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

Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
763730
's review
Jun 26, 12

Read in June, 2012

Over many years I have grappled with the related issues of error, ignorance, and uncertainty. When measured against what there is to know, what we humans do in fact know is in the order of zero-point-several zeroes. No matter how well-read, well-traveled, or well-informed we think we are, our ignorance is immense. We have to make decisions – most trivial, many of them life-changing, a few of them life-and-death – based on a trifling amount of information, the vast majority second- or third-hand. Because the amount of information we use to make everyday decisions ranges from minute to microscopic, we often make mistakes and miscalculations. We suffer misunderstandings. Unaware of so much in the universe, we get buffeted and in some cases crushed by its forces. To err is indeed human.
Thus when I found a book on error in a recent Daedalus book catalog, I quickly ordered it. And I wasn’t disappointed. "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error" by Kathryn Shulz is an amazingly insightful, humorous, and quotable book, drawing on philosophy, science, history, politics, literature, and pop culture.
That I hadn’t heard of this 2010 book or seen a review in the many newspapers and magazines I read shows the ignorance in which I am immersed, despite thinking I am a well-read individual. It seems this worthwhile book somehow got lost in the shuffle among the tens of thousands of books published every year in English.
Shulz, a newspaper and magazine journalist and author, looks at error in many of its forms – the personal, political, religious, philosophical – and our efforts to deny our mistakes and deflect blame. She examines the success in lessening error in the life-and-death areas of aviation and hospitals. She spends a lot of time on inductive reasoning, our way of making sense of the world, and its limitations. She looks at error in romantic love and the rare cases of radical shifts of belief that people have made.
There is so much that is wise and quotable in this book that I couldn’t begin to list all the passages.
Although Shulz spends many pages discussing the larger issues people can be wrong about – religion, philosophy, science, world politics – she also spends a lot of time talking about situations closer to home, including relationships. “Our default attitude toward wrongness, then – our distaste for error and our appetite for being right – tends to be rough on relationships. This applies equally to relationships among nations, communities, colleagues, friends, and (as will not be lost on most readers) relatives. Indeed, an old adage of therapists is that you can either be right or be in a relationship: you can remain attached to Team You winning every confrontation, or you can remain attached to friends and family, but good luck trying to do both.
“If insisting on our rightness tends to compromise our relationships, it also reflects poorly on our grasp of probability.” We have thousands, if not tens of thousands of beliefs, ranging from the trivial (Joe’s Pizza Place closes at 9 p.m. on Fridays) to the complex and interlocking system of religious, political, and philosophical beliefs through which we experience the world. That all of these myriad beliefs are correct and reflective of the real world is exceedingly unlikely.
Shulz opines that the world would be a better place if we admitted how commonplace error is, in general and in our specific cases.
“As a culture, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying ‘I was wrong.’ This is a startling deficiency, given the simplicity of the phrase, the ubiquity of error, and the tremendous public service that acknowledging it can provide.”
2 likes · Likeflag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Being Wrong.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.