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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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This is not so much a philosophical investigation as a psychological one and as such I think she does a good job, but I would have been much happier with a more considered philosophical treatment for she misses much as well. Philosophically the problem of error is almost infinitely complicated because it isn't just that we can be wrong about almost everything, but also that we can be partly right and partly wrong about something and in fact this is often the case. She doesn't get into this much rather tending to treat any partial case as a case of error because it is not entirely right. This truth has implications for so much. It is afternoon on a sunny day here on the west coast of the U.S. but I might say "the sun did not rise this morning". What? Surely such a statement is wrong as concerns the meaning of the English word 'sunrise'? On the other hand, my observation is perfectly truthful as concerns the astronomical relation between Earth and Sun. Something can be correct on one level and at the same time wrong on another. Schultz notes this, but doesn't much deal with it.
There are a few items about which we cannot be wrong. Dr. Schultz says that if we feel depressed, we are depressed, and if we feel in love then we are in love. Yes tomorrow we might change our mind about that being in love business. We say that "I was wrong, I was not in love" but in fact we were yesterday. What was wrong is reflected in an ever present, hidden, second clause: "I am in love with X, AND I will be forever!" These second clauses are usually invisible and only that part was wrong about the love I felt yesterday. She addresses Descartes and notes that he declared he could not be wrong about being a thinking being. Today that might be more appropriately rendered as "I cannot be wrong about having an experience NOW, even if I can be wrong about what I take to be the content of that experience". Schultz doesn't really get into this, but it is the foundation from which point we judge all of our beliefs (right or wrong) about the world.
At the end of the book she addresses comedy and art. Her view is that both convey their value to us by being wrong. There is a digression to Plato in this, but Schultz never notes that it isn't always the wrongness per se that is funny in comedy or profound about art, but rather that the wrongness is used to highlight truth otherwise obscured by the flow of our lives or perceptions. Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" is not funny merely because of the errors, but because it shows us the truth that we too can be like this. The distortions of art, both classical and modern, are supposed to bring to our minds associations, truths, to which we are often blind.
This is a long book, but not as long as it seems by the number of pages. The text proper ends at the 70% point (I am always reading these books on a Kindle) and there follows from that point many pages of notes taken from the various sources the author read in the process of writing the book. These notes alone are valuable, a short summary of dozens and dozens of philosophers, artists, novelists, psychologists, and scientists on the subject of error. A very valuable compendium. What she doesn't give us is a table, a "classification of errors". There is here in this book all the material she needs to produce it.
The author takes a look at why we fear being wrong so strongly, and how we often can't admit we are wrong until we have a new "right" theory to replace our wrong one. We discover that our error blindness keeps us from perceiving our own errors without hampering our ability to find the same or similar error in others. Practically all facets of our lives are affected by error - from politics to religion to love. Can we eliminate error? Even if it is possible, SHOULD WE? Error appears to be a uniquely human endeavor - as such we should embrace it (at least some of the time). The joy of being wrong is experienced daily through optical illusions, humor and art.
Favorite quotes from the book:
(pg. 31) there is a slippery slope between advocating the elimination of putatively erroneous beliefs, and advocating the
elimination of the institutions, cultures, and—most alarmingly—people who hold them
(pg 32) This was the pivotal insight of the Scientific Revolution: that the advancement of knowledge depends on current
theories collapsing in the face of new insights and discoveries. In this model of progress, errors do not lead us
away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward
(pg. 70) In sum: we love to know things, but ultimately we can't know for sure that we know them; we are bad at recognizing when we don't know something; and we are very, very good at making stuff up.
(pg 82) It’s not exactly news that most people are reluctant to admit their ignorance. But the point here is not that we are
bad at saying “I don’t know.” The point is that we are bad at knowing we don’t know.
(pg 86) As that suggests, the idea of knowledge and the idea of error are fundamentally incompatible. When we claim to
know something, we are essentially saying that we can’t be wrong. If we want to contend with the possibility
that we could be wrong, then the idea of knowledge won’t serve us; we need to embrace the idea of belief
instead. This might feel like an unwelcome move, since all of us prefer to think that we know things rather than
“merely” believing them.
(pg 106) In other words, if we want to discredit a belief, we will argue that it is advantageous, whereas if we want to
champion it, we will argue that it is true. That’s why we downplay or dismiss the self-serving aspects of our own
convictions, even as we are quick to detect them in other people’s beliefs.
(pg 123) leaping to conclusions is what we always do in inductive reasoning, but we generally only call it that when the
process fails us—that is, when we leap to wrong conclusions. In those instances, our habit of relying on meager
evidence, normally so clever, suddenly looks foolish
(pg 141) The vast majority of our beliefs are really beliefs once removed. Our faith that we are right is faith that someone
else is right. This reliance on other people’s knowledge—those around us as well as those who came before us—
is, on balance, a very good thing. Life is short, and most of us don’t want to spend any more of it than absolutely
necessary trying to independently verify the facts
(pg 157) Just as disturbing, and more important, we also can’t be sure that some of the beliefs we hold today won’t appear
grievously unjust in the future. This is error-blindness as a moral problem: we can’t always know, today, which
of our current beliefs will someday come to seem ethically indefensible
(pg 161) What zealots have in common, then, is the absolute conviction that they are right. In fact, of all the symbolic
ones and zeros that extremists use to write their ideological binary codes—us/them, same/different, good/evil—
the fundamental one is right/wrong. Zealotry demands a complete rejection of the possibility of error.
(pg 167) Doubt, it seems, is a skill—and one that, as we saw earlier, needs to be learned and honed. Credulity, by
contrast, appears to be something very like an instinct
(pg 179) Whether you believe in flying saucers or the free market or just about anything else, you are (if you are human)
prone to using certainty to avoid facing up to the fact that you could be wrong. That’s why, when we feel
ourselves losing ground in a fight, we often grow more rather than less adamant about our claims—not because
we are so sure that we are right, but because we fear that we are not.
(pg 187) Fortunately, we don’t get stuck in this place of pure wrongness very often. And we don’t get stuck there via the
collapse of small or medium size beliefs. We get stuck there when we are really wrong about really big things—
beliefs so important and far-reaching that we can neither easily replace them nor easily live without them.
(pg 199) All of us know people like this—people whose rigidity serves to protect a certain inner fragility, who cannot
bend precisely because they are at risk of breaking. For that matter, all of us are people like this sometimes
(pg 209) our beliefs come in bundles. That makes it hard to remove or replace one without affecting the others—and it
gets harder as the belief in question gets more central
(pg. 217) we are exceptionally bad at saying “I was wrong”—or at least, we are bad at leaving it at that. For most of us, it’s tough not to tack that “but” onto every admission of error.
(pg 293) This is one of the most powerful ways being wrong can transform us: it can help us become more compassionate
people. Being right might be fun but, as we’ve seen, it has a tendency to bring out the worst in us. By contrast,
being wrong is often the farthest thing in the world from fun—and yet, in the end, it has the potential to bring
out the best in us.