Serious Fun: Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz is fun. Right now, I need fun, so even though I read this ages ago, I’m re-reading it. A Washington Post reviewer described Being Wrong as “an erudite, playful rumination on error,” and I’m going to second that description. Almost all reviews, even those that are critical in some way, praise the writing, so this isn’t an important book that is painful to read. Rather, it’s an important book that’s a pleasure to read. Find a copy and enjoy!

After entertaining us with examples of error that are both astounding and informative, Schulz concludes by delving into our attitude toward errors and strategies to prevent them. Here, she unearths a common theme: to prevent error, we need to acknowledge the possibility of error. Well, duh, you say. Yet, hospitals and airlines have learned the hard way that simply training people well does not prevent catastrophic error. Checklists prevent error. Protocol, discipline, and creating a culture in which underlings are allowed to call attention to the possible errors of their “betters,” these are strategies that minimize error.

Why is acknowledging the possibility of error so important? If we underestimate how common error is, if we think that being right is the norm and being wrong is tragic, it can become much more difficult to let go of faulty thinking. Schulz presses the point throughout the book that being wrong is an essential aspect of being human. What other creature mulls things over and comes up with new theories based on new information such as shifting from an assumption that the sun revolves around the Earth?

There are plenty of recent books that explore the way brains work and how we make decisions. One of my favorites is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I recommend this book, too, but it’s just not as fun as Being Wrong. It’s more “sciencey,” however, so if you prefer such an approach, it’s a good choice. Thinking…  challenges our sense of ourselves as rational beings by describing lots of experiments that explore how we come to judge things and make decisions.

I happen to be of the opinion that we all need a good dose of humility, and soon, if we are going to sort out any of our many problems. Schulz and Kahneman both humble us, and both point to strategies that could lead to “better thinking.” So whichever approach works for you, breezy or sciencey, take your pick and prepare to be humbled.

Often I’m mystified by the certainty my friends possess about things that are clearly not black and white. I, on the other hand, seem to reside in a state of perpetual doubt, skepticism, and uncertainty, and that feels “right” to me. But I haven’t got much company. I love to engage in conversation with others who don’t yet have all the answers, but it’s really hard to find them. Even groups of skeptics can evolve into comfy bunches of like-minded folks. So I read books; I click about on the Internet; I venture out into groups of strangers. But often I just accept my frequent status as “minority of one.”

Then every once in a while I stumble upon a treasure of a book such as Being Wrong, and I feel better. Check it out!

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