularly violent person."

Yeah, Mel Gibson probably says this as well :)

Excellent review, and I think you're being gracious. Egad, you and Elizabeth patiently read over 400 pages of this? That's just wrongologist.


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