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Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of…

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (edition 2010)

by Kathryn Schulz

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Title:Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
Authors:Kathryn Schulz
Collections:Your library
Tags:non-fiction, minds and brains, read in 2014

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Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz




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This book is an exploration of what the author calls "Wrongology": the ways in which we get things wrong, how we feel when realize we were mistaken, how we deal (or fail to deal) with our mistakes, and how we might benefit from accepting or even embracing our own capacity for error.

I've read a number of books on similar subjects, but this one has a somewhat different feel to it. It's less focused on psychological experiments and the exact ways in which our neurons misrepresent the world or our minds leap to irrational conclusions (although there is some of that), but instead takes a somewhat more philosophical tone. Schulz does still keep things fairly well grounded, though, in part by including detailed and interesting examples of people being wrong in various ways. It's also very engagingly written, with wit, intelligence, and heart. Definitely worth a look for, well, anybody who's ever been wrong about anything. ( )
1 vote bragan | Sep 7, 2014 |
42. Being Wrong : Adventures in the Margin of Error (Audio) by Kathryn Schulz, read by Mia Barron (2010, 14 hours, 17 minutes, 420 pages in paper format, Read July 10-25)

I thought about my job the entire time I listened to this. Not sure that comes across as a compliment. It’s just that I’m wrong a lot. And this book has me thinking about that, about how often I am surprised when I discover, for sure, I was wrong, and about how valuable that is, how much I learn from it and get better at what I do because of it.

It’s long book, that covers a lot of topics and then goes on and on about them. So, it’s good thing I found so many topics interesting.

Thing I learned:

That being wrong is a human problem. Animals and computers are never in state of awareness that they were wrong (probably arguable with animals). But humans are never in a state of knowing they are wrong, only that they were wrong. We always assume we are right about everything. Once we are aware we are wrong, we instantly know we are right that we were wrong, so maintain our permanent sense of rightness.

Our power of inductive reasoning. How we make vast conclusions on the tiniest amount of information. Typically we make our conclusion from the first bits of data, and then take the remaining data only with a sense of confirmation bias, looking for proof our initial conclusion was right. We need to do this to get through day-to-day life and it’s actually a very impressive thing. Computers can’t do inductive reasoning. But it’s also, naturally, error prone.

About the emotional disaster of transition - which is kind of like being in a state of wrongness. For example, if you have a strong belief and it is suddenly shown to be wrong, and you don't have another belief to replace it, you are left in difficult state. Belief is critical to our confidence that the world is as we think it is, even at the most basic lever. The transition state results in a loss of confidence.

About the mechanisms we use to avoid being proven wrong. How the less secure we feel about a belief, the more ardently we fight for it. And how some of us are so stubborn as to refuse to see the wrongness, including going through exaggerated states of denial of confabulation.

About confabulation - or making things up. How we all do it even when we think we are simply explaining what we are doing. How stubborn people tend to confabulate more.

On the separation in our minds between the parts that confabulate and the parts that fact check. We make stuff up first; it’s a critical part of our imagination. Then we fact check it second. Except that when we dream, we aren’t able to fact check. It’s the only time our imagination can run loose.

And so on.

Not a book for everyone, as it’s a bit long and very long winded. But it’s a great collection of interesting stuff. There is a lot here that might change how you view humanity.
3 vote dchaikin | Jul 26, 2014 |
Generally, people can’t bear to be wrong because it’s stigmatised as a bad thing. Kathryn Schultz turns this premise on its head, pointing out that not only does error allow us to learn but our tendency to cover up rather than confront error leads to things going even more off beam than they already were. It covers criminology, philosophy, psychology and neuropsychology, illustrates them with aptly chosen examples and covers a large, complex subject in a lucid and engaging manner. A lesson in how to value error rather than abhor it. ( )
  JonArnold | Mar 4, 2014 |
Error. What a great subject. Daunting as well. Schultz does a good job of covering some major ground in the history, philosophy, psychology, and science of error. Her language and writing style is fluid and engaging, her choice of quotes and anecdotal evidence often spot on. She argues, throughout the book, that error is an integral part of our intelligence, our progress, and a reminder of just how alone we are in the world.

