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Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error Hardcover – June 8, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In the spirit of Blink and Predictably Irrational (but with a large helping of erudition), journalist Schulz casts a fresh and irreverent eye upon the profound meanings behind our most ordinary behaviors—in this instance, how we make mistakes, how we behave when we find we have been wrong, and how our errors change us. [I]t is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are, she asserts. Schulz writes with such lucidity and wit that her philosophical enquiry becomes a page-turner. She deftly incorporates Wittgenstein, Descartes, and Freud, along with an array of contemporary social scientists and even a spin with Shakespeare and Keats. There's heavy stuff here, but no heavy-handedness. Being wrong encompasses the cataclysmic (economic collapse) and the commonplace (leaving a laptop in front of the window before the storm). Being wrong may lead to fun (playing with and understanding optical illusions) or futility (the Millerite expectation of the Rapture in 1844). Being wrong can be transformative, and Schultz writes, I encourage us to see error as a gift in itself, a rich and irreplaceable source of humor, art, illumination, individuality, and change—an apt description of her engrossing study. (June)
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Here’s a fascinating counterpoint to the notion that making a mistake somehow diminishes you as a person. We shouldn’t fear error, the author says; rather, we should embrace it because it’s our capacity for making mistakes that makes us who we are. (“To err is human” isn’t just an empty cliché.) Schulz explores the nature of error: are big mistakes fundamentally different from small mistakes, or are they all essentially the same? How much does peer pressure, or crowd response, affect our capacity to blunder? How and why do we remember relatively insignificant mistakes for the rest of our lives, long after they have ceased to be relevant to anything? And what role does “error-blindness”—our inability to know when we are in the process of making a mistake—play in our daily lives? Schulz writes in a lively style, asks lots of compelling questions, and uses plenty of examples to illustrate her points. Put this one in the same general category as Gladwell’s Blink (2005), LeGault’s Think! (2006), and Shore’s Blunder (2008): user-friendly, entertaining looks at the way our minds work. --David Pitt
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There are many books about the avoidance or reduction of error, of how to find and reduce error in ourselves. But this is the first book I've read that delves deeply into the human psychology of error and why it's an indivisible part of the way we think and feel. Later chapters delve into the role of error in society, in crime, in art, in religion, and in philosophy.
The result is one of the best nonfiction books I've read in recent memory. Most nonfiction ends up getting padded to book length after it has made its point, but Schulz keeps every chapter fresh and relevant. Well documented, too; though one can tell in a few cases that she is tempted toward armchair philosophy, these are the exception. Recommended.
We all say that no one is perfect yet we all want to be right and feel triumphant all the time. The author points to the advantages gained by recognizing a place for wrongology and acting in a more realistic stance: "Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world." Schulz identifies two models of error - optimistic and pessimistic - and explains why we must not take them apart but should take them together (a Leader Integrator indeed).
Schulz draws analogies from diverse fields to make her various points. In the process, she also takes us through an amusing and revealing tour of literature and philosophy. Her research is thorough, bringing to light relevant claims made in various historical and philosophical discourses by the thinkers of these times (some of whom I have read about for the first time in her book).
She relates particularly to the scientific method and how its approach to doubting every postulate ("the utility of error") has helped humankind revise its theories over time for enhanced utility. The journey from observations/ideation, to testable hypotheses, to measurable experiments, to confidence reproducibility, through to theorizing - and then, upon discovering changes/errors, looping back to the observations/ideation stage - is what has made science and engineering endure through this system and become the foundation for much human success.
Every theory will eventually be proven wrong as we progress in this journey. This "pattern of collapse, replacement, and advancement" can be applied to any field and situation. Otherwise we are stuck with static beliefs which render even more errors. So, we - for example in corporate America - can build our strategies that realistically embrace errors and cultivate a culture for anticipating, addressing, and rewarding errors, and leveraging these for sounder business. Instead of only rewarding "new ideas", we can also reward recognizing errors. And we can develop our business leaders better by training them in the methods of candid feedback and transparency, with a corresponding shift towards "management by facts". Error no longer need be associated with evil. And, we choose to believe our own beliefs. Here is a book that every CEO and business model builder and leadership trainer must read.
Though voluminous, it is well-written, helpful reading, and captivating to the end; it can be read over a weekend.
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.”