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Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error Paperback – January 4, 2011
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Top Customer Reviews
First, I must say something I very rarely do about a book: I never once found this one repetitive or unnecessarily long. Each section, and chapter within it, is about a different aspect of error that was not discussed before, from how philosophers conceive of error, to the social factors that influence error, to our amazing capacity to deny even obvious error. And the real-world examples she chooses to illustrate all of these things are humorous, relateble, and sometimes a bit lamentable.
And what is the author's unique theory about erring? The author writes first that erring is an inevitable part of being human. We are finite animals for whom probability is as close as we can come to certainty (even though certainty is what we want). Since life demands that we make decisions based on what we think will happen in the future, it is simply inevitable that some of these will be wrong. That is not and should not be a recipe for skepticism, which is a lazy attempt to fend off error. The author argues that the only way to crack down on error, paradoxically, is to admit its inevitability. Being aware of the mistakes we make that lead to error is the only way to curb it: recognize that fallibility is a part of life (not stupidity), make an effort to 'hear the other side,' phrase your predictions provisionally and treat them as such. The more we realize that error is a human quality that leads to opportunities of growth, the more we can, to some degree or other, embrace it as part of who we are.
And what about if we didn't err? Well, if we didn't err, we couldn't ever change or grow (as change and growth are byproducts of trying to become better and closer to the truth). If we didn't err, then life would be a whole lot more predictable than it is, having good and bad repercussions. If we didn't err, we would never experience surprise or have reason to reflect or think deeply. In short, if we didn't err, we simply wouldn't be anything recognized, for good or worse, as human.
The only complaint I have about this book, as interesting and entertaining as it is, is that the author's "thesis" takes up only about 40 pages in a 340 page book, and comes only at the end. I would like her to have interwoven this point amongst all or many of the chapters, as it is a point which is not only highly interesting and counter-intuitive, but it could have served to really tie the book together.
Other than that, strongly recommended.
There is a tradeoff in such density in value. 'Being Wrong' tends to see-saw between light analogy to heavy exploration almost without warning, making for a staccato transition between example and execution. The philosophical arguments emerge as bloated at times, the case studies a tad soft and looooong. Word economy clearly has its strengths and weaknesses.
Thus, I echo other reviewers in that this book might've been better served both shorter and as a potential essay. Amen.
Going deeper down the content rabbit hole, it's hard to ignore Schulz' near-frequent lapses into political examples dripping with sarcasm favoring a particular perspective only. Perhaps I'm a stickler, but there something grossly unfit about an advertised objective analysis of 'wrong' justified through political opinion. After the fifth instance of this justification, I admittedly began to question the overarching arguments contained in the book. (I could care less about who you vote/d for; just don't put square peg into round hole to get the point across, ad nauseum.)
A couple hundred pages in, it dawned upon me that Schulz based her thesis - that recognition of wrong is against human norms while a precursor to personal and intellectual growth - on subjective historical application sans any true citation. I loved her first third of the book (the arguments were sound), but then later realized that none of it was based on anything other than Schulz' fit of historical circumstance to her view of the human experience. I again point to her being a fantastic writer; I simply wanted a price tag on that fresh piece of intellectual meat.
Related - and a minor but notable sticking point: I reviewed this book thinking it literally an exploration on 'margin of error,' a social scientific term meant to explain normal error distribution and statistical significance stemming from it. This book is anything but scientific. Just a warning for those looking for a fix in that area.
Please don't flame, 'un-helpful' this review for pointing out these two flaws (political-centric, no 'margin of error') above. I found them important contributions in helping folks determine expectations pre-purchase.
In sum, 'Being Wrong' is a very well written, articulate read...but does so being a tad dense and unsubstantiated and/or preachy argumentatively. I'd give this 3.5 stars if I could.
I originally got this book as I was hoping for answers on how to deal with what I admit to be sometimes irrational behaviour to avoid admitting wrongness. I thought perhaps I'd get some advice on how to approach this sensitive topic with others (particularly in a business setting.) If you're looking for advice on dos and don'ts, some sort of behavioural checklist to overcome this sensation, then that's not what this book is about. (and the author says as much in her introduction.)
In a way though, even without a list of to-dos, the book has helped me feel more at ease about being wrong. Through stories shared of human error, through the exploration of just how our senses work and how our belief systems can fail us, through an examination of how we make decisions and evaluation evidence (and why it makes sense to do it that way), and examples where it actually feels good to be wrong (optical illusions, magic tricks), I started to come to terms on just how being wrong is perfectly "normal" and a part of who we are, and started to move away from the belief that being wrong meant I was sloppy, or stupid, or ignorant. It makes sense that our brains would want to take shortcuts for efficiency sake, and it makes sense that sometimes those shortcuts will be off. Plus looking at how often decisions are being made at the subconscious level underscores how much being fallible is hardwired into our system.
I thought the book was a great read, if nothing else, for the journey it took me through.