Reading Being Wrong, I certainly understood better why I hate being wrong, why I love to say "I told you so." and most importantly, I realized what triggers my "I told you so" response most in other people: their lack of acknowledgement of an error. And then I realized that, probably, other people have the same reaction to my stubborn refusal to admit my own mistakes. Will I change and be more, uhm, humble? I don't know. I often think we can never change much, maybe just a tiny bit. Time will tell. ( )
1 vote bluepigeon | Dec 27, 2013 |
This book was brought to my attention by the New York Times Book Review interview with Drew Gilpin Faust, who recommended it as a book all incoming freshman should read. The book is in four parts:

Part I: The Idea of Error (ch. 1-2)
Part II: The Origins of Error (ch. 3-8)
Part III: The Experience of Error (ch. 9-13)
Part IV: Embracing Error (ch. 14-15)

In the first part, "The Idea of Error," Schulz makes the point that "the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition" and that "wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change." She also begins to examine and unpack our ideas about knowledge, beliefs, and rightness. We tend to view error as negative, but Schultz proposes an optimistic model of wrongness as an alternative: taking the Scientific Method as an example, she writes, "errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it."

In Part II, "The Origins of Error," Schulz examines how we go wrong. She uses optical illusions to demonstrate how easily our senses can fail us, as well as how sometimes we can enjoy our own failure; the way we perceive the world is not always the way the world is. She addresses the way that memories are stored and recalled: "Since we can't sense our minds reconstructing memories from across multiple regions of our brain, we run into the same problem with memory that we had with perception. We can't feel the process, so we can't feel the places in that process where distortions and errors can creep in."

Schulz also addresses the difference between knowledge and belief: "...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....It is by far the broader, more complex, and more interesting category....If we want to understand how we err, we need to look how we believe." Beliefs, then, are what we have instead of knowledge, but we also have beliefs in the traditional sense of the word, such as believing in gravity or believing in God. These kinds of beliefs are "inextricable from our identities," which is "one reason why being wrong can so easily wound our sense of self."

In Chapter Six, "Evidence," Schulz introduces the concept of inductive reasoning (reasoning based on evidence). Inductive reasoning is paradoxical, however, because "although small amounts of evidence are sufficient to make us draw conclusions, they are seldom sufficient to make us revise them."

In the next chapter, the author shifted the focus from the individual to society and community. "We often form our beliefs on the basis of our communities," she writes. "We also form our communities on the basis of our beliefs." Thus, communities are "dangerously effective at bolstering our conviction that we are right and shielding us from the possibility that we are wrong." Within our communities - geographic, educational, political, etc. - "We are underexposed to sources that challenge our ideas....most of us are supremely unmotivated to educate ourselves about beliefs with which we disagree." (Do you read The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal? Watch MSNBC or Fox?)

Thus do our beliefs solidify; our communities reinforce them until they feel so right we say "I know" instead of "I believe." Certainty, however, "is toxic to a shift in perspective. If imagination is what enables us to conceive of and enjoy stories other than our own, and if empathy is the act of taking other people's stories seriously, certainty deadens or destroys both qualities." Certainty that allows no possibility for other beliefs, Schulz points out, "can be a moral catastrophe waiting to happen." The flip side of certainty is doubt, although humans tend to be credulous first and skeptical later ("Doubt comes after belief." -Ludwig Wittgenstein). In order to doubt, we must be emotionally capable of tolerating a degree of uncertainty.

