I can honestly say that ‘Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error’ is a liberating read. Kathryn Schulz presents her case for ‘Wrongology’ – a complex subject exploring all aspects of fault – her basis being that we (people) have been wrong about being wrong to begin with.
Sure, it’s great to be right. Rightness brings with it respect, it boosts our ego and in this way is critical for our survival. It is as Schulz puts it “one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions.” Being wrong might be embarrassing, disclose our ignorance or intellectual inferiority, but it is essential of our personal development. Error can’t be eliminated. It is part of our nature. It is how we learn about our world and ourselves. If our choices (be they in word or action) determine whether we are right or wrong, then the only scope we have to reduce our tendency to err is to build a system that encourages us to constantly review those choices. Therein lies the key to Wrongology.
Schulz examines error as a science, citing interesting clinical studies to show the limitations of our brains in matters of perception. She moves on to the psyche or error to illustrate the emotional impacts and defence mechanisms that are triggered by our goof ups. She also studies the art of error, highlighting our tendency to brush under the carpet or to carefully cover up our tracks over time. I think any major political speech or debate would show an interesting combination of all three aspects.
Schulz lays down an overwhelming amount of evidence in her favor and cleverly infuses it with humor to present an optimistic view of our fallibility. She uses all her tricks to keep you turning the pages of this challenging read, beginning by reviewing some of the earliest philosophies on the subject, citing Plato and Aristophanes, moving slowly through time and through other scholars and their approaches on the subject. She uses modern day case studies, quotes classics and has interesting footnotes.
We can all admit to being wrong at some point in our lives. Our brains have developed numerous ways to soften the blow from these sometimes painful experiences. Even our language allows for words and phrases like ‘maybe,’ ‘perhaps,’ ‘hypothetically,’ ‘suppose,’ ‘what I meant was,’ ‘mistakes were made,’ etc. which all delicately wash the responsibility off our hands. However our responsibility should not stop with mere acceptance of being wrong, but begin with trying to understand WHY.
I end with my favorite lines from the book: “Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story. Who really wants to stay home and be right when you can don your armor, spring up on your steed and go forth and explore the world?”
So with this newfound spirit, I’m off to screw up and seek adventure…