Part III, "The Experience of Error," kicks off with chapter nine, "Being Wrong," in which psychoanalyst Irna Gadd reinforces this point: "Our capacity to tolerate error depends on our capacity to tolerate emotion." Being wrong, Schulz concludes, "is fundamentally an emotional experience," as we face error, realize we have been wrong, and must question our communities, our beliefs, and ultimately ourselves.

Once we have faced up to the fact that we have been mistaken, we begin to assess - to ask, "How Wrong?" We might admit that we were wrong, but this admission is rarely a complete statement; more often, we say, "I was wrong, but..." This, Schulz writes, "reflects our urge to explain everything in the world - an urge that extends, emphatically, to our own mistakes. This desire to account for why we were wrong is not a bad thing." Once we've emotionally faced our mistakes, we can begin to assess how and why we made them.

Of course, it's difficult to admit error and face wrongdoing (or wrongness). Denial is a popular strategy, used by everyone from kindergarteners to politicians. Because of the emotional difficulty of facing error, we employ denial: "Freud defined denial as the refusal to recognize the existence or truth of unwelcome facts, and classified it among the defense mechanisms we unconsciously employ to protect ourselves from anxiety or distress."

Chapter twelve, "Heartbreak," is about when we are wrong in matters of the heart. Schulz writes, "This is the thing about intimate relationships: we sign up to share our lives with someone else, and sooner or later we realize that we are also living with another person's reality." Once again, there is a gap between the world as we perceive it (our reality) and the world as another person perceives it (their reality). Schulz puts it rather beautifully: "We spend our lives trying to overcome this fundamental separation, but we can never entirely surmount it. Try as we might, we can't gain direct access to other people's inner worlds - to their thoughts and feelings, their private histories, their secret desires, their deepest beliefs. Nor can we grant them direct access to our own. As...close as we can be to other people, there always remains, between us and them, an enduring margin of mystery. And, just as the gap between us and everything else means that we can be wrong about facts, memories, convictions, and predictions, it means that we can be wrong about one another." In a relationship, we must accept someone else's reality alongside our own, which, couples counselor Harville Hendrix says, means "People have to learn to listen and listen and listen."

Chapter thirteen, "Transformation," is about how error leads to change. Here we come back to the optimistic model of wrongness, where being wrong helps us to formulate new theories about the world, change our minds, and become more compassionate people. Schulz writes, "For all of us, our own private history - like the history of science, like the history of humankind - is littered with discarded theories." And she quotes Foucault: "The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning."

In the final chapter of the book, Schulz concentrates on the other good results that can come from error: not just personal transformation, but comedy and art. Artists, she notes, are often more comfortable with wrongness than the rest of us, for "if error is a kind of accidental stumbling into the gap between representation and reality, art is an intentional journey to the same place." Comedy, likewise, is also often about the "gap between the world as it is and the world as we think it is" - the gap between what is expected and what actually happens.


This is an incredibly rewarding book. Schulz is a gifted writer in the way she weaves together ideas from across several disciplines, provides illustrative examples from many sources, quotes experts from different fields, and builds a cohesive and powerful model - the "Optimistic Meta-Induction" (to counter the Pessimistic Meta-Induction). Though the ideas and theories in the book are meaty, the writing is accessible and personable. Highly recommended. ( )
  JennyArch | Jul 15, 2013 |
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What is most cherishable about this bumper book of other people's booboos is its insistence that to experience error is, at its best, to find adventure – and even contentment. Schulz takes as her model Don Quixote, the knight-errant who was wrong about almost everything. "Countless studies have shown that people who suffer from depression have more accurate world views than non-depressed people," she points out.
added by mikeg2 | editThe guardian, Stuart Jeffries (Aug 28, 2010)
“Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error" is an insightful and delightful discussion of the errors of our ways — why we make mistakes, why we don’t know we are making them and what we do when recognition dawns.

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On the heels of the success of "The Wisdom of Crowds" and "Predictably Irrational" comes a thoughtful and persuasive celebration of human fallibility that examines what it means to be right or wrong--and why it matters so much to us.

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